Arrrrg, ya land-lubber sharkbait. Today be a conjuction of foul and unseemly forces, for it be "Talk Like a Pirate Day" and the day I review me well-thumbed copy of The Man They Hanged (1926) by Robert Chambers (or Cap'n Robert Hack-hand, as we know 'em). Read on or be damned, ya mangy manatee.
Actually, the two events make strangely fitting companions. "Talk Like a Pirate Day" plays up the benign goofiness of the old fashioned "Red Sea Trade", while The Man They Hanged is one of the more spirited defenses of the most infamous pirate of all, Captain Kidd. The good (or very, very bad) Captain is one of the most iconic figures in buccaneering. (A timeless one as well, his story is currently an exhibition at the Museum of London.)
Kidd was, by all accounts, born in Scotland around 1650. His early life is largely unknown, but by 1690, the enterprising Captain had helped the Governor of New York quash a rebellion and earned a place in that city's society. (Marrying an extremely wealthy young widow also helped.)
This is where is all gets fun. In 1695, a syndicate of (extremely) powerful nobles backed a commission for Kidd - he would privateer about the oceans, beating up on French ships for profit. The Earl of Romney, the Earl of Orford, Sir John Somers and the Duke of Shrewsbury were all discreet partners, outfitting Kidd in turn for 60% of the loot. The Earl of Orford was the First Lord of the Admiralty at the time and none of the other three were any less hoity-toity.
In 1696, Kidd set out in his Adventure Galley, a honking great big galley with hand-picked crew. Said crew immediately disappeared. For no explicable reason, Kidd failed to salute a Royal Navy ship whilst sailing out of the Thames. Worse, members of his crew mooned the cruiser as they went past (in 1696, like 1985, this was the height of comedy). The Royal Navy, unimpressed, sailed after the Adventure Galley, pulled it over (I'm imagining the 17th century version of flashing blue lights) and promptly drafted the bulk of Kidd's crew as punishment. Ouch.
Between a holiday, editing Pandemonium and putting the final touches on our latest not-so-secret project, we've not accomplished quite as much reviewing as we normally do.
Still, we covered off a book or two over the past couple weeks:
- Daniel Abraham's The Long Price Quartet (2007+) (and the difficulty of reviewing a great book)
- Rose Dana's Night Club Nurse (1965) (and why happiness makes for a dull book)
- David Gemmell's White Wolf (2003) (and how not to write women)
- Tim Maughan's Paintwork (2011) (and the future of art)
- John McPartland's No Down Payment (1957) (and the literary appeal of the suburbs)
- Simon Morden's "Never, never, three times never" (2002) (and the personal apocalypse)
- Peggy O'More's Nurse Kathryn (1965) (and the romantic rewards of smugness)
- K.J. Parker's "A Room with a View" (2011) (and how to wander around in someone's head)
Monsters & Mullets found a musical sort of monster in The Little Mermaid (1989).
Our Friday Fives included a discussion of our favorite gods from myth (& legend & genre fiction) with screenwriter Chrysanthy Balis and a debate about our favorite horror stories with Adam L.G. Nevill.
Off the internet, we mucked around looking for fossilised squid butts in Lyme Regis. We also found an enormous plastic squid butt at Gosh! London, as the noble Plarchie was in attendance for the book launch of Deadly Knitshade's Knit the City.
The Ombudscat is pleased about the diversity of eras, genres and authors we covered. However, she sternly reminds us that we are committed to new content five days a week. We won't disappoint her again.
We take a turn towards the holy and debate our favorite gods (something people have been doing for centuries - generally with swords involved). This week, our special guest is Chrysanthy Balis.
Ms. Balis is an award-winning screenwriter, probably best known for her work on Asylum (with Nathasha Richardson and Ian McKellen). She also teaches at UCLA's Writers' Program, but we managed to convince her to stop reviewing scripts long enough to contribute a bit of blasphemy. (Ms. Balis' short fiction skills will also be on display in Pandemonium.)
So, on with the picks... and, per usual, please let us know your favorites in the comments. (Please try not to start any holy wars.)
