Casual Debris

Glimmer Train Stories 70 (Spring 2009) - Linda B. Swanson-Davies, Susan Burmeister-Brown, Stephanie Dickinson, Lauren Groff, Stephanie Dicksonson

For my full-length review, please visit Casual Debris.

 

This particular issue features eight short stories, an author interview and a brief essay, and I was immediately impressed with the first story, Stephanie Dickinson's "A Hole in the Soup." The story deals with a young woman trapped in a hospital in New Orleans immediately following the flood. Not only does the story have a spectacular title, but the prose is solid and the situation more than gripping. Not just the strongest piece in the issue, Dickinson also provides the best entry among "The Last Pages," with a great photo of her dad and a genuinely touching caption. "A Hole in the Soup" proved to be by far the strongest piece in the issue, and really only one of two worth reading. The second is the following piece, Lauren Groff's "Delicate Edible Birds." It is a good story but drags a little at times and the protagonist can be somewhat uninteresting; it nonetheless has some strong moments and is well written.

The rest of the stories are forgettable.

There is a first-time published writer here, Joshua Canipe, whose "Preacher Stories" is dry, the prose generic and the characters uninvolved. Canipe's caption for his photo is the best in the collection among childhood photos; unfortunately someone screwed up and the photo that was supposed to appear with his caption in "The Last Pages" was omitted. Ed Allen's "Krakenhaus" is familiar and too self-involved. Mirian Novogrodsky's "Just Enough Food to Remember" is one of the two weakest of the bunch, as it tries to structure itself around a series of oddly-titled vignettes, a trope that is more irritating than neat, and does little more than distract from (yet another) self-involved piece. Scott Nadelson's "Aftermath" is the longest story though among the quickest to read. It is written in a clear style and is not a bad story. It deals with a married couple agreeing to a "trial separation," told through the point of view of the man. While it has some nice moments and interesting character relationships, it is too long and the protagonist is a little whiny to be sympathetic. This is followed by "Blind Spots" by Erica Johnson Debeljak, a story with some interesting ideas strung together with some dull writing. This is unfortunate because the concept here is interesting, about a boy who can only see peripherally, told through the point of view of his mother. The point of view weakens the story as it becomes about the mother and her own struggles and grief, victimizing her, rather than being about the boy himself. David Allan Cates's "The Rubber Boy" is the other weaker piece. It is a catalog of a man's life, asking why do I endure, which is followed a single event that gives him reason to endure. The last story, "Toward a Theory of Blindness" by Beth Aria Sloss, is uneven yet interesting at certain points.

Source: http://casualdebris.blogspot.ca/2010/07/glimmer-train-stories-70-spring-2009.html
Twilight Eyes - Dean Koontz

For my extended review and a parody of the writing, please visit Casual Debris.

Twilight Eyes fails on every level: conception, plot, character, development, character development, setting delineation and writing. Even the title is weak: a misplaced 1980s pop tune. The novel focuses on a seventeen year-old boy who has the inexplicable natural ability to see through the disguises of certain "people" and recognize them for what they truly are: porcine creatures bent on exterminating the human race, driven by their predisposed hatred of humankind. The boy, Slim MacKenzie (as he has aliased himself), is on a journey to destroy these evil creatures which he randomly refers to as "goblins." The novel opens with Slim sneaking onto the closed lot of a travelling carnival, which is the setting for the first half of the novel. The second half of the novel is set in a small town that has become a hive for these monsters.

The narrator of his own story, Slim MacKenzie is a seventeen year-old drifter from Oregon, who is athletic, sensitive, morally upright and older than his years, traits that we are constantly being reminded of as though Koontz is trying hard to convince us of their accuracy. But as Slim sees through the goblin mask, I can see through Koontz and am blatantly aware that Slim is instead uninteresting and unbelievable, as flat as his prose and with less charm than the ink that was wasted in printing the text. The narration itself is immediately marred by the fact that the narrator is ageless, seventeen or a hundred and two, leading me to suspect that it is not Slim himself narrating but someone pretending to be him, and I am left with the notion that Koontz has merely immersed himself in what is essentially a juvenile male-driven fantasy.

Throughout my reading I kept wondering about narrator Slim's vantage point and his motive in telling the story. The events occur in 1963, but it is unclear at what stage in his life Slim is currently in and how distanced he has become from the events he is relating. The voice is ageless and remote, trance-like and devoid of personality, not seventeen but neither forty, which is likely what impels Koontz to keep reminding the reader that Slim is only seventeen. Koontz takes it for granted that this is even an issue, but while we don't require actual details of Slim's present circumstances, we do need to be somewhat grounded with narrator and narrative. The story should have been written in the third person. This would have eliminated the need for the grounding that Koontz is unable to deliver, and would have made Slim so much more interesting. I believe Koontz chose to write the story in the first person in order to allow for some dull moralizing that weighs the book down as heavily as a building would sink a rubber dinghy.

