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 This Just in..News from the Agony Column

12-26-03: Sexy Psychics Say Do the World A Favor: From the latest Issues of Fortean Times & Crimewave

Fortean Times

Take the D-Train to London's secret necropolis.

It's Magazine Friday here at The Agony Column. Yes, at least once a month I get off easy, and simply have to scan in the latest Fortean Times and report on the contents of one of the few magazines that I do read. The kind of fiction I can say I prefer for the sake of argument -- science fiction, horror, fantasy and mystery -- is the unusual kind of fiction that publishes a whole boatload of professional magazines oriented towards readers in that genre. You know, I've just never really glommed onto magazine science fiction, however. Can't say why. Somewhere in the depths of time I subscribed to (I think) The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, but it never really caught my interest. It's a place where writers get their start, and I really respect it, but at least these days, I don't seem to have time to read a lot of short fiction, or magazines. With exceptions.

The Fortean Times is most assuredly one of those exceptions. This month's issue has three fascinating articles on stuff that really interests me. The first is an article on Victorian-era psychic Florence Cook and her scientist mentor Sir William Crookes. Cook was famed for her ability to manifest the ectoplasmic spirit of Katie King. Their story is offered by the psychic brigade as firm evidence that the spiritualist mediums weren't all just bunkum. Writer Peter Brookesmith takes a look at this case, searching for the sex. Isn't there always sex somewhere? Of course there is. It's a wonderful article on the nexus between the truly psychic, the truly scientific and the truly sleazy.

There's also an article by Moyra Doorly about her experiences with fairies and elves. Yes, it's easy to write all this off as the effect of 200 years of children's literature, but if you scrape away the thick layer of Disney-residue, the phenomena associated with these beings is intensely interesting. Alas, beyond a few stories by Arthur Machen and the more recent work of Gregory Maguire, whose recent novel 'Mirror Mirror' does a bang-up job of looking at this world, there's not a lot of literature associated with these fertile fields of weirdness. Somewhere in the midst of a child's imagination, the open endless fields and forests and an adult's most insecure fears there's room for something to exist that's not yet been nailed down. Doorly's article is a nice knock at a portal that I don't think many people want to have opened.

And finally there's the cover story about London's Death Train, built back in the 1850's to help ship the bodies of London's cholera epidemic to a nearby necropolis. If you don't find that this is excellent fodder for a horror story, then I suggest that you've been watching too many slasher flicks.

Crimewave 7

Do the world a favor, man.

Crimewave is one of those magazines that I first found in Logos Books, in downtown Santa Cruz. Published by The Third Alternative Press, you know that the quality is going to be high, but probably not how high. Each issue is printed as a heavy-cover, large format trade paperback. The design is classy and utterly ad-free. Crimewave is only trying to sell you excellent fiction. I've managed to go back and find all the issues, getting yes, a bit compulsive about it all. If you can't read the pixels of my front cover scan, the current issue includes James Sallis, Muriel Gray, Christopher Fowler and a novel excerpt from Val McDermid. Edited by Andy Cox, you get utterly fresh fiction that's isolated from the commercial currents that pull so much mystery in directions that are devoid of interest. For all the star power on the cover, I've got to get my little eyeballs on a story by Matt Coward titled 'You Can Jump'. The intro says that he's the author of a short story collection called 'Do the World a Favor and Other Stories'. Between those titles alone, I'm intrigued. But, no, I'm not going to do the world a favor and jump.

12-25-03: Awwww, A Heartwarming Tale of Christmas Terror from Christopher Moore

The Stupidest Angel Chapter One One-Week Preview

Christopher Moore smiles down upon us.

