I‘ve been spoilt in recent times. I’ve been the recipient of a seemingly-endless procession of damn good short story collections by Australian writers, some of which I’ve reviewed for this august publication. Now I’ve received another, and it’s one that might just top the lot.
Geoffrey Maloney has been around for over a decade, patiently crafting superb stories that see the light in small magazines paying a pittance for the privilege. Winner of the 2000 Aurealis Award for Best Fantasy Short Story, Maloney has carved out a reputation as a fine wordsmith, and a collection of his works has been due for too long.
The work in this volume falls into two loose categories: those tales that describe a future history, detailing a fascist Australia, controlled by an all-seeing, all-knowing government network of spies and informers; and those individual stories that spring from Maloney’s unconnected moments of inspiration. It’s up to the reader to decide which side of Maloney’s coin is their favourite. Lucky for you: it won’t be a decision based on the skill of the writing, because it remains high throughout, simply a matter of which way you like your flights of fancy to fly.
For me, I think Maloney is at his best when he allows his love of other cultures, particularly his knowledge of the Indian subcontinent, to transport us to genuinely speculative worlds. Perhaps being an Australian, with the all-too-real prospect of Maloney’s future visions turning true, drives me this way, perhaps it’s simply because they’re brilliant stories in their own right. Certainly, stories like 5 Cigarettes & 2 Snakes or Requiem For The General are excellent stories, exploring as they do the human cost of fascist utopias, and presenting a starkly realistic view of human emotions and reactions. That’s the secret to Maloney’s skills: his ability to draw believable human faces upon speculative actions.
But the stories that really sang for me were the ones in which Maloney allows his imagination to truly soar, in which he creates worlds and wonders unique to his own worldview. Able as he is to tap into the societal unconscious, it is in tales like the Aurealis Award winner The World According To Kipling, or my long-held favourite Maloney story The Elephant Sways As It Walks that the spiralling sense of wonder is truly engaged. Maloney would have us believe him a cynic, a disappointed optimist who must share his fears with us lest we help create the dystopic visions he fears. But it is in these stories, where he allows his mind to create unfettered by the need to warn of apocalypse, where the reader can ride the rising thermals of Maloney’s imagination.
It doesn’t happen often, and it is something to be treasured when it arrives: a collection that lets us tap into multitudinous facets of a writer’s personality. Geoffrey Maloney shows us that he is more than a skilled writer, more than an engaging teller of stories and translator of visions. He is a shaman, a dancer of tribal dances and howler at the moon. That he shares it with us is our good fortune.
Some writers are prolific to the point of saturation. Every time you open a magazine there they are, lurking in the contents page, until you can’t make out the signal from the noise. Others are slower, less easy to find, a rare truffle nestled amongst the mountains of common dirt. Chris Lawson is one of these (although I’ll bet you real live actual Australian dollars he’s never been called a truffle before).
Lawson’s writing is superb. This collection of ‘hard’ SF stories from MirrorDanse Press is imbued with the kind of deep, personal, insights many other hard SF writers can only dream about. Lawson’s ability to infuse his technologically-based work with a deep understanding of humanity marks Written in Blood as an extraordinary collection, far superior to many of his contemporaries. If he were more prolific he would rightly be considered the finest writer of technological SF Australia has produced. As it is, there are only 6 stories in this slim volume, although they are joined by 5 essays from his “irregular pseudoblog for both cultures”, Frankenstein’s Journal.
Don’t think you’re being shortchanged, though, by these essays. Lawson is as adept at the opinion piece as he is at fiction, and while some may grinch at the thought of spending money on something they can trawl the web archives for in their own free time, the fact is they form a perfect counterpoint to the often heavy themes presented in the stories, and are thoroughly entertaining in their own right. In particular, ‘Evolutionary Pressure on Creationists’ is an acerbically fun take on a subject dear to my own heart, and provided your barely-humble reviewer with more than a few “Yeah!” moments along the way. But it’s the stories that are the crux of the matter. And the stories are, without fault, brilliant.