With such an elusive narrator we can only guess as to what inspired Slim to tell his story. The reader is expected to believe the narrator's every word; Slim doesn't even attempt to convince us that these goblins are real, and he proceeds with the presumption that we automatically believe him. Moreover, he is not trying to warn us of the danger of these hell-bent goblins, as he tells his story in a fairly casual way, withholding key pieces of information and revealing them at seemingly random points of the narrative. Slim is not even focused on these goblins and their threat to humanity, as he wades in a swamp of unimportant particulars. The emphasis on the most personal details of his sexual relationship with lover Rya Raines leads me to question his sensitive and moral nature, for he ends up coming off as an immature and overly-sexed man-child, bragging about giving Rya two orgasms before he even enters her, gushing embarrassingly over her perfectly rounded breasts, and then describing in odd detail his own orgasms: "through the medium of my sperm I passed my own heartbeat into her, the two now thumping as one." (p. 143) Perhaps this description is supposed to contrast the "spurting" blood of the goblins in the following paragraph, with "its thick warm jets of thick crimson serum," the serum in contrast with the semen, one giving life while the other steals it away (though this fails not only because of awful execution, but because Rya cannot have children and hence the life-giving aspect is moot). I don't believe any contrasts are attempted here; it is all part of a juvenile male fantasy.

Story-wise very little happens. Over the course of 451 pages we are given very little in the way of story and plot, with a rambling narrative that lacks direction. Instead of story we have naïve Christian moralizing and philosophizing (I don't mean that Christian moralizing and philosophizing itself is naïve, just that Koontz's own practice of it is less than insightful). Throughout the narrative Koontz/Slim reminds us that some people are good, while others are bad. Some are so bad that they may as well be evil "goblins," though overall humankind is filled with more good than bad and we should not harm the good because there is some bad in the flock. Destroy bad and maintain good; such is the purpose of life. Koontz tries to add ambiguity by illustrating extreme scenarios of "real" humans who act as though they are goblins, trying to drown us with the notion that the creatures may have a valid point in their desire to destroy humanity.

Furthermore, just like these goblins some "real" humans act friendly but are manifestations of evil and wear their friendliness as a disguise to allow them to perpetrate more acts of evil. These attempts at uniting story with base morality fall flat, as though Koontz was desperate to add some other dimension to the text in order to save it from its inherent uselessness. Amid this mess Koontz repeatedly uses Christian imagery or reference in everything from his similes and metaphors to the moralizing itself. Slim hears a scream that sounds like the voice of God (is it not sinful to assume that a mere man can imagine the voice of God?), and my personal favourite, Slim's statement near the end of Part One that love is the cross on which he was crucified. Each page is seemingly filled with such allusions that the practice is quickly tiring, and eventually more than irritating.

The novel is written with an agonizingly grating stream of repetition. Not only do scenes repeat themselves, but descriptions from death to sex are essentially reformatted every few chapters. We are plagued by constant repetition of how evil these "goblins" are, beaten over the head with overused adjectives such as "evil," "dark," and so forth, and are told over and over when and where Slim and Rya make love, and just how his semen intermingles with Rya's inner self, or some such nonsense.

This repetition is not reserved for descriptions and scenes, but the narrative is approached with a single, lackluster technique. Koontz begins each scene with a statement, either an idea, the introduction of a character or a single event, and he then proceeds to analyze that statement, however mundane. Koontz sticks to this pattern so avidly that I was able to survive the final hundred and fifty pages by reading only the first sentence of each paragraph, while reading in full those few scenes that manage to progress the limited plot. Perhaps aware of the repetitive structure, Koontz breaks off once in a while to gives us a series of brief sentences that are supposed to heighten tension, but that come across as dry and lazy.

Heart-Shaped Box - Joe Hill

Find my full review over at Casual Debris.

Heart-Shaped Box should have been a novella.

Joe Hill’s debut novel deals with Jude Coyne, a self-interested burnt-out rock star who purchases a ghost off the internet. This transaction results in a series of events that forces Coyne to take responsibility for some past actions, and allows him the opportunity to escape his rut and build a foundation for a strong future. Hill tries to build a character-heavy horror novel, but the result is uneven, as ghost story and character examination often exist on separate planes, never truly fusing into a single, solid work.

