Saturday, June 25, 2011
Through Darkest America By Neal Barrett Jr. (Issac Asimov Presents)
(Out of Print)
I can't believe this book is out of print. I can't believe this is not considered a classic. I don't say that lightly. Probably my my favorite subgenre of fiction is the post apocalyptic epic – the Stand, Mad Max, the Road and hell I even liked Book of Eli. This wasreleased the same year as the book I considered the greatest in the genre - Swans Song by Robert McCammon. I admit that I have no experience with author Neal Barrett before reading this book, but to say I was blown away is an understatement. This book slapped me around while I begged for more.
While this novel is certainly Post apocalyptic it feels like a western. It explores issues of violence and inhumanity, ecological devastation and in my mind does almost as good a job of exploring humanity's messed up relationship with animals they consider to be food as any animal rights book I have ever read. It is one of the single darkest and brutal novels in a subgenre speculative horror that is well known for being brutal. If I have already sold you do yourself a favor and buy a used copy on amazon(this book is not easy to find), because I have to give away some early plot points to talk about why this novel is so brilliant.
Through Darkest America takes place sometime after a great war, was it a nuclear war? Biological warfare? The author doesn't explain but we do know it was several generations in the past. Our main narrator is Howie Ryder son of a livestock farmer who provides meat for the government fighting rebels out in the western frontier.
You might think this sounds pretty normal but after the war, the majority of the mammals have died out sometime in the process of the war. A few prized horses are left to be used transportation, so what so the people eat? They eat stock. What are stock? Well as Howie's dad explains to him Stock look like humans, but they are not. You see Stock don't speak and they don't have souls.
Just as Howie is set to take over his father's herd, He witnesses a brutal crime. A group of soldiers sexually assault a female “Stock.” Howie's father kills the rapist and gives Howie a speech about what separates people from stock. Howie is confused because the victim looked human, he even found her attractive. This incident sets off a chain of events that ends with the killing or kidnapping of his family. Howie barely escapes.
The rest of the novel we go with Howie on a coming of age journey that includes him joining an old fashion cattle drive, except the drive is made of stock. Along this journey Howie falls in love, and questions the leader of his gang. I refuse to give away the very end but it sets up a sequel I am dying to read.
Through Darkest America being out of print is a crime. This might be one of the most important works of speculative fiction I have ever read and it's only dumbluck that I read it. You see a couple months ago I picked an issue of Twilight Zone magazine publish in 1988 at a vintage store. In this issue Through Darkest America was reviewed on the same page as Robert McCammon's Swan Song( as I mentioned above). As soon as I read the review I knew I had to read this book. That wasn't easy since it's out of print, I looked at every used bookstore, library I could but I had to break down and order a used copy off amazon.
The story works as a coming-of-age story, it works as a post apocalyptic epic and most of all it is a gritty tale of the wild west. More than anything it is a slap in the face that explores many issues. He might not be vegan I would think Barrett is at least a vegetarian. As a Vegan myself the idea of “stock” in cannibal America is not much of stretch. Since this book was written before terms like “free-range,” and “Humanely raised” are used and argued with in many of the same ways Howie's dad explains the ethical reasons behind raising Stock.
Just as meat-eaters try to explain away the emotions, and feelings of so called “Livestock animals” the characters of this dark future dismiss the lives of their food. They are just souless stock after all. As you might guess the ethical standards for what makes someone a person or stock gets blurred. In the end Howie discovers truth about stock. They can't talk because they are disfigured, they can't rebel because they have never been taught and their spirits have been broken. And just as we have that truth revealed the book ends setting up perfectly for the sequel.
As speculative fiction author who means to express himself on important political and social issues I have never been so jealous of a novel or an idea. A genius work speculative activism, this novel should be a goddamn classic. Read it. Think about it. Maybe if enough of us write about it, Barrett can get it back into print.
Wednesday, June 15, 2011
In Extremis: The Most Extreme Short Stories of John Shirley
(Due out August 2011, Available for pre-order on amazon now)
Every year at the world horror convention writers compete in an annual “Gross-out contest.” If you have a strong stomach the stories tend to be funny or unbelievably awful. One might think when they see the title to this book is 300 pages of gross-out madness. That is however not what makes John Shirley's short fiction extreme. Forget gross, (although a couple of the stories certainly qualify) the extreme nature is found the unflinching peek into the dark realms of the human condition. Opening this book is like staring through one of the worst peepholes you can imagine.
