Wednesday, May 19, 2010

2009 Nebula Award Nominees

Short Story:
I Remember the Future by Michael A. Burstein: SHUNNED


The Women of Nell Gwynne's by Kage Baker: Impossible to get for under $100

All stories ranked in order of my preference. Winners in bold. In cases where two stories had the same score, I preferred the one higher on the list. But my general guideline is that I'd be happy with anything that scored 4 or higher winning a Nebula, and anything 3.5 or lower winning would be a disappointment. While I would vote for Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest, I would be perfectly content with the awards process to see Divining Light win.

In particular, I hugely prefer Spar to Bridsicle in the short story category, just barely not enough for different ratings, I prefer The Gambler over Memory of Wind significantly, although Sinner, Baker, ... makes that decision moot, but God Engines and Shambling are very close in the Novella category. I have decided I prefer Scalzi in this case, but only by a hair, and on average I'm a bigger fan of James Morrow than John Scalzi.

Turns out I pretty much called them, with the exception of Novellas where I was unable to even read the winning story. I'd love to see the voting numbers for runners up placing and how close I was on the runners up.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The God Engines

Novella by John Scalzi

It was time to whip the god.
Easily the best opening line on either this year's Nebula or Hugo ballot.

This novella is John Scalzi's first attempt at Fantasy and it's definitely a success. I prefer this to his science fiction books, and rather than "high fantasy", The God Engines is what Scalzi calls "dark fantasy". It's a horror/fantasy hybrid set mostly on a spaceship. Which I suspect is much more to my liking.

Captain Tephe commands the Righteous, a Ship of the Line in the space fleet of a galactic empire level theocracy. The title of the novella is meant literally: rather than some kind of Phlebotinum, the ships and their FTL capability are powered by the enslaved gods of conquered civilizations.

The story opens with the god engine of the Righteous acting up. After disciplining it, they are called back home and assigned a high priority, top-secret mission. This is where the focus moves away from the fantasy worldbuilding to the simmering menace beneath pretty much everything, eventually progressing to all-out horror. The return to the ship after being assigned the mission marks the boundary between mediocre story with an interesting setting and can't-put-it-down, finish-in-one-night horror story with some points to make about trust in your superiors and blind faith in general.

I don't want to reveal specifics, but there are several major world-shifting revelations, all of which are foreshadowed but still surprising. As the whole tone of the story would lead you to believe, the ending is not a happy one. But it is amazing. The last chapter is what makes the story for me and in that sense, despite the length, this novella lives up to Edgar Allen Poe's definition of a short story in that it is all about one big effect (and that I, at least, read this is one sitting, albeit a long one).

That said, surprise and revelation aren't everything, the tone still creates a nice horror effect and The God Engines is equally enjoyable on a second reading.

The theme is really one of the folly of blind faith and how, even still, people cannot let go of it. Definitely some material worth thinking about once you know the whole story of how the world works.

I've seen some criticism of the characterization and perhaps the secondary characters are underdeveloped, but not to the detriment of the story and not any more than is justified given the short length. Tephe and his obnoxious priest rival are quite well drawn, to the point where captain Tephe takes a course of action towards the end of the story that never would have occurred to me, and I find it completely believable for his character. A flat character would have me blaming the author for manipulating things for the sake of plot, but this feels natural.

A note on the physical book: I really like everything about it. The dust jacket art, the page design, the paper and especially the four pieces of internal artwork. Scattered through the book there are four full-page illustrations of key scenes. They are well drawn and look good in the book, they just fit in well. The scenes chosen are good ones to illustrate and three of four are in the first half, where illustration aids in the worldbuilding. I think they are a nice touch and between all these factors, this book has convinced me to buy more things from Subterranean Press in the future.

While I was apprehensive for the first half of the novella, given some clunky dialogue and far too much exposition, things were interesting enough to keep me reading. The later half more than made up for the weakness of the beginning. The menacing sealed-evil-in-a-can feeling of the Righteous's god justified the blurb on the back comparing this to Lovecraft and was impressive in itself. The conclusion went on to top my expectations. 4.5 out of 5 and my favorite for the Nebula novella category.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Shambling Towards Hiroshima

Novella by James Morrow

This has been reviewed to death elsewhere, due partly to it's Nebula and Hugo nominations, and partly due to being James Morrow. An index of other reviews can be found here.