Beginning as an interesting horror mystery, the novel soon turns into a road trip as dreary as its dusty landscape. Along with two guardian dogs, Jude and his lover, former stripper Marybeth, drive to each of their respective childhood homes to put to rest both figurative and actual ghosts from the past. (With bought ghost in pursuit, though most of the time you wouldn’t know it.)

Not much is achieved at Marybeth’s grandmother’s home, just a lost little girl and a tiresome Ouija board. Excitement abounds, however, when the group arrives at the former home of their ghost pursuer, when once again we have a horror thriller on our hands. The real disappointment comes at the end of the road, the arrival at Jude’s old homestead. What begins as a promising sequence with a strong character in Arlene Wade, Jude’s dad’s nurse, and a sickly and dying father who may or may not see and speak, ends up as a weak denouement for the novel as a whole. Hill had a great opportunity to achieve something of a study of Jude’s character in relation to his estranged father, but sadly all form of reunion is avoided. I wouldn’t want nor expect a heart-felt moment of forgiveness, not remotely possible for these two characters, but I would like something to happen between the two, some element of conflict, especially since this is supposed to be a mainstream horror novel driven by character. What better horror than to be forced to confront the father you've been running from all your life, and what a great contrast Hill could have built between disposed father and purchased ghost? But as I mention above, once the horror enters the pages, notions of character are flung aside, and since we are nearing page three hundred and fifty, what better time to have a climax than now?

Joe Hill evidently struggled with this book. There is a long list of names he feels he must thank at the end, people who have read various drafts in order to help the work along, and perhaps the novel suffer from too much feedback and input; too many cooks in the writer's kitchen (not to mention a few sous-chefs and some big dude with a deep fryer). Hill does at times come across as lacking confidence. He has the unfortunate habit of over-explaining characters’ motives rather than allowing the reader to gather that information through characterization, action, dialogue and all those other writerly tropes. This occurs frequently at the beginning of the novel, and once glaringly at the end, when Jude charitably slips some money into someone’s backpack. Since I included the adverb “charitably” I do not need to expand by adding a phrase at the end of that sentence for clarification, something along the lines of "in order to help her out because she was struggling and he sympathized with her unfortunate situation." Jude Coyne can’t seem to lift a hand without some narratorial comment which should have been stricken.

The Unborn - David Shobin
This article was first posted at Casual Debris.
 
The Unborn is a standard suspense/horror novel, lacking in suspense and devoid of horror. At times it reads like a trite medical romance, though I mostly enjoyed its elements of technological parody. Unintentional, of course.

The plot deals with a pregnant woman taking part in a medical sleep study, during which the foetus begins to communicate with the medical centre's super computer. An interesting, far-fetched idea.

Author David Shobin is himself an obstetrician and gynaecologist still practicing in New York (as of the writing this articles publication, June 2010). The Unborn, his first novel, utilizes a fair amount of medical knowledge to narrate its story. While Shobin's knowledge certainly adds to the somewhat thin plot and does help to ground the far-fetched premise, I kept wondering how a sleep-study researcher knew so much about obstetrics, including obscure bits of information related to pregnancy and gynaecology. Is the smart, dashing and sensitive hero of the novel the author in disguise? Or perhaps, while the foetus was communicating with the super-computer, the doctor was in tune with the narrator; a more frightening prospect and a neat idea for a future Shobin novel.

The unusual premise and medical slant help to save an otherwise bland novel. The writing, characters and plot are weak, and though it is a fast read, a third of the 301 pages could easily have been shaved off. Shobin spends far too much time in the first eighty pages delineating these all-too-familiar characters. Samantha ("Sam"), the pregnant woman and Jon, her sleep-study doctor, are both highly intelligent, exceptionally good-looking and hyper understanding of each other. If not convinced of these qualities, rest assured that the author will not hesitate in reminding his readers just how intelligent and good looking these two are. The two fall in love, which is evidently what good-looking people do, and unfortunately they must prove their love again and again at the expense of the reader.

The good doctor has an older, maternal assistant who helps him professionally and socially, and cares about Sam as much as he does. The minor characters, and there are very few, are stock and impossible to tell apart. The computer, sadly, does not act as a character, but as a machine. Shobin had the opportunity to create a creepy menace but avoids it altogether, though at times Sam's foetus does come across in a nice, eerie light.

