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the genre's premiere review magazine for short SF & Fantasy since 1993
Novellas, Chapbooks, Misc.


The Product by Marina Fontaine

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The Product

 

by Marina Fontaine

 

(Superversive Press, October 2016, pb, 92 pp.)

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Caresaway by DJ Cockburn

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Caresaway

by

D J Cockburn

 

(Annorlunda Books, Jan. 2017, pb, 86 pp.)

 

Special Double Review by Laura Gobourn & Jen Finelli
 

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The Adventure of the Incognita Countess by Cynthia Ward

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The Adventure of the Incognita Countess”

 

by Cynthia Ward

 

(Aqueduct Press, January 2017, pb, 126 pp.)

 

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The Desolated Orchard by John F. D. Taff

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The Desolated Orchard

 

by John F. D. Taff


(Cutting Block Books, kindle edition June 2016,

print edition forthcoming)

 

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Zen City by Eliot Fintushel

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Zen City

by

Eliot Fintushel

 

(Zero Books, June 2016, pb, 125 pp.)

 

 

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The Sunken Cathedral by John. F. D. Taff

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The Sunken Cathedral

By John F. D. Taff

(Grey Matter Press, August 2015)

 

Reviewed by Stevie Barry

John F. D. Taff's "The Sunken Cathedral" is a disconcerting, gut-wrenching, heartbreaking novella of abuse and survival. The protagonist, Jake, narrates the history of molestation he suffered at the hands of the family priest when he was a child, and the ways in which it quietly destroyed him. Young and sheltered, he does not initially understand what Father Matt really wants of him, but, as a good altar boy, Jake wants to please the priest—no matter how wrong some of his requests might seem. The tale swiftly becomes deeply claustrophobic, and is rendered more complex by the revelation that Father Matt was himself abused by his priest, addressing the fact that, all too often, abuse is cyclical. As an adult, he thinks that perhaps his parents suspected something, because the family stopped going to church, but the issue was never formally addressed—something also all too common in reality.

The sinking of the titular cathedral is something only Jake is witness to, but it could easily also be read as a delusion of his increasingly fractured psyche. He wants to escape, but he is uncertain what it is he must escape from, and the cathedral is not risen from the water until he returns to the source of his personal demons and faces them.

Beautifully written, emotionally draining, this tragic story ends on an uplifting note, leaving the reader—and Jake—with hope rather than despair. Nevertheless, it might be best to have Kleenex on hand before sitting down with this one.

 

Fingerbones by Erzebet Yellowboy

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Fingerbones

 

by Erzebet Yellowboy

 

(Masque Books, May 2015, 81 pp.)

 

Reviewed by Colleen Chen

Fingerbones by Erzebet Yellowboy is a novella told from the points of view of two different women. The first is Nusht, who lives on the island of Karbesh. Inhabited by a group of women left there two or three generations ago, Karbesh's sole connection to the mainland is visits from mute boatmen who come regularly to have sex with those women willing, and to remove any boys born of those encounters. These women suffer from an inevitable wasting sickness that has killed all their mothers and grandmothers.

Nusht, who is experiencing the first symptoms of the sickness, sees that disease as a pattern that they are trapped in. She craves a breaking of that pattern, and this desire finds an outlet in small constructs she randomly makes with driftwood, seaweed and fishbones from the beach. Oddly enough, these constructs seem to come alive when she makes them—moving of their own volition, and when she adds feathers, some of them actually fly. She doesn't understand how this could happen, but she continues to make them, as they symbolize a way out of the pattern of inevitable death they exist in. She makes her constructs, she visits her mother's grave, and she prays.

Fairka is the second focal character of the story. As a child, she was caught trying to steal and had her fingers cut off. Since then, she has had an educated, comfortable life with the priests—comfortable except for the fact that her sole purpose is to serve as a sacrifice when she comes of age. That time is now, and she goes to her execution brimming with resentment, fear, and an overwhelming desire to live.