My only comment in regards to reviews is that people thinking anything can be inappropriate subject matter for satire or humor is just plain wrong. Humor can be done tastelessly, but it can't be inherently off-limits by topic. And James Morrow is not tasteless. Actually his handling of the sensitive issues here is quite delicate.

Syms Thorley is a B-Movie actor during WWII. The Navy hires him to help demonstrate their giant, fire-breathing lizard project by dressing up in a lizard suit.

Many reviewers remarked on the change in tone at the end of the novella. This is really the difference in tone/theme between the historical memoir and the framing device. Towards the last 1/5 or so, the memoir wraps up and what was initially the framing device becomes the entire story. The memoir is the bad horror movie/military weapons project satire that the book is generally described as, while the framing is established with the opening sentence:
"Whether this memoir will turn out to be the world's longest suicide note, or instead the means by which I might elude the abyss, only time can tell...".

So this darker suicide central story is sprinkled throughout, and we learn what happens with the war effort long before we learn what I see as the central question: whether Syms will kill himself or not. And on this front the book particularly impresses me. I was genuinely surprised several times in what I expected to be a very predictable substory. And perhaps the most tragic moment in the entire book made me laugh. And then feel bad about it, but it was funny, dammit. That is the real pleasure of this book. Essentially it is a book about suicide and about how nuclear weapons are both horrible and stupid. And it makes its points while being one of the funniest things I've read in some time. Not Douglas-Adams-style absurdity, more Vonnegut-sarcasm. And I use Vonnegut not only because it seems apt in the style sense, but because Mr. Morrow mentions on his website that he loves/hates that comparison: unlike Vonnegut, Morrow actually likes people.

Overall, a very funny novella, but one where you need to think, not just to get the jokes, but to get through the serious points. You don't need to know anything about B-movies, 1940s actors/producers/directors/screenwriters, the Manhattan Project, WWII, Edgar Allan Poe, Ray Bradbury, or comic/SF conventions, but they all add to the experience. Well a passing knowledge of Poe and WWII and monster movies may actually be required. But not too much is needed.

4.5 out of 5 actors don't realize how easy it would be to pick up chicks in a giant lizard suit.

Saturday, May 15, 2010


Novella by Carolyn Ives Gilman

Humans have colonized the under-ice ocean of a far away planet. The society that has developed in this colony is based on passive-aggression, as one character puts it. Social cues are everything and you rarely address anyone directly. I'd go nuts living there, but it is interesting.

Osaji is unhappy with her lack of self-determination or any kind of freedom and feels tied down by here Alzheimer's afflicted grandmother, and unable to escape because of the guilt. This is a fairly quiet story of interpersonal relations with a decent amount of sense-of-wonder, and I can't get into much detail without spoiling it, but not much detail is needed. She gets lost in unknown territory with a far from optimal set of companions. They discover some things, but more importantly learn a nice little lesson about the sweet spot between selfishness and selflessness.

I was disappointed by the ending: I quite liked the solution to the problem, but didn't like how patly things ended up. It made some of the beginning feel a bit pointless. On the other hand, I enjoyed seeing the change in Osaji, how she found a sense of adventure and became less entangled in her culture's counter-productive shortsightedness. I'm not saying the resolution should have been different in outcome, just that I'd have liked a little less of the human cost waved away by the author at the last minute.

The story was okay, the setting and the ship were damn cool. The Bennite idioms amused me. One might rate a story 3.5 out of 5.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Sublimation Angels

Novella by Jason Sanford

The opening of this novella feels awkward and overwrought.
Across the vacuum black, countless Aurals shifted the star field into a mnemonic ROY G. BIV of circles and exclamations.
But after the couple pages, the next 30 or so are a vast improvement. Like some other stories, the opening set me up to pick it apart. I wasn't quite making a list of problems but I was close. So it should say something that by the end, I was loving it and completely caught up in the world. 3.5 out of 5.