“Chinese Rooms”, which opens the collection, is a masterful examination of the ramifications of artificial intelligence, and what may happen when the mind that controls the mind has an ulterior motive. “Unborn Again” is a truly unsettling tale, a skin-crawling mixture of medical technology, human weakness, and moral bankruptcy that had me putting the book aside for almost a fortnight while I attempted to contemplate the ramifications Lawson presents. “Lacey’s Fingerprints” is a straight-out detective story, on the surface, but the secret lying at its heart once more displays Lawson’s uniquely bleak view regarding the results of technology handled by the inept and greedy. “Matthew 24:36” is an all-too-plausible dissection of the effect of religious fundamentalism (and let’s face it folks, if you’re religious, you’re a fundamentalist of at least one description) on the kind of folk who believe in things like Y2K and the Millennium. My personal favourite, “Faster, Higher, Stronger” falls into Lawson’s own field of expertise, the medical profession, to give us a human, and humane, account of the effects of performance enhancing drugs on athletes, and the price they have to pay to stay clean in a world founded upon cheating. And then there’s “Written In Blood”, the story that gives the collection its name, a tour-de-force effort that brings together many of Lawson’s personal hobbyhorses: religious fundamentalism; the ability of technology to both enhance and inhibit our lives; the damage that can be done to the human condition by those small-minded power-cravers we allow to run our lives. It is a fitting summation of Lawson’s power as a writer, and a marker to the great talent he can exhibit at will.
There’s something rotten in the writing state of Denmark when the shelves are filled with firelighter after firelighter of the brands Jordan, Feist, Wurtz, and all the other boring sub-Tolkein hacks who clog the arteries of literature like low grade cholesterol, and skilled practitioners like Lawson are consigned to small press, small run editions that are only accessible if you meet someone in the know. You’ve read this review. Now you’re in the know. So go buy it.
From the Old Shelf
Continuing the small press theme, I’ve been trawling my way through Ghost Seas, the collection of Steven Utley short stories published by Russell B. Farr’s Ticonderoga Publications a few years ago. This is a fantastic book, brim-full of the wonderfully gonzo creations that have always marked Utley out as a genuinely fabulous nutcase to read. If you’re unaware of his work, (and if you are, ferpetesake put down that crap Jordan book and pay attention!) then you need to get hold of Master Farr and get yourself a copy. He tells me he has a bunch left, so they’re there for the taking.
You know, I swore I wouldn’t do this, I really did. Australian SF is such a small world. There are so few of us regularly pushing the plough. I don’t want to piss off anyone, don’t want to create enemies or hatreds. I decided early in the piece: if I was going to read books for food I would steer clear of negative reviews, particularly of works by people who could conceivably stalk me through the corridors of a Con one day, holding a copy of my review in one hand and a very large steak knife in the other…
Sigh. Sometimes it can’t be helped. Sometimes you find yourself with a rapidly approaching deadline, only one book one the shelf, and a heart that sinks further the more you read…
Traci Harding’s Book Of Dreams is not so much a curate’s egg of a book as a curate’s scrambled egg. The central idea is a good one: a young man must embark on a journey of self-discovery through his interior landscape in order to discover his heritage, and use that self-knowledge to save the land to which he is inextricably linked. It’s just that the writing is so clumsy, the characters so stereotypical and one-dimensional, and the events recorded so dependant upon coincidence after coincidence that it’s not very long at all before the suspension of disbelief is shattered and all that is left is a growing sense of frustration at seeing such a good idea wasted.
To top it off, once you do get to the denouement it is almost quite literally ‘Then he woke up and it was all a dream’, followed by such a rushed and patchy epilogue that it is impossible to believe it anything other than a hasty attempt to cover up all the obvious mistakes dotted through the book, as if it was too late in the publishing process to insist on any more edits, and a big fat band-aid was the only solution. It’s hard to believe a book conceived in such a way was not given the benefit of a 6-month pause, a strict editor, and a damn good final edit before making it into final print.
