Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
Strong Medicine
Books That Cure What Ails You
    by John Joseph Adams
December 2005

Glass Soup by Jonathan Carroll
Tor, 2005, $24.95

Young Simon Haden celebrates his first Christmas at three years old because his parents felt that children younger than that could not fully appreciate or understand Christmas. On this first Christmas, Simon Haden's "tightfisted crabby skinflint" parents gave him, as his only gift, a large stuffed polar bear that they purchased for eleven dollars at the local Shell gas station.

It was lub at first site.

Which is how I felt about reading this, my first Jonathan Carroll novel.

As Glass Soup begins, the aforementioned Simon Haden is dead, but he doesn't realize it, and works as a tour guide, after receiving instructions each day from a little man the size of a candy bar called Broximon. In life, Simon was a womanizing pretty boy, who fell in love with Isabelle Neukor and made the mistake of taking her to a party where Vincent Ettrich was in attendance. Isabelle and Vincent fell in love--so much so that when Vincent died, Isabelle pulled him back into the land of the living. Now, Isabelle is pregnant, but she finds herself now slipping between the real world and the afterlife--into, strangely enough, Simon Haden's afterlife. Meanwhile, John Flannery, an avatar of Chaos, is trying to trap Isabelle on the other side permanently -- which would be bad enough, but is even worse when you consider that her unborn child would be stuck there too, and even worse still when you consider that this child might be the key to winning the battle against the forces of Chaos.

Yes, Glass Soup is about the afterlife, and love, and an unborn messiah-figure, but to summarize the plot is almost a sin -- because if you were to base your decision on whether or not to read this book because of the plot…then you'd be missing the point. To understand what makes Jonathan Carroll Jonathan Carroll, you have to read him.

Here's the first paragraph, introducing us to Simon Haden:

Haden was in trouble again. Big surprise, huh? So what else was new, right? That man wouldn't have known he had a pulse unless the IRA was closing in, his ex-wife was circling his field with a squadron of divorce lawyers, or a rabid dog had just bitten him on the dick.

Then, later:

Sighing, he threw off the thin purple blanket he'd bought at a Chinese discount store after his wife left him and took everything, including the blankets. But she was right to leave because he was a dog in every way except loyalty. No, that's not fair. To call Haden a dog was to insult canines. Call him a rat, a weasel; call him a disease with a head. Simon Haden was not a nice man, despite the fact he was a very handsome one.

And:

If someone had told Simon Haden that he was a colossal prick and why, he would not have understood. He would not have denied it, he would not have understood. Because pretty people think the world should forgive whatever their sins are simply because they exist.

With Carroll, style is king -- his prose is like an irreverent, acerbic smirk -- which is not to say that his work is lacking in substance -- quite the contrary; his characters are infused with so much humanity, it's as if he's writing about people in your life, or in your past, people you knew or know so well, that to lose them would be like having your heart ripped out.

Carroll is one of those writers, who when you discover him, you want to work your way through his back catalog immediately. He's one of those writers who makes you suddenly feel as though you're literarily bankrupt for not having read him previously, and is one of those writers who, when people who ask you why you read that sci-fi/fantasy rubbish, you can hold up one of his books and say "Because this is what it can do."

In other words, Carroll is simply redoubtable. And that, as Broximon would say, means kick ass, my friend.

Adventure, Vol. 1 edited by Chris Roberson
MonkeyBrain Books, 2005, $14.95

MonkeyBrain Books is a small press founded in 2003 by SF author Chris Roberson (Here, There & Everywhere) which initially focused exclusively on nonfiction genre studies, such as Michael Moorcock's "study of epic fantasy," Wizardry & Wild Romance. Now, they've expanded into fiction publishing, and their first title is a doozie -- "The All-Genre, All-Adventure Pulp Anthology for the New Millennia!!" known as Adventure, Vol. 1. In the book's introduction, editor Roberson promises the reader action and excitement, and the seventeen stories that follow really deliver.

The book gets off to a good start with "Island of Annoyed Souls," a ripping yarn by Mike Resnick featuring The Right Reverend Lucifer Jones. It's a fun Amazonian adventure story, complete with a mad scientist, an island full of talking animals, and danger and opportunity aplenty for Reverend Jones.

One of the most compelling stories is the first part of Lou Anders's serial novel, "The Mad Lands, Part 1: Death Wish." Anders is well-known as an editor, but few know of his writing prowess, according to Roberson's introductory notes; if this story is any indication, Anders's writing prowess won't be a secret for long. In "The Mad Lands," Anders tells a complex and gritty tale, set in a sort of apocalyptic western landscape, peopled with con artists and gunslingers and strange animal/machine crossbreeds such as the horsecycle and the tank-turtle. This first installment is delightfully bizarre and refreshingly original, and my only complaint is that the story ended with me wanting more.

Other standout stories include:

  • Mark Finn's "The Bridge of Teeth," a pulpy Amazonian adventure story, with plenty of two-fisted action and Aztec mysticism;
  • Kim Newman's "Richard Riddle, Boy Detective in 'The Case of the French Spy,'" an engaging young detectives tale that concludes with an extremely satisfying supernatural discovery;
  • Michael Kurland's Roman Empire mystery, "Four Hundred Slaves," a richly-detailed historical mystery reminiscent of Ellis Peters's Brother Cadfael mysteries in its authenticity and clever plotting;
  • Roberson's own "Prowl Unceasing," an entertaining Victorian tale of a young Van Helsing in which Roberson makes the Van Helsing character wholly his own.

