Casual Debris

Joan Samson, The Auctioneer (1976)

The Auctioneer - Joan Samson

From Casual Debris.

 

 

Well received critically and commercially upon its initial release, The Auctioneer has since fallen into semi-obscurity. This unfortunate fate is partly due to the author's death shortly after the novels's publication, and the absence of a second book. I understand that Joan Samson was working on a second novel when she sadly succumbed to cancer shortly before the age of forty. While some novels persist in part because they are the author's only published work, such as John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces (1980) and, most notably, Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird (1960; for many years at least, prior to the publication of Go Set a Watchman in 2015), there was no mystique around this author, nor an attached Pulitzer, to help keep this first and only novel in the literary consciousness. Regardless, the novel is still respected by those who have read it, and its near-cult status will ensure that it will continue to be read.

Or so I hope.

The novel focuses primarily on a family living in the fictional rural town of Harlowe, New Hampshire, comprising of John Moore, his wife Miriam ("Mim"), their four year-old daughter Hildie, and "Ma," John's elderly mother. Having lived their entire lives in that community, amid the hardships of rural farming, Samson explores the affects of a charismatic auctioneer, a contrasting outsider, who moves into the community and progressively takes over. By holding regular auctions to raise funds for the benefit of the town, Perly Dunsmore is able to manipulate those funds and the people they are meant to serve. Professing the values of the "old ways" in a town built on tradition, Dunsmore is in fact quite modern and progressive, albeit amoral, in a business sense, as the reader discovers in the latter parts of the novel.

The Auctioneer blends many elements into its narrative. It acts as mystery, thriller, horror and even family drama. The scenes of basic survival, as the family members struggle to maintain their livelihood when they have been stripped of most of their belongings, is for me the most vivid. With family dynamics at the fore of the drama, Dunsmore appears seldom in the novel, which is to the story's benefit. Dunsmore unleashes the tensions, but most of the drama is located within the family and within the community, only highlighted and elevated by the presence of this daemon-like figure, who at the end proves all-too human. The real daemon is that aspect of humanity that can allow such usurpation, and it appears Dunsmore's downfall is a result of the members of the community finding themselves in the same building facing that man, as only then do individuals find the courage to fight back.

The ending comes across as a little too convenient, and reveals an odd flaw in Dunsmore's otherwise perceptive understanding of human nature. Yet the novel is not about the ending, and it does not detract from the challenges Samson has set for her characters. These characters are well delineated, strong despite the predicaments in which they find themselves, and it is this strength and drive for survival that renders the situation so bleak, since they are unable to oppose the auctioneer. In particular it is the women in the novel who are both driven enough to fight back, while being rational enough to hold back, as they must defend the family unit. The men are driven more by vengeance, or frozen by the apathy of frustration and hopelessness.

Though the novel enacts a specific period with well-defined characters, it can nonetheless act as allegory. The auctioneer himself is the state rendering its citizens dependent on its continued presence, replacing a mild form of government with a kind of modern, capitalist totalitarianism. The pretense of communal ownership is false, and glaringly fails as its members are robbed of what is essentially theirs.

Also prevalent is the threat of urban sprawl, as large cities, in this case Boston, are overgrowing and becoming stifling to humans who long to connect with the peace of a past, uncomplicated life. Or at least what is envisioned by the urban mass to be an idyllic return to nature, ignoring the hardships that Harlowe's inhabitants have been struggling with for generations. The idea of urban sprawl threatening these communities and this way of life is splattered throughout the novel, as we learn more of Dunsmore's ultimate plan, not just for Harlowe but for the surrounding communities as well.

However one would wish to interpret the novel, it is a powerful work that is deserving of a read, and a later re-read. The weight of these ideas packed into a suspenseful novel adds to the tragedy that Joan Samson was not given the opportunity for a follow-up. Regardless, we should be grateful she has left us with such a profound work.

Source: http://casualdebris.blogspot.com/2018/12/joan-samson-auctioneer.html

Robert Silverberg, The Reality Trip and Other Implausibilities (1972)

The Reality Trip - Robert Silverberg

From Casual Debris.

 

 

Between 1969 and about 1985, the world was subjected to the publication of a Robert Silverberg short story collection on an annual basis. Some of those years even experienced multiple collections. A prolific and fairly consistent writer, the material was plentiful, so that most stories did not need to wait long before being included in a collection; in fact, many were collected the same year they initially saw print, such as "Caliban" in this volume.

The Reality Trip and Other Implausibilities was made up primarily of a small number of new, as-yet uncollected stories, with five of the eight first appearing between 1970 and 1972. The remaining three stories include two recycled pieces from the fifties, and the first-time collected Hugo and Nebula nominated novella, "Hawksbill Station" (1967), which had already re-appeared as a novel, an expansion of the novella, in 1968.


In Entropy's Jaws     8/10     (Infinity Two, edited by Robert Hoskins, 1971)

Skein is a Communicator, a skilled telepath who can unite two minds with the purpose of effective communication. During a lucrative communication session, however, the connection damages his brain, and he no longer lives in a linear state, but experiences continuous flashbacks and flashforwards. Now Skein is searching for a purple planet that he has seen in his future which he believes can heal his damaged brain.

A riveting story, well structured and with a vividly created world for such a short piece. Skein is not very likable, a talented telepath who capitalizes commercially on his talent, yet Silverberg manages to reign in sympathy for this man, who undergoes a great transformation throughout his humbling experience. My favourite story in the collection.

Included in Terry Carr's The Best Science Fiction of the Year (1972).


The Reality Trip     7/10     (If, May/June 1970)

After eleven years in New York City, studying humans and transmitting copious data daily to Homeworld, an alien visitor must fend off the attentions and advances of a neighbor, Elizabeth Cooke. Cooke is a bohemian, a pot-smoking poet who is attracted to the alien's otherness, his loneliness and social distancing. A highly entertaining story, the first person narrative focuses both on the alien's struggle to deal with the attentions of Cooke, alongside his intense loneliness. Despite the seeming contradiction, there is never in the protagonist's mind the notion that such a relationship with such a human, or any human, can make up for his extreme isolation, and in addition, despite that loneliness, he is not interested in relocating until the situation with Cooke escalates.