The writing is weak, but I suppose passable for a doctor trying to write his first novel. The sex is laughable and Shobin seems quite taken by Sam's breasts, though I suppose the attention he lavishes on them might be an attempt at enhancing the focus on maternity. Dialogue is paint-by-numbers and plot is almost non-existent while scenes are quite repetitive. The reader knows well in advance what is happening, so there is no suspense for us (though in abundance for the doctor and his assistant) until about page 200 or so. What kept me reading was wanting to know what will the foetus turn out to be? Freak, innocent child or Damien? I give Shobin credit for not overdoing this in the course of the read, since some authors might find it tempting to fill reams of pages wondering what freakish being resides in the pregnant woman's abdomen to the point that the reader will get fed up and no longer care. I will peculate that Dr. Shobin, during his career, has developed a sensitive view of women in their pregnancy, and I applaud his sensitive approach to what could easily have been a juvenile speculation. Hence little time is spent on such musings, with the occasional mutter from Sam, so that the reader's own imagination can wander at will.

The Unborn was published in 1981, and social and gender roles come across awkward and self-conscious, with the good doctor clearly acknowledging that abortion is the woman's choice. Shobin wanted to make his doctor the well-rounded yet perfect modern male, who is sickened when he feels used by sex and all-understanding of women's lib. Modern at the time perhaps, but a little contrived and comical today.

Moreover, the computers are clunky machines of the past. I mention above that Shobin missed an opportunity in creating a menacing, life-like computer, but in reality this machine may have appeared more frightening in the dark ages of the early '80s. It is indeed 1981, and these massive data banks and "minicomputers" are hilarious. Have a look at Shobin's description of the precursor to the home computer:
Not to mention a printer that filled up a closet and spat out folded reams of paper. Of course our brave doctor is also somewhat of a technical expert and manages to cross-wire his minicomputer with that of the medical centre's highly prized and tightly secured, multi-million dollar super computer.
The minicomputer was a marvel of electronic wizardry and mechanical miniaturization... A product of advances in quartz and gold microcircuitry, the entire unit was twelve inches high and one yard wide, with a separate typewriter console for programming.
I'm not sure what to make of the 1981 cover, but that it seems to beg for a sequel. As expected, Sam doesn't go into labour until the last few pages so there is no glowing baby in a crib. The 1982 paperback is identical but for a brief tag line below the title: "Before the baby cries you will scream." Whatever that means. I understand that labour and often pregnancy can be painful, so a scream or two is not unnatural. The cover on the 1982 Pan edition is also dated yet far less interesting. My favourite is the German translation. I am confused about the concept of glowing babies, or a glowing foetus. The woman on the German edition cover looks nothing like our darling American Sam; in fact, the woman on the cover doesn't look at all pregnant. She looks like a healthy woman lying in bed and clasping an evidently scalding crystal of some kind. There are two things I like about this edition: the wonderfully appropriate dated technology hard at work behind her (is that a Geiger counter resting on her left beside the pillow? Is that crystal radioactive?), and I love the letter O in the title (take a closer look). All edition cover are posted here
 
But I believe I've nit-picked enough about this novel and it is time to set my typewriter console aside, rest my minicomputer and pick up a better book.
The Legacy - John Coyne

For my full review, please visit Casual Debris.

Former horror and current golf author John Coyne wrote The Legacy early in his fiction writing career, and it helped establish him among the ranks of best-selling young American horror authors of the period, such as Peter Straub and Stephen King. While the novel was a best-seller and Coyne did pen some other successful horror books, most notably Hobgoblin (1981), he never reached the heights of Straub or King and his name is not well recognized today. Though regarded generally as a good craftsman who has written horror, literary fiction and a number of non-fiction works, as well as a marketable commodity, it is odd that Coyne did not reach greater heights, nor maintained the height he did achieve. In his introduction to the 1983 anthology The Dodd Mead Gallery of Horror, writer and editor Charles L. Grant honours Coyne by referring to him as "one of the most gifted and literary writers."

The Legacy is a novelization of the 1978 movie of the same title, directed by Richard Marquand (best known for Return of the Jedi) with story and screenplay by Jimmy Sangster. It tells the story of six people invited to Ravenhurst, a remote estate in rural England. They are brought together by the mysterious and wealthy Jason Mountolive, yet while five are familiar with Mountolive and the reason for the gathering, the novel's protagonist, Maggie Walsh, along with her partner Pete Danner, believe they have been recruited from California for an architectural project. The story is a combination of murder mystery along the lines of Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None, and dark demonic fantasy.

