This Just In...News from The Agony Column

Agony Column Home
Agony Column Review Archive

 This Just In...News from the Agony Column

09-10-04: Seeing in the Dark

'Nightscape' by David Morrell from Subterranean Press

Down the rainy, windswept streets he walks. Alone.
Sometimes success is a dreadful thing. For many readers, all they need to know about David Morrell is that he's the author of 'First Blood', the novel upon which the "Rambo" movie franchise was founded. Full stop.

But David Morrell is better known among horror fiction aficionados as the author of the Bram Stoker Award winning story "Orange is for Anguish, Blue is For Insanity', one of the finest works of art about an artist you'll ever have the shivering fortune to read. My take on Morrell begins with 'The Totem', which I bought when it came out in an unexpurgated edition from Charles Grant Books. It's one of my favorite disease-oriented horror novels, a punchy, riveting work of fiction that plunges the reader into a nightmarish scenario that can only be cured by very quickly --and sometimes very slowly --turning the pages.

His latest collection of short stories, 'Nightscape' (Subterranean Press, September 1, 2004) offers an interesting contrast to the stories in his previous collection, 'Black Evening'. Whereas those trended towards the supernatural, these are simply stories of darkly realistic fiction. And whereas those were more in the short-story length, these are all novelettes and novellas, or as Morrell himself calls them, "mini novels". They give the reader a thicker slice of life.

Morrell provides a very personal introduction to the stories here, an introduction that itself almost qualifies as a story. He mirrors it with introductions to each of the stories in the book, introductions that are personal and often painful recollections.

In keeping with his ability to spin stories out of disease, Morrell cuts the edge with 'If I Should Die Before I Wake', a beautifully realized re-creation of the flue pandemic of 1918, which killed more people on this earth than just about anything else has. To those there, it seemed that the world might very well come to an end. He offers up a particularly odd 'Rio Grande Gothic', about a sheriff whose obsession with pairs of shoes found by the side of the road seems a little less silly when a pair turns up with feet still inside them. In each story, Morrell has enough room to create characters who live and breathe.

As usual, there are a couple of editions of this book coming out, and the more deluxe edition will have material that is not in the trade edition. With a beautiful cover by Les Edwards and a wealth of fiction and incidental memoirs by David Morrell, 'NightScape' is quite likely to be a book that quickly sells through. Success has one pleasant by-product for writers. Success sells.

09-09-04: Henry Chinaski Lives

Last Call: The Legacy of Charles Bukowski Edited by RD Armstrong

Pull up a chair, man.
Some writers cast a general shadow over the literary landscape. The influence they have is broad and wide. Others cast a tighter, darker shade. Charles Bukowski is definitely a writer of the latter variety. Bukowski was the king of hardscrabble poetry and prose, a pretty tough man but with a raw nerve exposed that sent shockwaves through the reading and writing world. When he wrote about himself, he gave himself the fictional name of Henry Chinaski, and the name stuck; his friends called him Hank.

RD Armstrong, known to his co-conspirators as Raindog, is editor for Lummox Press, which has been called "The best monthly magazine in the small press". You know what? A lot of people might dispute that description. But they'd have to fight for it, and I'm not sure I'd want to go up against Armstrong. And why do so? It's a tough world out there, and an equally tough world inside. Like Bukowski, Armstrong and his cadre of writers manage to find the asphalt of the soul, the gravel pit at the center of our skulls. When you scrape away that first layer of skin, underneath, there's a place where not everyone wants to go. But Buksowski lived there, sent back reports, gave us the guided tour. Clear your throat. Set me up again.

An illustration by Claudio Parentela.
OK, I feel better now. Yeah, it's long past Last Call for Hank now. But those writers who live in the same tough-as-shit places, the writers who hung with Buk, either in person or in poetry and prose, are setting us all up with another round. Because you know, it's too goddamn short and too goddamn hard. This is why the small press exists, this is why it has blood in its veins. So you the reader can feel this pulse. The dust speaks. The heart beats one pump at a time.

Raindog got his shit together, founded the Lummox Press and even if Chinaski is not slamming them down, Raindog is. 'Last Call: The Legacy of Charles Bukowski' (Lummox Press,August 16, 2004, $15.99) is a collection of new writing that celebrates Buk's life and his prose and poetry styles. Printed in the same manner as Buk's first and now priceless collections of poetry -- cheaply -- it is equally indispensable to those who enjoy Buk's work, or even those just happen to have a few chunks of gravel in their heart.

