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Sunday, January 11, 2009

Fantasy Book Critic’s 2008 Review/2009 Preview — Jeffrey Thomas


2008 FAVORITES (In which I lavish much praise, but get uncharacteristically bitchy, too):

2008 seemed a particularly rewarding year of reading for me, to a large part due to the way the year started out—with a mega-dose of
Edgar Rice Burroughs. Of the twenty-three books I read (I didn’t say I guzzled books; I tend to sip and savor), the first six were by ERB.

1)A Princess of Mars”. The first in Burroughs’ tales of John Carter, Warlord of Barsoom. I bought nearly the entire series back in the seventies, but it wasn’t until this year that I completed it, and finally read the novel that started it all.

2)The Master Mind of Mars” focuses, as most the novels do, actually, on a hero other than John Carter himself (these near-naked swashbucklers tending to be rather interchangeable, as are the princesses whose rescue is their full-time job—though that doesn’t stop the reader from yearning for those exotic beauties along with the heroes). This novel, like the earlier The Gods of Mars, takes a scathing look at religion. Burroughs didn’t seem to work much sub-text or social commentary into his breathlessly exciting pulp adventures, but these two delighted me with some of the most biting satire of religion I have ever encountered, and hence are two of my favorites in the series.

3)John Carter of Mars” actually consists of two stories, the titular novella and “Skeleton Men of Jupiter.” The latter—and last of the Barsoom stories, though never finished—holds up perfectly well against the series, but the first story . . . well, here I’d like to introduce something I call the “What the Fuck” factor. Many, if not most, novels have a WTF factor. And before you say it, yes, I’m sure one could find plenty of WTF moments in my own stories. A good example of a WTF moment can be found in
Stephen King’s collection Everything’s Eventual, in the story “Autopsy Room Four.” Page 23 of the paperback starts out with a memory of a past incident, and maybe this is what throws King off for the next five or six paragraphs, in which the first person/present tense narrative slips into past tense. (The editors of Robert Bloch’s Psychos, in which it originally appeared, and at Pocket Books couldn’t catch this, or were they too timid to copyedit the King?).

Anyway, “John Carter of Mars” merits a resounding WTF. Apparently it was co-written with his son as a children’s book, and that might excuse the substandard writing, but what really spun my head was how wrong so much of it was, in terms of the technology, animals, and so on that we are so well acquainted with from the series. Why would ERB’s son have been less familiar with his father’s world, and how could ERB have truly had anything to do with this thing? A big disappointment, but it hardly takes away from the fun and wonder and rich imagination of all the other books that precede it. More a curiosity item, really.

4)Escape on Venus”. Having exhausted Mars, I moved onto another ERB book I bought in the seventies but never finished. It’s just as entertaining, just as imaginative as the Barsoom tales, and I’ll have to look into more books in the series. WTF factor: The novel is told in the first person by the protagonist, Carson Napier, but for several chapters switches to third person so that we might follow the heroine Duare. But I’m not complaining, really, as this part of the book—including a battle between two bloodthirsty beasts and the death of Duare’s captor, an ameba-like humanoid who dies horribly in a weirdly ecstatic, though futile effort to divide himself—includes some of its best sequences.

5)The Mood Maid”. More ravishing beauties and heinous villains, but this time on our own satellite.

6)The Moon Men”. This edition actually consisted of the two sequels to “The Moon Maid”, these being the very bleak and depressing “The Moon Men”—detailing the occupation and subjugation of Earth by brutish, Nazi-like lunar folk—and “The Red Hawk”, in which the scattered tribes of Earth, resembling bands of Native Americans of old, rebel against their vile masters. The first novel in the trilogy is the most like a Barsoom book, and thus the most fun, but the more solemn sequels have their own merits.

7)Fields of Fire” by
James Webb. Having had my fill of sword duels on half the planets in our solar system, I moved on to firefights in the gritty jungles of Vietnam. Now the US senator for Virginia, James Webb is a true Renaissance man—having won himself the Navy Cross as a Marine in Vietnam and an Emmy for his work covering the presence of US Marines in Beirut for PBS, in addition to having helped script the movie Rules of Engagement and having authored a good number of books. These include the novel “Lost Soldiers”, which inspired me to send Webb an email (to praise the book, and to ask if a crippled beggar he describes in the novel might be the same beggar I encountered on my first visit to Vietnam; in a very friendly response, Webb confirmed that it was indeed the guy I was thinking of).

