Sunday, July 4, 2010
TIME CAPSULES classic book reviews by Bill Lindblad
THE DAY THEY H-BOMBED LOS ANGELES by Robert Moore Williams.
Ladies and gentlemen, introducing the father of the modern zombie story, Robert Moore Williams.
That’s probably going too far… after all, this story does have antecedents. But let’s see what was included in this 1961 paperback science fiction novel:
1) Single-minded horde attacking remnants of humanity, check.
2) Cannibalistic, check (no brain-eating, unfortunately).
3) “fast” enemies who can move at regular human speeds, check.
4) Group of people holed up in one location trying to fight off the horde, check.
5) No immediate reason given for the zombies, but multiple theories, check.
6) The individuals of the horde showing immunity to pain and fear, check.
Hell, you even have not just one, but three atomic bombs being dropped on a major city.
If ever a book screamed for a rewrite, this is it. The book is written very competently, don’t misunderstand… but it is an early 1960s science fiction / horror novel. That means there is no notable on-camera gore. While some significant violence happens, it’s typically covered in an intentionally casual way (“From these hidden spots, they poured a stream of deadly rifle fire at the zombies surging through the door. The result was slaughter. Bodies of zombies who had once been men piled high in the doorway.”) More gruesome violence is done off-camera, so the protagonists can discover the results (as with a half-eaten female corpse.)
It’s also very traditional in its story structure, to such a degree that it greatly diminishes the strength of the book. While the survivors are banding together to form a defense, the male protagonist (who doesn’t seem to have any real flaws) discovers an idealized “average woman” female counterpart and the pair of them inevitably fall in love. The internal group conflicts which are strongly suggested in the first chapter quickly fall by the wayside, with only like-minded people managing to gather together. Also, as was demanded by post-Campbell science fiction, an eventual explanation had to be provided, and it had to pass a theoretical science basis.
Considering the publishing standards for science fiction at the time, I doubt Williams could have gotten a gorier, darker-toned book published. That said, the book falls somewhere between a Heinlein-style juvenile and an adult novel. It is very notable for its time of publication… as mentioned, it mixed a lot of ideas which, if not original, certainly were rarely used in 1961.
Williams died in 1977. If he’d survived to the horror boom of the 1980s, I imagine he could have updated this book and it would be ranked among the best. Unfortunately, he didn’t, and I’m rating real books, not imaginary ones.
Three stars out of five.
THE HAUNTED GRANGE by R. Chetwynd-Hayes
Robert Moore Williams is one of the unsung writers of the golden age of science fiction. R. Chetwynd-Hayes is one of the unsung masters of the modern horror story.
Granted, that’s only in the US. He was appreciated in his native UK, and with good reason. The guy was fantastic.
You can pick up just about any of his books and be entertained. A good US counterpart for him would be Robert Bloch, and in fact the movie company Amicus decided to use a number of his stories for a horror anthology film (From Beyond the Grave) just as they produced Asylum using Bloch stories. Some of his lesser stories felt overly familiar, because they trod ground he’d covered before. They were always enjoyable, however, and his best were remarkable.
And then there was Clavering Grange.
We’ve got Stephen King’s various Maine towns, and Lovecraft’s Massachusetts. We’ve got Charlie Grant’s wonderful Oxrun Station and Gary Braunbeck’s disturbing Cedar Hill. But only Chetwynd-Hayes successfully wrote a series of books and stories not focused on a string of cities or even a town, but rather a single mansion.
One mansion, Clavering Grange, which had ghosts both in the past and the future, where merely destroying the physical didn’t necessarily impact the immaterial. Vampire stories, monster stories, tales of insanity, of haunting, of vengeance… the author had fun with the setting, and it’s very much worth hunting down any of these tales. The least of them is elevated above average reading, if only because of the intricate webbing of story construction, each one fitting just perfectly into the others.
The Haunted Grange tells the story of a boy who comes to work at the Grange because of his resemblance to the dead daughter of the current Master and Lady. He slowly becomes attuned to the house, and in so doing loses his history and his association to reality as the house claims him. It’s a thoughtful novel, philosophical in parts and thrilling in others, while at it’s core it is a combination of the modern coming-of-age novel and the ghost stories of the previous century.
It’s 184 pages of hardcover awesome, wrapped in an imitation Gorey cover reminiscent of the Scholastic book club circa 1980. Forget the cover art and go for the book inside, you won’t be disappointed.
Five stars out of five.
AND THEN THERE WERE NONE by Agatha Christie
This story from 1944 has become synonymous with a style of mystery in which a large group of characters gets whittled away, one by one. It’s probably not unfair to argue that a factor in why it has become so famous is because of the author; well before she wrote this, Christie had become one of the best loved English writers.
That said, the story is expertly constructed. It’s a relatively short novel, in which we are introduced to ten characters, each distinctive, and are given a chance to become familiar with their personalities and flaws before the characters start to die. It’s not long before the survivors recognize that one of them must be a killer. Or, rather… “the” killer; all ten of the people brought to the island are already guilty of murder, in one manner or another, and it is likely that the current killer has targeted them for that point of commonality. I say likely, because that is one of the strengths of the book… all is supposed by the surviving cast, but nothing is certain. There are no messages from the killer beyond the steadily declining number of small figurines present in the dining room. In fact, the full answer is revealed at the end, but it is done in the form of an epilogue, in the only manner which truly works for the story.
I’ve never been a fan of Christie‘s mysteries, and this book exemplifies why. The explanation makes complete sense, but there are few real clues as to how things are occurring; it’s typical of her work, where the trick is to figure out a possibility which is not eliminated by the provided evidence. This runs counter to the traditional detective novel format, and I have to admit that it’s far more challenging; it undoubtedly provides more enjoyment to the mystery fan who’s become so familiar with the field that they have learned to anticipate murderers, motives and mechanisms by page fifty.
The book works on all levels, though; the ingenious puzzle is not distracting because the reader gets to focus on the people being targeted and their efforts to evade their dooms.
The book also has some interesting baggage. First, the play and movie version vary significantly from the book, and the video game version varies as well; killers, victims, and motivations all differ between the formats. Also, the story has gone through multiple editorial changes; the original story as published in Britain included a racial epithet viewed more harshly in the US than in the UK at the time; upon translation to America, “Ten Little N-s” became “Ten Little Indians” (which in 2004 was again changed to “Ten Little Soldiers”.)
Depending on which version you encounter, you could read the book under three different titles and with at least four different editorial presentations. In any of them it’s worth reading.
Five stars out of five.