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11-18-05: Joe Hill is Haunted by '20th Century Ghosts'

Modern Horror And the Ugly Mind

by Terry Weyna

One of two covers Vincent Chong did for Joe Hill's PS Publishing Anthology.
If I could afford to own every single book published by PS Publishing Ltd., I would. Every book that comes from this press is an event. Even a short glimpse at their online catalog makes me drool: there's a novella by Jeffrey Ford, a very cool-sounding fantasy from Vera Nazarian, and – always something to set the horror lover's heart aflutter -- a new Ramsey Campbell novel. I could sit down one weekend with those three books and never move except to turn pages and, occasionally, blink my eyes.

The most intriguing of the titles new in October 2005, however, is Joe Hill's '20th Century Ghosts'. It's available in three different versions: the deluxe slipcased hardcover (200 copies, with additional material and author's story notes, £60/$90); the hardcover (500 copies, £25/$45); and the unsigned trade paperback (1,000 copies, £15/$25). The deluxe hardcover and the hardcover both have a brilliant orange cover by Vincent Chong, one in which symbols and signs from all the stories are recognizable. The trade paperback has a cool blue cover, also by Chong, in which the ghost from the title story appears so white, so blue, so washed-out and yet still so alive, that you can get creeped out just staring into her eyes. This cover depicts only the title story, but the evocative word "Rosebud" on the rear cover, floating in neon above a seemingly abandoned – or perhaps haunted? – theater pulls the reader inside the pages with alacrity.

The Actual cover (I believe) for the anthology. Nope, Mark Kelly of Locus tells me it's the first one.
This collection of modern horror stories, the first by Hill, contains blood, yes; brutality, yes; pure terror, undoubtedly. But this brand of horror doesn't rely on slashing, gory, grotesque ugliness. Here, the ugliness is more of the mind, and if that mind turns to violence, well, that was always in the cards, wasn't it? So, instead of Gregor Samsa's existential terror at awakening one morning as a cockroach, we have Francis Kay's teenage delight in the same circumstance in "You Will Hear the Locust Sing," with an outcast boy's sense of how to use his new body. And Dr. Alinger seems to be a most unusual doctor indeed, one who seemingly specializes in death rather than in life, running the very strange museum that serves as the setting for "Last Breath." These stories inch up on you; they don't smack you over the head with blood splatter, but insinuate themselves into your brain and bone like the cold of death. I wouldn't recommend reading them when you're all by yourself in a creaky old house with only a blazing fire for reading light.

However, I would enthusiastically recommend reading them. Such great writing graces the horror field with less frequency than we like. The reworkings of old tropes, and the brand new ideas springing from these stories, make this collection one that may well become a classic in the field. Don't miss out.


11-17-05: Neal Asher Embarks on 'The Voyage of the Sable Keech'

All Monsters, All the Time

We love our monsters, whether they run for office, are in office or are on their way out of office.

Oh, and we love the kind that have tentacles and drip slime as well. No matter where in their journey to and from elected officialdom we may happen to find them.

And the kind we love best are the kind that reside solely in our own imagination. What can more perfectly create for us our nightmares, our fears? Nothing, it's clear. Nobody will ever, ever put together special effects that match those in our minds. And few writers can match Neal Asher when it comes to scripting the stories that create those monsters for us. While I've enjoyed every one of Neal's novels, my favorite has to be 'The Skinner'. Set on the planet of Spatterjay, 'The Skinner' was a wonderfully complex novel that read like a deliriously simple monster movie. But for all the mayhem, all the horror, the non-stop cavalcade of violence, blood and ichor, there was a sort of wistfulness about the book. Yes, you're floating on a sea filled with quite-well described monsters, but it's OK, the wind is blowing the sail is in a good mood --

Say what?

Yes, the sail, the living sail is in a good mood. On Spatterjay, just about everything is living, unless it's being eaten or digested. And even then, you're often likely to remain alive. To suffer more. Or be re-elected.

