Pastoralia, by George Saunders / *****

europastoraliaThere may be no short story writer alive than George Saunders, and that’s no small praise; indeed, you could even argue that with his talent, he ranks among the great writers of the day, full stop. (How his talent will hold up in novel form, I look forward to discovering when his first novel is released next week.) Veering between social commentary and dark satire, between biting comedy and empathetic character studies, Saunders brings his bizarre, off-kilter worlds to life with his rich, fascinating prose and compelling dialogue. His second short story collection, Pastoralia, is no exception, making me laugh out loud frequently while never shirking from his craft.

As always, Saunders love of bizarre, excessive amusement/theme parks is evident, whether it’s the recreated Stone Age cave of the title story (where the actors are expected to stay in character even when no one else is around, and the corporate management communicates through bizarre, rambling memos) or the intricately structured strip club of “Sea Oak.” But he also loves his misfits, whether it’s the bullied young man of “The End of FIRPO in the World,” the harried title character in “The Barber’s Unhappiness,” or the motivational speaker attendee of “Winky”, who just wants to work up the nerve to kick his sister out. Indeed, pretty much every character has their struggles, their neuroses, their fears, and all of them fear that life has passed them by – and in most cases, it has.

In lesser hands, that would depressing, bleak fare. But Saunders’ prose and observational style make his stories uproariously funny at times, as characters lose themselves in imagining how others will treat them, engage in long dialogues with themselves, or the situations just get increasingly bizarre. From actors playing cavemen trying to ignore faxes to ghosts that do little more than angrily yell at everyone, from unlikely heroes to fantasy lives that far surpass anything in waking lives, Saunders infuses all of it with a sense of wry wit, but also affection for his characters that keeps the stories from being bleak. Instead, they become universal, clinging to big feelings and emotions that we all have, satirizing human (and corporate) foibles beautifully, and just generally entertaining with their absurdity, heart, and soul.

In other words, it’s more typical greatness from Saunders, who seems incapable of doing anything less than creating rich worlds and complex characters, all without missing a beat with his offbeat prose and rich descriptions. And if you can’t empathize with his flawed, failing, but still human characters, then I can’t imagine that you’ve lived any kind of life at all, because these are universal tales. Off the wall, funny, and satirical, and yet universal in the best way.

Amazon

 

Stories of Your Life and Others, by Ted Chiang / *****

51fhqvpotulLike many people (I assume), I had never heard of author Ted Chiang before seeing the remarkable film Arrival, based off of his story “Story of Your Life”. But given my deep love of that film – and the heady, complex concepts it covers – I was intrigued to see what kind of story could have inspired such a complex piece of work. That only deepened as I heard more about Chiang – his astonishing reputation, the comments that the film was much more like the story than you might expect, etc.

Chiang isn’t exactly a prolific author; he mainly writes novellas and short stories, and it’s notable that this collection represents a large percentage of what he’s written, period. And yet, almost every one of these stories was released to astonishing acclaim, awards, and praise; what Chiang may lack in quantity, he more than makes up for in quality, given than this collection features some of the most fascinating, astonishing, thoughtful pieces of science fiction writing I have ever read, period.

Much like you might expect from Arrival, Chiang takes on complex, heady ideas, and runs with them in imaginative ways that push them to their utmost. The opening story, “Tower of Babylon,” is essentially a retelling of the Tower of Babel story…at first. But in Chiang’s rendition, the tower has reached Heaven. Entire communities exist at various points on the tower, adjusted to life at that point. Plants grow downward, in an effort to reach down to the sun, which the tower has surpassed. Stars crash into apartments. Bricks fall from the tower and are more heartbreaking to lose than people, simply because of the time to replace. And if all that’s not enough, there’s what’s waiting for them at the top, which is both astonishing and inevitable, adding even more complexity to Chiang’s rich world.

