Thursday, February 4, 2010

TIME CAPSULES classic book reviews by Bill Lindblad

by Bill Lindblad

THE BEST OF C.M. KORNBLUTH ed. By Frederik Pohl

This is a collection of nineteen stories, released in 1976 by Ballantine books. The stories were written in the 1940s and early 1950s and published in various science fiction magazines. The cover of the paperback edition reflects those origins, selecting a scene from one of his tales which displays a large array of shining metallic rockets in the background.

The hardback, however, uses a different image. On that cover, a young boy stands in the foreground, face and arms colored as if in a photo negative. Bat wings sprout from his back. The top of his skull is missing, instead housing a brain five times the size of the remainder of his head; at the center of the brain is a large lidless eye, and out of the top of the head spring tentacles like those of a squid.

Both pictures are accurate. The hardback image is an interpretation of the protagonist from “The Words of Guru”… although it could also be argued to be the main character of The Mindworm. The paperback edition is from The Marching Morons; what a casual viewer would not guess is that the beautiful rockets are not there to explore the universe or save mankind from an invading fleet, but instead have a dire function.

Kornbluth wrote science fiction, true. But he wrote some of the darkest, most disturbing stories to come out of the pulp era. They contrasted well with the hopeful expectations which suffused most of the sf stories of the time, and they typically displayed a playful wit. They are nothing short of wonderful, and the short time span of his writing (he wrote extensively after his return from WWII, but his heart injury kept him from seeing his thirty-fifth birthday) makes me wonder how much was lost by his passing. He was that good; by the time the book was over, I was left thinking about not only the stories but the man himself.

The collection was edited by Frederik Pohl, himself an accomplished and critically lauded author. Pohl was one of Kornbluth’s closest friends, his primary collaborator, and was one of the editors to whom Kornbluth submitted stories in the 1940s. This allows for interesting forewords to each of the stories, providing another dimension to the collection and raising it above other compilations of Kornbluth’s work.

If you aren’t familiar with this author, you should hunt down some of his work. Thankfully, he has had multiple critical revivals, the last coming after the release of the movie “Idiocracy” (obviously inspired by, but far lighter in tone than, The Marching Morons) and books of his aren’t particularly expensive. That said, if you can locate a copy of his “Best Of”, I strongly recommend you start there.

Five stars out of five.

SATAN’S MISTRESS by Brian McNaughton

Anyone here remember Brian McNaughton?



The man won a World Fantasy Award for The Throne of Bones, beating out both Ray Bradbury and Peter S. Beagle, among others. I’ve read that book. It deserved its win. The man could conjure with words, and while most of the stories seemed to owe their existence to Clark Ashton Smith that is not to say they were inferior; rather, it was as if someone had managed to locate an attic trunk full of Smith’s stories, the ones he had composed while communing through time and space with a guy named John Skipp.

The man deserves to be remembered.

This book, however….

To say Satan’s Mistress, released in paperback in 1980, isn’t McNaughton’s strongest work is an understatement. What it was, however, was ambitious. I know it was edited by the publisher, and there is a re-issue by Wildside Press under the original title Downward to Darkness. I’m tempted to pick it up to see if some of the failings of the novel were due to heavy editing, but I’m kept at bay because I’ve already read the story once, and some of the failings were undoubtedly those of the writer.

First, the basics: Ignore the title. Satan enters into the story merely in the form of being worshipped by a group of Satanists who live up the road. They barely enter into the tale, not even being used as a red herring for suspense. There is no Mistress involved, either, although the opening chapter sets a perfect stage for one. So, for those keeping track, in Satan’s Mistress there is no Satan and no Mistress.

What there is is an attempt to blend the popular Suburban Horror story of the 1970s with H.P. Lovecraft. If this were being pitched as a film, it would be The Case of Charles Dexter Ward meets Rosemary’s Baby.

Like I said, ambitious. If McNaughton had attempted to write the same book a decade later, he would likely have produced something magnificent. Instead, the need to work to a rough page count (it’s rare to see a horror novel which was overly streamlined, but this book needed 300 pages of average type, not the 250 large-type pages it received) caused many of the flaws. It’s ultimately a character-driven piece, but the relationships of those characters are often left to the reader’s imagination. There is simply not enough interaction of key players to make the story sing, or to grant the ending any sort of punch.

It’s not a great book. It’s a good book, which could have been above average (and, giving the Wildside Press edition its due, may yet be above average in its original format) but which instead is fitful and uneven.

That said, don’t forget about this guy. He produced some wonderful material.

Three stars out of five.

THE VOYEUR by Alain Robbe-Grillet

This is the second most annoying excellent book I’ve ever read. The first was Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea’s Illuminatus! Trilogy, a book which gave me physical headaches trying to keep track of all of the multitudinous characters and activities. It was great fun, however, learning who killed Kennedy… and who really killed Kennedy… and who really, really, really killed Kennedy… and that Jesus taught the disciples to play Bingo….

This book isn’t nearly so much fun. But it is beautifully crafted, and is a great example of methodical book construction. I can’t really say “story” construction, because most of the story is left to the reader. The novel presents the experiences of a watch salesman on a small island, providing the reader only with the view of the main character. It does not clearly differentiate between his time being attentive toward his surroundings or his frequent vivid daydreams.

Because the daydreams are presented with the same weight as his other perceptions, they are afforded the equal weight of his current experiences and his memories. It is impossible to determine with certainty what he has or has not done, only that we, as the readers, are along for the ride through the mind of a disturbed individual.

Everything about the novel is inconclusive, but not in the standard, “dreamlike” method used by most narratives to indicate dubious results. This effect is exacerbated by the intent of the writer, which was that the work should be read without any interpretations of symbolism. What is presented to the reader is what is; that is the launching point, and the end, of the story.

This is not a book for casual reading. The first thirty pages, for example, are used to set the stage for the format of the book in the way that introductory passages typically set the stage for the story. As a result, during the first seventh of the book the character barely moves, instead merely observing things…. Sometimes the same thing which was observed a few paragraphs before.

It is a strong novel, and a disquieting one. Recommended for those seeking a different horror/thriller experience.

Five stars out of five.

--Bill Lindblad