Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Amis/Conquest, Spectrum 2 (1962)

Kingsley Amis and Robert Conquest (edd.), Spectrum 2: A second science fiction anthology. Gollancz, 1962.

Reviewed by Djibril al-Ayad.

This is the second of the Spectrum anthologies edited by Amis and Conquest, in which they present a handful of high-quality science fiction stories originally published in the late 1940s or early '50s. These two writers are both known in-genre and respected in literary circles, and part of the agenda behind these anthologies (explicitly recounted in the introduction) is hinted at in the epigraph:
‘Sf’s no good,’ they bellow till we’re deaf.
‘But this looks good.’—’Well then, it’s not sf.’
This volume includes stories by authors as legendary as Aldiss, Asimov, Dick, and van Vogt, as well as luminaries whose names may be less familiar to twenty-first century readers. Pieces range from visionary and thrilling, to silly and dated, but all are important examples of their type, and fit as well into the literature of the mid-twentieth century as they do into the history of the genre. I picked up a battered copy of the Pan paperback reprint of this volume from the £1 clearance shelf in a London bookstore, and this review will be one reader's personal reaction to each of the eight stories within.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Rector, Around a Dark Corner (2008)

Jeani Rector, Around a Dark Corner. Turner Maxwell Books, 2008. Pp. 310. ISBN 9780956188403. £8.99.

Reviewed by Terry Grimwood

This is Jeani Rector’s second collection and an example of an author who is steadily improving and developing her style. She has definitely corrected some of the weaknesses evident in her first collection and moved from the some of the traditional horror tropes it contained to the grey-shadowed, more subtle regions of that gothic land inhabited by the writers of dark fiction.

The anthology opens with a gruesome, amoral and enigmatic tale involving ‘The Dead Man’ and his killer. The reader literally stumbles on an unnamed narrator who is trying to dispose of the corpse of the title. There is a lot of medical detail and the protagonist’s plight is engaging and unnerving, right up until the final, shocking moment.

Following hard on its heels is the rather clumsily titled ‘A Medieval Tale of the Plague’. As a story it is compelling and tense, the atmosphere of fear, the filth and horror of medieval London in the midst of the Black Death is well described and vivid. Tension is cranked up relentlessly as the feisty young heroine first tries to hide from the contagion, then escape the capital. A cracking good yarn, but the effect is spoiled by some very anachronistic and jarring transatlantic language; “I figured...”, “Next street over...” and “Hi...” for example. Not terms used by medieval English - as far as I know. This is a shame because the research and the ambience of the story were authentic up to this point.

‘The Spirit of Death’ is a corker; a tale of seduction and dark and very bloody rituals. Nicely atmospheric this one, and filled with a sense of encroaching doom. In ‘Horrorscope’ we have a disturbed son who is determined to make sure his horoscope comes true at any cost. Again, tightly plotted, well-written and nasty. ‘In any Language’ takes us to Mexico at the time of the American civil war as a deserter comes face to face with a very different violence to the one he has fled south to escaper. The actual horror is traditional, but given a fresh lick of paint by its setting and a lively, energetic telling.

Another disturbed gentleman with an unhealthy interest in ‘Maggots’into a horror of rotting flesh and obsession. There is enough detail and sensory description to make this a story to be avoided at meal time.

‘Flight 529’ is an oddity, a card Rector first revealed in her last collection Open Grave and one I like - the retelling of a true story. In Open Grave it was a personalised version of the genesis of the Ebola epidemic, this time it is the first-hand experience a man involved in a plane crash. The description of the awful realisation that something was very wrong, the terror of the descent, the preparation for imminent impact and the desperate fight for survival that follows all draw the reader in and puts you, white-knuckled, into that seat. The final act of great human courage is both inspiring and as good as any fictional account.

This is followed by my favourite, ‘Lady Cop’. This piece is Terry’s Favourite (I always have one) and a longer, first-person narrative that takes us into the world of a woman police officer. What makes this story stand out is a sense of authenticity and a strong emotional engagement with the protagonist. The cop is a rookie, anxious to impress but treated with disdain by her male partner and colleagues. The case is a nasty one, a murder. Step-by-step the story takes the reader through procedure, emotion, the tension surrounding the case and its brutal dénouement and aftermath. There was a sense of truth about ‘Lady Cop’.

Next is ‘The Golem’ about... well, it does what it says on the tin, and more so because it is a retelling of a Jewish legend. Set in the Prague Ghetto in the 16th century, the story centres around Rabbi Loew who is forced, reluctantly, to take desperate and supernatural action to protect his people from yet another wave of brutal persecution. The problem is that it is very hard to close the door on what comes through from the darker regions. This one is a good historical piece, with no anachronisms or jarring Americanisms. Leow’s dilemma is well presented and the story moves at a cracking pace.

The collection ends with a novella called ‘A Teenage Ghost Story’. Again, a clumsy title that gives too much away because essentially it is about a teenager and... well... a ghost. That said however, the story itself is another compelling, engaging tale that keeps those pages turning. The teenager at the centre of the tale is, thankfully, not the kind of whining, Oh-My-God princess Hollywood throws at us with its endless High School and then-there-were-none slasher movies, but a very personable young lady who quickly wins the reader’s affection. The supernatural element is perhaps not entirely original but the page-turning narrative does draw you in as it races neatly towards this dramatic conclusion.

The cover art is suitably gothic and provides the right feel for the collection. However, I’m afraid the publisher has messed up, certainly with my copy. The spine text is upside-down and off-centre. While not detracting from the stories themselves it doesn’t give the sharp, professional feel necessary to sell a book. And it is unfair to an author who has done her part in laying down some good prose and fine stories. Hopefully this has been rectified.

At her best, with ‘Lady Cop’ for example, Rector displays a keen eye for detail and an ability to engage the reader emotionally with her characters. The same, though to a lesser extent is true of the closing novella. There are some fine dark moments and enough morbid detail and nasty surprises to keep most horror fans happy. There are some predictable endings, but even they can be forgiven because the prose is friendly, likeable, the book is an acquaintance, relating some terrible and dark things that they heard about or experienced.

So, an immensely enjoyable collection of well-plotted and readable stories. There is a mixture of original and traditional–in the horror sense–work, but even the familiar monsters are given a fresh feel and there is no trace of tiredness to them. The historical and real-life re-telling is an interesting string to Rector’s bow, and one I hope she develops further, providing the research and attention to detail–particularly the dialogue–is sound. This is different and works well. Another admirable quality of Rector is that she has taken criticism of her first book on the chin and acted on it to produce a much improved and enjoyable work.

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Monday, April 13, 2009

Dolan, Another Santana Morning (2008)

Mike Dolan, Another Santana Morning. Elastic Press, 2008. Pp. 195. ISBN 9780955318153. £5.99 / $12.99.

Reviewed by Djibril al-Ayad

This collection stands out a little from the usual fare from small press favourite Elastic Press, by having a more laid-back feel than most. The stories collected here by Mike Dolan veer wildly from fantastic, through trippy, magical, realist, to allegorical, with a generous helping of childlike enthusiasm and innocence. A similar collection to this was first published in 1970, but fell victim to an obscure distributor (who specialised in porno rather than sci-fi) and disappeared rather quickly. The author has apparently not been active in science fiction in the intervening years, but he has come back strongly with this volume. In places the writing feels naive, the content perhaps dated (even in the case of previously unpublished pieces), but this is not entirely a bad thing: there is plenty of 1960s and '70s genre fiction that remains relevant and readable to this day, despite being obviously written in a different time.