Though considered to be among his best short stories, "The Reality Trip" was not included in any of the "Best of" anthologies for 1970. Terry Carr only began his run as a "Best of" editor the following year, and did include "The Reality Trip" in the relatively forgettable paperback anthology, This Side of Infinity (Ace Books, September 1972).


Black Is Beautiful     6/10     (The Year 2000. Edited by Harry Harrison. New York: Doubleday, February 1970)

In the year 2000, Manhattan has been taken over by African Americans, as whites have moved out to the suburbs. The story follows an angry senior high school student, James Lincoln, who prefers to go by James Shabaz, as he festers with anger over the centuries of oppression blacks were forced to face in the hands of the ruling whites, and the seeming apathy of those in his community. The story envisions a future racial peace in the US as a result of total segregation, with different minority groups taking over different areas across the country. Like most racial stories of the period, this one is  certainly dated, though it is surprisingly not a bad read. It is, however, interesting that with all this seeming social progress, black men still speak as though they lived in 1970, when you think language would evolve differently with a reduction in the influence of white culture.


Ozymandias     7/10     (Infinity Science Fiction, November 1958; in the UK in New Worlds Science Fiction #94, May 1960)

Exploring the rim of the galaxy is a vessel run jointly by the military and a small group of archaeologists. These two opposing groups struggle to compromise amid differing agendas, and the tension is thick, brought to a head when they reach a planet which the archaeologists wish to explore, whereas the military believes has no value.

The story begins in the third person, though this voice is eventually revealed to be one of the five archaeologists, which is an interesting shift not often used. Since the story is primarily about two distinct social groups, each appropriately stereotyped, the lack of individual characterization makes for a good third person tale. Though names of some of the minor players are given, we are essentially dealing with two distinct groups rather than individual characters, a detail highlighted by the fact that each group's only standout character is their leader. Though the military is responsible for the larger portion of the mission's budget, the archaeologists do have some contractual weight, and essentially force the ship down onto the dead planet for a week's worth of investigation. They quickly make an incredible discovery, and do their best to conceal it from the other party, which is not interested in extraterrestrial culture, but in practical materials, either resources or weapons technology.

By far the strongest of the earlier stories, it is elevated by its original and well structured narrative form, and pays off with a tragic ending.

 
Caliban     6/10     (Infinity Three. Edited by Robert Hoskins. Lancre Books, 1972)

A man awakens in a future where physical beauty is the norm, and people can exchange their body parts and take on any appearance they wish. A world where everyone looks exactly alike. A blatant, humourous take on extreme conformity, basic body image issues and the need to fit into one's social circle. In this world, however, the other, that ugly time traveller, is accepted rather than ostracized, and while this future society attempts to mold him into one of their theirs, his difference is instead leaving an influence on the beautiful people. Certainly not original, but entertaining, particularly in light of the protagonist/narrator's self deprecation, and that breathing underwater scene. The title refers, of course, to the half-breed Caliban of William Shakespeare's The Tempest.
 
 
The Shrines of Earth     5/10     (Astounding Science Fiction, November 1957)

Following three thousand years of peace, terrans on Earth have become passive and non-confrontational, focusing primarily on the arts. Among the colonies scattered throughout the galaxy, terrans have earned the reputation of being innocent and inconsequential. Yet when the terrans learn that a group of aliens plan a takeover of Earth as part of their conquest of the galaxy, they must find a way to defend themselves. Since they are unable to use weapons, they must rely on craft. A slight story, whose initial premise immediately reveals what is to come. The bulk of the story features somewhat repetitive scenarios that lead us to the obvious conclusion, during which one of the terrans expositorily explains the already obvious crafty plan to the reader. The weakest story of the collection.
 
 
Ringing the Changes     5/10     (Alchemy and Academe. Edited by Anne McCaffrey. New York: Doubleday, November 1970)

Humans take vacations via shunting: the act of entering another person's consciousness and thereby experiencing that person's life. When a malfunction occurs, a group of consciousnesses are separated from their bodies, and technicians must link them back together, by requiring that each person enter each separated body in turn, and for the person to raise their hand once they are re-connected with their body. However, there exists the risk that a person might deceive in order to permanently take on the identity of another.

Told through a series of experiences through a single consciousness, the story appears to be more invested in relaying diverse life experiences than in dealing with its themes of risk in this kind of technology. The focus also indicates that there is perhaps only so much to discuss with this idea. The weakest of the newer stories.
 
 
Hawksbill Station     7/10     (Galaxy Magazine, August 1967)

In the politically rife and repressive future, those with strong opposing political views, rebels, dissidents and even philosophers, are sent to Hawksbill Station, a prison set up in the distant past. The trip to prison is a one-way affair, and lies in the Precambrian era, on a bit of land that would eventually lie underwater.

We experience this extreme penal colony through the eyes of its leader, a role earned through seniority. Vivid and detailed, with many characters and a suspenseful plot, this is an excellent novella that is tightly woven into its premise. It is odd, however, that the suspicious newcomer does not develop a better back-story when navigating through Hawksbill Station, or that he takes notes rather than leave details to memory, but these are small qualms as the story is overall fascinating and well developed.

The novella was expanded into a novel, and released by Doubleday a year after its original publication. In the UK the novel was published with the title The Anvil of Time. I will likely hunt this down at some point.
Source: http://casualdebris.blogspot.com/2018/12/robert-silverberg-reality-trip-and.html

Robert Silverberg, The Reality Trip and Other Implausibilities (1972)

From Casual Debris.

 

 

Between 1969 and about 1985, the world was subjected to the publication of a Robert Silverberg short story collection on an annual basis. Some of those years even experienced multiple collections. A prolific and fairly consistent writer, the material was plentiful, so that most stories did not need to wait long before being included in a collection; in fact, many were collected the same year they initially saw print, such as "Caliban" in this volume.

