Friday, September 28, 2012
Tuesday, September 11, 2012
Tim Powers’ Last Call (1992 William Morrow and Co.; 2010 Blackstone Audio, Inc.) is studded with references to old myths, snatches of T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” the art of poker playing, and the unique culture and atmosphere of old and new Las Vegas. It contains numerous major and minor characters, overarching themes and subplots, and digressions into probability theory. In other words, it demands close reading and attention to detail. Listening to it in half-hour chunks as I did while driving to work was probably not the best idea, and may have affected my review of the book, but what follows is an honest appraisal.
Wednesday, June 13, 2012
Monday, May 14, 2012
As it turns out SFFaudio.com today posted a recent podcast on Robert E. Howard's "Red Nails" in which I was invited to participate. I'm definitely more comfortable writing than speaking but I nevertheless had a lot of fun with this rare occasion to talk about one of one my favorite authors (my wife and kids aren't particularly interested in hearing about the Hyborian Age over dinner, what can I say).
You can listen to the podcast here. The entire story is read first by Gregg Margarite from Librivox, followed by our discussion.
Thursday, April 19, 2012
Sunday, March 25, 2012
Friday, January 13, 2012
I was fully prepared to love The Name of the Wind. I knew about the overwhelmingly positive reviews on Amazon, and the rave reviews from bloggers whose tastes and opinions frequently mirror my own. I was excited to see fantasy/SF luminaries like Robin Hobb, Ursula LeGuin, and Orson Scott Card (“He's the great new fantasy writer we've been waiting for,” the latter wrote) singing its praises, and was fully prepared to do the same.
But the long and short of it is this: I didn’t love this book, and for long stretches, I didn’t even like it. Which makes me a bit sad, as I too was anticipating the arrival of a new great hope to emerge from (or rescue, depending on your point of view) the current crop of fantasy writers. As it turns out, I’m still waiting.
All that said, I recognize The Name of the Wind as a pretty solid artistic endeavor. In no way would I describe it as objectively bad, and the more I thought about it, I realized that it’s just not to my tastes. So I thought I would detail in this review why I didn’t like it, and then speculate on a few of the reasons why so many others have found it appealing. Of course, since I didn’t like The Name of the Wind very much, this review will spend much more time on the former, so be prepared.
Thursday, September 8, 2011
--George R.R. Martin, Warriors
There are two ways to approach the George R.R. Martin-Gardner Dozois edited anthology Warriors, one which is guaranteed to induce disappointment. If you expect a collection of swords and sorcery stories or medieval-based historical fiction, the clatter of steel on shield and heroic feats of arms, you will be disappointed. But if you keep an open mind and read it for what it is—a group of disparate genre stories all loosely connected by a warrior theme—you’ll enjoy it, and maybe more.
To be fair, the packaging on the label (a sword blade and an old gothic style script) is slightly misleading, and I admit that I was initially disappointed by the collection, my expectations placed elsewhere. But that feeling faded quickly, and by the end I was very pleased with Warriors.
In Warriors you’ll find horror, a western, and a mystery, as well as historical fiction, fantasy, and science fiction, from all ages of history including ancient Rome, the Viking Age, the medieval era, the world wars, the present, and the future. It’s hard to call this entirely a collection of genre fiction: How does one classify “The Girls from Avenger” by Carrie Vaughn, a moving story about a pilot from an all-female unit in WWII who investigates a mysterious death of a friend during a training accident? Historical fiction? Mainstream (is that a genre)? The same classification problem could be said of many other stories in here, like Peter Beagle’s “Dirae,” which follows the soul of a hospitalized woman that transcends its mortal coil by leaving her body and materializing as a kick-ass vigilante, allowing her to fight battles for the disadvantaged and the bullied.
But that’s really the entire point of Warriors. In the introduction, Martin states he was inspired to commission the anthology based on his experiences combing through the old drugstore wire spinner racks of his youth, in which you could science fiction sandwiched alongside westerns, or a bodice-ripping romance next to an Edgar Rice Burroughs John Carter sword-and-planet novel.
There is nothing in Warriors that’s badly written, and in fact everything is well-done. It’s an antidote to those who think genre writing is shallow and formulaic; this collection is anything but. It’s also worth noting that every story in here is new, commissioned for the volume, so there’s no danger in reading something you’ve encountered before.
