Monday, October 4, 2010

TIME CAPSULES classic book reviews by Bill Lindblad


There is a school of thought which says that Lovecraftian stories are at their best when good and evil are completely removed from the equation; that the alien menace ascribed to the creatures of the Mythos derives potency from being detached from humanity. We are not their enemies; rather, we are barely vital enough to be noticed. These are beings not to be fought, but avoided.

It is undeniable that many stories written from that viewpoint are among the best of the Lovecraft-inspired works. But, just as I enjoy both quiet horror and splatter punk (subject to the quality of the stories) I can enjoy both the fully alien and the good/evil Mythos stories, provided they’re done well.

This story seems at first glance to fall into the second style… the stories of Derleth and Lumley, where ancient entities and races both good and evil war with mankind caught in the crossfire. Upon consideration, though, I believe it falls more into the first group.

This is a true sequel to The Colour Out of Space, updated for the 1984 audience. Yes, there is a malign entity involved… truly malign, not merely dispassionately consumptive. But I believe it still falls into the first group of stories because there is no alternate “good”. We are left without any sense of any supernatural or alien forces arrayed with mankind either as aide or guardian; the closest the author comes is introducing Elder Signs for protection. It fleshes out one of Lovecraft’s more tangential Mythos stories without undermining it; instead of dealing with an adult “colour”, we see what form is taken by one of them in a larval stage, and what it might do.

We also see Shea, at the height of his imitative efforts (he could also write a great Jack Vance-style story, as shown by his World Fantasy Award winning Nifft the Lean) producing a story that could have been narrated by any of Lovecraft’s scholarly protagonists. The story itself couldn’t have been produced by Lovecraft, however. Certainly the fates of some of the characters could have come straight from the pages of Weird Tales, but I can’t imagine Farnsworth Wright allowing some of the action, nor can I imagine Lovecraft penning it. This is an appreciation, and a sequel, but not a straight pastiche.

And, amidst the building mood and the bursts of action, Shea shoehorned a positive appraisal of the man whose work inspired the short novel. It’s a bit of literary trickery that not only works, but actively furthers the plot.

The worst thing I have to say about this book is that it is short; I expect that was intentional, meant to mimic the brevity of Lovecraft’s own novels or parallel the original story. When the worst thing I have to say about a book is that I wished there were more of it, that’s an indication I enjoyed the book.

That said, it is neither groundbreaking nor unusually engrossing. It is a much better than average short piece by one of the best modern fantasists.

Four stars out of five.

BEAST IN VIEW by Margaret Millar

In 1955, Margaret Millar wrote this crime/detective novel. In 1956, it won the third Edgar award for best novel.

More than fifty years later, it is still an effective story. It is a psychological thriller, opening with a young shut-in getting threatened by an unknown woman on the phone, then follows a lawyer as he conducts an investigation on the terrorized woman’s behalf. The trail he follows is not long, as one might expect from this style of story. The person he is hunting is not playing cat-and-mouse; rather, she is merely manipulative, clever, and homicidal. The question becomes who she is going to assail, and how, and when. She uses the investigator’s own actions as a lever to push people in the direction she wishes them to go. And all the time, the lawyer learns more, getting closer to his quarry….

Two things set this story apart. One is the writing: it is terse but not clipped, with realistic dialogue that never feels like mandatory story exposition. Two is the story hook, which I will not reveal but which has become, over time, a familiar concept to mystery writers. Again, however, this is from 1955, back when the hook in question was an unexpected novelty. Just as I would not criticize Dracula for using a conventional style of vampire, I will not criticize this book… instead, I will merely praise it for what it was, and what it remains.

Five stars out of five.

SOFT AND OTHERS by F. Paul Wilson

This collection from 1989... F. Paul Wilson’s first collection of short fiction… is not truly a horror collection; rather, it contains both horror and science fiction stories (and, rarely, one which fits into both categories.)

As such, it’s an oddity. Its science fiction stories are such that they should earn this book a place on the shelves of any sf fan. “Lipidleggin’” alone is accurately predictive enough that it should earn the author accolades. “Ratman” is a classical sf puzzle story. Other stories are equally impressive. However, the quality of the sf stories aside, the horror stories are such that they should earn this book a place on the shelves of any horror fan.

The title story, “Soft”, is a masterpiece of subtle horror, despite such scenes as a character’s jaw falling off. It’s also effective as a snapshot of the AIDS fears of the late 1980s. “Cuts” is a reminder of just how righteously offended F. Paul Wilson was by the abomination that became of his masterwork novel The Keep when adapted to film. “Buckets” is a story that seems designed to either start or end conversations, and possibly friendships. This is powerful stuff, and to make the package even better F. Paul Wilson includes a short introduction before each story, providing background information about its publication history and/or the circumstances of the story’s production.

Five stars out of Five.

--Bill Lindblad