Saturday, December 4, 2010

TIME CAPSULES classic book reviews by Bill Lindblad

DARK CONTINUUM by John E. Muller


Dark Continuum was published by Badger Books in the UK. It was SF #104, which places it as one of their earliest titles, published in 1960. It was not, however, written by John E. Muller. That was a house name. It was, instead, almost certainly written by Lionel Fanthorpe or John Glasby, the two authors who produced nearly the entire run of Badger Books.

The cover is promising. First, there's the title, Dark Continuum. Especially in the sf of the 1950s and 1960s, "Dark" was often a flag that the author was going to put in some horror elements. Then there's the back cover copy: it includes lines like "The menace from Beyond continued to encroach on the civilized planets as it headed steadily earthwards..." (Yes, the publisher capitalized beyond but didn't bother with Earth.) and "Were men fighting a Cosmic Accident or an enormous intelligence from out there...?"

Lastly, there is the cover image. It shows a young woman's head, eyes closed in what appears to be mild pain, being threatened by a floating egg-shaped eye a little smaller than her fist.

It had me at the floating eye.

I'm a sucker for odd monsters. If an author wants to lure me into buying his book, an odd monster is an easy way to do it. Whether it's Richard Lee Byers using Circe as his villain or Don D'Ammassa using a killer gargoyle, it's fun to visit with dangers outside of the typical Universal Monsters headliners, nature gone wild, witches and zombies. A floating eye certainly counts in the odd creature category.

Unfortunately, the story doesn't even remotely live up to the premise. It is pulp stuff - and not the good pulp-era material that betrays its origins with too-perfect heroes and too-awful villains but rather the bad pulp-era material that believes adding "space-" before titles, elements as descriptive adjectives and including unnecessary measurements will add believability to a science fiction story. In other words, it's a typical Badger book.

Badger produced a slew of lousy books, with a bare handful rising to the "better than average" range. They were, in their way, the all-genre opposite of the early days of the Dell Abyss line; rather than take chances and publish with as much of an eye toward the style of writing or the idea behind the story, they'd crank out boilerplate books and market them with interesting covers.

In this case, the story involved odd incidents like electromagnetic waves being altered remotely and thought projection, until finally the mental images of a giant eye shift to the arrival of an actual giant eye in the solar system.

Against this, we have a space-captain, a young woman scientist, and a rabbitlike creature found on the surface of Jupiter. The rabbit is actually a descendant of colonists from a spacefaring alien race and it possesses incredible mental powers, being both telepathic and superintelligent.

The plot is rather tightly and logically structured. This is the only place where the book succeeds. The characters act irrationally as required to further the plot in a specific direction, the motivations of the characters make no objective sense, and for a science fiction book with a partial focus on that subject there is remarkably little that can be called anything but pseudo-science. Even the cover, which made me suspect that egg-shaped floating eyes were on the attack, is deceptive.

I started this review by referencing an old internet meme, the badger song. I'll close it with a newer one. Fail book.

One star out of five.


I'm not a fan of wine. I recognize its magnificent aspects... the subtleties of flavor involved in a vintage, the different tastes available from different originating grapes, the marriage with certain foods, its ability to cleanse a palate, its mild health benefits and of course its alcohol content. But I've never enjoyed it.

Similar credits can be granted fine cheeses, which I do like. It would be an abomination to compare Tanith Lee's work with cheese, however; it is wine, of the literary sort.

This Arkham House collection harkens from 1986, when AH was well into its modern phase and publishing not only horror but also science fiction and fantasy. As such, this collection includes a spread of Lee's work across all three of those related fields. This is part of the book's majesty but it introduces a risk to the reader. The stories are all beautifully constructed, but Lee's attractive writing style, which seems like a modernization of the classic fantasy structure, colors everything. On the positive side, it seems like what William Morris would be trying to write like were he alive today. On the negative side, her colorful imagery and character-heavy storytelling result in a perceived similarity of setting. Her science fiction sounds like her imaginative fantasy, and even her modern stories like the beautiful and award-winning "The Gorgon".

Here the analogy continues. Just as a great bottle of wine should not be consumed at a single sitting but rather enjoyed with a multitude of diverse meals, these stories should not be read at a single sitting, but rather interspersed between other readings. Read sequentially, later stories lose some of their delicate strength.

Five stars out of five.

DR. DEATH - 12 MUST DIE by Zorro

This column started with a house name; it ends with a pen name. "Zorro" was actually Harold Ward, an accomplished but not exemplary pulp author whose primary fiction of note was published in Weird Tales during the Twenties and Thirties. In 1935 he created Dr. Death for an eponymous magazine.

The character was utterly unbelievable in the vein of the best pulp stars - a maniacal scientist who has decided that the world is too industrialized and is attempting to return humanity to a primitive state. To this end he has become the world's greatest occultists (a bit of a shift from being one of the world's preeminent scientists) and is using zombis (no e), elementals, and other mystical servants in association with his scientific discoveries to bend the United States to his will.

Unfortunately for Ward, the pulp-reading public was not particularly interested in a combination of Dr. Fu Manchu and the Unabomber. It might have been the concept - while the maniacal mastermind stories were successful at the time, there was a surfeit of such stories both intended as continuing series and stand-alone tales. In this case, the character, while distinctive, was not particularly appealing and the character motivation was disjointed.

Here's an example. From the titular character to the hero of the piece, in Chapter Six:

""God gave us a world on which to live - a beautiful world. He made it perfect. And we, His creatures, have presumed to improve upon His work! Millions of men have died fighting for a principle; nations have gone to war over a scrap of paper. Think you then that the deaths of a dozen -yea, even a hundred men - will be counted against one who seeks to bring the world back to its original state?"

Pretty aggressive, but reasonable for a would-be dominator of the world. Pretty high on his own religious sanctimony, though. Which is surprising considering his quote from the next short chapter: "You see, the Almighty's plan has gone wrong. The devil and I have a better one. My mind possesses the power to raise the dead. You have seen it demonstrated."

So... he's the ultimate Holy Roller who just happens to be a Satanist. This is typical for the book. It seems like it was written in pieces in between other works by the author, and considering how many stories many of the pulp writers typically juggled at once, that may be exactly what happened.

With proper editing, it might have been a better story. Instead this story, which first appeared in magazine format in 1935 and was reissued by Corinth in 1966, is a qualified failure.

Two out of five stars.

--Bill Lindblad