Though it is lacking in some areas, the book is an enjoyable and quick read. The writing is strong and suits the work: it is straightforward and clear, nothing intrusive, simply well constructed prose that allows character, setting and plot to function on their own merits. The characters are recognizable caricatures, but so well delineated that their stock qualities work nicely with the story. The dialogue is strong and the interaction between the diverse members of the gathering worked particularly well. The setting is so clearly rendered that while reading the entire landscape appeared before my mind's eye. There are some grey areas in plotting and resolution, but personally I like my fiction with a little grey. Everything spelled out would eliminate much of the story's required obscurity. Of course many of these elements are likely the result of having to follow the film's screenplay, but regardless are a part of the completed text.

My only real problem with the book is the climax (some spoilers ahead). I did not care for the final showdown with Jacques Grandier. In fact, I did not fully understand it. Grandier was not behind the killings at Mountolive's estate, and I figure he is attacking Maggie and Pete because he believes they are the one's responsible for the recent deaths, and hence believes he is defending himself. Yet there was something odd about Grandier walking the plank of the roof (so to speak) in that I could not imagine him being so lithe and athletic. It does not help that someone who was such a great marksman with bow and arrow cannot shoot a couple of people with a shotgun. Perhaps because the book is so visual yet we are never given a clear image of Grandier on the rooftop that the action appears to be playing out in a kind of fog.

The Decapitated Chicken and Other Stories - Horacio Quiroga, Margaret Sayers Peden, Ed Lindlof, Jean Franco

For my full review, please visit Casual Debris.

 

Horacio Quiroga's fiction is tame compared to his tragic life. His father dies from an accidental gunshot wound returning from a hunting trip. As a young man teaching his best friend how to use a gun in preparation for a duel he accidentally kills him. His first wife commits suicide with arsenic and his second simply runs away from their remote country home. He also uses arsenic to end his own life, after which both of his children, on separate occasions, commit suicide as well.

 

In this collection of Quiroga's stories we receive an introduction to his writing that spans his career. There are obvious similarities across the twenty-something years, but the latter works are generally more skillfully written, though some of the ideas in the earlier ones are more interesting. Many of the stories are simply flat, relying on shock endings ("The Feather Pillow"), some are stuffed with filler ("A Slap in the Face"), while some stories with interesting ideas are unfortunately not well rendered ("The Pursued").

 

The only truly satisfying story in the collection is "Anaconda," a novelette about a jungle serpent community threatened by the presence of a human research facility. Not only is the idea unique, it is well written, as Quiroga replaces his usual choppy prose with smoother, even writing, & characters (despite being snakes) that are more than caricatures & rendered with some fine light humour. "The Incense Tree Roof" almost manages this as well, but a strong idea and an interesting character are cast aside by an ending that is more deserving of his earlier stories. What is interesting about this piece is that Quiroga does well in delineating the civil sevant protagonist, since his stories often resort to employing partially-formed characters.

 

According to the blurbs at the back, Quiroga has been compared to Poe and Kipling, a statement I find rather surprising. He does not have Poe's grasp of plot and setting, nor the clever ideas, and he certainly cannot create characters as adeptly as Kipling. Likely these blurbs helped to sell a few copies of the book, which is unfortunate since raising readers' expectations and delivering something sub-par will surely set readers up for disappointment.

Wave of Terror - Theodore Odrach, Erma Odrach

For my full-length review, please visit Casual Debris.

 

Wave of Terror is an unusual mixture of comedy and Soviet horror, dealing with the opening months of the Soviet occupation of a rural area in Ukraine in 1939. We follow the Soviet usurpation primarily through the experiences of two disparate villagers, the school headmaster Ivan Kulik and the pretentious young Maria Valentynovna. In its episodic format we are introduced to many diverse characters and witness a wide array of scenarios, from the comic and absurdist to the horribly tragic. Some scenes are more effective and some simply more interesting than others, yet each episode is fairly short, preventing a potential lag or unevenness in the reading that episodic novels can fall victim to. The overall balance is strong and I was able to read the book at a consistent pace.

Odrach evidently wanted this book to be the first part of a trilogy, yet sadly passed away before he was able to complete it. The ending is abrupt and many situations are left open-ended, but this lack of closure enhances the work, especially considering that its aim is to solely examine the beginnings of occupation and its prompt affects on the rural populace. Odrach’s point is made and his vision of the early Soviet Ukraine remains quite vivid.