This latter feeling is what she has in common with Nusht, and it's what binds their paths together. One of Nusht's flying bird-fishbone constructs somehow makes its way into the temple. The instant before Fairka receives her lethal injection, it touches her hands, and a miracle occurs—her fingers burst into existence, fully healed.

She is saved, but only for more indignities, to be subjected to endless research and examination—especially when it's discovered that her hands now have the power to heal any illness or injury on anyone else. This prison is exchanged for yet another when next she is kidnapped and sold. Fairka dreams of vengeance, of bringing plague upon her wrongdoers, as she tries to find a way out. She struggles with both the physical walls and locks that restrain her, and her own naivete about what people are like and what they are capable of. Life keeps showing her that her path has to do with being "mindful of all that we have yet to discover, and to improve upon that which we have."

Fairka's and Nusht's stories alternate chapters, and slowly their fates are drawn together, until they come full circle in a way that feels complete, if somewhat bittersweet.

This novella is very well done. The characters feel alive, and I was moved by both women's predicaments without the use of obvious melodrama in the story's plot points. The writing is even-handed and subtle, with the same sort of inner beauty each of these women exhibited. Fairka is defiant, short-sighted but with strength; and rapidly weakening Nusht has a tenacity to her vision that is fueled by wisdom and compassion. Each woman is hobbled by something they cannot control, and this story shows how they find their peace within a greater matrix of life.

This is a strong, beautiful, yet sobering story, one that isn't escapist despite its fantastic elements. Personal power cannot overcome fate or the natural limitations of the cycles of cause and effect that shape the patterns of the world. Layers of meaning enrich and deepen a story that made me think and feel and take a little of its flavor into my world, once I emerged from its pages. It's not usually what I consciously look for in reading, but when I find it, I truly appreciate it.

 

Paranoia and the Destiny Programme by Richard Godwin

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Paranoia and the Destiny Programme

By Richard Godwin

(Black Jackal Books, March 2015, 71pp.)

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Red Tide by Larry Niven, Brad R. Torgersen, & Matthew J. Harrington

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Red Tide

by

Larry Niven

Brad R. Torgersen

Matthew J. Harrington

(Phoenix Pick, October 2014, 237 pages)

Red Tide” by Larry Niven
Dial at Random” by Larry Niven
Sparky the Dog” by Brad R. Torgersen
Displacement Activity” by Matthew J. Harrington
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The Curious Case of H. P. Lovecraft by Paul Roland

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The Curious Case of H.P. Lovecraft

by Paul Roland

(London: Plexus Publishing Ltd., November 2014. 328 pp.

Trade paperback. UK £14.99. US $19.95)

 

Reviewed by Darrell Schweitzer

Now, before there is any distracting talk of pots and kettles of similar hue, let me be the first to admit that there have been bad books about H.P. Lovecraft before, among the worst of which is my own The Dream Quest of H.P. Lovecraft (1978) which was, I think, fairly enough dismissed by S.T. Joshi as “hardly worth the paper it’s printed on.” It was an attempt at a popular guide, which would condense available scholarship and present it to the beginning reader in an easily palatable form. It wasn’t. The difference between 1978 and now is that a huge amount of progress has been made in Lovecraft studies, so that Paul Roland had a lot more to make a mess out of, and, I am sorry to report, he has.

L. Sprague de Camp’s Lovecraft: a Biography (1975) assembled most of the basic factual data, but was flawed by an attempt to interpret Lovecraft in terms of de Camp’s own prejudices. S.T. Joshi’s several times revised, vastly superior, two-volume I Am Providence (2010) is the product of decades of work. It amplifies and corrects de Camp, and explores Lovecraft thought to such greater depth that it must truly be considered definitive. In the post-Joshian era, of course, more books about Lovecraft will inevitably appear, but all that remains for later commentators is to condense, popularize, or re-interpret what Joshi has done. This is of course possible. Something similar happened with Edgar Rice Burroughs. Irwin Porges’s Edgar Rice Burroughs: The Man Who Created Tarzan (1975) is the vast and definitive tome, but this did not prevent John Taliaferro from producing a very readable and useful condensed version, Tarzan Forever, in 1999.