The setting is inspired by Fritz Leiber's A Pail of Air (text online here) although we are in a maybe post-singularity existence, ruled by AIs who can control our minds. In what may be an effort to save/help humanity or may be just random meddling, a species of even more powerful energy beings (Aurals) have set up an area of space where they will destroy any high technology. As a precondition to communicate, they require the human/AI civilization to put settlers on a planet with a frozen atmosphere with little technology. An AI is sent along inside a human body built for her.

This is the root of my other main problem of the story: the police state Big Mom presides over seems unsustainable in the long run (600 years). The execution or covered-up murder of anyone who questions the obviously untrue or says the wrong thing at the wrong time certainly happens, but in a small population living under such harsh conditions that they melt air to survive and can only grow a very few crops around a giant compost tank, it just seems like these sort of policies could quickly lead to extinction. Especially since a lot of the lower job are already very dangerous and many people seem to die unmurdered at a fairly young age. They had better be slightly more fertile than rabbits in a society like this. But on top of that, the overly cruel head guard who is willing to torture people to death for basically looking at him funny (admittedly, he is the eventual cause for revolt) and the willingness the guards have at the beginning to murder a couple of 10 year olds for asking an obvious question, whose answer has absolutely no downside for the administration, and hell, even the presence of three armed guards ready to kill children in a threat-free (at least any threat their weapons could do anything against) coming-of-age ceremony, all of this just seems profoundly stupid cruelty-for-the-sake-of-cruelty. Especially considering a revelation about halfway through the story, I would think she'd want to keep people a little less miserable.

So besides that, and the willingness to ignore or threaten to kill the chosen one (our protagonist's brother) who would presumably be the one chance to fulfill the whole damn mission, I do think a point is being made about the tendency toward totalitarianism and unfair/unnecessary cruelty or something. But it almost feels silly it is so over-the-top. If this is how the AIs behave, I really do feel sorry for humanity. Still, after a while, the characterization and writing are good enough that you become completely caught up in the world and can ignore all this and just hate the bad guys.

These flaws are perhaps overemphasized in this review, as the pdf I have is 32 full size pages long, and my problems with the story gradually fade away. I was loving this for at least the last half, maybe even the last two thirds. I quite liked this story. The classic rebellion from authority theme, the change in our protagonists by the end of the novella, and the fact that after being manipulated by everyone for his whole life, he is finally able to see through things and do some manipulating of his own. And the setting is absolutely brilliant. As I said, based on A Pail of Air, but I might even like this one better, as a setting. Both the background dealings of the AIs and the Aurals and stratified society in a harsh fallout-shelter-like environment really struck me as fun, interesting, and original, even if heavily inspired by pre-existing fiction.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

A Memory of Wind

Novelette by Rachel Swirsky

The best summary of what the story is and why it was written is by the author herself, in a comment on another blog: "As you probably know, the original myth is the subject of a surviving Greek tragedy, Iphigenia at Aulis. The classic interpretation of the myth, as rendered in the play, is that the tragedy isn't Iphigenia's--it's Agamemnon's. He has to sacrifice her, and isn't that tragic? ... I found it very frustrating that over thousands of years, we've listened to the stories of mother and father--and brother, not incidentally--but Iphigenia receives comparatively little treatment. Surely the tragedy of Iphigenia's death is mostly her own."

The central emotions of the story are what really changes when you look at things from Iphigenia's point of view: righteous anger and frustrated helplessness. And one cannot help but feel that whatever tragedy Agamemnon thinks he is in, he cannot have possibly suffered enough.

The basic conceit of the story is that rather than simply being sacrificed for wind, Iphigenia literally becomes the wind. She forgets everything she ever knew, bit by bit, until the moment of her death. Everything is told, once she is actually wind, by whispering in her father's ear, and unlike some stories, the second person viewpoint works quite well here. The loss of memories is actually key to the telling of the story. Iphigenia relives two separate days of her life in fragmented memories as she tells of her coming to Aulis and the night before she is sacrificed. Bits and pieces of these old memories keep popping up in her descriptions. She uses the same descriptions over and over as she forgets other words or ways of describing people. The scenes from the past are overlaid onto the present with sticks replacing knives and every other person being Agamemnon or Helen.