 

The singularly unique aspect of the novel is the combination of outright humour and devastating tragedy. Though there is some slapstick, particularly in the opening sequences, the humour succeeds best when used to illustrate the absurd notions of social reform by a regime that pretends to be a saviour, when it is evidently less benevolent to its people than its predecessor. Odrach emphasizes his point that salvation from the cruel Polish landowners is less than a blessing when the new controlling Soviet force has less to offer the people of Hlaby, and instead finds more from their meagre holdings to seize. It is a horrible tragedy, and though the tragic events are often bleak, the humour shines through making for an unusual read. As we become enmeshed in the lives of the victims of this new regime, the humour takes a back seat, overshadowed by the elements of persecution and paranoia that overtake the town and its inhabitants.

 

My favourite sequence in the novel is the election held to appoint a Deputy of the Village Soviet (Chapter 19). Two comical and glutinous Soviet officials stage an election as a ploy to keep a certain lascivious local within their insatiable grasps. The staged election becomes a farce as the townspeople cannot take the proceedings seriously, not caring for these formalities and expecting to gain nothing from this supposedly serious and important civil act. When the two officials nominate their intended, they ask that the townsfolk call out their nominations for the four party seats in order to make up a presidium, specifying that they should elect their most upstanding citizens. In a wonderful show of mockery and chaos, the four names are among the town’s social outcasts, who have not a clue as to what is going on around them. In this scene Odrach succeeds in portraying the extremes of political absurdity, and though I laughed aloud while reading it, I could not escape the intended seriousness behind the scene. Indeed, it is the humour and absurdity that heightens its serious elements.

 

Source: http://casualdebris.blogspot.ca/2010/05/theodore-odrach-wave-of-terror.html
New Ghost Stories II (The Fiction Desk Book 8) - Die Booth, Jane Alexander, Tamsin Hopkins, Matt Plass, Matthew Licht, Amanda Mason, Miha Mazzini, Rob Redman

For my full length review, and review of individual stories, please visit Casual Debris.

 

New Ghost Stories II includes eleven original short stories and a reprint of a medieval poem. Overall I did not enjoy it as much as previous issues, nor as much as their first ghost stories anthology, but there are some good tales included. Though many stories have a fantastical element, and those that don't have the suggestion of one, there aren't too many actual ghosts in the book. This of course is not a bad thing, since it offers a nice variety of subjects, from traditional ghosts to none at all, and some nice ambiguity in between.

Steve Hamilton, A Cold Day in Paradise (1998)

A Cold Day in Paradise - Steve Hamilton

For my full-length review, please visit Casual Debris.

The focus that Hamilton places on Alex McKnight's psyche over what happened so long ago, and how it drives him in the wake of seemingly impossible events, works particularly well. It is deeply entangled with the plot and mystery that it never appears heavy-handed, and our concern for the suffering McKnight is genuine. It helps that McKnight is a less than stellar model of the ethical individual, nor is he a fearless former cop who thrives in the wake of violence. McKnight is instead headstrong, often impatient and rude, qualities that might win him some minor battles as a P.I., but in the long run won't garner him any favours. More striking, however, than his reactionary attitude, is the crippling fear that has been plaguing him his entire life, heightened by the shooting in Detroit. This is McKnight's central flaw, one that prevented him from acting against Rose and played a role in his former partner's death, and one that promises to be a handicap for any potential career as P.I. Like Lawrence Block did with Matthew Scudder, Hamilton has set up a protagonist who was directly responsible for the death of an innocent, and gains our sympathy as we read of their struggles and changed moral outlook.

An interesting aspect of the novel is the contrast between McKnight's overcoming his fear yet establishing a deep form of isolation within his community. Though some relationships with minor characters do not change, every positive relationship he has or has had with any important character devolves to the point that, aside from his pub buddies, he is left completely alone. The only exception is, arguably, Leon Prudell, who despite not being a friend establishes the possibility of becoming a future ally.

Though the plot wavers, it is not a drastic wavering and it never gets close to being derailed (no real spoiler here as I only hint at the issue). Half-way through the novel a man is taken down whose involvement in the mystery is obviously a plant. From this event we are led off the so far well maintained plot path, yet the confusion it seems to want to generate only led me to reasoning out the main elements of what was actually transpiring. The problem is that it is so obvious a plant that rather than becoming scattered, my (usually scattered) mind became instead focused, and the spell of suspense was cracked. Regardless, the denouement is satisfying and the character climax, more important in several respects, works nicely.

Traditional tales for a younger audience

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark - Alvin Schwartz, Stephen Gammell

For my full-length review, please visit Casual Debris.

