Saturday, February 19, 2011
TIME CAPSULES classic book reviews by Bill Lindblad
BLUEBEARD'S SEVENTH WIFE by William Irish
"It is the tale, not he who tells it." This quote is central to the Stephen King novella The Breathing Method, and while I have no way of knowing it's possible that the giant of contemporary horror was smiling when he wrote that line. After all, in addition to his famous titles King was then publishing under the name of Richard Bachman... and proving with Bachman's successively larger print runs and popular notice that it was King's storytelling and not merely a lucky book and a movie industry publicity push that brought him success.
That's not the only example of a successful author writing under a pseudonym, though. Dean Koontz wrote under a slew of them. Graham Masterton sold stories as an alter ego, as did Ramsey Campbell, Richard Laymon, Ray Garton, Charles L. Grant and even Richard Matheson.
Back in the pulp era, the practice was even more common than it is today. That's because editors were often desperate for stories to fill their magazines but there were only a few handfuls of dependable writers from whom they could get a publishable story on short notice. Because the editors and publishers knew that readers liked the idea of a variety of authors in a given magazine, pseudonym were developed. Using fake names, a magazine could be written almost entirely by one author while the table of contents would display otherwise. Of course, sometimes an author - particularly a talented one - would produce exemplary work under their pseudonym.
William Irish was just such a writer. He produced crime fiction which showed, even from his first stories, a remarkable facility with language and an eye toward scrambling the conventions of the format. That is because William Irish never existed. He was a construct of veteran noir and crime writer Cornell Woolrich, whose fiction had already garnered significant acclaim and praise.
Bluebeard's Seventh Wife is a 1952 paperback collection that contains six tales by William Irish, five from the thirties pulps and one new story. Surprisingly, the one clunker of the group was the new story, which played with the norms of the mystery story but was obvious in its intended mystery. The other five stories, while somewhat straightforward as a thirty page character-driven story is likely to be, are engaging and enjoyable. They're also not quite as dark as the man's novel-length works, and would be a great introduction for readers who think Jim Thomspon is a little too over the top.
Four stars out of five
ANGEL OF DARKNESS by Samuel M. Key
Samuel M. Key is a doll. Literally, it's a doll - a small monkey doll (Sam the Monkey) that acts as a good luck charm for Charles de Lint and usually hangs onto the side of his guitar case. de Lint chose the pseudonym because of his novel Mulengro, which dealt with darker themes than his typical work. While remaining a character-driven urban fantasy - de Lint's most familiar style - it included more violence and negativity than his typical work, and it disturbed some of his fans, who felt they were lured into the dark places by a typically friendly guide.
The Samuel M. Key name was a way to sidestep that. While making no effort to hide his identity (the books were all listed as copyright Charles de Lint) they enabled him to publish novels that dealt with human evil in a way that respected the story and characters yet also warn his more trepidatious readers away. This was the first of three such novels, written in 1990.
In this case, with central figures to the story being a runaway who is skinned alive so her death noises can be recorded; a beaten and raped woman trying to escape her possessive ex-husband; and a variety of police, most of whom are portrayed as noble (with one corrupt exception) it is not designed to be a happy novel. The creature on the loose is a monster driven by revenge, not justice, and the book serves nicely as an illustration between the two. It is not de Lint's most complex work; his efforts to show just how terrible the fury is and his desire to build and maintain tension both work but undermine the complexity of the storyline. On all other levels the book works beautifully. This is exactly the sort of novel from which many teens would benefit, and it treads the line between adventure-driven novel for adults and philosophically challenging novel for young adults. Not for most young teens or children, excellent for everyone else.
Four stars out of five.
THE COOK by Harry Kressing
Sometimes an author doesn't want to be found. Kressing is a pseudonym, but to this day it's uncertain who is behind the name. The most likely candidate is UK crime writer Nicolas Freeling, with John Fowles considered a possibility as well. Three things are certain. The author is British, the author knows food service, and the author is surprisingly good.
The 1965 story follows the exploits of a top-quality chef as he slowly subverts a well-to-do family in the British countryside. He eliminates the other members of the domestic staff and exerts ever more influence on the family by playing to their weaknesses... pride, curiosity, feelings of insecurity. His is a brilliance to rival that of Professor Moriarty, Hannibal Lecter and other famous villains, but despite his proficiency with a knife, he rarely needs to resort to violence (in fact, there is only one violent scene in the book, and it involves little blood and no death.) Instead he manipulates people and events, always increasing his position and influence.
This is a horror novel, and a parable. It is engrossing, easily enjoyed by the casual reader and yet has depth for the critic. For example, it is a point of contention for any thoughtful reader as to whether the title character is meant to be the Devil; his activities and successes are almost supernatural in their effect but are never beyond what any thoughtful and highly skilled man could do.
It's a book which could be easily dismissed either as an attempt at foodie fiction or an attempt to cash in on the horror craze of the 1980s. In reality it predates both of those trends and does it in a spectacular way.
Five stars out of five.