The Reality Trip and Other Implausibilities was made up primarily of a small number of new, as-yet uncollected stories, with five of the eight first appearing between 1970 and 1972. The remaining three stories include two recycled pieces from the fifties, and the first-time collected Hugo and Nebula nominated novella, "Hawksbill Station" (1967), which had already re-appeared as a novel, an expansion of the novella, in 1968.


In Entropy's Jaws     8/10     (Infinity Two, edited by Robert Hoskins, 1971)

Skein is a Communicator, a skilled telepath who can unite two minds with the purpose of effective communication. During a lucrative communication session, however, the connection damages his brain, and he no longer lives in a linear state, but experiences continuous flashbacks and flashforwards. Now Skein is searching for a purple planet that he has seen in his future which he believes can heal his damaged brain.

A riveting story, well structured and with a vividly created world for such a short piece. Skein is not very likable, a talented telepath who capitalizes commercially on his talent, yet Silverberg manages to reign in sympathy for this man, who undergoes a great transformation throughout his humbling experience. My favourite story in the collection.

Included in Terry Carr's The Best Science Fiction of the Year (1972).


The Reality Trip     7/10     (If, May/June 1970)

After eleven years in New York City, studying humans and transmitting copious data daily to Homeworld, an alien visitor must fend off the attentions and advances of a neighbor, Elizabeth Cooke. Cooke is a bohemian, a pot-smoking poet who is attracted to the alien's otherness, his loneliness and social distancing. A highly entertaining story, the first person narrative focuses both on the alien's struggle to deal with the attentions of Cooke, alongside his intense loneliness. Despite the seeming contradiction, there is never in the protagonist's mind the notion that such a relationship with such a human, or any human, can make up for his extreme isolation, and in addition, despite that loneliness, he is not interested in relocating until the situation with Cooke escalates.

Though considered to be among his best short stories, "The Reality Trip" was not included in any of the "Best of" anthologies for 1970. Terry Carr only began his run as a "Best of" editor the following year, and did include "The Reality Trip" in the relatively forgettable paperback anthology, This Side of Infinity (Ace Books, September 1972).


Black Is Beautiful     6/10     (The Year 2000. Edited by Harry Harrison. New York: Doubleday, February 1970)

In the year 2000, Manhattan has been taken over by African Americans, as whites have moved out to the suburbs. The story follows an angry senior high school student, James Lincoln, who prefers to go by James Shabaz, as he festers with anger over the centuries of oppression blacks were forced to face in the hands of the ruling whites, and the seeming apathy of those in his community. The story envisions a future racial peace in the US as a result of total segregation, with different minority groups taking over different areas across the country. Like most racial stories of the period, this one is  certainly dated, though it is surprisingly not a bad read. It is, however, interesting that with all this seeming social progress, black men still speak as though they lived in 1970, when you think language would evolve differently with a reduction in the influence of white culture.


Ozymandias     7/10     (Infinity Science Fiction, November 1958; in the UK in New Worlds Science Fiction #94, May 1960)

Exploring the rim of the galaxy is a vessel run jointly by the military and a small group of archaeologists. These two opposing groups struggle to compromise amid differing agendas, and the tension is thick, brought to a head when they reach a planet which the archaeologists wish to explore, whereas the military believes has no value.

The story begins in the third person, though this voice is eventually revealed to be one of the five archaeologists, which is an interesting shift not often used. Since the story is primarily about two distinct social groups, each appropriately stereotyped, the lack of individual characterization makes for a good third person tale. Though names of some of the minor players are given, we are essentially dealing with two distinct groups rather than individual characters, a detail highlighted by the fact that each group's only standout character is their leader. Though the military is responsible for the larger portion of the mission's budget, the archaeologists do have some contractual weight, and essentially force the ship down onto the dead planet for a week's worth of investigation. They quickly make an incredible discovery, and do their best to conceal it from the other party, which is not interested in extraterrestrial culture, but in practical materials, either resources or weapons technology.

By far the strongest of the earlier stories, it is elevated by its original and well structured narrative form, and pays off with a tragic ending.

 
Caliban     6/10     (Infinity Three. Edited by Robert Hoskins. Lancre Books, 1972)

A man awakens in a future where physical beauty is the norm, and people can exchange their body parts and take on any appearance they wish. A world where everyone looks exactly alike. A blatant, humourous take on extreme conformity, basic body image issues and the need to fit into one's social circle. In this world, however, the other, that ugly time traveller, is accepted rather than ostracized, and while this future society attempts to mold him into one of their theirs, his difference is instead leaving an influence on the beautiful people. Certainly not original, but entertaining, particularly in light of the protagonist/narrator's self deprecation, and that breathing underwater scene. The title refers, of course, to the half-breed Caliban of William Shakespeare's The Tempest.
 
 
The Shrines of Earth     5/10     (Astounding Science Fiction, November 1957)

Following three thousand years of peace, terrans on Earth have become passive and non-confrontational, focusing primarily on the arts. Among the colonies scattered throughout the galaxy, terrans have earned the reputation of being innocent and inconsequential. Yet when the terrans learn that a group of aliens plan a takeover of Earth as part of their conquest of the galaxy, they must find a way to defend themselves. Since they are unable to use weapons, they must rely on craft. A slight story, whose initial premise immediately reveals what is to come. The bulk of the story features somewhat repetitive scenarios that lead us to the obvious conclusion, during which one of the terrans expositorily explains the already obvious crafty plan to the reader. The weakest story of the collection.
 
 
Ringing the Changes     5/10     (Alchemy and Academe. Edited by Anne McCaffrey. New York: Doubleday, November 1970)

Humans take vacations via shunting: the act of entering another person's consciousness and thereby experiencing that person's life. When a malfunction occurs, a group of consciousnesses are separated from their bodies, and technicians must link them back together, by requiring that each person enter each separated body in turn, and for the person to raise their hand once they are re-connected with their body. However, there exists the risk that a person might deceive in order to permanently take on the identity of another.