All that said, I have yet to encounter the anthology in which I liked every story. Unfortunately one of the weaker entries kicks off the volume. Even as a fan of Vikings, “The King of Norway” by Cecelia Holland did nothing for me. It features a bloody ship-to-ship engagement with no real investment in the characters involved, and the flow of battle is hard to follow, to boot. Warriors contains a couple other stories that I didn’t much care for: “The Custom of the Army” by Diana Gabaldon was too involved and seemed a thinly-veiled attempt to get readers interested in her Lord John novels. I don’t like when authors do this. “Defenders of the Frontier” was ambitious and well-done but lacked a decisive punch. War is often described as endless stretches of tedium followed by brief moments of terror. “Defenders’ explores this aspect of war, but unfortunately my overwhelming feeling upon finishing it was the same, sans terror.
Other stories are partial successes. “Out of the Dark” was shaping up as one of the most engaging and well-executed stories in the collection, but the ending (which was telegraphed enough so that it didn’t take me wholly by surprise) is too jarring, and renders the hard-fought sacrifices void. But even so I’d recommend it. I’m not so sure I could say the same for “Seven Years from Home” by Naomi Novik, which was well-done but a little to close to Avatar for me to completely enjoy.
The rest of Warriors was almost uniformly good, and some of the stories are absolute gems.
“The Pit” by James Rollins is written from the point of view of a domesticated dog stolen by a ruthless trainer of pit fighters, and it works. It’s a great little story that tugs at the heartstrings.
“The Eagle and the Rabbit” by Steven Saylor is another fine tale. The characterization carries the story as everyone from the sympathetic protagonist to the chief bad guy—a cruel Roman slave-driver—is memorably portrayed.
The best stories in my opinion were Joe Lansdale’s “Soldierin,” “My Name is Legion” by David Morrell, “The Scroll” by David Ball, and “The Mystery Knight” by George R.R. Martin. The only writer of this foursome with whom I had no previous acquaintance was Ball, and after reading “The Scroll” I’d certainly be interested in picking up more of his stuff. It’s about a French military engineer taken captive by the sultan of Morocco and forced to oversee the construction of a mighty city. The sultan is an absolute bastard who cruelly toys with the fates of his captives (the lucky are killed outright). At the outset of the story the sultan writes down the engineer’s fortune on a scroll, and every twist and turn in the tale seems fated by what has already been written. The execution is superb.
Morrell and Lansdale are similar writers: Both are highly competent, professional storytellers with the ability to spin compelling yarns with a very high batting average. They don’t disappoint here. “My Name is Legion” features a soldier who seeks to repent for his troubled past by entering the crucible known as the French Foreign Legion. It’s a great little story about discipline and honor and the strange fortunes of war. Lansdale is one of the best tale spinners of this or any era, as far as I’m concerned. His stuff is always gripping and visceral but suffused with humor, which certainly describes “Soldierin,” a story about an all-black unit of buffalo soldiers and a savage encounter with Apaches in the old west.
Warriors saves the best for last with “The Mystery Knight.” Martin’s story is set in his A Song of Ice and Fire world of Westeros, which is ostensibly fantasy but is deeply medieval. Heraldry, jousting, dark ages cuisine, and the knight-squire relationship are examined here in detail. The story includes a few too many characters to keep them all straight, particularly in an audio format (this is my one criticism of audio—I find it tedious to bookmark and/or flip back and forth, which is a requirement when reading a typical byzantine Martin story). But the quality of the writing is superb and stands out even in this collection of heavyweights.
Current or former Martin readerswho are turned off by A) The sheer length of A Song of Ice and Fire, or B) Its unrelenting brutality (I’ve had issues with both, though I do plan to finish the series) should nevertheless enjoy “The Mystery Knight.” My first thought upon finishing it was that I wish that A Song of Ice and Fire was more like this: A little more light-hearted, with a sharper, tighter focus on the characters I care about. The hedge knight Dunk and his squire Egg are a memorable pair, and “The Mystery Knight” whet my appetite for the two previously published Dunk and Egg stories.