'Last Call' features the work of such well-known authors as Gerald Nicosia, author 'Home to War: A History of the Vietnam Veterans; Movement' and 'Memory Babe: A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac', who contributes the poem 'Fourth of July With the Buk in San Pedro'. Poet Gerald Locklin offers 'The Gift', while Michael D. Meloan shares his manufactured prose memories of 'Maman'. Beyond fiction and poetry, 'Last Call' brings together a number of essays on the life and literary influence of Bukowski, and includes illustrations in the vein of Hank.

Look, man. Pull up a stool. Last call my ass. It's time to start drinking. Or reading.

09-08-04: Locus September 2004, Jim Knipfel Keeps 'Ruining It For Everybody'

Locus talks to Richard K. Morgan, Stephen R. Donaldson, David G. Hartwell

He's back with 'The Runes of the Earth'.
The latest Locus arrived late last week, and with it the cover announcing Stephen R. Donaldson's return to Illearth setting that made him so (in)famous. Readers who enjoyed -- or we're utterly disgusted with -- his first two fantasy series, which, he reveals here, were rejected by everyone (they were accepted the second time around by Lester Del Rey's now iconic Del Rey publishing) -- will be thrilled or horrified, accordingly to find he's returning to the well that made him rather well known and probably well-to-do. The interview is done in the peculiar Locus declamatory style, wherein the author simply speaks/is-quoted and the interviewer disappears. I find an interview with all those quotes a little disturbing, but YMMV. If you want to get excited -- or annoyed -- at the prospect of new fantasy Illearth Chronicles from Donaldson, this is the first place you can go.

Also on hand are two other interviews, well worth reading, even if they are done in the distracting manner noted above. First in the issue comes David G. Hartwell. Hartwell is one of those legends in the background who's a huge mover and shaker in the biz, but not a headline kind of guy. Well, not a headline guy other than when he's editing positively important anthologies such as 'The Dark Descent'. If you don't have this anthology, please go buy one immediately. It is a perfect summation of Dark Fantasy/horror, offering a magnificent variety and impeccable taste. That impeccable taste led Hartwell to found 'The New York Review of Science Fiction', one of the most respected review magazines in the business. What Hartwell offers in his interview is a fascinating look at the business of publishing science fiction. He offers his take on why prizewinning, respected British science fiction doesn’t do well in the United States. He talks about how, in spite of the general agreement between himself, Jonathan Strahan and Gardener Dozois, their choices for best-of anthologies are often quite different. For anyone who wants to know why they get what they get on the bookshelves and in the anthologies, this is required reading.

And finally, Richard K. Morgan (he's very particular about that middle initial in the interview), speaks with Locus. Now here, I can see that a single question along the lines of "Whussup?" might in fact, have generated the material in this interview. It's entertaining, opinionated and enjoyable, but entirely without profanity. I enjoy the NC17 Morgan, myself.

Have Bad Attitude, Will Travel

Hey, I want to ruin it for everybody to!
Sometimes, all it takes is a really bad attitude. You can stake a career on it. Especially in the world of writing. In his column for the New York Press, Knipfel has made a habit of parading his bad habits, his many illnesses, his unfortunate addictions, all in the name of entertaining readers and shaking some sand in their sandwich. It's rather fun to read the work of someone so clearly posses of the a gift for prose and a spectacularly bad attitude.

I enjoyed Kinpfel's novel, 'The Buzzing', though I think it succumbed to the kind of fantasies that the narrator is given to have. In his non-fiction, however, Knifel doesn’t have to go for the long haul. He can simply unleash his unpleasant outlook, and either you'll toss down the ebook in disgust or start howling with laughter as you take it to register. Try picking up his latest work, 'Ruining It For Everybody', and you'll know pretty quick which camp you fall in: "Whenever I hear the word 'spiritual', I reach for my revolver." You know, you're likely to believe that he carries one.

Knipfel's not just got a chip on his shoulder; he's got a friggin' statue that he carries around and carves in the shapes of his many pains. He has seizures, blackouts and suffers from retinitis pigmentosa, which translates to "slowly going blind". Not a pretty picture for anyone, especially a writer. Readers who enjoy the ranting style of John Waters should definitely look up Knipfel, as should everyone else who reads the title of this book and thinks (as did I) "That's the person I want to be -- the one ruining it for everybody."