Or take “Seventy-Two Words,” in which Chiang imagines an alternate history in which the idea of the golem – an inanimate object brought to life by a sheet of paper with its name – becomes a field of study and a way of life. The nature of names becomes its own science, as automatons are shaped and reformed throughout generations. And what’s more, by understanding how these automatons work, we come to understand how human beings work, on a biological and spiritual level, in ways that we never imagined. Perhaps you’re more intrigued by “Liking What You See: A Documentary,” an oral history of a movement to shut off the parts of our brain that perceive physical beauty, and the social ramifications that follow. And if those aren’t enough, there’s the incredible “Hell is the Absence of God,” set in a world where divine appearances happen often, divine powers are applied inscrutably, and one man struggles with whether or not to believe in a God he perceives as cruel and heartless.

Chiang is a truly astonishing author, one whose ideas and worlds are so rich that they could sustain whole series of novels, not just short novellas. Even his shortest work, a faux scientific journal article that’s only a couple of pages long, gives hints about an entire alternative history of the world that he’s created in just a few pages. And yet, he never loses the chance to invest us in his characters and their worlds, filling his pages with moral questions, minor details, emotional beats, and more. That, of course, is much of what makes “Story of Your Life” so rich, as anyone who’s seen Arrival knows; that story marries rich, complex, thought-provoking ideas with an emotionally resonant, devastating hook that makes the story all the more powerful.

Chiang is that rarest of things: an incredible author who, like George Saunders, seems happiest working in short bursts, and yet one who constantly leaves you wanting more. The stories in this collection are, no exaggeration, some of the finest, richest storytelling I’ve read, leaving me thinking about their images, ideas, worlds, and characters long after I shut the book. It saddens me that there’s not much else out there of his to discover, but I’m excited to go see what I can find, and then join those who wait for his every new release.

Amazon

Michael Connelly short stories

As police procedural authors go, it’s hard to think of a more reliable or interesting one than Michael Connelly, who has been writing about Harry Bosch for more than twenty years at this point. Connelly’s novels are fascinating not just as mystery stories, but as snapshots of time – they’re uniquely contemporary, reflecting concerns of the time, and letting Bosch and the other characters age in “real time”, more or less. His short stories, by definition, aren’t as complex, and feel a bit less linked to their time and place; that doesn’t, however, make them less engaging to read, just somewhat less rich.

51a3-araeylConnelly’s Angle of Investigation, then, is interesting partially just for how its three stories ran the gamut of possibilities for Connelly’s Bosch stories, in all sorts of ways – focus, approach, scale, and even quality. For instance, one story, “Christmas Even,” walks us through the mechanics of a murder investigation; the second, “Father’s Day,” mainly revolves around Bosch’s skills in the interrogation room; the third, the title story, follows Bosch using his years of experience to unravel a cold case with only one real lead. It all serves as a nice triptych of Bosch’s skills, and a sort of mosaic that presents his strengths. More than that, each gets into a different aspect of Bosch’s life: “Christmas Even” explores his isolation and love of jazz, “Father’s Day” gets into his relationship with his daughter (a bit), and “Angle of Investigation” gets into his history on the police force.

It’s the quality of each story, though, that tells you the most about them. “Christmas Even” is far and away the best of the three: it features the most compelling case, the most involved narrative, the best emotional beats for Bosch, and the most satisfying narrative that ties it all together. “Father’s Day” isn’t bad at all, though; the interrogation scene is riveting work, and a testament to Connelly’s gift for listening as cops work their magic to get a confession that they know is coming – it’s just that the Bosch emotional beats aren’t as strong. As for “Angle of Investigation,” it’s…fine, I suppose, as long as you can get past the least interesting story by far and a narrative that feels thrown together and barely holds up. There’s a great hook there, with Bosch being asked to revisit the first dead body he ever found on the force, but the story we get is weak, and far from Connelly’s usual careful work. Nonetheless, it’s a collection well worth reading, especially for fans; you have two really great ones, and even “Angle of Investigation” is intriguing for its window into a young Harry Bosch, fresh on the beat. Rating: ****

51ct9mngyzlWhat’s more interesting, if not quite as successful, is watching Connelly try on a genre he’s never messed with before: a ghost story. “The Safe Man” still features a lot of Connelly’s trademarks: great research, a lived-in character that exhibits professionalism while still managing to be a person, and an intriguing story. The hook here is simple: Brian Halloway is an expert in safes, and he’s been called in to open and disassemble a safe that a writer has found under his floorboards. But the safe doesn’t look like anything Halloway has ever seen before, and when he posts about it to a message board, he starts hearing some disturbing rumors. And things escalate from there, as Halloway ends up getting a visit from some very persistent law enforcement agents…