Christopher Moore is the kind of author who should be on lots of people's auto-buy lists. He's super-reliably funny, witty, pithy and entertaining as all get-out. One of the best things I did this year was to bring my collection up to speed by purchasing all of Chris' novels in first-ed hardcovers, or at least, those I didn't have already. Like many a writer of speculative fiction, Chris has a sort of stomping ground for his old familiar characters, Pine Cove, California. Based thoroughly on Chris' hometown of Cambria, it's probably in better shape despite the Lust Lizard, the Demon, and all the other afflictions he's visited upon his imaginary homeland. That's because Cambria is rather close to the epicenter of the recent 6.5 earthquake that struck in San Simeon last week.

But Chris is not only talented and entertaining, he's also generous. You see this with his characters. Even the nominal "bad guys" in his novels are given enough depth so as to seem at least likable to close family. They aren't simply despicable, speech-spouting chunks of cardboard; they're rounded, they're even nice, in their own way and it's not a way most of us would willingly share.

All this leads up to Chris's Christmas present to his readers -- the first chapter of his new novel, 'The Stupidest Angel: A Heartwarming Tale of Christmas Terror'. We won't get the whole novel until next year, but you have a week to take a peek at the first chapter. The reason this is so great is that Chris' stuff easily sustain re-readings, just to enjoy his fine wit. You can get a nice bit of Holiday Fear now, and chuckle again next year. This is a limited offer; he's pulling down the excerpt the day after New Years. So mosey on over and enjoy the fun. Here's the link to his homepage; follow the one above to get directly to the story.

12-24-03: An Actual History of the Imaginary History of Infamy

Rhys Hughes Gets Borgesian

I did not create this image with Floatoslop.

It's funny how small things have such long-range influences. I can still remember my first Tanjen publication, 'Recluse', by Derek M. Fox. Here's this very odd publication, and in the back there are adverts for lots of others. These included Tim Lebbon's 'Mesmer' and Neal Asher's 'Parasite'. It kind of freaked me out. There was a faint whiff of exploitation, of cheese about the whole Tanjen line. The scent of the forbidden, of danger. In retrospect, always accurate, it was the scent of to-be-legendary authors first published works.

I ended up buying and really enjoying a lot of those Tangen novels. Readers know that Neal Asker is one of my current favorite Science Fiction writers, and the acclaimed Tim Lebbon is easily in the best of breed of post-millennial horror. One of the titles I never bought -- but never forgot -- was 'The Eyelidiad' by one Rhys Hughes. The book may have been imaginary; it never showed up in my corner bookshops. But how can you forget a title like that?

You can't. And so you can't ignore it when Rhys Hughes comes out with something as deliberately Borgesian as 'A New Universal History of Infamy'. In fact, I dare say you won't encounter the word as many times in a week as you will in a few moments of perusing this new work from Ministry of Whimsy Press. It includes imaginary histories of some presumably infamous personages, short story fragments and even literary parodies. The cover is by Lambshead and Alan Moore illustrator John Coulthart, and there's an introduction by John Clute. It should be available even as you read this. I assure my readers that I am not making this up. I'll have a report shortly. It will be entirely invented and based on other historical reading, which I've well-forgotten since having read it.

12-23-03: New Wolfe & Walters

Gene Wolfe's New Fantasy

Gene Wolfe's new novel, with a sequel expected late next year.

One of the great pleasures of my 2002 Worldcon experience was meeting Gene Wolfe. Here's a man who has charted a unique course in the history of fantasy and speculative fiction, who has created works both groundbreaking and yet filled with carefully conceived classical literary allusions and techniques. In a field where yesterday's troublemaker is today's standard-issue, he's managed to continue making trouble even as his earliest works attain classic status. And yes, to spot another gaping hole in my science fiction reading, I've never read anything beyond the short fiction found in 'The Architecture of Fear', one of those great "horror boom of the eighties" anthologies that really held its value and interest.

