“Origin Story”

We cast our nets wide in the Deep Ones discussion group over at LibraryThing. And, every once in a while, we dredge up something that, for me, is neither weird or interesting.

Review: “Origin Story”, T. Kingfisher, 2011.

I’m not going to spend a lot of time on this one. I’m not fond of fairy tales, and this is a modern one.

Our fairy in question works at a slaughterhouse. Through stitches and magic, she fashions various bizarre creatures of the offal and refuse of the place. This culminates in a horse-woman with material partly provided by a slaughterhouse worker who objects to her odd activities and whom she kills. 

I suppose some may like the detail and the divergences about how the story is not going to tell us the tale of Thomas, that man, or the supervisor of the slaughterhouse.

Immortal Life

This blog started out to review science fiction, but it’s been many months since I’ve reviewed a pure science fiction novel. No tinge of the weird, no Lovecraftian elements, no mixed genres in this one.

Review: Immortal Life (A Soon to Be True Story), Stanley Bing, 2017. 

The late Gil Schwartz aka Stanley Bing was a CBS executive who wrote many best-selling books with titles like 100 Bullshit Jobs . . . and How to Get Them, Sun Tzu Was a Sissy, and Executricks, or How to Retire While You’re Still Working. Prior to this he wrote a couple of non-science fiction novels. He was also was a reader of science fiction.

That corporate experience and knowledge of science fiction give this novel a breezy, knowing air without stylistically stumbling the way many non-genre novelists do when wandering into science fiction.

And this book is pure science fiction, a black satire on one of humanity’s oldest obsessions: the quest for immortality.

And Bing is right up front in his dedication about who his targets are:

To Craig Venter, Larry Ellison, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, Mark Zuckerberg, Marc Andreessen, Elon Musk, and all the visionary titans exploring the possibility of eternal life for those who can afford it. 

Arthur Vogel is definitely one of those who can afford it. At 127, he’s the world’s richest man. His day is a tedious regimen of drugs and supplements and no normal food, walking about on his cyborg legs. His only fun time comes after printing out a penis, popping some pills, and having sex with his hot wife Sallie.

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No Colours or Crest

I found the first installment of Peter Kemp’s autobiography, Mine Were of Trouble, a worthwhile look at the Spanish Civil War, especially since it was from the rare perspective of the Nationalist side. However, this blog is now more focused in the type of books it covers, so I didn’t review it.

This, the second installment, falls more within the penumbra of espionage history category.

Review: No Colours or Crest, Peter Kemp, 1958.

Yes, parachuting behind German lines into wartime Albania on a mission for the Special Operations Executive sounds exciting and the stuff of many a novel. And it was exciting for Kemp.

But it was also full of tedium, treachery, and frustration.

Kemp’s frustration started in September 1939 when war broke out. Kemp had only been back from his time in Franco’s Spanish Army for a month. Kemp had been severely wounded in the Spanish Civil War and admits his nerves were rather shot when he heard the air raid sirens now sounding in London.

Being patriotic, he wanted to go to war again, this time for his own country. His older brother had already been in the British Navy several years. But Kemp’s past worked against him:

Now the weight of Republican propaganda, backed by the formidable organization of European Communism, had dubbed Franco a Fascist, while many of my British friends regarded me as, at best, a Fascist fellow-traveller. Even those who sympathized with me feared that Spain would enter the war against us, although I had seen enough of the devastation and war-weariness there to believe that she would remain neutral.

The local draft board took a look at his recent wounds and told him to come back in six months.

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“Rebecka”

This week’s piece of weird fiction being discussed over at LibraryThing rather reminds me of one of my favorite movies, The Rapture, in that it takes a version of Christian theology seriously.

Review: “Rebecka”, Karin Tidbeck, 2012.

Cover by Jeremy Zerfoss

This story takes place in an alternate Stockholm where God, referred to variously as He or Him, seems to have literally returned to Earth and meets out divine punishments.

The story is narrated by Rebecka’s only friend, Sara.

The opens with a mystery:

The outline of Rebecka’s body is light against the scorched wall, arms outstretched as if to embrace someone. The floor is littered with white ashes. Everything else in the room looks like it did before. A kitchen table with a blue tablecloth, a kitchenette stacked with dirty dishes. A wrought iron bed, which I am strapped to.

We then get the explanation for this mystery. 

Rebecka tries to commit suicide frequently and with various methods, and Sara picks up after each event.

I don’t know why I remained her friend. It’s not like I got anything out of it. It was the worst kind of friendship, held together by pity.

The story’s first exchange between them is over the phone. Rebecka seeks confirmation that He punishes people. Rebecka then says she did something worthy of punishment. She spit in the baptismal font of the Katarina Church.