It’s always a risk for an author to take on a new genre, and while “The Safe Man” doesn’t wholly work, it’s not a bad effort. It helps that Connelly approaches the story like he approaches all of his work: with research, information, and craft, all of which make the world of safes every bit as interesting as any murder investigation he could craft. And even in this short story, he shows off his usual gift for character work, quickly crafting a writer character whose arrogance is a thing to behold. The problem, really, is just the “ghost story” aspect, which doesn’t really work that well; Connelly doesn’t do a great job of hiding his ghost from the reader, and while Connelly’s ultimate revelation about his ghost is an interesting one, it doesn’t feel like enough to hang a story on. “The Safe Man” is a quick read, and it moves well; it just doesn’t have any enough meat or substance to really stick with you. Rating: *** ½

Amazon: Angle of Investigation | “The Safe Man”

Einstein’s Beach House, by Jacob M. Appel / **** ½

51cyn2bj-lcl-_sy344_bo1204203200_A couple begins fighting over their new pet, a hedgehog who might be suffering from chronic depression and is seeing a pet psychiatrist. A mother is greeted at her front door by the parent of her daughter’s imaginary friend. A father who’s constructed an elaborate museum to cash in on a mislabeled house ends up running into the reality beneath it all. A turtle gets taken hostage and on the run from a former relationship.

Those are the sorts of stories you’ll find in Einstein’s Beach House, an engaging, clever set of short stories by author Jacob M. Appel. If you were to just sit and discuss the themes of the stories, you might come to conclusion that Appel is writing stories of upper-middle class ennui, and that wouldn’t necessarily be an unfair description. And yet, it would also make the stories sound more pretentious and insufferable than they really are. Instead, Appel revels in his drily silly ideas, drawing out the sly comedy in his ideas while never shirking from his characters and their personalities.

That’s not to say that every story is comedy, even dry ones. “Limerence” is the story of a childhood crush that unfolds over the years, and Appel brings out the quiet sadness of it all, both in the narrator and the subject of his fascination; “The Rod of Asclepius” tells the story of a grieving father’s relationship with his daughter, one that gradually reveals itself as something darker than it first appears. And even the more comedic ones – “La Tristesse des Herissons,” which is the story of the aforementioned depressed hedgehog – have a melancholy core (in this case, revolving around a gradually deteriorating relationship).

And yet, Appel never lets the stories become mopey or navel-gazing. There’s a quiet emotional richness to them that really works; more than that, there’s Appel’s strong literary voice, which makes the stories more complex and rich than they could easily have been. Even in his stories of failed marriages or strained parental bonds, there’s something nicely human in each of them, and enough of a literary conceit that they never become insufferable stories of rich white privilege, which I sort of dreaded they might be. (I suspect that Appel reads a lot of George Saunders, though I can’t prove that; there’s a lot of Saunders’ wit and grace with simple stories in here, which is high praise indeed.)

Einstein’s Beach House is a fast, fast read, even by short story standards – 8 stories, and less than 200 pages long – but that in no way detracts from how much enjoyment you’ll get out of them. Yes, many of them feature ambiguous endings that can sometimes feel a little incomplete, but that’s life, to no small degree; more than that, they usually feel like the right kind of incomplete for these tales. A great collection that’s well worth reading.

Amazon

Books of Blood (Volume 1-3), by Clive Barker / *****

51x1c2yf4zl-_sx329_bo1204203200_For a long time, every Clive Barker book came stamped with Stephen King’s approval, in the form of a pretty stellar endorsement: “I have seen the future of horror and his name is Clive Barker.” But over the years, that stamp came to mean less and less; Barker mellowed with age, and seemed less interested in the horrors of his early books and instead focused on visually astonishing fantasy worlds (Imajica and Abarat being the obvious go-tos here). Beyond that, Barker’s health has kept him from being as prolific as he once was; as a result, his once iconic presence in the genre has faded over the years, to the point where many these days haven’t even read a Barker work at all.