There is no author working in the horror genre today that does a better job of shining light of the horrendous human condition while maintaining a moral center. Horrible and brutal things happen to many of the characters but even the more outrageous and darkly funny pieces Shirley is not mocking or exploiting the suffering of the characters.
I often read collections out of order but Shirley has taken great care to create a rhythm with the stories revolving between comical, brutal, thoughtful and at times moving. Some highlights include CA heart breaking story of a bike messenger trapped in a subway during an earthquake called 'Cram', the haunting ghost tale 'Just a Suggestion,' The hilarious “I Want to get Married says the World's Smallest Man, and to me the most heartbreaking of all was the Science Fiction short 'Call Girl Echoed.' I read Call Girl Echoed when it was first collected in the best Dark Wisdom – It is the story of technology and the horrible dis connect we are headed towards. Shirley is a master at story and non- preaching message, the reality is there is only one better example than this story. Near the end of the collection a powerful story called Animus Rights. Worth the cover price alone, some might think this story is a little heavy handed but considering the title of the collection an extreme point of view works perfectly for me.
I know the word extreme is quite connected to hyperbole, and creates visions of motor bikes doing triple flips but the word couldn't describe this collection better. This best on display in stories which involve characters that are very non-traditional when it comes to Horror fiction. We as writers are taught to create characters that the reader will care about or relate to. Shirley does an amazing job of involving us in characters like methheads, sex-workers, homeless junkies etc.
His masterpiece horror novel Wetbones took place in the same arena and here some of the best stories features characters you don't often see in horror fiction. Stories like 'You Hear What Ray and Buddy Did,' is about bi-sexual junkies turning tricks,'Tighter' is about a single mom/prostitute who has a John who never thinks he is close enough to dying during sex, and 'Just like Suzie' is just as gore drenched as anything by Edward Lee, but this story of a prostitute who dies while giving oral sex to a John is so disturbing that it makes you cringe, feel gross and awful for being amused all at the same time. I am not sure in all my years of reading horror I have been more uncomfortable reading a single story.
Only two stories failed to connect with me, 'Ten Things to be Grateful for' felt like a predictable filler, it felt like a bit of heavy handed messaging, and certainly Shirley has plenty of amazing stories that could have filled that spot.
The horror short story is an art form all to it's own. Stephen King and Clive Barker in my opinion are masters at the short tale, they sometimes suffered from the word count. King has Skeleton Crew and Night Shift as amazing examples of master doing some of his finest works. Take any of six books of blood and you could teach master classes on the short story. In Extremis to me is the third in a trilogy of collections by John Shirley that rank that highly. Black Butterflies (which one the international horror award and the Bram Stoker), Living Shadows and now In Extremis. Any serious student of the short story needs all three books on their shelf.
I love the concept of this collection. Ever since Lovecraft encouraged others to play with his mythos, that open door has lead almost everyone to crash the party. Stories set in the mythos throughout history is a valid idea, I am little underwhelmed with the execution. Certainly different periods of history are all there, but I found the stories to be a little ho-hum. A great indication of that was that by the time I finished the collection I had to thumb back through the book to even remember the stories. I didn't really have a favorite.
Some stories like Sarah Hans' 'Shadow of the Darkest Jade' had a great concept but the first paragraph copied Lovecraft opening style so closely I found myself rolling my eyes. In her defense we have all done it writing mythos stuff. One thing I did like is that the stories were all pretty short, sometimes I think was a curse that Lovecraft was paid by the word.
If you are serious about having a complete Loveraftian collection this book could be an important addition. I think there are plenty of nuggets for the readers who are addicted to all things from the unknowable and unspeakable beyond. For the general reader or fan of Lovecraftian fiction I don't think much new ground is explored and to me that is a problem. I am not sure if it was on purpose but the authors who are almost always in Lovecraftian collections such as Michael Shea, CJ Henderson and Cody Goodfellow were absent. That hurt this book in my opinion, such they are almost always there but those three authors not only understand the mythos deeply they are consistent about breaking new and interesting ground.