In short, I thought the memory loss was poetic and quite well done. Rather than being an artsy trick in the story, it adds to the emotion and sense of helplessness. Swirsky does a wonderful job and does more than just a modern morality retelling of the Greek myth. And most importantly avoids Euripides' traditional, pansy-ass ending. This is a better tragedy than Iphigenia at Aulis, although it's more about anger than pity or sadness. 4.5 perfect cubes of goat cheese out of I-can't-remember-how-many.

Divining Light

Novelette by Ted Kosmatka

A depressed physicist drinks heavily, considers suicide and tells about his extension of the Feynman double-slit experiment. I don't want to give away the point of the story, and that is all wrapped up in how Argus (and the various researchers he pulls away from unrelated projects) decide to extend the experiment. SFnal implications are explored in an interesting way, although not as completely as I'd have liked. There is a nice bit of philosophizing about reality and causality. The novelette wraps up with a completely unexplored bit of implied horror which was a nice touch, but then has an obvious, not-very-interesting ending. I would have preferred the story ending a paragraph earlier.

Despite the ending, this was well written and an interesting, if underdeveloped, bit of extrapolation. The first page and beginning of the story overall particularly hit a chord with me, and when my complaint is about a paragraph rather than several pages, that is pretty good. It's interesting to take an experiment that would be weird to begin with, and then assume that the unexpected result is correct and see where it goes. A story that requires a lot of thinking, and a bit of physics. Well worth the brain power it demands. 4 out of 5 frogs aren't even aware of the well they live at the bottom of.

Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest; Red Mask, Black Mask, Gentleman, Beast

Novelette by Eugie Foster
WINNER: 2009 Nebula Award
Originally Published in Interzone #220

Starts off as a bizarre fantasy setting that leaves you with a bit of confusion about how gender works in this society, then moves into a unique variation on dystopian SF before an absolutely perfect, shocking, ending. The setting in itself is enough to maintain interest and just exploring that and the implication of the masks would be plenty interesting. The expected musing on identity is present and better handled than typical of a story about masks, and most importantly, not the entire point of the story. And I just can't get over how much I love the ending.

Revealing much of anything would ruin things, but the story is about a society where citizens change masks each day, and with the masks change their entire personalities and lives. They live as the masks. There was some debate online over whether the characters were human or not. I take the minority position that they are in fact human. Given the level of engineering implied by the story (medical, neurological and technological), I have no trouble believing that the obvious changes from our current biology and psychology would be possible to engineer into the species and that the history we get in the story indicates a society that might do such a thing. By Occam's Razor and the lack of anything indicating otherwise I assume human, and I just like the implications of the story even better given that assumption.

I keep wanting to get away from talking about the narrators of podcast versions of stories, especially when dealing with things like the Nebulas where not all nominees were podcast and I'm comparing them. But Mr. Santoro did an amazing job with the narration in this, and properly I should be calling it voice acting. The story doesn't really need anything to be added to it by the reader, but Santoro does it anyway. He expresses anger, fear, lust, confusion and switches from one emotion to another as easily as changing a mask. Particularly notable: he makes great use of stutters in the speech of the main character. Hesitations and repeats covey much more than you'd think.

This story hit me hard even on the third consecutive re-read, and I've loaned the CD I burned of the podcast to several friends. I can't recommend it highly enough. 5 masks out of 5.

I Needs Must Part, The Policeman Said

Novelette by Richard Bowes

Richard Bowes is admitted to the hospital, goes into surgery, and take a long time to recover. Between the fever dreams, the anesthesia, and a touch of either craziness or influence from ... spirits?... that oversee the boundary between life and death, he begins to change.