However, there was one loophole, I thought. The book details the adventures of a mainly young cast of characters, and much of its language and mindset is that of a person younger than my crusty 32 years. Maybe the faults lie not with the book. Maybe it’s me. Maybe I’m looking at it from the wrong point of view. There’s a possibility that this book is aimed at a more youthful audience, at kids, to be not-very-precise. So I found one, and forced him to read the thing (actually, he chose to read it one night when we were having some reading time, but it sounds more fun if I tell it this way) What did he think? Well, step forward, guest reviewer Blake Triffitt:
“It was quite interesting, but most of it was pretty boring. A small weird creature is guarding this parcel, and when the hero Kyle goes to pick up the parcel the creature runs away. Up until then it was interesting. It just became boring after that. The little creature runs away and doesn’t tell him anything, and I thought finding out would be interesting, but it wasn’t. The thing that made me pick up the Book of Dreams was the title, because it sounded like it could be exciting. The characters were boring except Kyle. He was better than the others because he saw the tiny small creatures.”
So what do you do with a book that’s too badly written for adults and simply too boring to sustain the interests of the younger audience? Hope for better next time? There are too many books in the world, too many writers I haven’t yet read. Onwards and upwards, fair reader, and maybe next month I’ll be able to report once more from the sunny side of the street.
From the Old Shelf
So this month I drew down Slippage, the 1998 short story collection from Harlan Ellison. It’s a solid collection, with the usual highly-personalized and interesting introduction by Ellison himself, but these days there seems to be something missing from Ellison’s fiction. It might seem hard to kick out at a guy who’s almost 70 and who has provided the genre with an awful lot of highlights, but there’s nothing in here that reaches the glorious heights of “Shatterday” or “The Beast That Shouted Love At The Heart Of The World” or Ellison’s best collections of the late 60’s and 70’s. Nevertheless, this is still a damn good collection of tales and had they been produced by someone without Ellison’s pedigree it would be considered an accurate summation of their talent.
Tricky beasts, sequels. Very few of us walk into a cinema expecting a sequel to be better than the original, and the examples are very rare: Toy Story 2, French Connection II, Sophie’s Choice II…. But when it comes to novels, we usually expect sequels to be better. After all, it can be a number of years between books, and surely the writer has been practicing their craft in the meantime, right? (Obviously I don’t mean those delightful Phat Phantasy trilogies that clog up the bookshelves like the literary equivalent of cholesterol; I mean genuine sequels to genuine singletons.)
Which is why it’s always such a disappointment to pick up sequels: they rarely are better than the original, as if whatever spark of inspiration that fuelled the initial telling has been lost once the author comes back to play in established territories. When it comes to sequels, familiarity really does breed contempt.
Which is why it was such a relief to pick up Shadows Bite, the sequel to Dedman’s very good novel The Art Of Arrow Cutting, and find that not only was it better than the original, it took the characters and settings of the original novel and reinterpreted them in new and surprising ways. It’s obvious while reading the book that Dedman has spent time with his characters ‘off-stage’, hanging out with them and getting to know them better. This deeper knowledge of his characters has resulted in a story with greater depth and realism, as Dedman’s confidence has enabled him to stretch the action and plot to a larger degree than in the first volume.
A key ingredient to this is the change of lead character: Mage Magistrale, hero of The Art Of Arrow Cutting, is rarely sighted here, and then only as somewhat reluctant sidekick to Charlie Takumo, the much more interesting and fun movie stuntman and martial arts expert who so regularly upstaged Magistrale in the first novel. While Magistrale was the driving force behind the first book it was clear that he was a limited character in many ways: his story was told with the telling of The Art Of Arrow Cutting, and by choosing to follow Takumo into the second book Dedman allows the scope of the adventures to open up much further, as he deploys the far greater range of attributes Takumo has as a character. Takumo is fun, a rock-em-sock-em adventure character in the grand Hollywood mold, ready with a snappy stunt move or a witty one-liner in equal measure, and Dedman has an enormous amount of fun with him. If this were a movie, and Dedman writes in a furiously fast-paced and enjoyable movie style, Takumo would have been the perfect role for the late Brandon Lee.
Another key to the success of Shadows Bite is the subject matter. Dedman is a vampire freak, a connoisseur of the non-Western undead in the tradition of Lafcadio Hearn, and while his short fiction has delved into these traditions over the years it is in this novel that he allows himself the time and space to really work with the underlying concepts and myths surrounding vampires, particularly the notion that for many, being a vampire isn’t a bad thing at all and is in fact something to be wished for. The vampires in Shadows Bite are very human, with human desires and motivations, and much of the power in the book comes from watching as they choose to embrace their vampirism or struggle to retain their humanity. Unlike so many writers who work in these well-turned vampiric fields, Dedman never loses sight of the fact that vampires are more than bad Christopher Lee cutouts, and his creations retain their power to fascinate and repel us to the very end.