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Sallust

After reading Tom Holland’s Rubicon, I decided I really needed to read more primary sources (in translation) of Roman history. Oh, I’ve read lots of excerpts from various Roman historians, but the only works I’ve read completely are Caesar’s Gallic Wars and Tacitus’ Annals of Rome.

Coincidentally, I recently discovered Quintus Curtius’ excellent blog and decided to pick up his translation of Sallust, a source drawn on in Holland’s book.

Review: Sallust: The Conspiracy of Catiline and The War of Jugurtha, trans. Quintus Curtius, 2017.

What makes a Roman patrician turn against the Roman Republic? Why does a foreign prince, a friend of Rome, risk its wrath? These are the questions addressed by Sallust.

He is the first historian of Rome with works that have come down to us complete though not all of them survived.

Living from 86 to 34 BC, he was well enough thought of that his house was preserved with its destruction in the 410 AD sack of Rome being noted by Procopius.

Sallust came from a family of modest means. From the beginning, Curtius’ notes he possessed a “seething hostility” toward the patrician class. And his attitude certainly didn’t change when he was expelled from the Senate in 50 BC on a charge of “moral turpitude”. The details of his crime and punishment (once source says he was publicly flogged) aren’t clear, but, as Curtius’ introduction notes, political prosecutions and loose morals were certainly a product of the time, and Sallust probably wasn’t worse than his contemporaries.

Sallust’s populism made him a member of Caesar’s faction, and he accompanied Caesar to Numidia in 46 BC where he served as a governor, a post that was useful in gathering information for his work on Jugurtha.

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“Feeders and Eaters”

This week’s piece of weird fiction being discussed over at LibraryThing:

Review: “Feeders and Eaters”, Neil Gaiman, 2002.

This is not quite what Darrell Schweitzer would call an old-school-chum story, but it does feature an anonymous man meeting a work acquaintance from years ago. It seems to be implied he may be a celebrity who has fallen on hard times and then made it back but doesn’t want all the details of this incident made public. 

The story seems set in some anonymous city in the UK (or, at least, a Commonwealth country given we have a Prince Regent Street) given some of the terms and the importance of passenger trains.

The narrator goes into a dive one night to get some toast and “greasy tea” until the next train comes that night. 

He is suddenly accosted by someone he knew ten years ago when they worked together on a construction site, Eddie Barrow. 

The years have not been kind to Barrow. Once large and handsome, a ladies’ man, Barrow is now thin and hunched over and has definitely aged. His right arm hangs limply by his side.

He starts to tell the narrator a story – and the narrator doesn’t encourage this thinking it’s going to be another tale of drink or drugs or disease bringing a man low – and that he’s going to be asked for money and he has just enough for a train ticket. 

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Dynasty

Having found Tom Holland’s Rubicon a worthwhile book, I picked up this one.

Review: Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar, Tom Holland, 2015.

In the follow up to his Rubicon, Holland takes up the story of the legendary Julio-Claudian emperors. With 419 pages of text, he covers all the stories of treachery, torture, matricide, fratricide, sexual depravity, assassinations, mutinies, and excess you’ve heard. To that, he explains how Roman sexual mores, religious festivals, family relations, and the plebians’ continued fascination with the dynasty that started with Julius Caesar played a part in everything.

And Holland, particularly in the chapter on Tiberius, “The Last Roman”, approaches his emperors in an empathetic if not sympathetic way.

The prose is stylish with Holland sometimes using very modern terms to give us the flavor of the strange and also familiar Roman imperial culture. He deftly shows how Rome’s own myths reveal something of their character. Specifically, Romans held their race started with a rape, and its resulting issue was suckled by wolves.

In the book’s pages, you find an emperor who tearfully and theatrically threw himself on the mercy of the Roman public (Augusta), an emperor who never wanted the job and descended into an old age of watching aristocratic children recruit mythological sex scenes (Tiberius), an emperor always ready for a very malicious and deadly joke on an aristocrat (Caligula), an emperor incestuously besotted with his niece (Claudius), and an emperor under the domineering thumb of his mother (Nero). But Holland doesn’t skimp on covering the other power players at this time, particularly the eventually divine wife of Augusta, Livia. She may have been married to Augustus, but her primary interest was always furthering the glory of her own family, the Claudians.

But Holland isn’t just writing an update of Suetonius’ salacious Twelve Caesars. He shows the change in Roman politics, how the Roman people and Senate were tamed, first by smooth talk, legal legerdemain, flattery and then open terror into accepting what they long despised – a king. It is a story dependent on the magical place the dynasty of Caesar had in the mind of the Roman public and “the exhaustion of cruelty” after decades of civil war.