This is a horror story at heart, primarily about the fear that when you go to sleep, you might wake up as a different person. There is uncertainty about what is real and what is not and the maybe-real alternate reality is pretty interesting. But overall it is a somewhat boring story, which it really shouldn't be, given what happens. And the invocation of Philip K. Dick with the title sets expectations a little higher for me. The title fits, but it seems like parts of the story designed only to justify the title.

The author-as-narrator device doesn't really add anything much to this story in the way of metafiction, but it doesn't hurt either. I honestly forgot that the narrator was supposed to be the author until I reread the story. No harm, no foul, but this is no Ghosts Doing the Orange Dance.

Still, it is very much about the author's own experiences with being ill, and expresses the emotions he felt pretty well. In some ways similar to Vinegar Peace, but with a meaningful, coherent narrative. I do think the dilemma Bowes faces about whether or not to take the cop up on his offer would have been a lot more meaningful if we actually had any clue why it should matter. Given what we know from the story I'd have trouble caring one way or another, were I in his place. Which is how I feel about just a bit too much of this novelette.

3 ghost cops out of 5.

Vinegar Peace, or, the Wrong-Way Used-Adult Orphanage

Novelette by Michael Bishop
Originally published in Asimov's
Podcast at StarshipSofa: Read by Diane Severson

I'm sorry Mr. Bishop's son died, but sympathy doesn't make me like his story. And on second reading, I wasn't quite as negative. But when the first reading inspires me to go back and keep a list of things I disliked, and I get to three pages ranting about it, I feel there is at least room for improvement.

A jumble of references to concentration camps, 1984, and even Hotel California takes 15 pages of surreal tour-guiding through what amounts to a concentration camp for the elderly and never really develops a story. There are hints of vague political and social commentary that don't go anywhere, although there is the start of some interesting material about how we treat the bereaved.

But overall, the bizarre, over-the-top cruelty of the entire society, starting with kicking the elderly out of their homes on the day their last child dies, putting them into a concentration camp under threat of death if they try to leave (and yet paying for a ton of services for these people they seem willing to kill in a heartbeat), and then forcing them through all sorts of absurd grief counseling techniques. The confusion is probably somewhat deliberate, as the recently bereaved undoubtedly feel confused and frustrated, but it rapidly overcomes any suspension of disbelief I had.

The "wrong-way, used-adult orphan" and "War on Worldwide Wickedness" terminology doesn't make a lot of sense and just drives me nuts. Plus the fact that the protagonist had never heard of wrong-way orphans before, despite having a society at war that locks up the parents of every soldier who dies. The random censoring of names also bugs me: You are Joyce K-, friend of Ms. B- and Father H-, talking to Dr. S- about the war on the snowy provinces of R-, but Mr. Weevil doesn't care about redacting his name and just wants to watch a boring acclimation movie.

As you think about that, you realize that the second person viewpoint really bugs you. Especially when it seems the writer is telling you how to feel.
"Only someone similarly bereft can know your devastation."
Who needs characterization when you are the main character and you are told how you feel on the first few pages. Better spend more pages describing the arboretum that only exists for psychologist to stand creepily around pestering people in, in long, awkward, comma-ridden sentences, broken up by interjections long enough to distract from the point of the sentence, during pretty much all the description. Which would be less annoying if the dialog had quotation marks or any kind of labeling.

There are bits of commentary and satire here, but I can't focus over the obnoxiousness of the writing, the over-the-top-to-the-point-of-stupidity weirdness, and the concept of imprisoning that many people, kicking them out of their homes, confiscating their possessions, changing the American flag, and talking too much about communion ricecakes and wine vinegar. Therapy or execution. It's like Brazil was set in a nursing home. And sucked. 1 out of 5.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Gambler

Novelette by Paolo Bacigalupi
Originally Published in Fast Forward 2

People want to read happy, fluffy, meaninglessness; not the serious and important stories. But Ong is a stubborn idealist, and while the other writers in his news organization get millions of hits with stories featuring the "Three S's" (Sex, Stupidity, and Schadenfreude), he is on the verge of being fired and getting his visa revoked. In the midst of a celebrity sex scandal, Ong's boss gives him an ultimatum: increase his readership fifty times over, or get his visa revoked and be shipped back to Laos.