Told through a series of experiences through a single consciousness, the story appears to be more invested in relaying diverse life experiences than in dealing with its themes of risk in this kind of technology. The focus also indicates that there is perhaps only so much to discuss with this idea. The weakest of the newer stories.
 
 
Hawksbill Station     7/10     (Galaxy Magazine, August 1967)

In the politically rife and repressive future, those with strong opposing political views, rebels, dissidents and even philosophers, are sent to Hawksbill Station, a prison set up in the distant past. The trip to prison is a one-way affair, and lies in the Precambrian era, on a bit of land that would eventually lie underwater.

We experience this extreme penal colony through the eyes of its leader, a role earned through seniority. Vivid and detailed, with many characters and a suspenseful plot, this is an excellent novella that is tightly woven into its premise. It is odd, however, that the suspicious newcomer does not develop a better back-story when navigating through Hawksbill Station, or that he takes notes rather than leave details to memory, but these are small qualms as the story is overall fascinating and well developed.

The novella was expanded into a novel, and released by Doubleday a year after its original publication. In the UK the novel was published with the title The Anvil of Time. I will likely hunt this down at some point.
Source: http://casualdebris.blogspot.com/2018/12/robert-silverberg-reality-trip-and.html

Fritz Leiber, Conjure Wife (1943, 1952)

Conjure Wife - Fritz Leiber

In brief, the novel involves a small-town college professor who discovers that his wife is a practicing witch. A man of unshakable reason, he forces his devoted spouse to do away with all her charms and anything associated with witchcraft. Ever obedient, her purge has results that are entirely unexpected for our professor. Witchcraft and the competitive nature of academia are hand-in-hand in this well-regarded novel, Leiber's first.

 

Among the most interesting aspects of the novel is that, though the author is bound tightly to his narrator, both being intellectual and logical (Leiber was a competitive chess player, for one), it is the superstitious world that supersedes the rational. As much as we wish to believe the world functions the way that science would have us believe, it is the spells and charms that control our destiny and station in life.

 

Though the plot focuses primarily on how the supernatural drives our lives, the world Leiber has created is one of balance; the supernatural exists to balance out the rational. Without the rational there would be nothing deemed supernatural, as the latter would be the norm. In addition, the world is balanced by other factors touched upon in the novel, from big city glamour and debauchery to the conservatism of a small college community, to gender roles. Indeed, gender roles is among the most important elements of the novel, as men and women have clearly defined roles and are viewed apart by both society and individuals. Told through the point of view of a male rationalist, women are seen as the subjective and domestic counterparts of working men. It can therefore be read that what upsets the rational, male world order, is not the existence of the supernatural, but the reality that women are the driving forces of society. Our protagonist must, alongside with accepting that witches and their powers are real, accept that women make men's careers and are the driving forces behind the success of individuals and family.

 

There is a certain element of sexism in the novel, but this is a bi-product of the period, and not the result of misogyny. Leiber was specific with his plotting and writing, and despite a male narrator stating that women are largely irrational, this is an element of plot and character and not a comment by the author, as by the end of the book the reader understands that it is the woman who succeeds in overcoming all the challenges faced by the male narrator, both his academic and supernatural challenges. By the end of the novel, the husband plays the role that the wife has single-handedly devised in order to defeat the evil influences in their lives. During the climactic sequence it is she who is at the forefront of the action, battling the other wives, whereas he is standing well behind her, like a bodyguard watching attentively. The juxtaposition of the novel's opening chapters against this scene is worthy of a close look, as it is clear the husband has consciously given up the role of master of the house which he so firmly and rationally acted on when forcing his wife to do away with her superstitions.

 

Rather than being sexist, the novel is quite progressive.

Source: http://casualdebris.blogspot.com/2018/09/fritz-leiber-conjure-wife.html

Halloween Bingo 2018

Finally I have a moment, during that brief spell when I doze off trying to put the kids to sleep & going to bed myself, that brief groggy wakefulness I spend mostly trying to remember where I am. (Usually it's on the couch in the kids' playroom.)
 
I managed to finish Fritz Leiber's Conjure Wife before September (short book, review coming soon), and am slowly making my way through Joan Samson's The Auctioneer.
 
(Now where did that bingo card go...?)
 

Supernatural: Fritz Leiber, Conjure Wife

A Grimm Tale

Darkest London

Gothic

Cozy Mystery

Genre: Horror

13

Terrifying Women

Romantic Suspense

New Release

Cryptozoologist

Diverse Voices

Classic Horror

Doomsday

Fear the Drowning Deep

Amateur Sleuth

Ghost Stories: (Richard Matheson, Hell House)

Genre: Suspense

Southern Gothic

Terror in a Small Town: Joan Samson, The Auctioneer (in progress)

Murder Most Foul

Country House Mystery

Modern Masters of Horror

Creepy Carnivals

 

John Saul, Asylum

Asylum - John Saul

 

And the hexalogy closes with a whimper. The final book of Saul's Blackstone Chronicles completes the serialized work as expected, since throughout the series there has been only one logical suspect behind the distribution of the asylum artifacts. I did not mind the explanation and can even forgive the sickeningly overt sentimental closure as it is in keeping with the rest of the text, but there is an immense flaw in this final entry that I cannot overlook.

The revelatory explanation for the strange events that have occurred in the town of Blackstone is altogether rational, and yet the events themselves are depicted as being supernatural. Therefore, the explanation contradicts the events they are attempting to explain.

I won't elaborate further as the elaboration includes spoilers. You can find the spoiler-filled details here.

Source: http://casualdebris.blogspot.com/2018/08/john-saul-asylum.html

John Saul, The Stereoscope

Day of Reckoning:  The Stereoscope (Blackstone Chronicles, Part 5) - John Saul

From Casual Debris.

 

So far the strongest entry of the series. Despite some suspense fiction cliches, Part Five of John Saul's serialized The Blackstone Chronicles is better paced and more focused than the previous books. It is through the focused narrative of this part that I became conscious that the presence of the mysterious, evil figure is distracting, adding little to the narrative, and actually decreasing the mystery element of the work as a whole, and I wonder what kind of read we would have if the scenes with the figure were excised.