One can scarcely imagine a more detailed, realistic, or grueling look at the lives and deaths of Marines in Vietnam than “Fields of Fire”, which makes you feel exhausted, caked in dust and blood, every time you crack its pages—and if the cast of characters resembles those you’ve encountered in just about every movie on the Vietnam War, just remember that Webb did it first, in this 1978 novel. Hell, he did it first, in real life. When the death of one of the main characters is handled in this quick, understated manner: “(So-and-so) moved to his elbows in a low crawl and was ripped by a half-dozen machine-gun bullets, killing him,” Webb isn’t lacking for greater literary ability, but shocking us with how a man can be alive one minute and just another body to ship home the next. WTF factor. There is one character (as there usually is) who objects to the war and does his best to refuse to take part—this being Goodrich, who through his peace-loving incompetence manages to get the previously mentioned major character killed. But it seems a big oversight to me that we never learn if, during his whole stint with the Marines, Goodrich ever had to actually kill one of the enemy. Did he really make it through without having to hurt anybody (except for wounding a woman once by accident, in an episode that tears him up inside)? Given his character, it seems important that we should know this. But it doesn’t ruin what to me would seem to be the definitive novel of combat in Vietnam. I could even say that it might, in a more universal way, be amongst the best novels written about the experience of soldiers in any war.

8)War Machine
Andy Remic. Back to a more fanciful approach to killing loads of people. A big, noisy, action-packed SF novel that follows three former soldiers on a number of interlinked quests, doing battle with robots, armies of bad guys, and even a Lovecraftian entity. Unpretentious and fun, it reads like a half-dozen video games playing in your head at once. WTF: The technology involved seems to be an incongruous mix, in that one minute the heroes are zipping planet to planet in a nifty spaceship and the next traveling in a helicopter. I found this sort of thing in the novel “Necropath” (further on this list) as well. But hey, I’ve been accused of similar anachronisms in my Punkown stories, so it’s not a big deal. Though I will say there is one flatulent, horny, and otherwise annoying major character meant to be a lovable comic relief, often referred to as a little “ginger” bastard or a little “ginger” troll, or suchlike, who I had hoped—in vain—would not survive to the sequel, “Biohell”. Which I’m sure is still massively entertaining, regardless.

9)The Harlequin and the Train” by
Paul G. Tremblay. Okay, this inclusion isn’t fair, because I read an uncorrected, bound ARC of a novella that hasn’t yet been released. In fact, I’d already proofread the novella in an earlier state, because it will be published through my own Necropolitan Press in 2009. So I don’t want to say much about it now, other than that it is creepy, surreal, heartbreaking and brilliant. No WTF factor.

10)Midnight in New England” by Scott Thomas, is—like my brother’s other collections Over the Darkening Fields, Westermead and Cobwebs and Whispers—a brilliant, poetic, wonderfully imaginative and thoroughly spooky set of stories in the tradition of M. R. James, E. F. Benson and other such masters; his tales most often taking place in centuries past, or even in odd parallel lands that never quite were. No WTF factor, except to ask why my brother isn’t more widely appreciated as being one of the best authors of dark fantasy tales around.

11)A Dictionary of Maqiao” by
Han Shaogong is one of the most amazing books I read in 2008. Taking the form of a dictionary, with its interconnected though also nicely independent mini-stories grouped as encyclopedic entries, it is actually an often hilarious, often tragic, always bizarre look at the lives of villagers during China’s Cultural Revolution. A major work of art; no WTF.

12)City Pier: Above and Below” by
Paul G. Tremblay (again) is a quirky, surreal quartet of stories taking place in some far future, or parallel dimension, in a city built on a vast pier over the ocean. Artistic, experimental, moving and fascinating, as Tremblay’s work always is.

13)Weaveworld” by
Clive Barker. I’d been sitting on this one since I bought it in the 80's, and all that time I didn’t know I was missing out on one of Barker’s best novels. I prefer it even over his other large-scale fantasies like “Imajica” and “The Great and Secret Show” (I didn’t care for Everville). I often feel that Barker’s been better at the short form, and that his characters are almost never really likable, but this beautifully paced mix of fantasy and horror proves me wrong. Another favorite of the year. No WTF here.

14)Blue World” by
Robert R. McCammon. An entertaining collection of horror stories, though the title story, almost a short novel in which a priest falls in love with a menaced hooker with a heart of gold, is too long and reads like a TV Movie-of-the-Week. This is offset by “Something Passed By,” a surreal, eerie, and ultimately touchingly sad story of a very weird apocalypse. It’s my favorite in the collection, and now one of my favorite modern short horror stories. WTF: The serial killer in “Blue World” seems slightly but noticeably patterned after Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle.