But like his father, who died protesting totalitarianism, Ong is too idealistic to surrender his values to expediency.

The least common denominator targeting of media and the American people's willful ignorance of government corruption and environmental issues make this the sort of dystopia that we are already living in. But the real point of the story is the stupidity/righteousness/daring of sticking to your principles even if it ruins you. Ong's search for ratings and threats from his boss are intertwined nicely with the flashback of his father standing up to the secret police. And despite the sound of that last sentence, it isn't exaggerated or melodramatic.

The ending to this story is just great.

4.5 out of 5 extinct bluets for Mr. Henry David Thoreau.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Going Deep

Short Story by James Patrick Kelly
Note: Asimov's originally had this as a novelette, but my word count and, less importantly, the Nebula Awards classify it is a short story.

Mariska is a typical bitchy, angsty teenager. Her Mom/clone went off to explore space and left Mariska to be raised by a hired father and an AI bedroom. This is the story of her rebelling against every aspect of her life being decided for her: career, boyfriend, and now being taken away from her home before she is ready.

The setting is interesting, and Kelly captures the teenage girl perfectly. But the warm, parent-friendly ending seems off for the still-predestined spacer destiny. And I obviously read the climax as a much darker, more dangerous thing that the author did, given the ending. Not bad, not Nebula worthy.
3 heroic fossils out of 5.

Hooves and the Hovel of Abdel Jameela

Short Story by Saladin Ahmed
Originally Published in Clockwork Phoenix 2

Middle Eastern doctor goes out to save a hermit's wife, but things get weirdly supernatural and his faith is tested, or at least the his conception of the line between evil and kindness. For being such a good guy, he is magically and richly rewarded at the end.

There is also a touch of the modern medical dilemmas involved in potentially dangerous elective surgeries.

Issues of religious faith were touched on, but I didn't feel this story was nearly as religious as the Podcastle introduction lead me to believe. Mr. Khanna is a very good reader, but Dave's intro/outro just bugged me.

The surgical complication to this story is surprising and probably my favorite aspect of the whole thing. Which is a problem. This is just a well-told folk-tale with a more modern sensibility than you'd expect and some synesthesia used in the supernatural descriptions. I like the writing quite a bit, but there isn't much to the story. 3.5 cloven hooves out of 5.


Short Story by Kij Johnson
WINNER: 2009 Nebula Award

Vulgar, horrible, beautiful. An astronaut crashes into an alien ship. It rescues her. But it is a tiny ship and the alien is amoeboid. So they have constant sex with varying degrees of consent until they are rescued and can stop occupying the same space. The whole terrifying thing is a metaphor for a bad relationship, or maybe she just projects her feelings for her boyfriend who left her onto the alien. Maybe it isn't even intelligent. It is her sex toy/houseplant, and she is its. By the time they ever get anywhere, the thing will be her whole world.

This is like reading a detailed account of psychological breakdown under torture. But I liked it. The language was vivid and the horror of being in such a close space, with no contact, no communication, and this thing was very well done. And I love the title. 4 Ins out of 5.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Non-Zero Probabilities

Short Story by N.K. Jemisin
Podcast read by Kate Baker

I'm still not terribly impressed with Ms. Jemisin. It baffles me that this got both a Nebula and Hugo nomination.

It was an okay story; probability in New York City changes so that things on either end of the good-bad bell curve are more likely than things in the middle. So unlikely good and bad occurrences become the norm. There is some mention that human thought is altering probability, which explains to some extent the linking of these things to good luck charms/bad luck omens. Because of this concept, millions of people are going to get together and pray the situation out of existence with sheer force-of-belief. Our heroine gets a boyfriend, and the story ends before anything is resolved (for the better I think).

The probability changes seem off to me in a couple of ways. As a math person, I just can't cope with how Jemisin thinks of probability and it breaks the story for me. Based on the use of probability alone, I'd give the story 1 out of 5 in anger, but I'm trying to reign that impulse in.

