Sunday, July 7, 2024

Jackal, Jackal, by Tobi Ogundiran

Jackal, Jackal is a collection of some eighteen stories ("tales of the dark and fantastic" according to the book's subtitle) by Nigerian physician and writer Tobi Ogundiran, who wrote his first two stories (both collected herein) as recently as 2017. There is a welcome variety of types of stories in this collection, which mixes African cultural aspects with a wide range of Western literary tropes. Stephen King is evoked in a number of stories, while others play with fairy tales or fairy tale characters (e.g., Hansel and Gretel, or Baba Yaga). and one (the final story, "The Goatkeeper's Harvest") is Lovecraftian without mentioning silly Mythos names. All are well-written, and engaging. This is Ogundiran's first book (a fantasy novella is due out in July 2024), making for a strong debut. 

Sunday, May 26, 2024

Triggered Literature, by John Sutherland

This is an odd book, covering some aspects of the cancellation and censorship that some would impose upon literature, of which trigger warnings (about potentially uncomfortable content) is amongst the worst. John Sutherland writes from the bemused position of an old literary man, taking various examples from the daily newspapers and recounting them, putting (needed) context around the texts, but never really taking a stand for denouncing the busybodies who want to erect barriers or put up prohibitions between people and the books they might want to read. Which is not to say this is a bad book per se. There is a lot of interesting context on various challenged books. But Sutherland's overall attitude seems like that of someone who doesn't want to stir the pot. Too bad.

Sunday, March 24, 2024

The Imagination Chamber, by Philip Pullman

In addition to Philip Pullman's substantial fantasies, His Dark Materials (three volumes) and The Book of Dust (two volumes published, the third, at present, forthcoming), Pullman has published some short companion volumes to the series. These are small illustrated books--Lyra's Oxford, Once Upon a Time in the North, Serpentine, and The Collectors-- basically short stories published on their own. Now comes The Imagination Chamber: Cosmic Rays from Lyra's Universe, which is pure commercial product. The publisher claims that "this is a book like no other"--that much is true--and "it contains untold riches"--the emphasis should be on "untold" for nothing told here contains any riches.  Furthermore, the publisher boasts: "Every page will give you an exciting glimpse into Lyra's world. Every page will give you an astonishing insight into the storytelling mind of Philip Pullman."  Well, the book is 87 pages, but (with one exception in the short foreword) all left-hand pages are completely blank, and the right-hand pages have usually one small paragraph of text (at most four paragraphs) that seem to be passages pulled out of Pullman's various drafts of the manuscripts of the books he has already published. The text is unburdened by illustrations. Very disappointing overall, and the only insight I found is to wonder why Pullman should have seen fit to publish such a blatant rip-off of his readers. Haven't his other books sold enough copies? Is he really in need of more money?

Sunday, March 17, 2024

Crampton, by Thomas Ligotti and Brandon Trenz

In 1998 Thomas Ligotti and Brandon Trenz wrote a spec-script for an episode of The X-Files, but efforts to get it read by the television show's producers were unsuccessful. A few years later, they removed all references to the tv show and expanded the script into a feature-length screenplay. Both versions were titled Crampton, and the feature-length screenplay has just been reprinted in an elegant limited edition. Though some of Ligotti's surface-level obsessions (mannequins, degenerate small towns, etc.) appear in the screenplay, what's missing are the qualities of Ligotti's prose that make his fiction so good. Reduced to mere dialogue, there isn't much worth experiencing here, and less for any quality actors to grab onto. Sure, with special effects, this screenplay might have made a passable B-grade movie, but with the stock characters and a contrived, unsatisfying ending, one wonders if a B-grade film is the highest this work could aspire to be. I wanted to like this, but must sadly admit it simply isn't very good.

Sunday, March 3, 2024

Possessions and Pursuits, by John Howard and Mark Valentine

This is the third and final collection of stories, written by John Howard and Mark Valentine (separately, not in collaboration), influenced by the supernatural themes in the metaphysical thrillers of Charles Williams published in the 1930s-40s. John Howard contributes a novella "Fallen Sun" about the competition for the recently re-discovered mirror of Byzantium, which takes one to an alternate reality. Mark Valentine contributes two short stories: "Masque and Anti-Masque" describes an unusual seasonal festival in a small university town; while "The Prospero Machine," set in a resort town, finds odd magic recurring through the work of a strange Mazzaroth Society. All three stories are finely conceived and executed, bringing this admirable series to a high point in conclusion. The three slim volumes, all published in limited editions, would make an excellent trade paperback omnibus for wider distribution and readership.

Sunday, February 18, 2024

White Cat, Black Dog, by Kelly Link

Kelly Link's stories are often inspired, in some small or large way, by fairy tales, but they are modern stories and in no way emulations of the classic fairy tales. White Cat, Black Dog is her fifth collection, and it contains seven stories, the first concerns a white cat, and the last a black dog, thus giving rise to the book's title.  And it follows the flow of a typical story collection--the first few stories are high spots, and so is the end tale, while the lesser ones (lesser in the sense of being only slightly less good than the others) come in the middle.  The final story, "Skinder's Veil" (slightly associated with "Snow-White and Rose-Red), is the high point of the book.  It original appeared in an Ellen Datlow anthology a few years ago, When Things Get Dark: Stories inspired by Shirley Jackson. Though I highly recommend White Cat, Black Dog, if you read or sample only one of Link's stories, I'd suggest everyone try "Skinder's Veil."

Sunday, February 4, 2024

Saturnalia, by Stephanie Feldman

Saturnalia is set in a near future Philadelphia in an America that has been much altered by climate change. The city is now host to various pagan clubs and secret societies, with social climbers and elites mixing together, some with aims of getting a very valuable ticket out to somewhere safe. They hope to accomplish this via occult means, involving the successful creation of a homunculus, and a frightening mandragora. The story involves a small number of friends and former-friends, all with murky motivations that seem to shift a bit too easily. The main narrative depends upon something which happened three years earlier, but which is only gradually revealed to the reader via flashbacks. The prose is solid, and the plotting compelling and hallucinatory, as the novel enfolds over a short span of time. A few loose ends remain, but overall I very much enjoyed this book, especially in its opening up of a new world of occultism at play in a ravaged future.