One final note on the audio version: Listening to Warriors was a freaking epic experience. It’s 26 discs and checks in at 31 hours, 13 minutes. It almost wore me down a few times. Warriors does feature two narrators—Patrick Lawlor, who narrates the stories with male protagonists, and Christina Traister, who reads those featuring women. This does help to break things up. It took a while for Lawlor to grow on me, as I found his voice much more suited to the lightheartedness of “The Mystery Knight” than some of the other, harder-edged stories. Traister was very good, particularly in her reading of “The Girls from Avenger” and the hard-edged horror/thriller “Clean Slate.”
Note: This review also appears on SFFaudio.com.
Friday, June 17, 2011
The Viking Age of England offers fertile ground for storytelling. It was a time of strong men, beautiful fair-haired women, and bloody raids for plunder. Christianity was the new religion on the block, striving to make inroads on the old pagan beliefs—and often at the point of a sword. Gods were said to mingle with men and the world lay poised on the edge of Ragnarok, a final battle and fiery conflagration that would end the world.
Poul Anderson drew on the best of this wild and poetic age, stirred it up with myth and fantasy, and the result was his 1954 novel The Broken Sword. Its like has rarely been matched in the annals of fantasy literature.
I’ve read The Broken Sword previously and knew what a wonderful book it was, but TV and film actor Bronson Pinchot’s narration in this new Blackstone Audio, Inc. production added a new dimension to the novel. I had first heard Pinchot in a reading of Stephen King’s Eyes of the Dragon. While he was wonderful there he ups his game in The Broken Sword, reading with a spite and fury in his voice that perfectly matches the book’s unrelenting grimness and battle fury. Pinchot breathes life into beautiful maidens and proud warriors, deep-throated trolls, and ancient elven warrior-kings whose voices are like winds sighing through treeless leaves.
Oddly enough there is exactly one sound effect in the entire recording—an echo effect used to convey the cold, cruel laughter of Odin—and it’s on the final disc. It was cool but rather jarring, considering it’s on the last disc and there’s no precursor. But on to the tale.
In The Broken Sword the land of Faerie exists alongside the lands of men, invisible save to those with the witch sight. Faerie is a land of bright castles and achingly lovely elves, of the gods of Odin and Tyr, the giants of Jotunheim, black-eyed trolls, and other, fouler monsters.
Pride and ambition touches off the events of The Broken Sword. Orm the Strong is the fifth son of Ketil Asmundsson and thus low in the totem pole of inheritance. Rather than accept a smaller share of wealth Orm seeks his own fortune by going a–viking. On one of his raids he kills a husband and his sons, burning their hall to the ground. The man’s mother, a witch, escapes and swears revenge: She bestows a curse that Orm’s eldest son will be fostered beyond the world of men, while he in turn will foster a wolf that will one day rend him.
The elf-earl Imric travels to the lands of men and sets the witch’s curse in motion. Imric takes Orm’s unbaptized infant son Skafloc and replaces him with Valgard, a changeling, whom Imric himself has fathered by raping a captive troll woman. Valgard’s dark ancestry is evident when he bites his unknowing mother’s breast and grows restless and violent in Orm’s care. Skafloc, raised among the elves, is fair haired and fair of spirit, though equally mighty and otherwise a mirror image of his dark changeling “brother.”
After he discovers his true half troll, half-elf heritage, Valgard embarks on a mission of revenge, killing several members of his foster family. Aided with an army of trolls he then launches a war of annihilation on the elven lands of Alfheim. Skafloc and the elves are beaten back by the initial assaults and all seems lost. Only by going on a quest to reforge a powerful ancient weapon—the eponymous broken sword, a weapon of terrible demonic power that demands blood each time it is drawn and ultimately turns on its wielder—can Skafloc save Alfheim and avenge his family.
Though The Broken Sword seems largely forgotten these days it remains influential. The elf Imric for example reveals the clear stylistic (and thematic) influence The Broken Sword had on subsequent authors like Michael Moorcock. Moorcock (a big fan of the book, who once wrote that The Broken Sword “knocked The Lord of the Rings into a cocked hat”) based his Melniboneans heavily on Anderson’s elves. Imric is (largely) Elric of Melnibone, not only in similarity of name, but in appearance and even character. Anderson’s Elves are darker than those in The Lord of the Rings (though I would point out that Tolkien’s elves closely resembled Anderson’s in his source material; see the prideful warrior Feanor from The Silmarillion). They are haughty, prideful, shun the sunlight, and if not malicious are certainly mischievous. These traits have their roots in Norse myth, which both Tolkien and Anderson drew upon.