Although I've singled these few stories out, every story in the anthology is enjoyable in its own right, and lives up to the anthology's "all-adventure" hype. Roberson has done a fine job with his first fiction anthology, and I for one will be eagerly awaiting Vol. 2.

Sea of Red, Vol. 1: No Grave But the Sea by Rick Remender, Kieron Dwyer, and Salgood Sam
Image Comics, 2005, $8.95

Sea of Red is an ongoing comic book series from Image Comics, and this graphic novel, Vol. 1: No Grave But the Sea, collects the first four issues of the series.

The story begins with the protagonist, Marco Esperanza, a sixteenth century sailor, trapped at the bottom of the ocean, tied to the decrepit remains of a shipwreck. He's consumed by hunger, with only fish passing by to feed on, but he's survived down there for centuries. We soon learn that the reason he's stayed alive all these years is because he's not alive at all -- he's one of the undead, a vampire.

Back in the 1500s, when he was a sailor aboard a ship that wrecked, Marco stayed alive by latching onto pieces of ship debris. But just when he thought all was lost, a magnificent ship appears out of nowhere and saves him…or so it seems. For the ship is crewed by vampires, and when Marco kills one of them, the captain of the ship, Captain Blackthroat, exiles him to "an eternity in the briny deep" to satisfy his crew's thirst for vengeance. And as he sinks into the water, Blackthroat recalls Marco telling him of his wife and boy, then ominously promises Marco that he'll be "pay'n her a visit."

Fast forward to the 21st Century, when a filmmaking crew in a submersible stumble across Marco's tortured form. They rescue him, only to have him immediately attack one of the crew to slake his thirst, and in the process, turn her into one of the undead. But Director Joel Cameron, a single-minded egomaniac, reminiscent of King Kong's Carl Denham -- in both his aspirations and his actions -- sees Marco as his opportunity to make the greatest film of his career. Plying Marco's tongue with fresh blood donated from the crew, Cameron draws Marco's story out of him, and learns of Captain Blackthroat's home port, which is located on an island in the Bermuda Triangle. Cameron and the crew set off for and find the island, only to discover much more than they bargained for.

Sea of Red is rendered beautifully in black and white pencils, with sepia-tone shading that gives the book a dark, grim feel that is entirely appropriate. The tale itself functions quite effectively as horror -- it's sinister, bloody, and graphic -- but the characters are fully-realized, and the plot has enough subtle nuances to keep Sea of Red from descending to the level of a mindless splatter flick. Overall, a fun mix of tropes that is not groundbreaking but is enjoyable nonetheless.

"When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth" by Cory Doctorow, read by the author
Podcast, 2005, Free, 84 minutes, 6 parts, Digital Audio

Cory Doctorow has long been a fan and proponent of audiobooks, and he has recently started podcasting. Upon launching the first podcast, he said, "I've held back before because I just couldn't see how I could possibly reliably get quiet places to record in -- my flat and office are loud, and the hotel rooms, airport lounges, etc., where I live most of my life are no better." However, he reconsidered when a friend of his told him that "the ambient noise adds texture" and so Doctorow was "inclined to agree." This is all well and good, though it presented somewhat of an obstacle initially. Doctorow's first podcast, "After the Siege," began with some terrible acoustics -- there was a lot of loud static that made it a bit of a chore to listen to -- but about halfway through the story, Doctorow gave into popular demand and purchased a headset with mic, which made the noise level decrease dramatically. Which means that his newest podcast, "When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth," is blessedly free of static-y annoyances, allowing the listener to just sit back and enjoy the reading.

"Sysadmins" tells of a group of system administrators locked safely away in a data-center when an apocalyptic virus strikes, devastating the world's population. Felix is our protagonist, a man deeply in love with his wife, and the new father of a little boy he and his wife affectionately call "two-point-oh." He's awoken in the middle of the night by his on-call phone due to a devastating Internet worm infesting the network, and he's forced to go down to the data-center to straighten things out. Luckily for Felix, he's safely inside the hermetically-sealed data-center when the biological virus begins spreading, but his wife and child, and millions of others are not so fortunate. Since many other sysadmins were forced into their data-centers to combat the Internet worm, the Internet was still largely functioning despite the world-wide catastrophe. Thanks to this, Felix and the other sysadmins are able to piece together what's going on, and start making plans for a new world order once the realize the extent of the plague. To tell much more would be spoiling the story, so I'll stop there, but suffice it to say Doctorow's apocalyptic vision is by turns funny and moving, and he really gets inside the mind of his protagonist, perfectly depicting the gamut of emotions that would run through the survivors of such a disaster.

Doctorow's reading, meanwhile, is just as proficient as his storytelling. It's important to keep in mind that this podcast is more akin to a live reading than it is to a fully-produced audiobook, but Doctorow delivers a reading that is among the best I've heard -- which is saying a lot, as I regularly attend a live fiction reading series in Manhattan. His voice is in the low tenor to high baritone range, and is both dramatically effective and pleasing to the ear. Doctorow reads fairly quickly, so inexperienced listeners might have some trouble keeping up, and he stumbles a bit over a word here and there, but the overall performance is quite good, and will leave listeners eager for the next podcast installment.


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