Archive for January, 2013

Osama by Lavie Tidhar

Posted in Book Review, Cinema with tags , , , , , , on January 26, 2013 by davehurwitz

OsamaI watched Zero Dark Thirty on the big screen about three weeks back, and I haven’t been inside a movie theater since.  While it is undoubtedly director Kathryn Bigelow’s finest work to date–superior even to the Oscar winning Hurt Locker–I found it an extremely uncomfortable and depressing experience.  Watching Maya (Jessica Chastain) slowly change from a reluctant observer of torture into a hardened interrogator is bad enough.  Learning that she–and the real world intelligence community–obtained so little useful information with these methods, that torture saved so few lives….  It’s practically unbearable.  Bigelow shows little mercy to the viewing public.  Squirm-inducing moments pile up like rubble.  The grin of dippy happiness on the face of Jessica (Jennifer Ehle), Maya’s friend and fellow Agency analyst, right before a car bomb rips her apart….  The rant by Maya’s boss (Kyle Chandler) where he states that the the hunt for UBL is a meaningless waste of resources….  By the end of the film, Maya has become a friendless recluse, existing only to persue her obsession, finding and killing Bin Laden.  And when the deed is done, when we, the audience, stare up UBL’s unbreathing nostrils, there is no feeling of victory, only a deadening lack of closure.

At roughly the same time, I began reading Osama, which had just won the World Fantasy Award.  I had just finished with Tidhar’s Bookman Histories, a three novel steampunk / alternate history series which frequently amazed and occasionally confounded me.  The SF&F community seemed to think highly of Osama, so I decided to give it a try.  Though aware that the novel had something to do with UBL, I did not really know what I was letting myself in for.

Osama is the story of Joe, a Chandleresque private detective in the sleepy South East Asain city of Vientaine.  Joe seems content to sit in his favorite marketplace café or chat with his neighbor, an aging bookseller, until a mysterious woman hires him to find Mike Longshott, the author of a controversial series of novels, at any cost.  For you see, Longshott’s books describe the exploits of the fictional ‘vigilante’ Osama Bin Laden.

Zero Dark Thirty PosterAs quickly becomes obvious, Osama takes place in an alternate world, a planet Earth that has never known international terrorism.  But it is also a world without computers, or any of the gadgetry or social changes that followed their invention.  It’s a world with no Red China, possibly no Cold War, and a very different World War Two.  However, the true extent of the differences is never made entirely clear, at least not until late in the story, when Joe reluctantly attends OsamaCon, a small gathering of Longshott enthusiasts in a fleabag hotel.  This particular sequence in the book made me more than a little queasy.  Having been to similar conventions myself, I felt disconcerted to read about obsessives like me pontificating–not about Doctor Who or Richard Stark’s Parker–but about 9/11 or the July 7 bombings in London.

It is this presentation of acts of mass murder as fiction that gives Osama its power.  Excerpts from the works of Mike Longshott appear throughout the novel, short chapters that contain spare descriptions of real world death and mayhem.  As one of the organizers of OsamaCon puts it, “…to read about these horrible things and know they never happened, and when you’re finished you can put the book down and take a deep breath and get on with your life.”  Of course, the reader is not grated this luxury.  For us, that sense of safety is the fiction.

In his search for Longshott, Joe encounters the ‘refugees,’ victims of terror attacks and subsequent retaliatory wars who have been thrust sideways into this brave new world.  In the world of Osama–the ‘Osamaverse’ as the conventioneers put it–these people resemble ghosts, apt to fade away if reminded to forcefully of who they once were.  Once again, I am forced to contemplate a notion I first encountered in Iain Banks’ The Crow Road, that life after death is more terrible to contemplate than simple oblivion.

While Osama has light moments–an American government suit interrogating a refugee expresses concern about ‘Asian Fusion’–it is a heartrending read.  Later pages give us intimate descriptions of real terror attacks from the point of view their deceased victims.  Even the ‘better’ world which Joe occupies is grimy and impoverished.  While I recommend Osama and admire Tidhar’s achievement, it is a book that–like recent history itself–leaves scars on the soul.

Dave Hurwitz

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“Mr. Animation and the Wu Zhiang Zombies” by Liz Williams

Posted in Book Review with tags , , , , , on January 18, 2013 by davehurwitz

No glass, but plenty of shadow.  And a cat!As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I like a good supernatural police procedural.  Although I’ve read Liz Williams’ autobiographical Diary of a Witchcraft Shop (co-written with Trevor Jones), I know her work almost exclusively through her Detective Inspector Chen series.  The D.I. Chen books take place in Singapore Three, a fantastical port city where business and high technology exist along side magic and ancient religion.  The walls between worlds are thin in Singapore Three, and Hell–the Chinese version of if–is only a slip away.  While “Mr. Animation and the Wu Zhiang Zombies” takes place in the Chen universe, it features neither Chen himself nor his demonic partner Zhu Irzh.  Indeed, none of the characters from the series are present, unless the nameless narrator is a younger, more reckless version of Exorcist Lao, though I’m probably reaching here.