Everything about the book is wonderfully northern. Characters mingle soaring verse with common speech in conversation. Anderson weaves old northern vocabulary into the tale, evocative words like “Fetch,” “Fey,” and “Weird” (the latter is a fate from which no man escapes), which lend The Broken Sword a hard northern ethos to match its flavor. In this pagan hierarchy the Norns are higher than the towering Jotuns or even the Aesir. Even the gods will die in the fires of Ragnarok at their appointed time. That grimness bleeds through into The Broken Sword as its protagonists are slowly crushed beneath the merciless wheel of fate.
"Throw not your life away for a lost love," pleaded Mananaan. "You are young yet."
"All men are born fey," said Skafloc, and there the matter stood.
This is hard stuff and an unforgiving outlook on life, though not incompatible with that other somewhat famous work that debuted in 1954—Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring. No matter what Moorcock—he of the tin ear when it comes to Tolkien analysis—may tell you.
The writing in The Broken Sword is top-notch, really and truly great stuff. A small sample of dialogue uttered by the troll-woman Gora:
“The world is flesh dissolving off a dead skull,” mumbled the troll-woman. She clanked her chain and lay back, shuddering. “Birth is but the breeding of maggots in the crumbling flesh. Already the skull’s teeth leer forth and black crows have left its eye sockets empty. Soon a barren wind will blow through its bare white bones.”
One final, important note about the Blackstone recording: The text is Anderson’s original from the 1954 version of the book, which Anderson updated in 1971 for republication in the Ballantine Adult Fantasy line. This is not immediately apparent from the description on the Blackstone website. I’ve only read the 1971 version, so for those who haven’t had the chance to experience The Broken Sword in its earliest and rawest incarnation you now have another chance.
Monday, July 12, 2010
—Stephen King, IT
What quality separates an adult from a child? Is it responsibility in the former and unbridled freedom in the latter? Do adults possess a higher order of thinking? Or, to take a cynical view, are adults merely physically larger (perhaps they/we never really do grow up)?
I happen to think there is a difference, though it’s hard to say precisely what. You could describe adulthood as a phase through which we all must pass, else we remain stunted and undeveloped, looking backward instead of forward, unable to transform into the mature beings that the hard world requires. Indefinable and amorphous, you may as well call this period of transition it. Stephen King did, and in 1985 he wrote a massive book by the same name about this very subject.
As is King’s forte, IT is also a horror story, and a terrifying one at that. The villain of IT is a creature that lurks in the sewers of Derry, Maine, one that takes the shape of our worst fears. IT’s favorite shape is a painted clown known as Pennywise, friendly at first glance but whose greasepaint smile reveals a double-row of Gillette razor teeth. Pennywise can also take the form of a werewolf, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, Frankenstein, and more. Whatever a particular child finds most terrifying, Pennywise can take its shape.
Pennywise has preyed on the children of Derry for untold generations, emerging from a deep slumber in the sewers every 27 years to feed. After a year of gruesome killings (written up in the press as mysterious child disappearances, or frequently blamed on other sources), the cycles end with a culminating event, typically an awful orgy of destruction, after which the creature resumes its hibernation.
But Pennywise—aka., IT—always comes back. Derry is perennially under its pall and seems to accept the darkness as “just the way things are” and the horrors continue in cyclical fashion. But then comes the summer of 1958. A group of 10 and 11-year-old children called the Loser’s Club, led by a stuttering, charismatic child known as Bill Denbrough, unite to battle Pennywise. All have had close brushes with the monster. Scarred by their experiences but united in purpose (Bill’s six year old brother Georgie is dragged into the sewer and killed in a gruesome scene at the beginning of the novel, and Bill vows revenge), they travel into Derry’s byzantine sewer systems to put an end to the monster. Following an epic confrontation in the creature’s den the children vow to return to Derry should Pennywise/IT ever return.
