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Underground Reading: Please Write for Details by John D. MacDonald

Please Write for Details - John D MacDonaldPlease Write for Details was first published as a hardback (unusual for early John D. MacDonald) in 1959. The paperback edition, a Fawcett Gold Medal, hit the shelves in 1960. 

Despite his prolific output, Please Write for Details is one of MacDonald's rare excursions into comedy, for this normally somber author. Based in Mexico, the book tells the trials and titillations of a group of American at the "Cuernavaca Summer Workshop".

The 'art' workshop, the brainchild of a particularly mousy expatriate and his bemused millionaire benefactress, is a mess from the start. The aging hotel location is a shambling ruin, staffed by petty thieves and amateur prostitutes. The two instructors - a painter of mall-art watercolor kitsch and a bombastic failed professor - are polar opposites, each completely worthless in their own distinctive way. And none of the dozen students - all American and silly - are actually there to learn a thing about art.

Some of the best - and the funniest - characters are those that are least seen. A pair of nauseating newlyweds never fails to elicit giggles at their sappy romantic antics (including a truly horrific tendency to feed one another at the dinner table). Similarly, the cannon-voiced old Colonel is hilarious from start to finish - he's on a mission to paint TERRAIN, and has painted hundreds of famous battle-fields, all 'uncluttered' by soldiers and other such nuisances.

Most of the humor, predictably, comes from romantic shenanigans. The book is a cross between "Noises Off" and "Carry On, Mexico". It is worth noting, however, that JDM very carefuly keeps the shenanigans romantic and not sexual. In fact, by the conclusion of Please Write for Details, the reader has absorbed a lengthy morality play, with many a judgement passed on those who (cough, blush) commit acts of carnal sin.

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Underground Reading: S*E*V*E*N by John D. MacDonald

Seven S*E*V*E*N is a collection of seven short stories by John D. MacDonald. Four of the stories had been previously published in Playboy between 1967 and 1970, and S*E*V*E*N first hit the shelves in 1971, published by Fawcett as a Gold Medal paperback.

Six of the seven stories are essentially short vignettes into the alternatingly brutally-realistic and blackly-comedic world of John D. MacDonald (the exception is "The Annex", which is one of MacDonald's rare pieces of science fiction).

Although there's no ostensible theme to the collection (in fact, it comes devoid of foreward, afterword, or any sort of introduction), the stories are all connected by MacDonald's experimentation with the role of perception and the unreliable narrator. 

In each of the stories, the ultimate twist (or twists) stems from a revelation that the primary story-teller (or story-tellers) is untrustworthy.

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Underground Reading: Suburban High School by George Savage

Suburban High SchoolSuburban High School, by George Savage, was published in 1962 by the Beacon-Signal publishing line. Beacon-Signal also gave the world Commuter Widow, Frigid Wife, The Office Game and Virgins No More. 

Suburban High School, if you'll forgive the pun, is predictably classless. Set in the fictional Anytown, USA suburb of Freemont, it tells the amorous adventures of Frank Miller (no relation), the new match teacher.

Frank quickly learns that the affluent suburb is a hotbed of scandal. There's quite a bit of good-old fashioned political intrigue going on in sleepy Freemont. Affluent parents are bribing and threatening teachers and coaches into giving their children good grades and the starting QB's slot. The aging principal is about to retire, so the (male) teachers are all viciously jockeying for position, often by spreading poisonous rumors.

And then there's the sex.

Frank roughly adheres to some sort of flexible moral code that allows him to condemn the community of Freemont while inserting his penis into a goodly proportion of the town's population. His only tip of the hat to acceptable behaviour is that he sometimes thinks twice before doing so. This sort of half-hearted commitment to keeping his zipper closed does - narrowly - allow him to avoid banging any of the ;students. Ultimately, this is what elevates, relatively speaking, Frank above all his peers.

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Underground Reading: Mantrap by Sinclair Lewis

Mantrap - Sinclair Lewis Mantrap (1925) is sandwiched neatly between two of Lewis' better books - Babbit (1922) and Elmer Gantry (1927). When it comes to sterling examples of American literature, students of Lewis's work would be better off with the latter two. But as a good, old-fashioned pulp thriller, Mantrap almost excels.

The book is essentially a story of a man reclaiming his (sweaty) (bare-chested) masculinity. The protagonist is Ralph Prescott, a middle-aged New York lawyer on the edge of a nervous breakdown. Although a fiery lion in the courtroom (supposedly), Prescott is shy - dominated by his mother, bullied by his friends, and generally at the mercy of salesmen, porters, hotel clerks and everyone else around him.