Maybe not as quite frightening to Ma and Pa Kettle.
'The Skinner' was a remarkably well-received and very weird novel. It managed to snag a grand review in the New York Times, if you want to know what this world is coming to. That's mainstream attention. But hell, I read 'The Skinner' when it first came out, some three and half years ago. And since then, I've known about 'The Voyage of the Sable Keech' (Tor UK / Pan Macmillan ; February, 2006 ; £17.99) and I've waited very patiently for it to arrive. And now that it's pulled into port, damn, it's hard to stop myself from reading it immediately.

'The Voyage of the Sable Keech' finds all the characters we know and love out on the high seas of Spatterjay once again, and though Keech himself has been successfully resurrected, there are questions lingering as to exactly why this "re-ification" took so well. Did it have something to do with the Spatterjay virus? Or was there another reason, tied to those alien war criminals? I, for one cannot wait to find out and to this end, I've cruised through more of the book than I'd care to admit before even officially starting it. I can confirm that once again, the chapters are headed by descriptions of the flora and fauna of Spatterjay. And I can confirm that Keech and Captain Ron are on hand. Captain Ron! It's almost too delightful to contemplate.

What's interesting are the plans that Macmillan / Tor UK has for this book. First off, you'll note that theyve changed the cover design. I love the illustration, but I prefer the old cover design. It's probably just that I'm so conservative. I like things just the way they were. But given the new cover design, I'm rather anxious to see a full-blown version of 'Brass Man', which they show in a little piccie on the back cover. I think I could come to like this design just as well as the former all-weirdness-chaos style.

But they've simplified for a reason. Buoyed by the success of 'The Skinner', Tor UK is daring to suggest that this (well, 2006, I guess) is the year that Asher "explodes out of the genre and into the mainstream."

Say what?

You're seriously telling me that this "all monsters, all the time" novel is going to be a mainstream success? Not that it doesn't deserve it, mind you. But even if it lives up to the gold standard set by 'The Skinner', it does behoove one to remember how totally, utterly outré that novel was. For me, these are precisely the types of novels that should be mainstream bestsellers, but then, I'm noted for championing the very strange. How Ma and Pa Kettle (as opposed to Ma and Pa Kleffel) will receive 'The Voyage of the Sable Keech' is well, certainly a series of events worthy of close study. I'll be the first to jump up and down and cheer if Asher gets the success that he so richly deserves. And frankly, 'Brass Man' is a pretty damn great backup novel, with to my mind more crossover potential than 'The Skinner' had. Of course, this is sort of like saying that 'Freaks' has more mainstream appeal than 'Eraserhead'. There's appeal to the mainstream, to be sure, but are the same folks who buy all those Jamie Oliver books going to buy Asher's novel? Well, I guess they're both about eating -- or in Asher's case, being eaten. And there's lots of slow roasting going on in both! So, yes, maybe Neal Asher is ready to break into the mainstream. And 'The Voyage of the Sable Keech'?

It's a cookbook.


11-16-05: Peter F. Hamilton Finds 'Judas Unchained'

One Book in Two

Jim Burns once again provides the customary cover art.
The Great Space Opera Rollout continues this month with a major release from UK powerhouse Pan Macmillan / Tor UK. Already in stores -- assuming you shop at the right stores, such as Borderlands or Mark V. Ziesing -- is Peter F. Hamilton's 'Judas Unchained: Part Two of the Commonwealth Saga' (Pan Macmillan ; October 7, 2005 ; £18.99). And no matter how massive this book seems, it's really only half a book.

The first half of the story came out last year in 'Pandora's Star', also billed as 'Part One of the Commonwealth Saga'. And that sub-head was the only clue you needed. Now on one hand, we're not inclined to be thrilled when publishers pop out Eric the half-a-novel. But when the novel is over 1,800 pages, well, it is quite understandable. The question you've got to be asking yourself is, "What kind of novel needs to be over 1,800 pages?"

And answer is simple: A Peter F. Hamilton space opera. Hamilton is fully in his best writing space here, creating a huge and complex universe. Now clearly, this is perhaps not the book for every reader in this universe. But for the ever-increasing audience that loves to get lost in a complex saga that refracts our world through the lens of science fiction inventions and adventure, this is no less than the bee's knees. This is literature as dinner, dessert, and an after-dessert aperitif. This is full-on, satisfaction-guaranteed immersive reading.