Like all good authors Dedman understands that to keep readers coming back to your work you must give them enough that is familiar for comfort, but you must also surprise them with new and wonderful things. And there are plenty of new and wonderful things in Shadows Bite, enough to make it an exciting and entrancing read. And enough to look forward to the mooted third volume in the series, and coming from someone who firmly believes that anything with a number as high as 3 in the title cannot possibly be good, that’s saying something.
Regular attendees of these lectures may recall our conversation a couple of months ago regarding the horror collection Gathering The Bones, in which I enthused over the understated and careful manipulation of the readers reactions, the care taken over the writing, and the skill and craft of the writers involved.
Welcome to the other end of the spectrum.
Exit The Light is a collection of stories self-published by Walt Hicks and a fellow who would like you to call him ‘Horns’, (or to give him the name his Mum did, Terry Erwin). The guys are to be commended for the way they’ve gone about their business: this is a tome of almost 500 pages in an age where horror doesn’t sell well, and self published books average something like 88 sales, and its production values are quite high.
The reader is left in no doubt as to what they’re getting into here: the book has two sections, titled ‘Invocation of Terror’ and ‘Ceremony of Terror’, and starts with a Benediction (Not Introduction, Benediction) which quotes HP Lovecraft and invites us to “walk a mile in their hooves and be chilled, changed, and delighted”. Hey, one of these guys calls himself HORNS, fer chrissakes! Subtlety is not likely to be the point here.
Sure enough, it isn’t. Whilst Gathering The Bones was an exhibition of craft, highlighting writers who attempt to challenge the boundaries of the horror reflex, Exit The Light shows two writers concentrating on art with all the glee of small boys jumping in puddles. The stories display all the delicate cunning of a sledgehammer manicure.
The collection begins with “Showdown At the One Way Café” in which Dr Stiletto arrives at a greasy spoon in the middle of nowhere entirely populated with serial killers (A Clown, a guy in camouflage gear, etc etc, which I’m guessing are meant to be John Wayne Gacy, Denis Neilsen and friends, although it’s never made exactly clear) and proceeds to brutally murder them for no apparent reason other than it seems to be the sort of thing he does. The payoff? The good Doctor Stiletto was once known as Doctor Josef Mengele. Why? Damned if I know, other than the writer thought it would be cool to have Mengele knifing bad guys to death. By the time we plough through 32 more stories to reach “Last Exit”, the last tale in the volume, in which a trucker and his dog help a young girl escape from a roadside café full of undead, the reader is so woozy, so battered around the head by a ceaseless barrage of adjectives and nonsensical images of bloodiness, that the only respite is a lie down and a cold handkerchief across the forehead.
Don’t get me wrong, visceral horror has its place, and the truly good exponents of it can raise a gorge like it’s supposed to be raised. Go read Barker’s The Books Of Blood, or Straub’s Koko and you’ll see what I mean. But those writers did not sacrifice their craft simply in order to present a series of ugly images. Horror, especially horror that relies on the readers’ repugnance to certain tropes and images, can only be effective when there is a reason for the reader to subject themselves to that kind of brutality. Generally the reason lies in the characters, or in the facility of the writer to draw us into a believable world before turning that world against us. Erwin and Hicks don’t do this. In film terms we are not watching a Lewton movie here, or Whale, or Browning, or even the kind of gore that Argento or Bava created, with the kind of thematic and spiritual underpinning that made the gross blood-letting seem a natural extension of the philosophical core of the movie. What we get are the lowest moments of a Halloween movie, when it’s obvious to all but the most dedicated hockey mask-wearing teenage popcorn-muncher that the script has run its course and the director has run out of ideas to fill the extra hour of running time left.
Exit The Light is a grossly overwritten book in dire need of a damn good editor. The stories within are amateurish, and while the authors have an extensive range of credits in the non- and semi-professional horror markets this collection is difficult to recommend to the Ideomancer audience.