As a Greek, I was raised within a modern-day revivalist branch of Hellenic polytheism where we secretly worshipped at a shrine to Apollo in the basement. Alright, that was a lie. But it would have been cool. I was, however, raised with the stories of the ancient Olympian gods and I would say that my favorite among them-- and one of my favorites overall-- is Demeter. Yes, it's very nice that she is associated with the seasons and I've always been a sucker for a good mother-child reunion story, but the fact that as an initiate you were given the answers to the great mysteries of life seems hard to beat. Imagine having the answers! And all you had to do to be eligible was not be a barbarian nor have blood on your hands. Done and done!
Which brings me to a sort of carbon copy of Demeter, Dhumavati of the Tantric tradition. Being the dark side to the female divine force isn't easy and the Divine Ms. D is apparently quite hard on the eyes. But, in a nice metaphor for life itself, the wise one who can see past her ugliness to appreciate the beauty inside gets many blessings, not the least of which is a revelation of the universe's ultimate truths. Sure, you have to get naked and conduct your rituals in a crematorium but anything worthwhile requires effort. Once again, a little hard work pays off and you get the answers to the Big Questions which, I think, would go far in removing one's existential angst. At least mine, anyway.
No Down Payment (1957, with the 1960 cover shown here) was John McPartland’s breakthrough novel. Previously stuck in the 'wilds' of the Gold Medal jungle, No Down Payment, a fictional expose of the new suburban lifestyle, proved a top seller and was made into a movie featuring Joanne Woodward.
In 1957, the idea of suburban living was still something new. And, if the fiction is to be believed, the 'burbs were weird places. In their favor, the suburbs were crammed to the gills with the New People: the Up and Comers, the Success Stories.In Mr. McParland’s book, there’s a sort of desperate repetition of the “oh, aren’t we so lucky?” mantra.
Every Saturday the shops sell out of charcoal because every family cooks a perfect steak in the perfect weather on BBQ behind their perfect home. This is the age of easy credit and electric conveniences and all sorts of home wizardry. One man charmingly counts the motors in his home as a way of marking success – he grew up with none, now he has 15 (17, once he remembers the ones in the BBQ and rotisserie). [We could now do the same with computers, I suspect.]
A distinctly medicinal pair of reviews with Peggy O’More’s Nurse Kathryn and Rose Dana’s Night Club Nurse.
Peggy O'More's Nurse Kathryn (1965) follows the trials and tribulations of the titular nurse as she works at the psychiatric clinic of a mid-sized town. Kathryn’s life is, for the most part, perfect. Her fiancé, Jack, is a stoic, gentle man with a solid career and huge family. Her roommate, Bibi, is a vivacious sounding board – the wacky-yin to Kathryn’s buckled-down yang. Best of all, Kathryn’s ‘new’ psychiatrist – her boss – is the delicious and perceptive Dr. Lamont. He knows how to solve all the problems, especially when aided by Kathryn’s gossip and insight. The two team up to form an unstoppable pair of judgemental psychiatric juggernauts.
Of course, it isn’t all perfect, or else Nurse Kathryn would be an even duller book that it already is. Kathryn’s by-the-numbers life has some real problems, mostly having to do with Jack. His plodding attitude with Kathryn often borders on the careless – our protagonist’s life is one of broken dates and cold meals. Jack prioritises his sprawling family first, his career second and his future bliss with Kathryn a distant third. Kathryn tries to appreciate this. She’s the child of a fairly bizarre marriage – her father being an open-handed backwoods doctor and his wife a domineering shrew. Always conscious of her mother’s harpy ways, Kathryn tries to let Jack swing his own life. As a result, she’s been “practically engaged” for a long four years, with no end in sight.
There's a pattern to reviewing your average-to-good book. There's something praiseworthy in just about everything and, equally, there's something flawed. Balance the two, throw in a personal anecdote about growing up in Kansas City, poke fun at the cover art and - bamf - revoo.