The Wu Zhiang Zombies are a band specializing in something called Anarchy Hardcore, which I gather from the story is rather like Death Metal.  To promote their new release, “Chainsaw Killa,” the band’s leader, the titular Mr. Animation, decides to conduct a seance between sets at the release party.  All goes according to plan until Mr. Animation is snatched into Hell and the band’s label sues for lost royalties.  Wackiness, as they say, ensues.  “Mr. Animation and the Wu Zhiang Zombies” is told from the point of view of the drummer’s elder, geekier brother, who is more than a little responsible for the unfortunate turn the seance takes.  Though I found this tale amusing, it did not satisfy as much as other Singapore Three stories I have read.  The full glory of the Chinese afterlife and its intricate mythology, one of the main pleasures of the D.I. Chen series, isn’t really on display here.  Still, I look forward to reading the other, largely non-Chen, stories in this collection.

This story appears in the collection Glass of Shadow from NewCon Press, which can be purchased (along with Diary of a Witchcraft Shop, mentioned above) as a very reasonably priced ebook from Smashwords.

Dave Hurwitz

Good News for CRK Fans

Posted in Random Weirdness with tags , , on January 13, 2013 by davehurwitz

Just a short one today…

I don’t normally post a straight plug for anything, but having just written about a Caitlin R. Kiernan story, I thought I’d pass this along.  Subterranean Press, Kiernan’s publisher of choice for story collections, has just announced The Ape-Wife and Other Stories.  Based on the publisher’s description, this looks like a collection of regular stories–or as regular as CRK gets–as opposed to another compilation of Sirenia Digest erotica.  I must confess that I’m heartened by this.  As dedicated as I am to reading all of CRK’s work, I find some of her weird smut a bit of a slog. Regardless, I’m looking forward to this new collection.  The Ape Wife and Other Stories is slated to appear this July.  Kiernan’s Sub Press books usually sell out before publication, so if you’re interested, you need to order ASAP.

Dave Hurwitz

“From Cabinet 34, Drawer 6” by Caitlin R. Kiernan

Posted in Book Review with tags , , , , , on January 12, 2013 by davehurwitz

UndescribableThis is one of a handful of unfamiliar stories in the cumbersomely titled Two Worlds and in Between: The Best of Caitlin R. Kiernan, Volume 1 from Subterranean Press.  Sadly, this gorgeous, leather-bound tome is already sold out and will not be reprinted.  However, if you want to read this particular story, you can still find it in the multi-author anthology Weird Shadows Over Innsmouth, where it was originally published, and which is slated for a Titan Books reissue in October of this year.

“From Cabinet 34, Drawer 6” could serve as the type specimen of a certain kind of Kiernan Story.  There are a fair number of them that involve a scientist, usually a paleontologist, discovering fossil evidence of impossible, Lovecraftian creatures.  After some incautious investigation, the protagonist is usually killed, or at least severely menaced, by sinister forces out to suppress the truth, or by the living relations of the fossil critter itself.  “Valentia” from To Charles Fort with Love leaps to mind as an example, but there are others.  Indeed, one could argue that Kiernan’s breakout novel Threshold adheres to this basic premise.  “From Cabinet 34, Drawer 6” is superior in that it takes elements from this basic plot, but resolves them in a way that is more reasonable, though much more melancholy, than usual.

InnsmouthThe scientist in question in today’s story is Lacey Morrow, a grad student or newly minted paleontologist to judge by her age, and the fossil in question is a clawed amphibious hand dredged up from the sea off the coast of–you guessed it–Innsmouth.  Weirdly, Kiernan conflates Lovecraft’s fish-people with the Creature from the Black Lagoon from the 1954 Universal monster flick of the same name.  Though I can see the similarity, the Creature is something of joke around my house, and this added bit of myth-melding lowered the tone of the story.

“From Cabinet 34, Drawer 6” is brightened–for me at least–by the presence of Dr. Solomon Monalisa, the mysterious fringe scientist alluded to in dire terms in one of my favorite Kiernan stories, “Onion.”  Despite his fearsome rep, and despite killing three people in cold blood (well, two people and a thing) in this story Monalisa seems sympathetic, almost cuddly.  It’s a surprise, but a welcome one.

Overall, I’d say this story earns it’s ‘best of’ status.  It’s not perfect, but it is perhaps the best executed story of this type that Kiernan has written.