Unfortunately for me thus far, it's been a bit tough to get in on the serial reading, as much of his recent output has been at least tangentially related to his classic series 'The Book of the New Sun'. So I'm really up for his new novel, 'The Knight: Book One of the Wizard Knight'. A teenage boy wanders into a magical realm, where he's transformed into a powerful knight. Yet, in true Wolfeian fashion, the seemingly simple story is underpinned by complex and often obscured actions. With only two books in the series, this looks to me to be an excellent doorway into Wolfe's work. One thing about serial fiction that can be quite daunting is whether or not there's an end in sight. There need not be an end, unless one is suggested; that is, for detectives, we don't expect simple trilogies in which they quest for say, a lead-covered statue in a foreign land. But in fantasy, an end is usually suggested, and if one is in sight even as the series opens, readers feel a lot more at ease starting a book. Wolfe's sequel, 'The Wizard' is scheduled for release in November of 2004. You'll have just enough time to read the first, digest it and re-read it before the sequel returns. This is something to enjoy now and look forward to later.

The Mind of Minette Walters

Order yours today.
Readers should know that one of my favorite authors is Ruth Rendell, who seems to have an eye into the mind of evil like no other. Well, no other until Minette Walters, who treads the same ground with equal aplomb. Her latest novel is 'Disordered Minds' a look at two deaths in the 1970's and their reverberations into the present. Expect lots of unpleasant thoughts. One might be prompted to wonder why women writers from the UK have such a clear vision of deeply evil and disturbed human beings. Walters is eminently comfortable with thoughts that make most readers uncomfortable. Not only are the minds that she dissects frightening, her mind, the mind that does the dissection is also a bit frightening. Readers who enjoy psychological horror are well-advised to read her work. Readers who like to sleep soundly are well advised to confine their reading to daylight hours. Maybe by the time you fall asleep you'll be able to forget the reprehensible thoughts planted in your mind. Or, if you're lucky, you can really start to experience them.

12-22-03: Three of a Perfect Pair

Since I know that readers have missed my one time invariable method of centering all illustrations, I went book shopping on Saturday and picked up six titles, four of which allow, nay encourage, a return to the time honored format. That's because I found two pairs of books by authors of great interest to me in the used section at Logos, and was actually told to pick them up by the Accounting Department. Who am I to question accounting?

Clive Barker's Books of Stageplays

Clive Barker's first book of published plays and dig the art -- a precursor to 'Abarat'.

Most people don't associate Clive Barker with 'Forms of Heaven'. Rather the opposite, actually.

The first to catch my eye was this pair of Clive Barker titles from 1996. Each came pre-wrapped in a Bro-Dart dj protector, and they were both in fine condition, with a little browning from the less-than-stellar quality of the paper used to print them upon.

'Incarnations' includes the three plays I was familiar with from back in the day; not that I have seen them mind you, but I have heard about 'Colossus', 'Frankenstein in Love' and 'History of the Devil'. 'Colossus' is about the painter Goya, and offers up some lovely cannibalism, along with side dishes of love and art. But it's 'Frankenstein in Love or The Life of Death' that's the work of 'Grand Guignol', based on Mary Shelley's work and not Clive's own atmospheric masterpiece of a short story. Bloody chains and butcher's hooks are called for in the scene-setting instructions, which Clive in his introductions suggests may be "too sparse". He goes on to relate that audience members tend to pass out or leave during the staging of this rather intense piece, much as they did during the screenings of his movies. Now, as much as I liked his movies, I never found them that intense, nor did I see anyone leave, though I must admit to turning off the VCR the first time I saw 'Hellraiser II: Hellbound', just about the time the asylum inmate started shaving the imaginary roaches from his body with a straight razor. I still think this is one of the most disturbing and effective horror movies you can find, though the non-CGI monsters may throw the young'uns for a loop. And finally, 'Incarnations' includes 'The History of the Devil', in which Ol' Scratch himself is put on trial for the illumination of the audience. All three titles were familiar to me from back in the 'Weaveworld' days, and it's nice to have them here for reference.