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“Lost Sorceress of the Silent Citadel”

This week’s piece of fiction being discussed by the Deep Ones over at LibraryThing isn’t really weird, but we cast our net wide. And the story is definitely worth reading.

Review: “Lost Sorceress of the Silent Citadel”, Michael Moorcock, 2002.

This one is a homage to Leigh Brackett, her hero Eric John Stark, and the lovely, romantic – but no longer fashionable – idea of a dying Mars and its aborigines.

In the introduction to the story in The Space Opera Renaissance, Moorcock talks about his admiration of Brackett and her influence on him and other prominent science fiction authors.

The story’s main strength is not its plot, but the back story of MacShard, Moorcock’s literary allusions, and the descriptions of this Mars.

MacShard is a loner, a survivor, an outlaw. Born of a human man and a Martian woman with the blood of kings in her veins, he was orphaned on Mercury and survived. There his name was Tan-Arz. He – along with Northwest Smith, Dumarest, and Eric John Stark – are the only four men who can wield the legendary Banning Weapon.

On Mars, a merchant prince named Morricone needs MacShard to rescue his daughter, kidnapped by the Thennet, degenerate humans descended from a ship of crashed politicians, who like to torment and then kill their victims. “The longer the torment, the sweater the meat.”

To do that, he will have to cross the Paradise zone of killer plants and venture into the hills of Mars.

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Searchers after Horror

It’s not often that I personally get sold a book, but that’s what happened with this one. I was in Dreamhaven Books contemplating whether I should buy this shrink wrapped title or not because it had a Brian Stableford story in it. Dwayne H. Olson, shareholder in its publisher Fedogan & Bremer (and supplier of the Hannes Bok story in the anthology) talked me into it.

Low Res Scan: Searchers after Horror: New Tales of the Weird and Fantastic, ed. S. T. Joshi, 2014.

Cover by Richard Corben

After finishing this book, I contemplated writing an essay on just the bad stories in it. But, after actually making notes on the stories, I realized there actually weren’t that many bad ones. But I’ll be getting to them later and the matter of unsatisfying endings in weird fiction.

I’ve already reviewed “Et in Arcadia Ego” by Brian Stableford and “Exit Through the Gift Shop” from Nick Mamatas. I don’t think my original interpretation of the latter is correct, but it’s not a story I’m spending more time on.

First story in the book is Melanie Tem’s “Iced In”. I’ve known, professionally and personally, women like the one in this story. Poor, a hoarder, chronically and dangerously indecisive, she finds herself trapped in her house after an ice storm. Told with empathy and memorable, it’s well done.

In the town I’ve recently moved to, a frequent question is “Do you ice fish?”, so I have a fondness for Donald Tyson’s “Ice Fishing”. In it, two Camp Breton Island ice fishermen, Gump and Mickey D, going out fishing one night. There is idle talk about the disappearance of an acquaintance a couple of weeks back and puzzlement why the local Indians aren’t fishing as usual. Tyson continues to impress me with his versatility, and this one has some humor too.

While it’s not a Cassie Barrett story, I was pleased to Ann K. Schwader’s “Dark Equinox”. It’s another tale of archaeological horror, here once removed because we’re dealing with strange photomontages of archaeological artifacts. Why did the photographer lock herself up in her studio one night and torch everything? And, more importantly, why do the photos seem to change over time?

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“Et in Arcadia Ego”

Review: “Et in Arcadia Ego”, Brian Stableford, 2014.

Cover by Richard Corben

The tone of this intellectual horror story is elegiac because it is about the passing of Arcadia and all it symbolizes and the beginning of the modern age. The combination of Lovecraftian elements and Ancient Greece is something, I believe, Lovecraft himself would have appreciated.

At the start we are told the Great God Pan is dead and history is in gestation meaning the documents that will produce history are in gestation but haven’t been collected yet. The chronology we call history has “not yet settled into a mathematical pattern”. 

Our protagonist is a poet who has come across a dryad’s body. He has seen the shadowy forms of dryad before but never one in broad daylight. Her body is pierced with an iron spike which he tries to pull out of her. The spirit folk are being hunted down and exterminated as “incompatible with the quest of civilization” and agriculture. It’s a shameful matter and killing the spirit folk is not talked about. The poet himself is ambivalent in his loyalty to civilization.

While trying to pull the spike out of the dryad, the poet is attacked by a faun and almost strangled to death except that one of the oldest of the fauns, a satyr, pulls the younger faun away. These mythical creatures speak Pelasgoi, a dying language spoken only by people like the poet’s household servant as Greek civilization spreads into Arcadia. The creatures are surprised the poet speaks it well.

The satyr says the dryad won’t live, but she’ll have a better death if they can get her to a cave.

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