Dave Hurwitz

“The Step” by E. F. Benson

Posted in Book Review with tags , , , , , on January 9, 2013 by davehurwitz
A somewhat dangerous looking gent wearing a bow tie.

E. F. Benson

Okay, I’ll admit I didn’t actually read this one.  I listened to it at Pseudopod.org, which usually confines itself to contemporary horror, but will bust out a classic like this on special occasions.  I’ll also admit that I’d never  heard of E. F. Benson before, but based on the quality of ‘The Step’ I’ve reserved a copy of his collected ghost stories from the San Diego Public Library.

In his introduction, Pseudopod’s Alasdair Stuart says that Benson was “less scholarly than M. R. James.”  I feel this is a good thing, as James seemed to think that the best way start most of his foreign-set ghost stories was with a rousing discussion of church architecture.  Benson, in contrast starts us off in medias res, with his protagonist walking a night street in British India.

‘The Step’ is the story of John Creswell.  (I’m guessing at the spelling here.)  Creswell is a British businessman who makes as handsome living outsmarting his countrymen at cards and practicing usury among the natives.  Much of the story involves repeated encounters with a Levantine merchant and his wife, who Creswell has evicted from their home and business mere hours before a redevelopment project doubles the value of the property.  Benson depicts Creswell as man of little fellow-feeling, dedicated to his own pleasures and unconcerned with the suffering of others.

Woven between these encounters, and seemingly unrelated to them, are Creswell’s evening walks home from his club, which take him past the precincts of a mendicant Catholic monastery, where hear hears–or thinks he hears–the tread of invisible feet.  The story concludes when Creswell finally encounters the owner of that tread.

Regular reader will know that I like a bit of ambiguity in my horror, and Benson leaves it up to the reader to fathom the connection between Creswell’s uncharitable nature and his shadowy follower.  All in all, this is one of the better weird tales I’ve encountered, and the Pseudopod reading is well worth a listen.

Dave Hurwitz

The Year of Reading Short Stories

Posted in Book Review with tags , , , , , on January 7, 2013 by davehurwitz

One of my resolutions for 2013 is to start reading some of the short story collections that I’ve been stockpiling.  They’re mostly collections of Victorian and Edwardian ghost stories, but there are other things as well.  I have The Complete Stories of J.G. Ballard–all 1,200 pages of it–eyeing me speculatively from the hardback shelf.  There’s a Liz Williams.  And that beautiful H. G. Wells collection from Tartarus Press.  To say nothing of Caitlin R. Kiernan.

As a way to motivate both reading and writing, I thought I’d offer up short critiques and commentary here on The Rot every time I finish a story.  My goal is to read and write about at least one story a week all this year.  That may not sound like a lot, but bear in mind that I’ll have to break down and read some novels as well at some point.  After all, Titan’s publishing at least two Kim Newman books this year.  There’s a new Justin Gustainis due out soon.  Ben Aaronovitch will probably have something as well.  Oh, and I have a day job, too.

The expected spook ship painting coverI’ve just finished ‘The Ghost Pirates’ by William Hope Hodgson, who I mostly know from his Carnacki the Ghost Finder stories.  Somewhat Ironically, this is my most recent book purchase.  I walked into Mysterious Galaxy’s anual New Year’s Day sale with a gift certificate and no notion what I wanted to buy, but after a few minutes of browsing I spotted this on an end-cap and snagged it.  I’d been hunting for this book, off and on, for more than a year, but it was out of print and there were no copies to be found in any of the nearby library systems.  Kudos should go to Night Shade Books for bringing it back, though they deserve some teasing for the cover layout, which is blatant ripoff of the iconic Penguin Classics covers.

At one-hundred pages, ‘Ghost Pirates’ is more of a novella than a short story.  Those hoping for some Curse of the Black Pearl style swordplay are in for a long wait.  The vast majority of the story consists of a series of strange and unlucky shipboard incidents.  These become less explicable, and more lethal, as the story progresses, but it’s not until the final pages that ghostly marauders come swarming up out of the sea to engage the terrified crew in deadly combat.  Hodgson, who was a sailor himself in his youth, lays on the nautical jargon without explaining any of it.  If, like me, you don’t know a spanker from a royal, this can be downright annoying.  In addition, the crew speak in various dialects according to the nationality and station.  These frustrations aside, ‘Ghost Pirates’ succeeds in building an atmosphere of disquiet.  For most of its hundred pages, the reader experiences a sort of queasy expectation, so that it is almost a relief when the worst finally happens.  I look forward to reading some of the shorter works in this collection, though perhaps not immediately.

Dave Hurwitz