And yet, when you go back to Books of Blood, the short story collection that put Barker on the map, what you’ll find is that they’re every bit as horrifying, as groundbreaking, as unclassifiable, as astonishing – in other words, every bit as great – today as they were when they first burst onto the scene. And even now, nearly thirty years after they were first published, the tales in Books of Blood have lost none of their punch – they’re still terrifying; they’re still surreal and nightmarish; they still feel like nothing written before them, and almost nothing written after them.

Books of Blood is often hailed as the starting point for the “splatterpunk” movement, and that holds true; it’s hard to think of another short story collection, much less a debut, that’s this bloody, violent, and relentlessly disturbing. But more than simply collecting violence, Barker’s astonishing imagination pushes you into places you can’t imagine, and creates worlds that succeed from the way they push reality to its breaking point. The murderer stalking the subways in “The Midnight Meat Train,” for instance, is undeniably terrifying and brutal, but he pales in comparison to the horrors waiting at the end of the train line. The deceptively simple ghost story “Sex, Death, and Starshine” gives way to a ghoulish, horrific tableau by the end; similarly, the uneasy prison horrors of “Pig Blood Blues” are just an appetizer to the bizarre visions waiting at the end.

Indeed, the biggest takeaway from Books of Blood is the awe that Barker’s imagination inspires. In some ways, it’s clear that Barker works in the tradition of Lovecraft – there’s a healthy dose of fantasy and surrealism in his horror – but even that comparison falls short from the fantastical, surreal visions he brings to bear in his stories. The disturbing parade of “The Skins of the Fathers,” the title monster of “Rawhead Rex,” and maybe best of all, the truly nightmarish battle of “In the Hills, the Cities” – all of these defy any sort of description or classification. They’re undeniably horrific visions, but these aren’t easily categorized into zombies or vampires or even Lovecraftian nightmares. No, in Barker’s mind, we mix religious imagery, deeply sexual notions, astonishing theatricality of the Guignol tradition, and so much more, all into something wholly new. And Barker’s incredible, breathtaking prose brings it all to life, putting to lie Lovecraft’s idea that certain things simply aren’t describable. No, Barker describes it all, and even seeing some of these things through prose is enough to bring the reader to the edge of madness.

But even beyond the (horrific) violence and nightmarish, boundary-pushing visions, much of what makes Books of Blood so incredible is the thematic richness of each of the stories. It’s not enough for Barker to settle for simply scaring you. No, his stories illuminate real-world ideas, using his gory theater as a way of exploring bigger ideas. From allegories for societal conflict (“In the Hills, the Cities”) or the sacrifices of civilization (“The Midnight Meat Train”), from feminists seizing power (“Jacqueline Ess: Her Will and Testament”) or communities of outcasts bonding together (“The Skins of the Fathers”), from the appeal of film and escapism (“Son of Celluloid”) or the fear of primal religions (“Rawhead Rex”), Barker’s stories work on levels beyond the visceral terror and horror they bring to bear. Indeed, with Barker’s outspoken sexual politics (I can’t imagine what reading something this outspokenly gay was like in the early 80’s), fascinating views of society, and rich political ideas, Books of Blood works as much as social commentary as horror.

That being said, make no mistake: this is a horror collection, period. And to put it very simply, I think it’s one of the best – if not the best – short story horror collections ever written. These stories defy your expectations, your rules, your boundaries; they are written with a visual richness that cannot be overstated; they have imagination and sights unlike anything I’ve ever read; they are genuinely terrifying, wholly disturbing, darkly comic, surprisingly heartfelt, and nightmarishly gory. They will terrify you, they will break your brain, and they will expand what you thought horror could contain. They are every bit as good now as they ever were, and an absolute essential for any serious fan of horror fiction, period.