Plot-wise, the main focus is on Bill McGuire, who unknowingly takes the cursed gift of a stereoscope into his home. His family is quickly (and forcefully) set up as ultra loving, with overly supportive wife Bonnie and sweet 'n innocent daughter Amy, along with the over-sized loving puppy. (Yes, yes, we can immediately foretell the fate of the beloved family pet.)

Side plots feature Oliver Metcalf learning more about his deceased twin sister's death, and on his wish to exorcise the demons of his past. Whereas Rebecca has been kidnapped and locked away in a cold room of the asylum. As these segments are brief and well interspersed, they come across as more effective than the sub-plots in previous volumes, and do not interfere with the main plot.

This level of focus should have been achieved by part four, since by then the formula of these little books have become too predictable and tired, and thereby part four comes across as the weakest; I for one hurried through its pages and paused before picking up "The Stereoscope." The denouement of "The Stereoscope" is, with slight variation, essentially the same as each predecessor, but does, with its elevated structure, act as a better precursor to the final volume than any of the previous books.

Source: http://casualdebris.blogspot.com/2018/07/john-saul-stereoscope-1997.html

John Saul, The Handkerchief

In the Shadow of Evil: The Handkerchief - John Saul

From Casual Debris.

 

 

 

The fourth part of John Saul's serially published The Blackstone Chronicles focuses on a handkerchief. If italicized prologues are to be believed, this cursed item is embroidered with a fancy R by an asylum patient who deliriously believes she is living at society's upper social echelons. Drama ensues, which includes the less-than-pleasant nurse using the handkerchief to wipe spaghetti sauce (I'm assuming tomato) from her uniform, and, tossed in for good measure, some old asylum water therapy/torture.

Enter our buddy Oliver Metcalf, editor of Blackstone's local paper, The Chronicle. Arriving at the office he learns from his assistant that local gossip Edna Burnham has been spreading theories related to the recent trend of violent deaths. Burnham connects the three deaths to the mysterious gifts each household received shortly before tragedy struck, and in addition links it all back to the asylum. Editor Metcalf refuses to believe there is any connection, is not aware of any mysterious gifts, and generally scoffs at the woman's ideas. Yet the reader, aware of the all-too-obvious connections, is left to wonder if perhaps town gossip Burnham should depose Metcalf and serve as The Chronicle's, and Blackstone's, top investigative reporter.

Following her aunt's death in Part Two, Rebecca is taken in by librarian Germaine Wagner and her wheelchair bound mother, "Miss Clara." As I discussed in my review of "The Dragon's Flame," Germain is only one of two negative characters in the series (this was before we were introduced to Clara), both being unmarried women. In her previous home Rebecca was likened to Carrie, whereas here she is treated like Cinderella, with Prince Oliver delivering the cursed handkerchief as though it were a glass slipper. Germaine usurps the gift, passing it onto her mother who seems to know something of its history. Germaine takes it back and begins to hallucinate, and the predictable occurs.

Our side plots include Oliver rummaging through old asylum case files, and bankers & contractors & lawyers (Bill McGuire and Ed Becker and a woman, all interchangeable) visiting the asylum to help assure themselves the investment is sound. There Becker comes across a chest of drawers he decides to purchase (a presentiment of things to come?).

Part Four is more of the same. It reads like filler in that nothing new is discovered, only some minor details regarding Oliver's father which we already suspected. Both build-up of the main plot and its drawn out climactic sequence are familiar. Saul tries to escalate suspense by pairing the climax alongside Olliver's realizations about his father, but since the former is predictable and the latter delivers no surprises nor conclusions, the effect is flat and I found myself rushing through it all. I expect the fifth book to be a similar filler-type entry, with part six being the most interesting, at least of the second half of the series.

Finally, amid all this drama, the most intriguing mystery is left unsolved. When Germaine takes the handkerchief from Rebecca, she notices it is "spotless and neatly pressed." (29) Now, how did the asylum staff get all that spaghetti sauce out of the fabric?

Source: http://casualdebris.blogspot.com/2018/06/saul-john-handkerchief-1997.html

Michael Blumlein, Keeping House

From Casual Debris.

 

 

Following her appointment as Associate Professor of Classics at the nearby university, a woman, along with her husband and their baby daughter, move into their new home. Rather than taking on the challenges of the shabby, broken down yet affordable house on the block, they settle on the more costly, yet renovated house beside it. What is quickly set up as a ghost story becomes something entirely difficult, relying on the psychological rather than the paranormal to illustrate an intelligent and hard-working woman's mental decline.

The story toys a little with the conventions of haunted house stories, referencing some of its tropes, like unpleasant scents and mirrors that reflect things that don't appear to be present at all, but instead of being a ghost story, it is far more akin to Charlotte Perkins Gilman's excellent psychological tale of deterioration, "The Yellow Wallpaper" (1892). Like Gilman, "Keeping House" is told through the point of view of a new mother in a new environment who begins to believe that her surroundings are coming alive. Rather than believing someone is living trapped in the wall or its paper, Blumlein's unnamed heroine believes that threatening spirits are trying to infiltrate her home, entering from the adjacent, broken down eyesore of a house she chose not to purchase. To prevent this threat from destroying home and family, she does battle via an obsessive cleaning/cleansing routine.

Though the story can arguably be read ambiguously, there is enough evidence in the text to indicate that the visions and scents stem from the woman's overwrought mind. Possibly following postpartum, as is the case in Gilman, the un-named narrator goes through various extreme mood swings, which eventually culminate in her taking on all aspects of a family provider, and believing there is a threat attempting to pervade the house and harm the order and harmony she is struggling to maintain. She fights back by increasing the need for order and cleanliness to a dangerously obsessive degree.