Bad reviews are a little trickier. Don't get me wrong, they're a lot of fun, but you know they're going to come back and haunt you. It is all well and good to start minting the lolcat legions, but, sooner or later, there will be discussion involved. They're more work because, I suppose, they're born out of the strength of conviction. And, therefore, they need to be right.
The hardest of all (and thus the meandering introduction. Hey, did I tell you about growing up in Kansas City yet?) is reviewing the great book. The occasional work of brilliance that surfaces all too rarely. Gushing objectively is, as far as I can tell, impossible. And, good lord, what if I drop the ball and actually discourage someone from reading it? With the Kitschies, Anne and I have a defined set of criteria to help us examine the year's top offerings. In bog-standard everyday reviewing, there's not even that sort of structure to hide behind (thus my personal history of writing mediocre blog posts about the best books).
So, it is with a great deal of trepidation that I introduce Daniel Abraham's Long Price Quartet. The series began in the US in 2006 (from Tor) and started in the UK (with Orbit) from 2007. Now it is available as a pair of mega-tomes, Shadow and Betrayal and Seasons of War. At approx 600 pages each, these are the sort of doorstop size that should reassure the modern fantasy fan that they're getting something suitably epic.
Our special guest this week is horror author Adam Nevill, whose terrific novels have been giving us nightmares all year - especially his latest, The Ritual. (Also, want a spoiler for Solaris' upcoming House of Fear anthology? Mr. Nevill's "Florrie" is terrifying.)
From listening to him speak on panels, Mr. Nevill's also a man that knows and loves his horror, making him our first (spooky) port of (terrifying) call when it came to rooting around for vintage scares.
The only rule was the short story needed to be pre-WW2, but, as you can see, some of us reached much further back in our lists. What stories kept you up all night? Scare us in the comments.
"The Beckoning Fair One" by Oliver Onions (1911). Like Machen's "White People", and Maupassant's "Le Horla", this really showed how horror could reach ahead of its time in style and scope into what feels like modernism. It's an extraordinary ghost story, in terms of how its written, and how it reveals the inner life of a character going mad, or being haunted and bewitched, that you never quite escape from. I also adapted this into a short film that no one has ever seen beyond the crew. Where can I send it?
You can get this for two quid from Wordsworth Classics.
Our generation (late X) has made it to the crossroads of cynicism and nostalgia. Our knee-jerk poo-pooing of the things we loved as children is just starting to become knee-jerk wistfulness, in part because we haven’t done much thinking about these things in recent years, and in part because we’re starting to have our own children, and want to introduce them to the things we loved ourselves. However much qualified our interest in the artefacts of our own childhoods, they remain inherently fascinating to us.
Which may explain, in part, the backlash against the so-called Disney Renaissance films of the early '90s that seems to have infected the internet of late. From Hipster Ariel to Cracked.com’s takedown of Beauty and the Beast, it seems that everyone’s talking about Disney these days. And not particularly flatteringly.
And it’s tempting to want to join that hayride. Traditional cel-animation looks impossibly dated in these halcyon days of (occasionally) exceptional CG: the camera doesn’t move, the figures appear too flat and too smooth. Everything just looks so… well, cartoony.
Although written twenty years later, White Wolf (2003) is the immediate prequel to David Gemmell's famous Legend. The books fit together neatly or each could easily be read on their own.
White Wolf introduces Skilgannon, the finest swordsman of his generation. Skilgannon the Damned (his given name is a rather less intimidating "Olek") gets involved in politics at a young age when he saves the fair Princess Jianna from murder at the hands of a deranged warlord.
Jianna and Skilgannon fall into Epic Love (symptoms include: manly staring, womanly teasing, lots of throbbing hearts and loins), which continues as the pair grow to adulthood. Jianna becomes THE WITCH QUEEN OF NAASHAN and Skilgannon becomes her right-hand man. In case the name wasn't any sort of indication, Jianna slowly becomes eeeeeevil. She begins to dress like a vintage Weird Tales cover and boinkill all her political rivals (defined as, "has-sex-with-then-kills", see: Caessa, from Legend, or any praying mantis).