The Principle of Indifference is completely ignored, to the point where rolling snake eyes is seriously treated as being more unlikely than a pair of twos or a one and a six. This sort of thing drives me crazy, and is at the heart of all the changes to probability. There is also a shade of Gambler's Fallacy here. I suppose you could explain these away with the idea that the changes are being caused by people's beliefs and people tend to be full of bad reasoning. But that seems like a stretch and isn't really how things are portrayed here. It mentions scientists think this, but that isn't how any of the characters treat things, and it doesn't seem plausible that people's beliefs would cause probability to act this way (given that probability is changed by people's beliefs). I think the author just has issues with how probability works.

So the concept of what was and was not unlikely in this world drove me completely nuts, but the writing was good. Sadly, the plot wasn't, but it could have been worse. It's has all world-building and nothing happens. Maybe we are supposed to think Adele has changed in her ability to cope with the world, but she seems the same at the start and end of the story. The big external event never actually happens in the story, but that is probably for the better, because I can't see how believing things won't be the way the are will fix things, since the instant people were able to change things with their thoughts, there was no reason they would expect change to happen, yet it did.

1.5 out of 5, this one is an outlier on the "crap" end of the bell curve.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Rats in the Walls

Novelette by H.P. Lovecraft

Delapore buys Exham Priory, his family's ancestral home in England, has it restored, and moves in. It had been abandoned for hundreds of years, ever since his ancestor killed the rest of his family and fled to Virginia. The first half of the story is about family history and all the horrible stories the townspeople have about the de la Poer family. One night, the cats start acting weird, one thing leads to another, and Delapore and his friend Norrys discover a secret passage beneath the deepest cellar. They gather a bunch of experts from London and go exploring. Delapore goes insane.

The Poe influence is still strong with this one, and the description of it as "Lovecraft's take on House of Usher" isn't far off. But the descriptions and the whole secret-world-beneath-the-one-we-know theme are decidedly Lovecraft. I enjoyed this story quite a bit, it was tense, nervous, a bit scary, but not terrifying. The imagery is great and sticks with you for a long time. The plot and the supernatural rat aspect are a bit weak, and the insanity at the end came a bit out of nowhere for me, despite the long build-up to it. But it is a good secret, and the imagery really is just that great. And I don't mind the rats that much.
4 rats out of 5.

The Lurking Fear

Serial by H.P. Lovecraft

1. The Shadow on the Chimney
Our unnamed narrator and his two beefy henchmen are investigating a "lurking fear" that lives on Tempest Mountain, in the Catskills. Fifty or so poor villages are killed one night and so they think there might be something to the stories of the haunted, abandoned Martense mansion. They have a little sleep-over in the bedroom of long-ago-murder-victim Jan Martense and both companions vanish. The narrator sees a scary shadow but doesn't die. 3/5

2. A Passer in the Storm
Foreshadowing the real solution in a way too subtle to notice at first. The narrator makes friends with another reporter, Arthur Munroe, who helps him research the Martense family. The are investigating an abandoned hamlet and take shelter from a storm in an old cabin. Arthur opens the window to look outside and something comes by and stealthily eats off his face. The narrator notices this only when he turns him around. 2/5

3. What the Red Glare Meant
Lots of history on the Martense family and how they murdered Jan and eventually vanished. The narrator digs down into Jan's grave for some reason (he is a bit crazy and thinks the monster is Jan's ghost). He digs his way into a tunnel leading out from the mansion and while crawling through it, meets a monster with a claw. He is saved by a lightning strike, and a few days later learns that one was killed in a village miles away. There are more than one of them. 4/5

4. The Horror in the Eyes
The narrator goes completely crazy, then discovers what the monsters are and goes a bit crazier when he realizes there are hundreds of them. He wraps things up with the exceptionally practical solution of dynamiting the top of the mountain into oblivion, mansion and all. 4/5

Although the answer tunnels are foreshadowed, the stupid, annoying red herrings: the forest vs. open land connection and the ghost thing are confusing and frustrating on the first read. Plus it makes no sense that one of them basically gave him a hug and let him live back in the mansion, or that it was so stealthy he didn't notice it eating off Arthur's face. All I can figure is that ninjas must have interbred with these monsters at some point.