15)Metropolitan” by
Walter Jon Williams is one of the most thoroughly detailed visions of a fantastical urban setting I have encountered; for lack of a more sophisticated way to say it, he makes you feel you are really there. I love that its technology is an odd mix of futuristic and archaic, as the future might have been envisioned in a movie like “Metropolis.” Most fascinating is the mysterious substance called plasm, a power source that can be used in any number of imaginative ways, from creating commercial advertisements in the sky, to use as long-range military weapons, to giving people magical powers (this is New Weird territory, before it was known as such). WTF: All writers have stylistic mannerisms, maybe stylistic laziness, that they fall into or rely too heavily on, and I recognize that in my own writing. In this case, very frequently someone’s “nerves begin to hum,” “nerves spark fire,” or “nerves cry.” “Pain leaps through nerves,” “Anger and frustration crackle through Aiah’s nerves,” “a cold hand twists Aiah’s nerves,” and “A thousand plasm tongues lick her nerves.” There’s also much involving the heart, veins and spine, and the licking of lips. But this didn’t stop me from enthusiastically ordering the sequel...

16)City On Fire” by
Walter Jon Williams, the sequel to “Metropolitan”, is even more eventful, rich and exciting, with war, gangsters, a big love story and a stunner of a climactic sequence in which our heroine and others battle a very scary, once human entity that dwells in the wellspring of plasm itself. The heroine’s nerves, heart, veins and lips are still much agitated, but it’s again a quibble in the face of a whole lot of brilliance. And in this novel, the lead male character, Constantine—a larger than life figure, smug and egotistic and narcissistic—proves himself to be the asshole I felt he was all along. But a fascinating asshole. WTF: Why hasn’t anyone snatched up the third book that Williams, in an email, told me sits unpublished? Over a decade since these two books were released by HarperPrism, one would urge a publisher like Nightshade Books, that has been releasing new work by Williams, to republish the first two and, at last, unveil the third. My “nerves jangle” with longing at the thought of it.

17)Haunted” by
Chuck Palahniuk. Deliriously ghastly, nauseatingly gruesome, “Haunted” is a series of independent stories linked by a reality show-type framework. I enjoyed Chuck’s earlier horror novels “Lullaby” and “Diary”, but “Haunted” is the first I’ve read by him that lives up to the biting, hilarious, and utterly dark brilliance of “Fight Club”. Taken as a whole, the book examines how we are all haunted by ourselves, each of us seeing him/herself as the star of our own, often sad and grotesque little drama . . . hungry for celebrity and adoration to the point of being oblivious to anyone else’s story . . . self absorbed to the point of self destruction. A lot of readers, with weaker stomachs than myself, I suppose, or less tolerance for the experimental, have expressed disgust for “Haunted”. I’ll just say that toward the end of most books I’ll often get anxious for it to be finished, so I can jump onto the next—but that wasn’t the case here. A highlight of the year. WTF: Again, a stylistic issue. Loads and loads of this quirky sort of sentence construction: “...the lights at the end of the street, they fluttered,” and “the ticket taker, he described the pounding sound...” But that’s one of Chuck’s idiosyncracies, and his idiosyncracies are a gift.

18)The Unblemished” by Conrad Williams. In this novel, beautifully produced by
Earthling Publications, Williams brings us an intense, punishing, if messy amalgamation of countless horror movies, as a resurrected race of insect-like humans (or human-like insects) overruns London. As the threat escalates to the apocalyptic (at least, an apocalypse within London’s borders), the reader will feel as bludgeoned, wrung-out and exhausted as our hero, who for some vague reason has been chosen as a kind of (it seems to me, unnecessary) living map for the risen beasties.