Amazon

 

Lovecraft’s Monsters, edited by Ellen Datlow / ****

51kfko8wqol-_sx326_bo1204203200_Any serious fan of horror probably has some connection to the works of H.P. Lovecraft. Maybe more than any horror writer other than Edgar Allan Poe, Lovecraft has influenced just about every major horror author alive. With his weird mythos, his alien worlds, his unutterable horrors just beyond the realms of sanity, Lovecraft wrote horror like no one else, for better or for worse. And you’d be hard pressed to find a serious craftsman in the genre today who hasn’t tried their hand at an homage to Lovecraft’s work. And by and large, while there are some good ones out there (Laird Barron has done some remarkable ones, for instance, and the remarkable and hilarious Freaksome Tales by William Rosencrans does a fantastic, clever pastiche with tongue firmly in cheek), many just feel like pale retreads or weak imitations.

All of which gets to why Lovecraft’s Monsters is such a solid collection. Rather than filling a collection with writers imitating Lovecraft’s (often overwrought) prose, editor Ellen Datlow chooses selections that play off of Lovecraft’s mythos and works, finding something new to do with the material while still staying true to the spirit of it all. For instance, Neil Gaiman’s “Only the End of the World Again” drops a werewolf in the middle of Lovecraft’s isolated Innsmouth, and lets him get caught up by the machinations of a local Elder God cult. “The Same Deep Waters as You, by Brian Hodge, takes on Innsmouth as well, but does so through the eyes of a government agency that’s been monitoring the town’s inhabitants for a long time. (And man, does this one take an appropriately nasty turn right at the end.) The aforementioned Laird Barron, meanwhile, brings Lovecraft to the Pinkerton era, turning in a nasty little yarn in “Bulldozer.” And Joe Lansdale brings his usual style and drawling slang to bear in the nightmarish tale of a blues musician who’s struck one seriously Faustian bargain in “The Bleeding Shadow.”

Not every story works, of course. Kim Newman’s “A Quarter to Three” basically uses a Lovecraft setting as a shaggy-dog joke with a groaner of a punchline. Caitlin R. Kiernan’s “Love is Forbidden, We Croak and Howl” feels like the first act of something larger, and leaves you feeling like you’re missing something; the same, honestly, could be said about Steve Rasnic Tem’s “Waiting at the Crossroads Motel.” Fred Chappell’s ambitious post-apocalyptic “Remnants” has some neat ideas, but ultimately suffers from weak writing and worse dialogue. And the poetry selections all feel pretty thrown in – not bad, per se, but pretty forgettable.

And, of course, there are the outliers, which are pretty good stories, even if they don’t quite feel like they fit into the anthology. Howard Waldrop and Steven Utley’s “Black as the Pit, from Pole to Pole” is equal parts sequel to Frankenstein, Jules Verne tribute, literary alternate history, and adventure story, and while I’m not sure that it quite fits the theme, it’s certainly a wild ride. John Langan’s “Children of the Fang,” meanwhile, is a fantastic story of family ties, guilt, and shadowy evil, and while there’s a bit more Lovecraft to it, it still feels more like its own thing. And William Browning Spencer’s “The Dappled Thing” presents a steampunk jungle adventure that turns into horror only towards the end. None of them are bad – indeed, all three are among the most interesting, engaging stories – b they all feel a bit “off-topic,” for lack of a better term.

All in all, it’s a satisfying, fun anthology, and one that’s more varied and wide-ranging than you might expect given the Lovecraft theme. Sure, there are some hits and misses, but that’s the name of the game when you read anthologies. And while few of these quite manage to be all out great, there are none that are truly bad on the whole, and a lot that are pretty fun and enjoyable. And as a fan of horror, creativity, and Lovecraft, I found a whole lot to enjoy here.

Amazon

Fox 8, by George Saunders / *****

450x600Here’s what I’d prefer: I’d prefer that you just trust me on this one, and go pick up “Fox 8.” It’s only 99 cents for your Kindle, it’s hilarious, and it’s a short story by maybe the most gifted short story author working today. And really, that should be enough for you – this one is so much fun to just read and watch unfold, the language is a joy, it’s frequently laugh-out-loud funny, and the message is heartfelt.

But I recognize that saying all of that doesn’t really qualify as a “review”, per se. So let me say a little bit more. And then, you should go buy it. Continue reading “Fox 8, by George Saunders / *****”