Of course, there might be some who think such a meal a bit on the rich side, and a bit on the obscure side. But need I remind those readers of the -- is it billions? -- of dollars spent on the comparatively shallow and unsatisfying *.* movie franchise? Here are two books which will accomplish everything that those works promised, and so much more, playing on a screen as wide as your imagination. Moreover, the length is, in retrospect, just about right. At around 900 pages a pop, the two books of that comprise 'The Commonwealth Saga' are long enough to provide the kind of immersion that the genre requires but not so long as to be: a) unwieldy when you're reading them and b) so imposingly long that they never get read. But now that both are out, those who like to wait until the series is complete to begin can dive in and have at it.

For those who already have started the series, prepare to be injected directly back into the story, little of which I'll reveal here for fear of spoiling it for those who have not yet started the first book. Suffice it to say that in the year 2380, humanity has colonized six hundred planets and connected the Commonwealth with wormholes. It's pretty decent society in which to live. Human lives have been extended, and everything looks pretty hunky-dory until a distant star vanishes. About then, humanity realizes that things may not be quite what they seem, and that the Fermi paradox is about to be solved in a most unpleasant fashion.

As one might surmise from the title, 'Judas Unchained' finds humanity at peril and threatened by a traitor. You'll have to venture 22 pages into 'Judas Unchained' before you'll find out what happened to the characters literally left hanging at the end of 'Pandora's Star'. But again, given the title, you can imagine that opening up Pandora's Star proves to bring with it a few more problems than it does benefits.

As befits a Peter F. Hamilton space opera, things go from bad to worse in a big way in 'Judas Unchained'. But for readers who want the assurance that, "That's all there is," let me assure you that this book-brick does wrap up the story. And while I enjoyed Hamilton's stand-alones well enough, I happen to love the big-scale stuff best. I remember getting lost in the 'Night's Dawn' trilogy. It offered me the kind of reading pleasure I'd not seen in science fiction for many, many years. Hamilton is one of those writers who can create a universe that the reader can explore not only as the books are read, but afterwards in memory. And now that this series is complete, we can add the Commonwealth Universe to our collective science fiction memories. And while one is tempted to think that these are big books simply because they look big, the fact of the matter is that getting an entire universe in two books -- or one -- is a pretty significant feat of reduction. For readers, it pays to give space some space.


11-15-05: Noisy Outlaws and (lots) More from McSweeney's

Who Would Have Thought...?

Obviously, in retrospect, a Chip Kidd cover.
...That McSweeney's would become a prime provider of genre fiction? Not me. I have to admit, when I first heard about McSweeney's, it sounded like an admirable but very literary venture, the sort of snooty venue that would prefer to have no truck with the kind of fiction and genre fiction I love. But I've been proved wrong innumerable times, with work such as Robert Coover's 'Stepmother' and Michel Houellebecq's 'H. P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life', and of course, Michael Chabon's 'Thrilling Tales' anthologies. When McSweeney's speaks, genre readers should listen, particularly in the case when they bring out an anthology such as 'Noisy Outlaws, Unfriendly Blobs and Some Other Things That Aren't as Scary, May, Depending on How You Feel About Lost Lands, Stray Cellphones, Creatures from the Sky, Parents Who Disappear in Peru, a Man Named Lars Farf, and One Other Story We Couldnt Quite Finish, So Maybe You Could Help Us Out' (McSweeney's ; October 1, 2005 ; $22.00). This would be because the contributors include genre fiction heavyweights like Neil Gaiman and Kelly Link alongside literary heavyweights like Nick Hornby and Jonathan Safran Foer.

Moreover, since this is supposedly a book for young adults and a McSweeney's book, it is absolutely gorgeously designed and intensely illustrated. If you have any interest in reading short stories by the aforementioned authors in a beautiful setting, I guarantee that once you pick up this book you wont want to leave your local independent bookseller without it.