Our narrator finally snaps as she begins preparations to have sex with her husband. This is the only indication in the story of any form of intimacy between them, hinting that they have not been physical sine conceiving their only child. Like her obsessive cleaning routine, her preparations for sex become ritual-like, and the story hence makes a connection between the couple's intimacy and the invading spirits, at least in the woman's mind. As she fights to prevent threats to invade her home, she is fighting to prevent her husband's invasion of her body. Following this scene we are informed that the husband is grumpy and increasingly absent due to work, though likely he is staying away from his wife in response to her increasing obsessiveness ("You are sick," he tells her), and perhaps also out of basic sexual frustration. The consequence is simply that mother-wife, as in Gilman, becomes increasingly isolated in response to the husband's unsympathetic assessment of her condition.

 
Thematically the story can be read as a modern woman struggling with the pressures of a career and balancing the traditional mother and wife requirements of home. Husband is absent from much of the story as he is struggling at a new job, or so the narrator presumes, and in a sense re-living the postpartum environment as mother is trapped at home with baby. Whatever we wish to read behind the woman's deterioration, it is the process itself that is the focus of the story. Again as with Gilman, our heroine is at the outset of the story already in her isolated state at home, though Blumlein's narrator does have the freedom of escape as she goes to work. The latter portion of the story, however, takes place during the summer, and as a teacher she drops her summer work option and remains at home to battle the demons behind the walls. The ending lacks the pure creepiness of Gilman's final scene, but does give us quietly depressing final act of cutting oneself off entirely from the world that surrounds.
Source: http://casualdebris.blogspot.com/2018/06/michael-blumlein-keeping-house.html

Casual Shorts: Stephen King, The Revelations of 'Becka Paulson

From Casual Debris.

 

Published during his extraordinary commercial peak in the 1980s, "The Revelations of 'Becka Paulson" is an as yet uncollected short story by Stephen King. First published in a special double summer issue of Rolling Stone magazine, The story was later incorporated into the novel The Tommyknockers (1987), in which Rebecca Paulson was a secondary character (or perhaps tertiary; I have not read the novel). Outside of a limited edition Skeleton Crew by Scream Press, it has not yet appeared in a Stephen King collection, and has only been anthologized in the highly readable Michele Slung-edited I Shudder at Your Touch. As an adapted screenplay, it was produced as an above average episode of The Outer Limits.

In the short story, a neglected and isolated housewife accidentally shoots herself in the head, and consequentially receives odd visions and, as per the title, revelations. As visions and memory begin to bind. disrupting her daily routine, her fate will certainly be locked in to how she handles this new perspective.

With all the story's quirkiness, King focuses primarily on character, to the story's benefit. 'Becka's life is controlled by a dominating masculine trinity, made up of Jesus Christ, her husband Joe, and her late father. Interestingly, her connection to all three is via some form of insurmountable distance. Her connection to Jesus is through her devotion to her religion, and she communicates with him through a photograph of Jesus as shepherd that has become animated. Her connection to her father is through her memory of his domineering ways, as he passed away years before but continues to deploy a daily influence. Finally, her husband Joe is at work during the day, and entirely absent to her when at home, preferring to play poker with his buddies or sleeping with a new co-worker. In addition, their house is located in a desolate rural setting, so that 'Becka has no immediate neighbours, and Joe must drive a ways for his job.

This is an indication that it is not only her stagnancy she is attempting to escape, but also the grasp of faulty masculine influence. She is essentially the sheep that animated Jesus bats away within the photo frame. Jesus tells her he is her saviour, and this is the point at which she listens. Through her revelations, 'Becka becomes aware of her actual situation, the unhappiness of her unfulfilling life, and as she does not have the capability for change, she opts to simply put a halt to the status quo. Without revealing the ending, it is appropriate to the story and her character, since 'Becka is not one to just pack up for the big city for fame and fortune.

Prisoner 489

Prisoner 489 - Joe R. Lansdale From Casual Debris.

As the second installment of Dark Regions Press's series of novallas by established genre authors, Dark Labyrinth, Prisoner 489 welcomed Lansdale back to folds of traditional horror. The novella takes place on a small burial island near a maximum security prison, where the executed are laid to rest. Doing time for their own misdeeds, three men live and work the island, and are faced with an unusual situation when the corpse of the latest prisoner, labeled 489, is brought to the island for burial.

The novella can be broken down into three distinct sections: the premise, the tale of Prisoner 489, and the final ensuing island chase. The strongest third of the book is the first, where we learn of the burial island and its three inhabitants. The island setting and the repetitive routine of the three occupants is so interesting that the book, what is essentially a stretched out short story, could have been further stretched out to novel-length. For the state to invest so much in the burial of executed prisoners is a fascinating detail in itself, indicating that these prisoners are unique, a fact confirmed by the unnamed 489.

While Lansdale does well in serving up an excellent premise and landscape, the characters who inhabit this little island are a little too generic. While being serviceable, the climactic chase scene manages to somehow diminish them a little, rather than allow them to blend into the drama. The attempt at humour during the tense moments unfortunately does not help. Despite this aside the book is a good read, and gorgeously presented in layout, and particularly with the inclusion of the excellent artwork by Santiago Caruso. Generous in number, each illustration is worth its page. In fact, the little book's entire design is sleek and attractive, adding to the reading experience. For me the physical book itself can be as valued as its contents, and in this case it even enhances the experience of reading.

Ellery Queen, The Lamp of God (1935)

The Lamp of God - Ellery Queen

From Casual Debris.

 

 

Published 32 years ago this month, the Ellery Queen novella "The Lamp of God" is technically a supernatural story. The premise finds Detective Ellery Queen invited by lawyer acquaintance Thorne to help escort a young woman, Alice, to her father's isolated house to retrieve her inheritance. Arriving at the isolated Victorian "Black House," they spend the night in the adjacent "White House" where the deceased man's remaining kin have settled. Upon waking the next morning, the black house has entirely vanished!

Though readers can deduce early on that a rational explanation will be available to explain the house's disappearance, the fact that the plot hinges on the possibility of a ghostly house categorizes the story as supernatural. In fact the story can potentially be categorized as a ghost story, if one were to be inclined to argue that vanishing house is a ghostly object, but since the plot does not reflect it being an apparition, only that it disappeared, I would refute the claim. The story was, however, originally titled "The House of Haunts," whether by the authors or publisher, but despite this detail the supernatural element is not directly investigated, nor speculated upon, so nothing in the text claims that a haunting is a possibility.