One of the club, Mike Hanlon, remains behind in the ensuring decades to watch and wait. When Pennywise does re-emerge 27 years later the children of the Loser’s Club are now adults in their late 30s. Some higher power has mercifully allowed them to forget the terrible events of their childhood and move on with their lives. But now they have to fight the terrible evil once more and growing up has diminished them in some way. This time around they find themselves less equipped to fight.
IT is a great story full of memorable events, places, and characters. King imbues Derry with its own personality, and the town feels like a member of the cast. King skillfully weaves in events from Derry’s awful past, including past murder sprees and the culminating bloodbaths that sent IT back into the sewers, including a horrific nightclub fire (The Black Spot) and the explosion of the Kitchener Ironworks.
But in the end, what I like most about IT, and what separates the book from much of the rest of King’s oeuvre, is its thoughtful exploration of that amorphous crossing of the bar from youth to maturity. To get where you want to go in life you have to grow up, King says, but it’s not a simple process. The transition from childhood to adulthood is complex and bittersweet, its benefits equivocal. Adulthood brings with it at least some measure of financial, parental, and geographic freedom. We can leave those hometowns that are so frequently a source of shame and failure and hidden darkness. But in so doing we lose a lot, too—our dreams, our innocence, our closest friends, and sometimes even our faith in a higher power. And the only way to defeat Pennywise—that monstrous, childhood IT—is through faith.
King has been accused by his critics of being shallow, all style and no substance (he did himself no favors by once calling himself “the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and Fries”). But I’ve found that his best material has more depth than meets than eye. IT is not just about battling monsters. Or rather it is about that, but the monsters are also the real, adult fears of loneliness, guilt, and dependency, of growing up, of confronting the monsters of one’s past and trying to move on. We are all incomplete until we face our past and determine who we are, what we stand for, and how we want to live our lives. This personal struggle, as much as visceral, horrific battles with Pennywise, is what brings me back to IT again and again. This time around I had the benefit of listening to it courtesy of Penguin Audio (my review will also appear on SFFaudio.com).
I will say that IT is not without its problems, including a sequence that remains controversial among King’s readers. Without spoiling the story, it involves a coming of age ritual in the sewers that is a bit off-putting and jarring, even though I do understand its purposes. Some of the characters feel a bit one-trick and allegorical (representative of concepts rather than three-dimensional human beings). Other readers have complained that IT’s denouement—Pennywise’s final reveal—is a bit of a let-down after 1,000 pages of build up. King is unfortunately often guilty of writing unsatisfying endings to otherwise great novels, and IT arguably suffers from the same problem. I don’t necessarily agree, as I find the epilogue incredibly satisfying, but others have made this criticism.
But despite its flaws, IT is one of my favorite books by King. With a memorable monster, a nice cast of characters, and a compelling, decades-spanning storyline with an epic final showdown, IT is a horrific page turner with deeper literary ambitions that it mostly fulfills.
This review also appears on SFFaudio.com.
Tuesday, May 18, 2010
While that may be true, I also think that King may have thought he had said all that he had to say about horror and was looking to explore other genres. He may also have simply exhausted himself with the tome-like IT and needed to try his hand at something short and simple. Compared with most King novels, The Eyes of the Dragon is a chapbook (it’s nine compact discs in the Penguin Audio version, 380 pages in paperback including illustrations).
In brief, The Eyes of the Dragon is a story about the inheritance of the kingship of the fictional realm of Delain. Roland, the old king, fathers two sons late in life, Peter and Thomas. Peter, the eldest, is slated to inherit the throne. Peter possesses all the qualities you would want in a monarch—he’s smart, just, honest, and brave. Thomas on the other hand is a near clone of his father—an average thinker, prone to vacillations, reluctant to make important decisions. Roland’s adviser is Flagg, a shadowy wizard who has served the kings of Delain for centuries, perhaps longer. Flagg is actually a demonic figure who wants to see Delain in ruins and the world thrown into a dark age of bloody anarchy. He devises a plot to poison Roland, framing the murder so that the blame falls on Peter. When the dust settles, Thomas, only 12 years old, unfit to rule and terrified with his new responsibility, is put on the throne. Flagg knows that Thomas will be a puppet in his hands and the instrument through which he can finally see his centuries-long evil plans come to fruition. Peter is sentenced to life in a prison in the tower of the Needle, a small cell high above the city.
