Sunday, December 4, 2011

TIME CAPSULES classic book reviews by Bill Lindblad

WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE by Shirley Jackson (1962)

It is hard to say who stakes a greater claim to Shirley Jackson: the horror community or the literary community. An argument for the latter can be found in the inclusion of The Lottery in American Literature texts of nearly every high school in the county. An argument for the former can be heard at conventions throughout the world and online discussion forums whenever the subject of female horror writers emerges.

She belongs to both worlds, that is certain. While she produced (and eventually collected) essays about family life, she is known primarily for her moody works of isolation and alienation and not as a progenitor of Erma Bombeck. This, her last novel from 1962, is primarily a character study, and it displays her talents with a dark beauty.

The story centers around the two Blackwood sisters, Constance and Mary Katherine. They have survived a tragedy: the arsenic poisoning of the remainder of the family, all but one of whom died. They live with the other survivor, their impaired uncle. The novel focuses on the efforts of the sisters to live peacefully in a small town where they are ostracized due to the stigma of the deaths, for which Constance has been blamed. The interaction with the townspeople, the uncle, and their estranged cousin Charles comprise the body of the novel.

If you're looking for excessive violence, you'll be disappointed. There is almost no violence in the book and in fact there is little dynamic activity. Instead the reader is treated to subtle studies in agoraphobia and abnormal psychology, all amidst a setting that creates a haunting sensation of foreboding and maintains it throughout the novel. It is a quiet work of brilliance, both as horror and literature.

Five stars out of five.

A BUNDLE OF NERVES by Joan Aiken (1976)

Joan Aiken is best known for her contributions to children's literature, but she enjoyed dwelling in the shadows on occasion. This is a 1978 collection of some of her early horror pieces, and in it she provides a bevy of short works which range from merely odd to strangely humorous to simply unpleasant. They are written in the style of the short mystery story of the 1970s, where a payoff is presented at the end of the tale, but there is also no overt gore or violence. As such, the stories can be read and enjoyed by young adults, by horror fans and by mystery fans alike.
The stories are set in various parts of Britain, and while she rarely uses the location as an additional character for a story the language and reactions of the characters are realistic and as such are evocative of Britain. The result is a collection of works which are accessible and enjoyable for English readers throughout the world, but maintaining a distinctive British feel.

Aiken leaves few stones unturned. In the pages are found cannibals, werewolves, trolls, magicians, aliens, witches and many more classical horror dangers. The stories have a stylistic consistency which borders on the formulaic, making the collection smoothly readable but which results in an unfortunate sense of similarity even among disparate tales. It is a criticism, but it is a minor one.

Four stars out of five.

NEW LIFE FOR THE DEAD by Alan Rodgers (1991)

Originally published twenty years ago in 1991, this short collection contains five stories, each bracketed by poetry. The common theme to the works is the dead; not death, necessarily, but dead bodies. In a manner reminiscent of Nancy Kilpatrick's ever-inventive takes on the vampire, Rodgers spins stories and poems that seem related but never repetitive.
The book's strongest pieces, to me, are the first and third stories: The Boy Who Came Back from the Dead and Emma's Daughter. The first of them is brilliant, blurring the line between fairy tale and modernist short fiction and doing so within the confines of science fantasy. Emma's Daughter features cancer as a character in and of itself in a way I have rarely seen achieved as effectively (the exception that springs to mind is "Big C" by Brian Lumley in the Lovecraft's Legacy anthology.) The other stories and poems are carefully and effectively crafted, however, and I am certain that if polled, other readers would choose other works as the best in the book. It is a remarkably even collection, and a desirable addition to any horror reader's shelves.

That said, it is unpleasantly short. The entire book is under 140 pages, and with the exceptional quality of the stories I was left wanting more. I expect other readers will feel the same.

Four stars out of five.

--William Lindblad