In a fit of madness, Prescott agrees to go travelling in the Canadian wilderness with one of his New York acquaintances, a blustering windbag named Wes Woodbury. The perfect portrayal of the armchair expert, Woodbury steals every scene. Under Woodbury's exhausting tutelage, Prescott's vacation quickly degenerates into a farce.

Throughout these initial weeks of holiday, Prescott tries to grow into the picture-perfect rugged man, but Woodbury keeps knocking his feet out from under him. Woodbury mocks Prescott when he tries to 'man up'. Woodbury equally humiliates Prescott when he tries to relax and enjoy himself, leaving Prescott completely emotionally adrift.

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Graphic Novel Round-up: God, Ghosts and Girly Things


James Sturm's America (Sturm): This sizable graphic novel actually collects three separate works by writer/artist James Sturm, each exploring a different (depressing) aspect of Americana.

"The Revival" is the most hopeful of the three pieces, despite its macabre twists and unfortunate setting in a 19th-century religious gathering. "Hundreds of Feet Below Daylight" takes place at the end of the 19th-century, and tells the story of the grim happenings in a washed-out gold mine. It is entirely bleak and populated with thoroughly reprehensible characters.

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The Repairer of Reputations: The Slayer of Souls by Robert Chambers

The Slayer of Souls The Slayer of Souls (1920) only adds to the disappointment that Mr. Chambers has fostered in his critics.

One of his few 'occult romances', The Slayer of Souls has all the right pieces to make things interesting - an escaped temple priestess, a complicated esoteric mythos that harkens back to evil, extra-terrestrial elder gods and a sinister, world-spanning psychic conspiracy.

Alas, evil, extra-terrestrial elder gods do not a proper Lovecraftian short story make (if only Dunsany had realized this as well). The Slayer of Souls is simply wacky hijinks, with fluttering lashes, manly 'secret agents' and conniving non-Aryan villains armed with ludicrous accents. The format is equally unsettling - a series of short scenarios that are repetitious, ill-connected and, worst of all, boring.

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New Releases: Anno Mortis by Rebecca Levene

Anno Mortis - Rebecca LeveneAnno Mortis, by Rebecca Levene, is a magnificently epic frolic through classical Rome. The author pulls out all the stops in making the novel a page-turner.

Anno Mortis gleefully features a cast of gladiators, lions, jackal-headed monsters, Roman emperors, black magicians, Norse gods and zombies. The latter, of course, being the key addition to this otherwise historical (cough) narrative. Levene clearly has done her research, and has populated this this necromantic alternate history with enough classical trivia to keep even the most educated reader on their toes. Kind of like Rome, except with more zombie tigers.

Anno Mortis tells a (slightly) fictionalized version of the last days of Caligula's reign. The mad emperor, distraught and distracted over the death of his sister/lover, Drusilla, presides over an empire that is crumbling into decadence and ruin. Behind his back, the sinister Cult of Isis gathers power, influence and the occasional human sacrifice.

Into this mess plunge Boda, a gladiator, Vali, a bard from the barbarian north, Petronius, a spoiled ppatrician teen, and Narcissus, the favored slave of the Emperor's stuttering uncle Claudius. As each follows their separate trails, these four unlikely heroes uncover the nasty secret of the Cult (Hint: Zombies), and set off a chain of wild events (Hint: More zombies) ending in an epic showdown on the streets of Rome (Hint: Great whacking stacks of zombies).

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Underground Reading: In the Midst of Life by Ambrose Bierce

In the Midst of Life - Ambrose Bierce Ambrose Bierce (1842 - ?) was one of the great American satirists. After taking part in the Civil War, he went out to California to become a journalist, critic and author.

Now best known for his encyclopedia of venom, The Devil's Dictionary, Bierce was also a talented horror author - an inspiration to H.P. Lovecraft and others.

In the Midst of Life is a collection of some of Bierce's supernatural fiction. The bulk of the stories are also focused on the Civil War. The stories - including Bierce's most famous, The Incident at Owl Creek Bridge - are universally good and, without exception, depressing. The Civil War, much to the chagrin of separatists and re-enactionists everywhere, was a pretty miserable time. 

Bierce uses the supernatural merely as a means to an end - he's not interested in telling ghost stories, he's out to use whatever he can to paint a miserable and macabre picture of the realities of war. He combines the satiric voice of Mark Twain with the free-wheeling use of the macabre as a story-telling tool.

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