King has professed a love for the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien (The Stand is a semi-homage to The Lord of the Rings, and The Dark Tower series draws its inspiration from that book as well). The Eyes of the Dragon shares a lot in common with The Hobbit. Roland’s ancient heirloom is the arrow Foe-Hammer, one of the names given to Gandalf’s sword Glamdring. It’s also an allusion to the black arrow Bard uses to bring down the dragon Smaug. King tells the tale using an omniscient narrator who speaks with a pleasant, conversational voice, and seems to be relaying the tale years later and from some other time and place. This authorial voice is another hallmark of The Hobbit, written initially for Tolkien’s children and meant to be read aloud.
In general I liked The Eyes of the Dragon very much. As with all of King’s stories it’s wonderfully told with a compelling narrative. It feels like a fairy tale with an edge, in which the events will likely work out for the good in the end but with blood spilled and hearts broken along the way.
Peter is a great character and is easy to root for. Despite his unjust sentence and the fact that he knows he will likely never leave the Needle alive, he refuses to succumb to despair. Peter is a born leader with a carriage of command. Guards who initially spit in his soup or try to bully him, believing that as a convicted murderer he will be humbled and easy prey, are cowed by his regal bearing. His captors begin to question whether he indeed murdered his father. Peter has truth on his side and maintains his innocence with a quiet certitude that inspires awe. After his first week in the Needle he makes up his mind to live, and to not relinquish his kingship. Though he’s been convicted and stripped of his regalia and title he is in all respects still the uncrowned King of Delain.
If you’re a fan of King’s world and works you’ll recognize the name of Flagg, who is also the main villain of The Stand and The Dark Tower. While menacing in The Eyes of the Dragon, I found Flagg not as terrifying as he is portrayed in The Stand. Perhaps it’s because he’s less mysterious here and more of a prototypical evil dark wizard. He only reaches the truly insane level of depravity and malice I came to associate with Flagg of The Stand at the very end of the novel.
The Eyes of the Dragon is a moral tale and uses the fantasy trope of pitting opposing sides of good and evil against each other (Peter is almost stainlessly pure, while Flagg is an unredeemable monster who wants to see Delain thrown into a 1,000-year reign of anarchy and blood-soaked chaos). In between are characters with shades of gray, and just like The Lord of the Rings the outcome is decided by a few average folk who have to make difficult choices that run at odds with their own best interests.
But The Eyes of the Dragon is not without a few flaws. In my opinion King is far more comfortable and convincing when he’s writing about our world and in particular his Maine birthplace. Fictional small towns like Derry and Castle Rock feel real because King knows their environs and peoples. In contrast, the kingdom of Delain is unremarkable and without character (it’s a typical monarchy with kings and a servant class, whose technology is roughly high medieval). Any truly fantastic elements are at a minimum: Flagg is the only person who has access to magic and his spells are more alchemy than spellcraft. The only monster we see is a single smallish dragon in a flashback sequence whose head is mounted on the wall of Roland’s sitting room (from this trophy we get the title of the novel).
There are some holes in the plot, too. For someone who is incredibly ancient, powerful, and brilliantly evil, how does Flagg let Peter live for more than five years, letting him patiently spin his escape plot from the top of the Needle? Flagg recognizes Peter almost from birth as a formidable threat: Why wouldn’t he poison him, or pay the guards to murder him, or simply do it himself? When Flagg finally does catch on to Peter’s escape plan and comes racing up the stairs of the Needle swinging his monstrous double-bladed axe like a medieval version of Jack Torrance, I wondered why he had chosen to wait so long.
The second plot hole is Peter’s method of escape. I won’t spoil it here, but it seemed unrealistic that one of the omnipresent guards (who frequently pop their heads into the window on Peter’s cell door) wouldn’t have caught him in the act at some point during his five-plus years of imprisonment.
Still, a few problems aside, The Eyes of the Dragon is, like most of King’s material, a great read and highly recommended. Bronson Pinchot does a wonderful job as narrator and in particular delivers a wonderfully-voiced Flagg, delivering his lines with a whispering malice.