That was the piece that was missing for me. That is not to say there were not cool stories, but as an anthology I think hardboiled Cthulhu was a better example of an anthology that explored Lovecraft in a a new genre
Wednesday, June 1, 2011
Fathers and Sons: Blackguard (Book one) By Edward R. Morris
The Borgo Press (Wildside books)
I am a sucker for many things this novel does well. Blackguard does not fit in to one speculative fiction subgenre perfectly but what it does is blend a lot of them together. Edward Morris is an extremely well read genre writer. He wears his influences on his sleeves like patches sewn on on punk rock leather jacket. What we end up with is an edgy novel that is not quite cyberpunk, military sci-fi, First Contact story or distopia. It is all those things and more.
Written in the similar non-traditional structure as Brunner Classic “The Sheep Look Up,” don't expect they same tired tropes of sci-fi structure. It is the story of several characters who lives are somewhat connected by the mile long uber dance club that future downtown Portland Oregon has been turned into. Sean Mallory is our primary character and after being upgraded mentally and physically by the military creates a new life for himself by starting a team of bouncers called the blackguards. It is their job to secure a dance club the size and scope of which is beyond anything we know.
One of the best characters of the novel Kano is a man Mallory met in the japan during a future war, Mallory also has a son who is fascinated by the life his dad leads as a bouncer. Character wise we learn a lot about Mallory philosophy of bouncing which is informed by experience and eastern philosopher. This suggests a direction in the future books in the series, Mallory likes samurai books and The Art of War.
Morris forces you to get to know the characters before he includes us in on the future history, he avoids the traditional science Fiction disease of “info-dumping” by spending 78 pages building the world. So don't expect this new world to be dumped in your lap. The strangest part is a subplot about first contact with extra terrestrial species that has been watching us.
Morris appears to hiding the direction of the next books in plain sight. The Aliens have arrived but it doesn't seem to be much of a big deal at first. Is this an author slight of hand? This appears to be one of few weaknesses of the novel, the non traditional structure might turn off some readers. I hope not the The characters are strong and the action is exciting.
Morris is a gifted writer that never wastes a word. This brilliant work blurs the many sub-genres of speculative fiction in to a potent cocktail. A work of high literature that explores characters forced into the chaos of an all to possible future. A punk touch on a gritty style makes this novel a MUST-read. Portlanders take note this novel is very much about the rose city.
The Drought by JG Ballard
(out of print)
Ballard like a lot of amazing writer's is better know for the films based on his excellent work. Despite several decades of during excellent thought provoking science Fiction novels that managed to crawl out of the genre ghetto to be praised as literature. His most well know work is a semi-autobiographical novel Empire of the sun made into a film by Steven Spielberg, his most famous Science Fiction novel Crash was made into a film by David Cronenberg.
The drought is a fantastic work of both horror and Science Fiction, a gut wrenching and brutal look at one small corner of the world dealing with a ten year drought that nearly ends our species. As a work of speculative eco-horror it ranks with classics in the growing sub-genre. What is most stunning is when it was written, in the middle 60's just few years before fellow British Science Fiction writer John Brunner wrote his eco-horror classic “The Sheep Look Up.”
In the last few years Brunner's novel about chemical pollution and Government manipulations by corporations has been heralded as Prophetic, but Ballard's work is no less telling of a future we are just now seeing come into focus. Just this last week I heard Worldwatch founder Lester Brown on NPR's Fresh Air talking about a coming global food crisis. Population growth, a shift to a western diet, and climate change are creating a world where we have to worry about wars over water, not oil.
But even more directly Ballard's novel suggests the drought is caused by chemicals creating a lifeless dead zone off the shore that prevents evaporation and rainfall. He wrote this in the sixties and now we have an island of plastic forming in the pacific ocean the size of Texas. IS it the same thing? No but it is scary none the less.
The novel follows the character of a Doctor, as he tries to stay at home as the world drys out. While some of the depths to which the characters go to survive might seen tame compared to recent post apocayltic fare, it is pretty hardcore for it's era. The story is well paced, and moves quickly through it's short page count. It should be in print, considering the issues we face in the coming century it is a story that needs to be heard. This kinda of warning is what speculative fiction does best.
It also makes you wonder how recent Eco-horror classics like John Shirley's Demons, and Skip and Spector's The bridge will be judged further down the line.
In The Shadow of Swords by Cody Goodfellow
Cody Goodfellow is my favorite writer from my generation of horror writers, I have written at length about his work. I decided to re-read his first trilogy of works the Radiant Dawn trilogy.