An illustration for Kelly Link's story, Monster.
You shouldn't be surprised to find Chip Kidd behind the jacket design, though you might be surprised to find the beginning of a Lemony Snicket story on the inside of the cover. And in fact, the dust jacket is made to fold up and send away. The winner of the Grand Prize will have his or her story published in a future Lemony Snicket book, and receive a complete set of 'A Series of Unfortunate Events' signed by "Mr. Snicket himself, along with eleven pounds of chocolate, a Venus flytrap, six hundred tiny glass bottles and a large stack of dirt from Winnipeg." I'm just quoting here folks, and neither sending nor dishing any dirt.

Snicket also provides an introduction nearly as entertaining as his alter-ego's review of Barbara Boxer's new novel. After that, all you've got left are the stories...and the illustrations. Given the list of contributors, you can guess that youre in for quality entertainment, boosted in part perhaps because we're talking a PG-13 excursion here. Kelly Link's contribution is the enticingly-titled 'Monster', and I'm happy to report that it delivers a monster. And this is not just the chomp-and-run variety, but a monster that engages in a lively conversation with James Lorbick, a kid "enjoying" a month away at summer camp. Which is precisely the type of monster I personally find most interesting.

A delightful tale of bug-eating from Neil Gaiman.
Jon Scieszka who wrote one of the best books I ever got to read my kids when they were amenable to being read to -- 'The Stinky Cheese Man' -- contributes a little ditty titled 'Each Sold Separately', and it's every bit as brilliant as the rest of his work. Nick Hornby writes about a very 'Small Country', with illustrations by David Heatley that reminded me of Daniel Clowes. And Neil Gaiman's bug-eating delight is 'Sunbird,' with fantastic illustrations by Peter De Sève. And that summary barely gets at half the book.

So look, you can cough up the dough for any one of a zillion short story collections. But only one will include a dust jacket that doubles as a short story and contest entry. Even if you're not planning on entering the "roll your own Lemony Snicket Story" contest, then at least you've got this boss dust jacket to show for it.

11-14-05: George R. R. Martin and Steven Erikson

A Feast for Fantasy Readers

It's here...almost!
Fantasy readers have a lot to be thankful for. These are absolute boom times for fantasy fiction, with the shelves over-stuffed with great work by great authors. Of course this month, it's not only the fans who are celebrating. The publishers are as well, with the release of the much-anticipated fourth book in the A Song of Ice and Fire series, 'A Feast for Crows' by George R. R. Martin (Bantam Spectra / Random House ; November 8, 2005 ; $28.00). Pair that up with the third book in Steven Erikson's Tales of the Malazan Book of the Fallen, 'Memories of Ice' (Tor / Tom Doherty Books ; November 9, 2005 ; $$14.95) and you've got, well, a couple of days of reading. Assuming you can read 750-plus pages per day.

Judging by the fervor with which readers have been awaiting the latest installment in George R. R. Martin's fantasy series, that seems distinctly possible. My friends who are deeply into this book have been lusting for it for literally for years. In fact it was two years ago when my wife and I first heard Martin read from it at Torcon. I recall returning to a third-degree inquisition as to when precisely it was going to come out. "Soon," I replied. "Real Soon Now; RSN." ...

Of course, anyone who has waited years for the limited edition of Clive Barker's 'Books of Blood' knows precisely what RSN means, and "soon" is not actually part of that definition. But the long wait is sort of over and Martin has delivered 745 pages of material, if you include sixty, count 'em sixty pages of Appendices. That's how complex things are in this series, and it's nice of Martin to include these as the series progresses. When the delivery dates between entries are so stretched, readers -- at least readers with sieve-like memories such as mine -- need these lists to help keep the extensive cast of players straight. For me at least, it makes reading a series a lot more enjoyable. If you subtract out the Appendices, the novel itself adds up to a mere (I'm looking at it) 684 pages. That may sound like a lot, but in fantasy-novel terms, it's barely novella length. Those who want to read the novel entirely and one-hundred-percent untainted may want to skip the next paragraph or so. I'm not going to tell you anything more than you can find out by glancing at the DJ, but I'm the kind of person who does not even read the DJ notes of most books. And I know that a large percentage of my readers will want to journey into this territory entirely and blissfully uninformed.