The flurry of alliteration and big words at the end somehow works very well to instill a sense of horror and the mystery aspect to this one works well, even if frustrating at times. This story is a bit more philosophical once we get to the third installment, and that is where I start to like it a lot more. Both good and bad at the same time, this one gets 3.5 fulgurites out of 5.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Herbert West - Reanimator

Serial by H. P. Lovecraft

1. From the Dark:
Two med students at Miskatonic University Medical School are interested in bringing the dead back to life. They have some success with small animals and decided to move on up to humans. The dean thinks they're nuts, so they have to go behind his back getting the dead bodies. Horror with undertones of comedy ensues. Sadly, their "Sinister Haunt of Science" burns down in a freak knocking-over-the-bunsen-burner-while-screaming-and-running-away-like-a-couple-of-sissies accident. 3/5

2. The Plague-Daemon
A major typhoid fever outbreak hits Arkham and all the doctors and students go out to help. The dean becomes a local hero for saving so many, working so hard, and risking his life. He catches typhoid and dies. After the funeral, West and the narrator are out drinking with the other students and West says they should "make a night of it." So they steal the corpse of their dean and bring him back. The dead dean beats them up, jumps out the window and goes on a killing spree through the town that idolized him. Eventually he is caught, and locked up in an asylum. "He wasn't quite fresh enough." 4/5

3. Six Shots by Moonlight
Done with school, West and his buddy set up a private practice in a neighboring mill town. They reanimate a huge black guy that died in an underground boxing match. Lovecraft's racism comes out in this portion, but in this case it strikes me as the kind of thing you might not notice if you read it as a kid. The guy was big and scary and gorilla-like and happened to be black, while not what Lovecraft means, seems a viable interpretation of events. Both the narrator and West hate pretty much everyone: Black, Italian, Puritan-descendants, people that work at mills, other doctors, etc. Not to justify Lovecraft's racism, but people always talk about this story, while I think the descriptions tend to be less ignorable in some of the other stories. Anyway, the big black guy doesn't reanimate until after they bury him. So he rises from the grave and eats a little kid before coming after West, who shoots him six times. 2/5

4. The Scream of the Dead
West invents a new embalming fluid to keep corpses fresher, since that has been the excuse for all the failed resurrections. He then sinks to a new low in his acquisition of bodies, and a new level of success. 3/5

5. The Horror from the Shadows
West and the narrator join the Canadian army so they can get into WWI. He uses his post as a supply of parts, since he is now interested in reanimating dead tissue without a brain. Using a vat of embryonic lizard cells and some actual surgical technique, he is able to revive the headless corpse of another doctor who had studied reanimation under him. Just before the hospital is destroyed by artillery fire, the narrator thinks he hears the detached head say something. 3/5

6. The Tomb-Legions
West meets a terrifying end when his surviving creations gang up on him. Or maybe the narrator killed him and imagined it all. "They imply that I am either a madman or a murderer - probably I am mad. But I might not be mad if those accursed tomb-legions had not been so silent." 3/5

I've heard that this is supposed to be a bit of self-parody and Frankenstein-parody, and that comes across somewhat in passages that seem overwrought even for Lovecraft, and more clearly towards the end with the reptile vats and the reanimation of random bits of people, which is just absurd. Through the 4th installment, things were kept about as plausible as can be expected of 1920s zombie stories. But it goes downhill from there, either Lovecraft got sick of the story or just wanted to have some fun with it. Both main characters are also particularly cowardly and West says a few things like the "Let's make a night of it" line that I do find funny. But overall this was still a horror story, just one that was not as serious as some others.

Funny in bits, moderately scary (esp. earlier on), and one of the earliest cannibal zombie stories I've read, so it was innovative at least. 3 out of 5 scientists secretly refer to their lab as their sinister haunt of SCIENCE!