This review also appears on SFFaudio.com.
Wednesday, October 28, 2009
--Ray Bradbury, The Martian Chronicles
I’ve never been a big reader of science fiction, largely because, rightly or wrongly, my perception is that SF worships at the altar of technology, and is fixated upon cold, clinical subject matter for which I have little interest. But if the SF genre contained more books like Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, I might view it a lot differently.
The Martian Chronicles tells the story of mankind’s colonization of the red planet. Driven by curiosity and the impending destruction of a worldwide atomic war, men send rocket expeditions to Mars in hopes of settling the planet and finding a place to carry on their civilization. It’s not a traditional novel, but a collection of short stories originally published in Planet Stories, Thrilling Wonder Stories, and a handful of other defunct SF magazines, which Bradbury ties together with a series of vignettes.
The Martian Chronicles was first published in 1950 and Bradbury set the first story, “Rocket Summer,” in a fictional (and then-distant) 1999; this latter printing advances the timeline to 2030. The Martian Chronicles certainly has some SF surface trappings, and the tale “There Will Come Soft Rains” (a haunting story about the aftermath of an atomic war) probably fits that category. But it’s certainly not hard SF. Bradbury doesn’t dwell on the Martian technology nor offer explanations for how it works. He describes what little there is in his inimitable short strokes of brilliant, poetic color: Houses with tables of silver lava for cooking bits of meat, pillars of rain that can be summoned for washing, metal books that sing their stories, like a fine instrument under the stroke of a hand.
In the introduction to the 2009 Blackstone Audio, Inc., production of the book, Bradbury says that the larger themes and deeper meanings of his work were buried in his subconscious as he wrote. It wasn’t until he saw an onstage production of The Martian Chronicles, juxtaposed with a viewing of a traveling Tutankhamun exhibit at the Las Angeles Art Museum, that he made the leap—he had written a myth, not a science fiction story:
“Moving back and forth from Tut to theatre, theatre to Tut, my jaw dropped. ‘My God,’ I said, gazing at Tutankhamun’s golden mask. ‘That’s Mars. My God,’ I said, watching my Martians on stage, ‘That’s Egypt, with Tutankhamun’s ghosts.’ So before my eyes and mixed in my mind, old myths were renewed, new myths were bandaged in papyrus and lidded with bright masks. Without knowing, I had been Tut’s child all the while, writing the red world’s hieroglyphics, thinking I thrived futures even in dust-rinsed pasts… Science and machines can kill each other off or be replaced. Myth, seen in mirrors, incapable of being touched, stays on. If it is not immortal, it almost seems such.”
Rather than explaining the hows and whys of rocket travel, or describe the atmospheric conditions of the red planet, Bradbury uses The Martian Chronicles to explore the age-old problems of colonization/colonialism, our fears of the unknown, our longing for simpler times, and the limitations of science and technology. It’s intensely elegiac, an ode to the quiet towns and neighborhoods of the 1920s and 30s, before the sprawl of cities and suburbs and the opening of the Pandora’s Box of atomic power.
The heart of the book is the short story, “And the Moon be Still as Bright,” which concerns a fourth rocket expedition to the red planet. The first three missions have failed. Mars is empty, its cities ghostly and vacant. The Martians have been hit hard by chicken pox, infected by the crew of one of the previous expeditions. When several crewmembers of the latest expedition get drunk and vandalize a beautiful Martian city of glass spires, one of the crewmen, Jeff Spender, turns on them in a murderous rampage.