It is only at the story's denouement that the supernatural element is entirely and indisputably removed.

Though it appears that by employing the supernatural as a possibility, the authors are challenging their own conventions, along with challenging the conventions of early detective fiction. However, they are taking safe refuge with how the supernatural element is presented. The story opens with a brief segment that establishes Ellery Queen as a strictly rational man, so that no fanciful ideas can act as potential realities in his mind. When the house disappears Queen is flabbergasted, as are the other, more impressionable, witnesses. Though Queen does, on occasion, comment on the fact that God's world is shaken and there are some minor comments on his faith in the rational being challenged, his thoughts are kept conveniently away from the reader and we later discover, though it is obvious, that throughout the plot his rational brain is picking up clues and piecing the evidence together. The questioning of Queen's reality is simplistic and certainly not terribly existential; Thorne and Alice are the ones whose cores are affected, but they are secondary players in the plot so their realities are further removed. Because even much of Queen's portrayal is distanced, and though we might receive the glimpse of a thought along the lines of his worlds being shaken up, his investigative mind is kept wholly secret, so that we are left to wonder what in fact was spinning in that head of his.

As a mystery story it is a product of its time. It features stock characters and is high on melodrama. However, it is quite entertaining, and the explanation of the house's disappearance is a good one. Some might figure it out; I admit that I did not.

Source: http://casualdebris.blogspot.ca/2017/10/ellery-queen-lamp-of-god.html

Ashes to Ashes: The Dragon's Flame

Ashes to Ashes:  The Dragon's Flame - John Saul From Casual Debris


The third part of John Saul's Blackstone Chronicles series is an improved entry over its pair of predecessors, as its formulaic bits are more focused and intertwined.

The italicized introductory pages present a disturbing account of a young woman being ostracized by family and community as a result of an accidental pregnancy. This is followed by the horrific loss of the baby while mother is still locked away at the asylum. Though the sequence is brief, it is effective primarily due to its content. In addition, the brief narrative is directly linked to the plot of this novella, as opposed to the random connection in Part Two's "The Locket."

"The Dragon's Flame" introduces us to Andrea, Martha Ward's prodigal daughter, and cousin to heroine Rebecca Morrison. Her employer/partner has fired her from her job and tossed her out of their apartment. Pregnant and abandoned, Andrea returns to Blackstone and to her mother's home as she has nowhere else to go. Unlike the previous recipients of possessed asylum memorabilia, Andrea lives not the perfect life of the financially comfortable, but is already a victim of life prior to getting victimized by whatever vengeance-seeker is spreading the asylum toys throughout the town. Because of her situation and the reader's natural empathy, we care more about her than we did about the McGuires and the Hartwicks of the previous books. Moreover, since the likable cousin Rebecca is deeply involved in this plot, we have another layer of interest and empathy dropped onto us.

Because the characters, though fairly two-dimensional, are better developed than those in the "The Doll" and "The Locket," the reader is more invested in them, and Saul, by accruing this investment from the reader, has thereby taken on the responsibility of delivering a better book. If we invest and the author flops out at the end, our investment will fail and we will be less likely to trust in the author in the future. However, a good return on our investment will have us rushing over to part four of the series. The ending here is two-fold, with Andrea's expected fate occurring rather early, followed by a not-too-surprising additional climax that leaves Rebecca homeless and the series delivered directly into the story-line of Part Four.

Though I am using adjectives along the lines of expected and anticipated, as there are no surprises and the linear plot is all too linear, this entry is a slightly better read not only due to our own empathy, but in the further development of the overall story. The players Rebecca and Oliver, protagonists involved primarily on the periphery, have now climbed over the plot border in order to take part in the main story. This usurping of the narrative by Rebecca and Oliver places conscious emphasis on the fact that this novella is not a stand-alone work but a chapter of a novel. As a novella there is no real protagonist since Andrea, Rebecca and Oliver serve that role at different points. Though the book promises, with its initial focus and premise, to be about Andrea, she is conveniently cast aside so that the focus shifts over to the larger plot's protagonists.

Twist of Fate: The Locket

Twist of Fate: The Locket - John Saul From Casual Debris.

"The Locket" is the second novella in John Saul's Blackstone Chronicles. It is weaker than it's fairly average predecessor, "The Doll," but the broader story is made more interesting as characters peripheral to the main plot are further developed, generating expectations for their own stories in later chapters of the series. In addition, the focus on the peripherals helps crystallize the community and develop readers' interest in the over-arching tale.

We saw in the first part of the Blackstone Chronicles that a doll stashed away at the local derelict asylum was reclaimed by a mysterious figure and planted at the home of the McGuires in an act of unspecified vengeance. The goal was to destroy family harmony, which was successfully achieved. In the second part a locket is obtained from the same closed off stores of the asylum by the same mysterious figure, and delivered to another happy home, that of banker Jules Hartwick and family. Clutching this locket leads Jules to develop an outwardly aggressive persecution complex, which escalates in a straight line until the expected climax.

Saul makes sure to set up his victim as an all-around likable rich guy. The family members, parents and one grown-up daughter, Celeste, love each other undeniably. Daughter is about to marry a super cool dude who works at dad's bank and daddy dotes on him. They are good, community-oriented bankers who do good for their fellow townsfolk and, despite being top dog, daddy wishes good morning to all them common folk, like the tellers and what-not. He never even asks his female secretary to get him coffee! A true modern male role model. (Arguably, Saul could have created a female manager and a male secretary, but perhaps that was too modern for the bygone days of 1997. Alas, despite the date of publication and setting, the community presented in the series is an old fashioned one that hearkens back to Bedford Falls.) The streak of good people we have so mat in Blackstone is unevenly balanced by the few (I count two so far) "bad" characters, both dissatisfied middle-aged women who lack a man in their lives. Character depth is certainly not something this series boasts.