WTF: A lot, I’m afraid, but the novel has been highly praised (and won the International Horror Guild Award) so my expectations were heightened. The novel has the feeling of being written in haste, and I understand its reprinted version (from
Virgin Books) has been revised, so I’d be curious to read that to see what might have been altered or fleshed out. As it stands, there are long gaps between the various plot threads, so that I tended to forget about a certain character after a while, and not even recognize them sometimes upon their return. A really vile bad guy disappears for a stretch, and when we come back to him it’s to find that offstage he’s had a falling out with another of the villains and been burnt to a living crisp (what’s intended as a shocking turn of events comes across as something missing in the interim, instead), after which he again disappears, to return at the end to mix things up ala Trashcan Man in “The Stand”. There are perplexing behaviors of monsters and humans alike: one of the monsters, in order to pass as human, glues freckles on herself (somehow never dislodged by her human lover) though she manages to pass as Asian okay. And though most of London has been overtaken, hordes of the monsters still pretend to be normal humans, posing in pubs and pretending to chat, for no other reason I guess than to freak out the heroine (whom they could easily tear to shreds). As for the humans, a mother’s reaction to seeing her daughter suckle an inhuman creature is to be jealous that the daughter never took that readily to her breast, though she also feels (I guess, grandmotherly) pride. And when one character finds out his longtime girlfriend is one of the monsters (and this revelation would have been more profound if there had been at least one scene between them prior to our meeting her at the point of revelation), his reaction is to accuse her of being self absorbed during their relationship. (Damn self absorbed monster girlfriends!) This character says that he hopes it was his girlfriend’s mother, and not her, in a sixty-five year old photo he’s discovered—though he should know by now that all the monsters are birthed by a single queen. (And I could never quite figure out how much insect these beings are; an evolutionary step up from the human-masquerading bugs in the movie “Mimic”?) I hate to go on and on like this, but the frustration is all the more acute because the book is well written, and the terrors truly threatening, and Williams really nails with great effectiveness the dangerous, bleak atmosphere of London falling bloodily under the monsters’ advent, in disturbing details that feel like Ramsey Campbell gone splatterpunk. And then there’s the giant wasp nest hidden within the facade of an old building...brrr. Though the wisecracking characters all seemed abrasive to me, he makes you feel along with them the unfriendly weather, their physical pain, the taste of their longing and desperation. Again, I’d like to give the Virgin Books edition a try, with the hopes that an editor or Williams himself hammered out some of the lapses in logic and narrative pace, and I’d truly like to try more books by Williams in the future.

19)Exquisite Corpse” by
Poppy Z. Brite. Brite’s look at two serial killers in love with each other, and in murderous lust for an innocent Vietnamese boy, is full of graphic violence and steamy homoerotic sex, and features a particularly intriguing character in the person of pirate radio personality “Lush Rimbaud,” a raging misanthrope also in love with the exquisite young Tran. The too coincidental meeting of the two killers, and how quickly they fall for each other, strains credibility, and the book takes on a more rushed feel past the halfway mark (I’d have gladly read a longer book to maintain the former perfect pacing), but these are forgiven given the book’s general excellence in character, setting, and its daring pushing of the blood-stained envelope (I really couldn’t believe that the one murder we most dread ultimately does take place, and in so torturous a manner). Are the killers meant as a symbolic two-headed grim reaper, embodying the AIDS virus (which permeates the story, several major characters being infected with it)? Despite Brite’s obvious affection and sensitivity for gay men, the book makes being gay seem pretty damn lethal. But her sensitivity is there, no matter how ghastly the goings-on, how depressing the outcome. WTF: I always wonder why people choose names that have already been used for their movies and books. For instance, there’s a horror collection just out by newcomer Trever Palmer, and it could very well be awesome, but why name it “Different Seasons” when King’s collection by that name is so well known (or was that the point?). You can forgive me and Kate Iola for both bringing out a novel called “Deadstock” at roughly the same time, each unaware of the other’s project, but why would Robert Irwin name his (interesting sounding) 2003 novel “Exquisite Corpse”, when Brite’s 1997 novel was hardly obscure? Then again, in the late 60's Alfred Chester wrote “The Exquisite Corpse”, which I see is called a “homoerotic phantasmagoria,” so there you go.

20)Necropath” by
Eric Brown. Nice characterization here, particularly in the person of Sukara, a maimed Thai street girl with, of course, a heart of gold, an untainted innocence, befriended by main character Jeff Vaughan, a telepath who scans incoming ships for the massive starport Bengal Station. Brown delivers a grim but engrossing story that moves along briskly, told in an easy unadorned style, colorfully mixing gritty Thai and Indian culture with kinky alien sex and interstellar travel. WTF: The cover is beautifully done, but misrepresents Bengal Station as being in orbit above the Earth, when in fact—we learn in a much delayed description of the station—it rises from the ocean. “Necropath” is a (revised?) republication of the novel “Bengal Station” (Five Star, 2004), and the cover of that edition, though less effective, gets the station at least a little more right.

21)Fan-Tan” by
Marlon Brando and Donald Cammell. Who would have thought this would be one of my greatest reading pleasures of the year? What started out in the late 70's as a (never filmed) screenplay between the great actor and the director of the movie Performance became a (until 2005, never published) novel—written by Cammell, based on extensive sit-downs with Brando—probably in emulation of James Clavell’s Asia-themed door stoppers. But those two artists were too unique and unusual to have written something that innocuous; this story of roguish, aging adventurer Annie Doultry (Brando’s role) getting in over his head with a female Chinese pirate captain in 1927 has kinky sex, bloody violence, a drugged-out initiation rite, and a whole lot of humor, all delivered in a writing voice that is arch, wry, intentionally and deliciously over-the-top. As Annie captures, on the buttonless crotch of his pants, a roach to be used in prison roach races (when we first meet him he’s incarcerated in Hong Kong), we’re told, “The pit itself yawned there, with boredom no doubt, spooky bronze-gray tendrils curling forth...The splendid creature’s antennae felt the ether and his carapace glittered like Beelzebub’s armor...and the view must have dizzied him, for he did not seem to hear Annie whisper, ‘You are not a gentleman, sir.’”