That Paul Roland is not a particularly compelling writer could be excused if his book contained any real, new insights, but, alas. . . . His approach is thoroughly non-scholarly. Minimal bibliography, no index, no citations for passages quoted from stories and letters. An experienced Lovecraftian will recognize most of them, but for the new reader, these quotes must seem to just pop out of the air. Candidly, the most insightful way to read this book is to do so from the perspective of a knowledge of Lovecraft superior to Roland’s own. This, for anyone who’s kept up at all with Lovecraftian studies, should not be hard to do.

The first enormous, gaping lack we notice is an almost total failure to address what is one of Joshi’s strengths: the explication of Lovecraft’s thought and how his philosophical development influenced his aesthetics. The words “mechanistic materialism” turn up on page 146, but without a good grounding in critical writings outside of this book, you might have no idea what the phrase means or why it is important.

Not necessarily with malice aforethought, but with a thinking sense of disappointment, one starts to take notes. Here are some of mine:

Page 19. HPL’s grandfather was Whipple Van Buren Phillips, not Whipple Van Buren.

Page 41. Roland seems to have no idea what the amateur journalism movement was. Amateur journals with 10,000 readers nationwide? Really?

Page 70. Roland clearly does not understand the Dunsanian echoes in “The Terrible Old Man.” His grasp of Dunsany and Dunsany’s influence on Lovecraft seems slight.

Page 82. It seems unhelpful to compare “Ex Oblivione” with the work of Franz Kafka, since Kafka was unknown in English at the time Lovecraft was writing and Lovecraft never made any mention of him.

Page 109. Just plain bad writing gets Roland into real trouble when he writes that Farnsworth Wright “would reject several of Lovecraft’s most important stories (‘At the Mountains of Madness,’ ‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth,’ and ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ among others), only to accept them at a later date when he was in a more amenable mood.”

To a newcomer this would seem a straightforward statement that Wright rejected, then published “At the Mountains of Madness” and “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” which, as someone who knows Lovecraft better than Roland does (and their ranks will seem to be swelling as you work your way through this book), nothing of the sort ever happened. Only “The Call of Cthulhu,” of the three stories mentioned, was first rejected, then published by Weird Tales. It is another matter entirely that Roland seriously underestimates the abilities and importance of Farnsworth Wright, who, despite excessive concern that too-sophisticated stories wouldn’t go over well with his not-very-bright readership, was the architect of the magazine’s greatness and one of the most important figures in 20th century weird fiction. Without Farnsworth Wright there would have been no market for most of the writings of Lovecraft, or Clark Ashton Smith, or Henry Whitehead, or Robert E. Howard (at least Howard’s fantasy), or so many others.

Page 135. “Lovecraft used no maps” in his creations. Yes he did. His maps of Arkham and Innsmouth are still extant, and have been reproduced many times.

But there is no need to go on like this. Roland begins well enough with a pretty good description of Lovecraft’s childhood and adolescence, but things go downhill rapidly thereafter. This book fails is in any attempt to give a clear sense of Lovecraft’s personality, his outlook, or what much of his life was like. Indeed, after a while, Roland seems to have forgotten he’s writing a biography and goes in more and more for wannabe literary analysis, which is no better than his analysis of character.

Had he contented himself with regurgitating and condensing Joshi, he might have escaped without too much adverse notice, but disaster strikes as he attempts to introduce his own, original ideas. He is in serious trouble by page 33 where he tries to apply a highly dubious diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome to explain both Lovecraft’s social behavior and the lack of conventional characterization in his stories. (Joshi explained the latter in terms of aesthetics, quoting Lovecraft’s letters extensively to identify what Lovecraft thought was important in fiction.) There is an absurd statement on page 145 about Lovecraft’s reluctance to write fiction “on spec.” No, other than such commissioned jobs as the Home Brew stories and “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs,” which was a ghost-writing job for Houdini, every piece of fiction Lovecraft ever wrote was “on spec,” i.e. written without a guaranteed sale in front of him. Lovecraft, the ultimate gentleman amateur, never took such things into consideration before he sat down to write, and any would-be biographer who doesn’t understand that clearly has no understanding of how Lovecraft thought or conducted his career.