'Forms of Heaven' includes another familiar title, 'Subtle Bodies', which apparently was morphed into Quiddity, the "Sea of Dreams" from one of my favorite Barker titles, 'The Great and Secret Show'. In it, a hotel becomes a ship sailing on those seas, with lots of odd sex and offbeat horror to follow. Both 'Subtle Bodies' and 'Crazyface' were apparently written for a workshop in the time before Barker's books were earning enough money to furnish an umpteen-room mansion in Coldheart, make that Coldwater Canyon up above Hollowood. Barker hasn't always lived a life of luxury, though he's apparently flush enough now that he's only barely visible. I'm waiting for the next blip of the 'Abarat' quartet (NOT a quadrilogy, whoever dreamed up that word needs some intensive Strunk & White Therapy). I'm told we're going to get something mid-year 2004. I'm wondering if the Disney-funded movies are still on order, or if they're to come after the novels.
 Michael Moorcock Brings Elric to Reality as We Sort-Of Know It

Elric and Nazi's a nice combination of nasty and nastier.

Elric and the UN, a nice combination of -- oh, well...

The next perfect pair I found were these two fine new novels by Michael Moorcock. I'm of the generation that grew up in my teen years devouring the saga of Elric of Melnibone, sucked in by Moorcock's dream of puissant powerlessness, the sword that kills for you and passes on it's power to your living bag of mostly-water. So I was intrigued a couple of years ago when I saw both reviewed by SciFi Weekly. Seeing both sitting there on the shelf in fine condition hardcovers, I couldn't pass them up. These books both bring Elric into the 20th century, with Nazis and the UN hovering the background. Interestingly enough, one of the characters is named White Crow, the name of a hero made famous in novels of a similar nature by Mary Gentle. Moorcock's impact on the field is inestimable. He blended horror and fantasy and science fiction seamlessly into something very striking that's since been liberally ripped off by lots of movie makers and inspired more than a few writers. I'm curious to see if the icons of my wayward teen years will hold up under the cold-scrutiny of a crabby old man who is currently the father of teenagers. Fuck that, man!
Book 2 in Womack's Ambient series

Book 2 in Womack's 'Ambient' series shows up used -- how to resist?

And finally, we have two singletons, in case there are readers who already grow nostalgic for the new style of News. I had to pick up this copy of Jack Womack's 'Heathern', which, according to the man himself, is the follow-up to the first novel of Womack's wonderful, powerful 'Random Acts of Senseless Violence'. (See this earlier news article for the skinny on how to read Womack's wonderful "Ambient" series.) Here we find drug kingpins shoulder-to-shoulder with schoolteacher Messiahs. Barely 200 hundred pages, this looks to be a really rocking read that I hope to get to sooner rather than later. I tried, this weekend, I really tried, and not only posted that enormous column but also read my first Pelecanos, which I hope to have reviewed Real Soon Now, in between cleaning the house, fighting with teens and shopping for Christmas presents. Never a dull moment here!

Peake Bio Remainder Table Alert

A life less-known.

Last week, when I was starting on a column about the influences of modern fantasy-genre fantasy (that is fantasy that sells in the science fiction and fantasy genre section of the bookstore as opposed to that which gets shelved with literature), I was trying to find out a bit about Mervyn Peake. The best source I found on the web was a timeline from Irmin Schmidt, the keyboard player for a German band I've enjoyed greatly, Can.

But other considerations had me set aside this column and work on the awards column instead. So cut to Saturday, when I find staring me in the face none other than a Mervyn Peake biography from Overlook Press, 'My Eyes Mint Gold', on sale for a mere $9.98. How could I pass it up? Filled with hundreds of illustrations, it's a real mint of information about this enigmatic writer.

Since everyone and their brother is falling over themselves to find out what drove Tolkien to write 'The Lord of the Rings' -- it makes a nice pithy-seeming piece of creampuff for the radio or the newspaper -- I took it upon myself to find out a bit about the background of the other great fantasist from the times before Tolkien ripoffs became the rule, not the exception. I'll be reporting on this book and this subject in depth in a column in the near future. In the interim, if you love Peake like I do, then chances are you'll want to poke about and see if you can score this excellent biography for your own bad self.