 

Given its oral tradition and its transcendence of culture which contribute to its widespread popularity, the folk tale often lacks its intended wallop of surprise. Unless, of course you, are a youngster first encountering these tales. In my youth I was introduced to many such tales through reading young adult fiction (or as we called it back in the 80s, kids' books), including re-tellings of classic tales. I don't believe I've before encountered Alvin Schwartz's popular volumes, and reading them for the first time now evokes mixed responses. The book is certainly fun and the illustrations by Stephen Gammell are downright brilliant--unfortunately Schwartz's writing is at times indolent. His notes on these tales and their origins, however, are interesting, and it is great that he made the effort to share these stories with a younger contemporary audience, helping not only to spread them but to conserve them.

 

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is divided into four distinct sections...

The Suicide Club - Robert Louis Stevenson

For my full review, please visit Casual Debris.

 

The Suicide Club is a triptych of individual narratives focusing on separate characters, while interlinking a single main plot. The concept is excellent, though Stevenson's aim is adventure rather than mystery or moral conundrum, both of which are serious potential avenues. To the modern reader this is unfortunate, since the strengths of each of these stories is the heightened suspense and mystery. Despite the emphasis on adventure, the three tales are nonetheless enjoyable and certainly well written.

 

Since each story has a stronger third, it might be interesting to re-visit this work and create a version that begins with the Hansom Cab, continues with the Cream Tarts, and finished with the Saratoga Trunk. Of course there would be no resolution to the main plot, but even Stevenson rushed his own resolution via an odd decision. The final conflict, a dual between our Bohemian prince and the president of the Suicide Club, is presented away from the action, with two minor characters waiting to know who comes up victorious. Potentially tense, the scene lacks suspense as it is brief, not to mention that it is obvious which party will come out victorious, and which will fall at the blade of the sword

Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? - Lorrie Moore

For my full-length review, please visit Casual Debris.

 

As an avid radio listener throughout my teens, I first came across Lorrie Moore by accident when I heard a live reading of her famous short story "How to Become a Writer." Normally, especially at that age, I would quickly seek out other works of newly-discovered writers I enjoyed, but in the case of Moore, though I continued to stumble upon the story throughout the years, along with one or two others, I never actively searched for more of her work. About a year ago I came across a bent copy of Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, and finally read the book last week.

Moore's second novel is a short work that reads like a memoir, a narrator's personal guide through a specific time in her life. (Memoir, however, is simply another kind of fiction, another kind of fabrication; while there are certainly elements from Moore's own life present in the work, it does not read like autobiography.) The narrator is on vacation in Paris in the midst of a seemingly failed marriage, and interspersed with brief conversations with and thoughts of her husband, hearkens back to a summer in the 1970s during which she was obsessed with popular best friend Sils.

The work focuses on the relationship, the narrator's insecurities and very much on the decade. Though it is well written (very well written), it is lacking. The plot is incidental and awakens late in the work, which generates an uneven read. (Ironically, this is one of the threads running through Moore's "How to Become a Writer," as protagonist Francie is being criticized for her lack of plot.) The ending is rushed through, acts as an epilogue and is unnecessary. I would have liked to have been left in the uncertainty of the past as mirrored by the uncertainty of the present, as the two narratives should coincide. Or perhaps the present should have also had its own epilogue? But not really.

While I did not care much for the work as a novel, it is a fast read and worthy of a read for Ms. Moore's writing skills are impressive. The characters are solid and real, and the small town universe they live in is constructed with great care.

Now to seek out more of those fine short stories...

Joyce Carol Oates, The Corn Maiden and Other Nightmares

The Corn Maiden - Joyce Carol Oates

For my full-length review and reviews of each individual story, please visit Casual Debris.

 

There is a cold, calculated efficiency to her writing, making it feel at times clinical, yet it is well balanced by touches of humanity and sympathy, particularly when dealing with issues close to home, such as widowhood. The recent stories, dating back to 1996 though most published since 2010, come across as fresh, vibrant and filled with genuine suspense. The idea of "nightmares" (as per the subtitle) is not always evident, though there is consistently a sense of threat and desperation; in fact the desperation is so pronounced, from the intertwined characters amid a kidnapping in "The Corn Maiden" to the goody-goody twin in "Death-Cup" and the recent widow in "Helping Hands," that a more appropriate collective title might have been The Corn Maiden and Other Desperations.

