Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Fic recs; Book review of Poe's Children

No Time Like The Present by Carol Emschwiller, in the new issue of Lightspeed. Thanks to SuperPunch for rec'ing a short story.

A few commenters said they knew where the story was going early on, that she'd tipped her hand. I don't see a problem with that -- time travel's been done to death, yes, and there are only, what, three trazillion forty bamillion sci-fi stories where the science and world was the centerpiece, and the characters are cardboard cut-outs inhabiting the place. What Emschwiller gives you here, amid quick pacing and sharp language, are characters you care about and, best of all, a narrative voice that is unique and authentic. I fell into this story easily, read it to its breathless end, and I am glad I did.

If you're not a sci-fi buff, no worries. The science here is secondary, at best. This is about a few kids, about being different, about worries we all have.


Two Lies and a Truth by Midge Raymond. Completely different short story from the above. Two friends meet up regularly, and begin their visit by telling each other three things: two are a lie, one is a truth. The other friend must guess which is the truth.

I'm not really sure what to write here. I could say that it's written with a deft hand, great dialogue, and that it's witty and sharp. I could tell you that, even now, just thinking about it makes my eyes water and my chest hurt. That might be more important.

I found this very unsettling, and saddening. I'm glad I read it, even though, in some ways, it hurt.

I admit that, like Emschwiller's story, I sort of knew where it was going to go. She tipped her hand as well. However, it is again deliberate, and this isn't a story where surprise is the important element. The narrator knows as well as we do what's going on. This is a story about what we do when we've got that knowledge. What would you do?

Read it. And ask yourself that question.


Book review: Poe's Children, edited by Peter Straub.

Reviews on this book are mixed, so looking at them on Amazon may be no help. I'll give my overall impression and talk about a few of the stories, and if you've known me for a while, then you can base a decision on that, I'd think.

Overall impression: Poe's children? Seriously? Yeah... no. But there are a few gems. If you can pick this up cheap, do so. Otherwise, you won't be missing anything if you pass.

Here's my issue: Poe was fucking scary. And the word horror: er, shouldn't I be horrified? I was left yawning and bored by the majority of these. Not horrified. Not scared. Except in one particular case...

My pick for best story, and it's a close one: The Green Glass Sea by Ellen Klages. Very short. Very hard-hitting. A young girl whose father is gone (mother never discussed) is left with his colleague's family in the American Southwest. They take a daytrip after he's had a breakthrough. You'll realize very quickly that they are going to see the place where the first nuclear bomb was detonated, and everyone, including her absent father, is a scientist, working on this project.

This is horror for today. This is the horror we live with. This is a glimpse, through a child's eye, into the very start of what may, eventually, bring about our very own apocalypse. And yet it's quiet and understated. And tense. So much unsaid. I read this feeling unbearably upset.

Contender for first: The Kiss by Tia V. Travis. One of the best short stories I've ever read, and I can't shake it, days later. Atmosphere, atmosphere, atmosphere. A young girl whose showgirl mother died on the day her father did as well, her father who was married to the woman living next door... set against a 1950s tropical small town atmosphere, with its desire to tango all night long while simultaneously spitting at those who do. Lana Lake is one helluva character -- I defy you to read this and not want to be her. Her daughter, Capri: wouldn't we all have wanted to grow up in this house? Yes, yes. Being sent to Catholic school, her mother painting her toenails "Mary Magdalene" red. All night parties, Chinese screens and bongos, painted angels, and everyone hip. Everyone drinking drinks we don't even know about today. Everyone in love with Sinatra.

I can't give it first place, only because the ending just didn't do it for me. Understood it, but... I wanted more. Or something else. Still, I'm wondering about Capri now. What she's doing. But mostly, I'm still in that bungalow, close and dark and filled with plants and silk, and wanting another drink.

As for the rest: Well, of course Neil Gaiman spins a good yard, as ever, with October in the Chair. And everyone seems passionate for S. King's The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet. So am I. Joe Hill is there with Twentieth Century Ghosts, not my favorite of his, but a good one for this collection.

This collection purports to be "literary" horror. I'd say a lot of falls into the category of spec fic, and some of it is just an interesting story. My problem is that I went into it expecting, you know, really scary stuff by the best, the brightest new authors around. And some of these just felt stale and old. The Voice of the Beach by Ramsey Campbell? Are you fucking kidding me? Been done. And he took fucking ages to tell a story that would've had ten times the punch in a quarter of the words. Does he not have an editor? Sheesh. I felt like I've read Dan Chaon's The Bees a million times before. Same with a majority of these.

And some, like Elizabeth Hand's Cleopatra Brimstone, start out promising and gripping and very, very cool and then degenerate into same old, same old.

It's hard, when you've been reading horror voraciously for going on twenty-five or more years, to be impressed. And horror short story anthologies are my favorite, always have been. So the Great God Pan (heh) knows how many I've read, but some do stick out. Unfortunately, the majority in this collection do not.

Speaking of Pan, John Crowley's Missolonghi 1824 is a fairly good one as well. Bit twisty there at the end, and I'll give it to him. Made me grin. Interesting read, very creative thinking there. Well outside the box.

Did it scare me?

Hell no.

So if you're looking for some interesting reads, some spec fic, and again, you aren't going to pay much, then get this book. But if you're looking to have the bejeesus frightened out of you, sorry. But my mother-in-law is always available...


  1. "October in the Chair" is in a horror collection?


    Bzuh? I mean, it's a lovely story, but it didn't even give me a tiny bit of the heebie-jeebies, and I am a bona-fide wimp. I didn't get the impression it was supposed to be scary at all.

    Editors are odd sometimes...

  2. I find ghost stories, particularly ghost stories written for children, more frightening than most adult horror stories. When I was a child, there was a series called Armada Ghost Books and I was inevitably terrified by them. And my favourite collection of creepy stories ever is a children's collection by Jan Mark, called 'Nothing To Be Afraid Of'. It's not horror, as such, but some of the stories are so unsettling.