The book seems admirably researched, too, though how accurate its wealth of details may be I couldn’t say. Cammell was very hurt that Brando apparently never read in full the work that was turned over to him, and I can’t blame him, because Annie Doultry is a loving tribute to Brando—his perverse humor, his whole larger-than-life, dissolute, “I don’t really give a fuck anymore” persona. Cammell renders Brando so perfectly that I could see him in every “scene;” it’s not so much like discovering an unpublished Brando novel as an unseen Brando film. Not exactly “On the Waterfront,” not exactly high art, but surely a bewitching oddity. Would I have enjoyed it so much if I weren’t such a fanatical fan of Brando? Maybe not, but I wasn’t his only fan, and not the only fan of “Fan-Tan”, either;
Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review. WTF: Cammell never finished the final chapter of the book, and it has been reconstructed from its synopsis by editor David Thomson. While it does an adequate job of wrapping up the story itself, it misses the same entertaining tone of everything that precedes it. I wish Cammell had completed the novel himself—and written more novels, too. And a gripe about the cover. While it beautifully imitates the style of an old movie poster, the sleek sea captain could have looked at least a little like the beefy, ill-kempt Annie/Brando, and the Chinese femme fatale a bit more Asian and less Caucasian.

22)Teatro Grottesco” by
Thomas Ligotti. Ligotti’s latest collection of horror stories, which aren’t so much scary as disturbing, profoundly weird, capturing the off kilter feeling of dreams. They tend to blend into each other (but even in M. R. James’s case I’ve found that his stories begin to resemble each other after a while, taken as a whole, while any one of them in itself would be one of the greatest horror stories ever written) though they have a cumulative nightmarish effect, rendering a landscape that is distinctly Ligotti’s own. Also, I wouldn’t want every writer’s work to be so devoid of a sense of humanity, but that’s another distinct element of Ligotti’s stories—the sense that the people in them are little more than the faded, forgotten, dilapidated buildings that make up the towns they live in—and another reason why his work is so unsettling.

23)Snow Hill” by
Joseph McGee. Joe was a young writer, just twenty-three when he died this last November. I first learned of him from a coworker friend who lived in the apartment above him. After being saddened to hear of Joe’s death from diabetes, I determined to read one of his several novels. This one has the feel of a survival horror video game ala Resident Evil, room-unlocking puzzles to be solved and all, but that’s okay because I love those kinds of things. Naturally Joe was still learning his craft, but his novel is earnestly written, as it progresses from the fairly realistic set up to the thoroughly freaky final chapters, taking its characters into a parallel nightmare world ala Silent Hill. It ends on a real cliffhanger, so maybe a sequel was intended. WTF: Joe was a resident of Worcester, Massachusetts, a city not far from my own hometown, and so it mystifies me why throughout the novel he should spell it Worchester. Was it a way to partly fictionalize the city, or the hand of an editor at work? I guess I’ll never know. But thanks for the spooky ride, Joe.

LOOKING AHEAD TO 2009:

I’ve begun, and am much enjoying, my brother Scott Thomas’ collection “The Garden of Ghosts” (with gorgeous cover art by
Wayne Miller), and C. L. Moore’s collected Northwest Smith stories, “Northwest of Earth”, so I know I’ll be starting out 2009 right.

ON THE HORIZON FOR JEFFREY THOMAS:

Just having crossed the horizon and now available are my Punktown novel “Health Agent”, a SF/noir thriller, and the collection “Voices From Punktown”. 2009 will see the release of a horror collection called “Nocturnal Emissions” and a supernatural horror novel called “Thought Forms”, both from
Dark Regions Press, among other projects.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Horror writer Jeffrey Thomas is best known for his Punktown tales, which includes “Monstrocity”, “Everybody Scream!”, “Deadstock”, “Blue War” and various short stories. Other works include A Nightmare on Elm Street novel, “Letters From Hades” and several collections. Thomas is also a much-published artist, a noted editor and the founder of
Necropolitan Press. For more information, please visit the author’s Official Website. Also check out this new interview with Jeffrey HERE from Matt Staggs!

NOTE: For more author responses, please visit Fantasy Book Critic's 2008 Review/2009 Preview index
HERE.

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