For those who can take a bit of a preview, this "novella" focuses on events in King's Landing. While the War of the Five Kings has gone into the history books, things are not exactly hunky-dory. Yes, King Joffrey is dead and readers who loved to hate him can dance on his literary grave. Cersai is ruling in King's Landing, and Robb Stark's death has apparently put paid to the Northern rebels. Stark's siblings are scattered, and as the title suggests, the human crows are gathering to feast on the remains of the kingdom. And that's enough said.

Thankfully for readers, Martin is a straight shooter and explains his methodology. When he (and / or his publishers) realized that he had two books worth of material for one story segment, he was faced with a choice. He could either cut the entire baby in half and end it with a "To be continued..." Or he could focus each volume on a separate setting. So when you come to the end of the book and realize that you haven't really read doodly-oodly about the The Wall, well, Martin himself is kind enough to step in and tell you that's coming next year in 'A Dance With Dragons'. I really like this decision for a couple of reasons. I realize as a writer that Martin must have had a devil of a time extricating the different plot strands. Cutting the whole thing in half would have been a much easier decision to make. But this provides for a more complete and satisfying reading experience. In fact, after all the Appendices, Martin / Spectra give you sixteen pages of 'A Dance With Dragons'. And while I've never been a fan of this device -- it reminds me too much of "scenes from next week's episode of..." -- I can guess that the majority of Martin-starved fans will be thrilled. We'll all be even more thrilled if 'A Dance With Dragons' shows up in a timely manner next year.

...and fire, perhaps?
Readers will have no such problems with Steven Erikson's 'Memories of Ice'. That's because there's been such a long delay getting these books published in the US, that though we're on Book Three now, there are at least five honkin' volumes out at this moment in the UK, with a sixth planned to follow early next year. Moreover, Erikson takes a more discrete approach with each novel, trying to make them more of a standalone reading experience. They also have a much different feel than the Martin books. And that makes both sets better.

Martin is a murky in his politics and his characters are all shades of gray and black. But Martin's world -- beyond the politics -- is pretty straightforward. Erikson is on the other hand, very murky indeed. Armies of the dead, armies of the living, a world shot through with supernatural monsters and entities. Moreover, readers who want to get to know Erikson'd world can get a nice little slice in his novellas, -- 'Blood Follows' and 'The Healthy Dead', done both for PS Publishing and soon to come from Night Shade Books.

'Memories of Ice' fires off as the continent of Genabackis has given birth to the Pannion Domin, the kind of empire that devoirs those who dont heed the word of its prophet, the Pannion Domin. Yes, there are those who stand in the way, and you'll even get a gander at Baucehlain from 'Blood Follows'. To my mind, to get the feel of these books, you take the sort of complex weave of Martin's world and add a bit of Lovecraftian otherworld to the back end conceptualization.

And heck, that's a lot of book for only fifteen bucks in trade paperback. I've photographed it sitting next to the Martin hardcover so you can see how generous Tor was here. For those like myself who want it all and want it now, you can get the Erikson in hardcover. Reader Chris McClelland reminds me that you're likely to have to special order it, or search for it in a specialty bookstore. It will certainly be worth the search.

Big fat ol' books. Gots to love 'em!

They've done a fine job, and so has Bantam; the Martin is a very nicely put together book. So for a cost of less than a hundred and ten bucks, you can pick up a hardcover version and a trade paperback of Erickson's novel, and two copies of Martin's and put them in your ForeverWare Containers and then read the second TPB and second Martin hardcover. Say, ten years from now when they produce them for the big screen, you'll be sitting pretty.

And in the interim, between Martin and Erikson, you'll have a feast of fantastically high-quality fantasy reading to devour. These are boom times for fantasy, so get while the getting is good. Pick up those Night Shade and PS Publishing editions. If the horror boom of the eighties taught us anything, it was that these good times are not likely to last.