09-07-04: Caught in the Web of the Weavers

Chris Wooding Unfurls 'The Skein of Lament'

Not an itsy-bitsy spider.
Writers of fantasy can take their inspiration from many sources. Tolkien took his cue from Celtic mythology in fashioning 'Lord of the Rings'. Chris Wooding infuses his fantasy trilogy, 'The Braided Path' with Oriental overtones. The second book in the series, 'The Skein of Lament' (Victor Gollancz/Orion House, May 20, 2004, £16.99 Hardcover, £10.99 Trade Paperback), plunges deeper into the history of the inimical Weavers, who are cementing their hold over the ruling families of Saramyr.

Like most fantasies that succeed for this reader at least, Wooding's fantasies have a surreal feel that is backed up by an almost science-fictional underpinning. This is the way lots of great fantasy works; witness the success of Michael Moorcock's work, for one, or even the 'Dune' novels, which cross the line from other direction; a science fiction foreground against which a conflict straight out of high fantasy plays out. (Young nothing becomes planetary / fantasy world ruler.) And nothing is better suited to science fiction than the creation of a complex enemy.

It should come as little surprise then, that the Weavers aren’t the end of the unpleasant forces trying to worm their way into the heart of Saramyr's society. In 'The Skein of Lament' , understanding the enemy becomes the first step in fighting the enemy. As chaos in the kingdoms grows, as terror extends into the hinterlands, unearthing the truth behind the masks of the Weavers becomes vital to the survival of the Heir-Empress. The problem that can arise is that once exposed, the truth itself may prove fatal to those come to comprehend it.

Katie Dean read the first book in this series, 'The Weavers of Saramyr', and found it thoroughly exciting. With the huge popularity of fantasy in US bookstores, it's a shame that these have not yet been picked up by a US publisher. But here's where the thrill of Internet book-buying makes itself most plainly felt. It's as easy for us to buy from the United Kingdom -- and from independent bookstores there -- as it is to buy from the US. With all the copy-cat fantasy out there, one hope that the more original forms now showing up get a chance to flourish, to weave their web for readers who are over "nothing with a sword gets the gal, the throne and the dragon's head on a stick" style of fantasy fiction.

But yes, I'd still like the dragon's head on a stick. Carefully preserved, they're well known to keep unwanted stray pets from your front yard.

09-06-04: A New Form of Life

Adam Roberts' 'The Snow'

A blizzard of lies and deceit.
The forms of our lives are pretty much set in 'Stone'. So we think. So we act, day after day, week after week, year after year, our expectations handily met, our lives neatly circumscribed, predictability our power -- and our weakness. Adam Roberts' latest novel, 'The Snow' (Victor Gollancz/Orion House, August 19, 2004, £16.99 Hardback, £10.99 Trade paperback), interrupts that stately, powerful routine, with something simple.

The snow.

It starts falling.

It keeps falling.

In London, where the novel begins, at least, the snow is not that unusual. At first it's greeted with the "Here's a holiday" feel that the first snows tend to bring.

But it doesn't let up.

It doesn't go away.

The snow is here to stay.

And afterwards, there goes our civilization.

Six billion people die. Snow covers the globe, three miles thick.

A few hundred thousand remain. And then the lies begin to fall, as thick as the snow. Because this isn't just climate change. Something much more sinister is going on here.

And Adam Roberts is the man to tell the story. From what I can sniff out of this novel, it's not a global ice-age catastrophe. There's something much more alien going on here. I'm sure that Roberts' has left no stone unturned when it come to his hunt for human foibles writ large, for the ugliness exposed, the man who can find 'Salt' to salve the wounds, for the pettiness within to become the external horrors of war, raw power and murder. Roberts last novel, 'Polystom', was generally seen as his best yet. One expects that this will surpass that novel, and I have to say the initial signs are very good. Roberts' ability to inject the alien --whatever its source -- into our reality is masterful. Moreover, he's really, really good at bringing out the worst in humanity. I can't imagine the snow remains pristine for long, and I'm curious to see how he warps our world into a post-snow reality. As usual, count on some metafictional addendums; an Appendix, and a Coda. I'm mostly curious to see what explanation lies behind, beneath 'The Snow'.