The fall of good people is tied to heritage, as we learn there are familial ties between the asylum of the past, where treatment of patients was less than ideal, to the happy families of today. What we do not yet know is the source of the vengeance, who is conspiring against the good folk of Blackstone, and from where doth ye olde magic manifest itself from. We also know that the local journalist has a supernatural connection with the asylum's past, and receives visions and headaches whenever something is up. As his pa was once curator or director or some such at the asylum, we can suspect that he will likely uncover the plot of vengeance that is a-brewing, using his reporter skills and advice from the kindly uncle. Uncle aside, he has no family so perhaps will not be the object of an asylum trinket, or perhaps kindly uncle will meet an awful demise in Book Six.

Overarching story aside, the plot of locket is a straightforward tale of paranoia. It escalates in a straight line, without twist or any deviation whatsoever, and the trigger is the locket that its victim Jules clutches. At least with "The Doll" there was a tie-in with the object, while the locket is incidental; might as well have been a crown or a ring or a hot dog. Without the greater story riding astride this plot, as a piece of fiction it would be unnecessary and un-publishable.

An Eye for an Eye: The Doll

An Eye for an Eye: The Doll - John Saul From Casual Debris.

This first novella in the series opens with introductory italicized text sharing the backstory of a boy being brought to an asylum, separated from his mother, but not from his doll. We are then gathered along with the townsfolk to witness the demolition of that asylum which for nearly a century loomed over the small New Hampshire community of Blackstone, and that will now make way for the construction of a modern commercial complex. That night a figure enters the asylum via a hole made by the ceremonial first demolition strike, and takes from its storage a doll that once belonged to an inmate.

This doll is delivered mysteriously to the house of the McGuires, Bill and the very pregnant Elizabeth, and daughter Megan immediately takes a liking to it. An unusual struggle for the doll develops between mother and daughter, which the doll seems to somehow be perpetuating. This struggle is the most interesting aspect of the book, as it keeps the story hovering between the psychological and the supernatural, but it is unfortunately under-developed and seems even incidental. This idea is a little reminiscent of Ramsay Campbell's little known but good Night of the Claw (St. Martin's Press, 1983), where the supernatural generates the psychological, and while Campbell establishes the supernatural element, Saul in his book skirts it. There is enough evidence that the doll has some kind of supernatural link, though there is no overt supernatural occurrence in the book; everything can be explained rationally. The evidence in the supernatural is the sudden change in the two characters, Elizabeth and Megan, with the appearance of the doll, highlighted by the lack of change in Bill. Perhaps Elizabeth, in her near delivery state, can accommodate such a shift in personality, but for Megan to believe that a doll is communicating telepathically with her is a stretch. There is no indication whatsoever that Megan has experienced any kind of psychological phenomena that would include hearing voices, but instead the entire family is presented as a solid, upstanding family. Elizabeth has been struggling with stresses around her pregnancy, such as the fact that this is her final chance at giving birth to another child, but these details are included for plot purposes only, since it is this pressure that leads to the community's later accepting the eventual events that I will not divulge, but that honestly are fairly predicable.

The story is not terribly original but interesting enough for its briefness. The piece is potentially creepy but the straightforward and light telling leaves it with little impact. The story reads like a young adult novel or televised horror story, with slight creepiness and no real horror. I have previously read only one work by John Saul, the novel Sleepwalk, which at the time I did not care for. Similarly that novel is equal in quality of both writing and plotting as "The Doll," in that it read like young adult fiction, and though it too contained little moments of interest, they appeared spottily throughout the book.

With "The Doll" I was more interested in the side story of the audit being conducted at the Blackstone bank, wherein the lending practices of the bank were being externally scrutinized, a practice that can have dire consequences not only on the bank itself, but on those relying on these loans for employment. This kind of reality is a far greater horror than a life-like doll, and I do hope this storyline is pursued in later segments of the series.

The Horror on the Asteroid and Other Tales of Planetary Horror

The Horror on the Asteroid and Other Tales of Planetary Horror - Edmond Hamilton, Gerry De La Ree For a review of the individual stories, please visit Casual Debris.

In the midst of the Depression, Edmond Hamilton was approached by publisher Philip Allan to put together a hardcover collection of his short stories. This was an unusual move by the British publisher, since few books made of stories gathered from the pulps were given the hardcover treatment. In fact, it would be another thirteen years before Hamilton would see his next hardcover publication: the novel The Star Kings (Frederick Fell, October 1949). Hamilton's blend of speculation and adventure was popular escapism for the time, and in the ten years from his first story publication in 1926, he had already published a vast number of works and saw print in most of the pulps.

Hamilton's popularity began shortly after his first story publication in August 1926 ("The Monster-God of Mamurth in Weird Tales), and his productivity in the next few years is impressive. His fiction was fuelled by ideas, interesting and often far-fetched premises that were brought forth most often in an adventurous setting. His stories were conventional and little effort was placed on character; instead he focused on elevating his fantasy-science premises through an energetic narrative. Most often he relied on the conventions of the period, such as using a framing narrative in which a reliable, rational and highly average third party re-tells the fantastic tale of an adventurer or mad scientist, or the Archaeological tale of lost civilizations. He included few female characters, admittedly few characters in total, and normally avoided romantic sub-plots: in this collection of six stories, only three women appear and only one is an active character while the third is the mother of the second who is only mentioned. The men are either mad scientists, mad adventurers, ambitious reporters, space men, or simply the average witness or re-layer of the incredible events. As such most of the stories read quickly, similarly, and offer little aside from the actual premise for a reader to recall post reading.

The stories presented in this anthology are each a mix of adventure and speculation. The interesting idea is weaved into a high octane plot, usually a combination of fantasy and horror more than of science fiction. The speculative ideas, based on facets such as evolution, the expanding universe and the arctic circle, have some scientific basis, but the technology and presentation help to date the publication of these works. Overall it is an interesting and somewhat enjoyable bit of pulp history, though there also exists some overwrought silliness amid the fun, and one story in particular that has over time become near enraging in its presentation.

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