On page 144 there is another absurdity, that the alien “colour” in “The Colour Out of Space” is “too abstract to be threatening,” to which, I should think, at least Nahum Gardner and his clan would take exception.

But, enough nitpicking. I have noted on page 134: “shallow Age of Aquarius nonsense – how long ago was 1968?” Bit by bit we get a sinking feeling about Paul Roland, which is hideously confirmed on page 195, when the author suggests that Lovecraft did not take his dreams seriously enough:

Had he studied theosophy or any other spiritual discipline rather than dismissing them out of hand, he would have discovered that what he assumed to be a sense of insignificance was instead an awareness of an infinitesimal but vital part of a greater reality. Vital in the sense that becoming aware of the existence of one’s immortal True Self (also known in the esoteric tradition as the Higher self) cannot but engender a positive attitude and end the illusion of “suffering” – as the Buddhists call it – which stems from our temporary separation from the divine source. It is the realization that the notorious magician Aleister Crowley expressed in the maxim: “Every man and woman a star.”

And the knowledge that while we may be physically separate from other sentient beings, we are at our very essence part of what Jung called the collective unconscious, or what the esotericists term the universal mind. It is this shared pool of past experience and accumulated knowledge that Lovecraft appears to have glimpsed in the deepest phase of sleep. In creating his dark pantheon of gods and monsters he gave form to his readers’ fears of the unknown, both in this world and the one beyond.

Gee, that reminds me of the fan I met once who offered to “prove by logic” that all the lore in the Lovecraft stories was true, and received “telepathically from another dimension.”

The technical term we used to use for such persons is “New Age bozo.” Here Paul Roland out-does de Camp a thousand fold, trying to force his own (very silly, mystical) ideas onto his subject, then taking HPL to task for not being an occultist, as Roland very clearly seems to be. By the way, Lovecraft did know something about Theosophy, though he remarked that its imaginings were far too cheerful for his tastes, and of course he knew that Madame Blavatsky was a humbug. Lovecraft did not just dismiss such notions “out of hand,” but concluded, through careful study and consideration, that they had no validity. The reason he did not recognize any “immortal True Self” or “soul” is that he did not believe in them. To Lovecraft, biological life was an electro-chemical phenomenon of no great consequence in the cosmos at large. His sense of insignificance was just that, a sense of insignificance. That is also the main theme or message of all of Lovecraft’s writings, and Roland apparently doesn’t get it at all.

The whole shoddy construction of The Curious Case of H.P. Lovecraft comes crashing down. While the dust settles, we are surprised to learn (p. 218) that The Outsider and Others has always remained in print, that Ramsey Campbell is a contemporary of Lovecraft, or even (p. 188) that Lin Carter was a woman. Sorry, folks. This book is rubbish. Maybe my The Dream Quest of H.P. Lovecraft wasn’t as bad as this after all. It was merely shallow and sloppy. This is actively misleading.

There is a need for a short, easily readable guide to Lovecraft’s life and work. I can recommend two, the foremost being Joshi’s H.P. Lovecraft: Nightmare Countries (2012) and Peter Cannon’s H.P. Lovecraft in the Twayne Authors Series (1989). But not this. The allegedly special features in the Roland volume aren’t so special either. He reprints HPL’s “History and Chronology of the Necronomicon” as an appendix, but of course that is available elsewhere; and he also includes the original newspaper version of Sonia Greene’s memoir of her marriage to HPL. The newspaper version may have minor textual variances, but the definitive version is in Cannon’s Lovecraft Remembered. There is a brief summary of Lovecraft adaptations in movies, comics, and games, something Joshi did not attempt; but considering the source, hardly trustworthy.

Nothing of interest here. Move along.

 
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