Stories are consistent in tone and approach, and even varying elements or minor allusions are referred to in more than one story, from two stories (appropriately two) being about twins (though vastly different), to references to international crises and national economic difficulties. With its quieter tone and toned-down level of energy, "Helping Hands" stands out as being the stylistic oddball, though its quietness lends it a greater sense of desperation. "The Corn Maiden," though as intense as the bulk, shares multiple points of view (despite its limited third person approach), and is structurally divided into titled sections. The similarities, however, did not bother me one iota, and I felt an unintentional interwoven quality at the recurring elements which I quite enjoyed. The book, as a result, receives a sense of unity that is often lacking in single-author collections.

The Fiction Desk: New Ghost Stories

New Ghost Stories (The Fiction Desk) - Julia Patt;Joanne Rush;Matthew Licht;Miha Mazzini;Richard Smyth;Jason Atkinson;Jonathan Pinnock;Linda Brucesmith;Eloise Shepherd

For my full-length review and reviews of individual stories, please visit Casual Debris.

 

Featuring the winners of recent The Fiction Desk ghost story competition, editor Rob Redman explains in his introduction that the issue became devoted to the sub-genre as a result of receiving many strong competition entries. A superb decision, I think, as the sixth The Fiction Desk is among the strongest of the anthologies, and an occasional themed issue, in light of the consistently good stories in this one, would certainly be welcome.

We have seen ghosts wandering the pages of The Fiction Desk, so the themed issue is an extension of a part of itself, rather than a complete overhaul of its standards. In fact, the journal has published stories from most genres and can likely pull off a good collection from many. Ghost stories, however, are particular in transcending genre: while they are in their strict sense fantasies, ghosts can exist as horror, drama, satire and even strict comedy. Ghosts have haunted the pages of our most notable and recognizable serious literary personas, such as William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde and Virginia Woolf, yet critics of the twentieth century, while admiring tales of fantasy, quickly relegate contemporary ghosts to a sub-genre, and most often dismissing such tales. Rob Redman and the team over at The Fiction Desk, along with the authors bravely risking credibility and submitting their ghostly tales to the journal, have succeeded in putting together a volume that transcends genre. These stories are not about ghosts per se, yet like any great collection of serious fiction, are about so many concrete and versatile topics, yet happen to feature varying concepts of ghost.

Shimmer Seventeen (Fall 2013)

Shimmer Magazine - Issue 17 - E. Catherine Tobler, Katherine Sparrow, A. C. Wise, Sunny Moraine

For my full-length review and reviews of individual stories, please visit Casual Debris.

 

With Shimmer's latest, expect the usual shimmery fiction: fantasies with quiet, strong prose, a positive and often sentimental approach to a varied set of ideas. While Shimmer is consistent with its style and good quality writing, as well as with its authors, personally I feel the zine can do with a little noise, some straightforward, less poetically abstract imagery, and often more subtle and ambiguous approaches to its varied ideas. I would also like to see some longer stories included, but that's for personal taste, not general aesthetics.

Shimmer Seventeen features a little sci-fi, some nice ghosts, as well as more than one second-person narration, several unsympathetic mothers and three Canadians, all tossed to the far-end of the collection. My favourites are those by Alex Dally MacFarlane, Yarrow Paisley and Kim Neville.

Because of What Happened (The Fiction Desk) - Rob Redman, Matt Plass, Tania Hershman, Ian Sales

For my full review, and reviews of individual stories, please visit Casual Debris.

 

The latest issue of The Fiction Desk features fifteen stories compressed into 136 pages. No, the font is not shrunken as my opening sentence seems to imply, but instead volume five contains short short stories, including the winner and finalists of their recent flash fiction contest. Not a fan of flash fiction, I was hoping some long pieces would have been included to balance out the issue. Balance, however, turned out not to be a problem, though I find that overall the fifth TFD is so far the weakest. There are no bad stories by any means included, but the consistently strong stories I am now used to are replaced by consistently slightly-above-average stories. I am, however, pleased yet again that the mainstream is ensnared among the unusual, and we have yet another good fantasy from Ian Sales and, my favourite story from the collection, a great surreal piece from Tony Lovell.

 

As usual, the cover is excellent and the book looks and feels great.

Currently reading

I Shudder at Your Touch
Various, Ruth Rendell, Valerie Martin, Thomas M. Disch, Stephen R. Donaldson, May Sinclair, Michele B. Slung, Carolyn Banks, Stephen King, Clive Barker
Madhouse
Jeff Strand, Lisa Morton, Mercedes M. Yardley, Brad C. Hodson, Aeron Alfrey, Megan Hart, John Skipp, Scott Nicholson
Progress: 109/366 pages
Thieves Like Us: A Novel
Edward Anderson
The Blessington Method
Stanley Ellin
Dance of the Happy Shades
Alice Munro