It starts with a Chapbook novella(44 pages) prequel called “In the Shadow of Swords.” This insanely detailed a researched novella is a barn burner. It is far more directly Lovecraftian than Radiant Dawn. It tells the story of A UN weapons detection team searching 1998 Iraq for banned weapons. The cool thing is Cody did such a great job with the setting, that if I didn’t know better I would assume he worked in Iraq at one time for the UN.
The story builds to the reveal of a hole in the earth like a bathtub drain that was plugged and holding in crazy-ness of a cosmic horror beyond our imagination. Not beyond Cody’s imagination thankfully. This has a very traditional horror reveal that manages to downright creepy. Super worth the $7 cover price.
Radiant Dawn by Cody Goodfellow
And then Radiant Dawn. This was Cody’s first novel and it was met with a firestorm of hyperbole on release. It is so strong of a first novel that many found it hard to believe. What I find hard to believe is that Cody was not bought out by a big mass market publisher but hey this novel is not only amazing but it is different, unique and probably to smart for New York publishers to understand or market.
Something I didn’t get the first time was the amazing subtext. You see Radiant Dawn is a monster novel sure, and while still fiction the monsters are in sense very real and already feared by millions in our society. How many of us can relate directly to fearing the monster that is Cancer. In this novel a cult wants to use Cancer to jumpstart the next phase of human evolution by using Cancer cells.
Radiant Dawn is Lovecraftian but not in a traditional YogSagothing way, Goodfellow re-invents the mythos in modern way. At the same time he creates a detailed universe populated by cool characters. Not the least of which is Spike Team Texas, a team of former special forces in a secret war is defend humanity. Cody Goodfellow has grown a lot as a writer since then. At times this book is wordy and over written compared to his current work.
That being said this is an amazing first novel, few writers have come out of the gates with such skill and strength. This was my second time and well worth a second spin.
The word epic as been tortured by over use in recent slang but the word fits like a glove here. To say that this book is a Lovecraftian epic is an understatement. Elder gods, saggoths, government conspiracy, military battles, race issues all these issues get one of Goodfellow's tenticle touch. It all ends in a satisfying ending that works unlike Stephen King's huge epics.
I think of this as part three in the radiant trilogy, if you count the novella prologue chapbook. I do, this novel pays off the brief touches of the Lovecraftian mythos which are more clear in the chapbook than the first novel. I remember the first time I read Radiant Dawn I kept thinking where is the Lovecraft? The mythos stuff takes center stage in the Ravenous Dusk for sure. Not only that but the book becomes an in direct sequel of sorts to LoveCraft's classic novella “At the mountains of madness.” Goodfellow connects the dots from the mythology explained in that classic novel to the government conspiracy and secret war that he cooked up in Radiant Dawn.
The story of Saggoths using technology to radiate humans to evolve into the next step up the ladder is not only Lovecraftian but in a way it's also Cronenberg-ish body horror and the hybrid is what makes the Radiant trilogy original, interesting and above all fun. The action is over the top and worthy of a John Woo stunt team and the horrific descriptions of the mutations are gross and funny at the same time.
At times the book comes off like Military science fiction, and the creation of of a badass team of mutant ex-special forces dudes named Spike Team Texas is probably my favorite chapter. None the less so much story is packed into the 580 pages it is surprising it didn't actually take more.
I am a huge Goodfellow fan, this is an amazing work of horror fiction but as a friend and reader I can tell you he has grown a lot as a writer since this book was finished.
This book breaks one of the fundamental rules we as writers have drilled into us. We are always told “show don't tell” and this book has hundreds of pages of telling. I am not sure goodfellow could have done anything else as complicated as this story is, but entire chapters consist of characters explaining what is happening behind scenes in conversation. For that reason The chapbook and the first novel tend to be the stronger entries in the trilogy as the mystery was still intact.
That being said it still a fantastic trilogy and it is more unbelievable when you consider that this is a first time author working almost without an outside editor. The Radiant Trilogy is a fantastic achievement, I would not start your Goodfellow journey with it. His more recent novel A Perfect Union and his Wonderland award winning collection “Silent weapons for Quiet Wars” are a better place to start. After you read those then it is time to dip into the madness and glory that is the Radiant Trilogy.