Later, atop a hill, Captain Wilder approaches Spender in an effort to get him to surrender. Spender, who initially seems crazy, is revealed as the man with the clearest vision. He knows what modern man is like, a professional cynic who wants to tear down and rebuild in his own image, citing Cortez’s mission to Mexico (which wiped out nearly all traces of the Aztec Empire). Spender has read the Martians’ books and seen the relics of their culture, and discovers that it is a perfect balance of science and religion, nature and man (Martian) in harmony, with neither side dominant. Says Spender:
“[The Martians] quit trying too hard to destroy everything, to humble everything. They blended religion and art and science because, at base, science is no more than an investigation of a miracle we can never explain, and art is an interpretation of that miracle. They never let science crush the aesthetic and the beautiful. It’s all simply a matter of degree. An Earth Man thinks: ‘In that picture, color does not exist, really. A scientist can prove that color is only the way the cells are placed in a certain material to reflect light. Therefore, color is not really an actual part of things I happen to see.’ A Martian, far cleverer, would say: ‘This is a fine picture. It came from the hand and the mind of a man inspired. Its idea and its color are from life. This thing is good.’”It’s interesting to note that the Martians are not perfect, and in striving for balance they may have lost something. In “Ylla,” the second story/chapter of the book, a Martian woman upsets her husband to the point of murder. As the Martians are telepathic, Ylla is able to “speak” to the astronauts as they draw near in their silver rocket. She learns their burning desires and their strange songs. Despite the harmonious, tranquil, idyllic environment all around her, the brown-skinned, golden-eyed Ylla wants to be swept away to earth, crushed in the embrace of the white-skinned, dark-haired, blue-eyed Nathaniel York. For all its piggishness and destructiveness, the race of men is passionate, burning with the desire to live and explore.
As with all of Bradbury’s tales, The Martian Chronicles contains its share of humor, terror, heartbreak, and hope, and is written in Bradbury's beautiful, one-of-a-kind style. It holds a deserved place as science fiction classic, even as it transcends the genre and defies our attempts to categorize it.
Thursday, October 1, 2009
The second issue of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly is out. The guys over at HFQ put out a very enjoyable first issue, and they're back with three more short stories and two poems (love that!) for issue no. 2. It's free, so what are you waiting for? Go on over and do some reading.
A review of the Tantor Media audiobook, The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian . Hey, the author really seems to really know his REH :). Seriously though, SFFaudio.com, a cool Web site that you should be checking out, allowed me to post a review on their web site. I'll be very happy if it brings a few more REH readers into the fold.
How to Arm a 14th Century Knight. Great video and very instructive, if you like this sort of thing. I'm in the midst of reading Agincourt by Bernard Cornwell and had my interest in armor piqued. It's a good read so far, but I'm not sure whether I buy Cornwell's assertion that a longbow--even firing a bodkin-tipped arrow--could penetrate that type of protection with ease.
Monday, August 31, 2009
Gregg and Luke (damn his awesome British accent) sound a lot better than I do, and I'm certainly more comfortable behind the keyboard than on an open microphone, but I don't think I entirely embarrassed myself and I certainly had a lot of fun with the podcast. How many times do you get the chance to sit down for an hour-plus and actually talk about books? In my case, that would be ... never.
Here's the link if you're interested: http://www.sffaudio.com/?p=9963. Enjoy!
Sunday, May 10, 2009
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Still funny after all these years, and better than ever on audio
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is one of those rare examples of written comedy that actually works. When I last read this book back in middle school (it seemed like every dorky, D&D and Atari-playing kid like me was toting it around at the time), I enjoyed it very much. But I was in for an even more pleasant surprise when I recently returned to this book via the audio format. This was actually the first comedy I’ve listened to on CD, and I now believe that this genre might benefit the most from audio treatment. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a first-rate example of what a talented narrator/actor can do with funny, well-written material. English actor/comedian Stephen Fry takes The Hitchhiker’s Guide to new comedic heights, and on a few occasions I found myself laughing out loud during my commute to work. Fry literally turns the text into a running Monty Python skit.
The plot of the book is as follows: Arthur Dent, a nondescript Englishman, is about to lose his house to a construction crew in the name of progress (an overpass is scheduled to run through Dent’s property). Simultaneously, an alien race called the Vogrons has scheduled the vaporization of earth to clear the way for a hyperspatial express route. Dent is saved from destruction at the last second by his friend Ford Prefect, a roving alien researcher on the earth to complete an entry for a galactic encyclopedia called The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Prefect and Dent later hook up with Zaphod Beeblebrox, Galactic President and rogue ship-thief, and his two crewmates (an annoying robot stricken with depression and ennui named Marvin, and Trillian, a female and earth’s only other survivor). Beeblebrox has stolen a cutting-edge spaceship called the Heart of Gold and is on a mission to find the lost planet of Magrathea, rumored to hold riches beyond imagining, as well as the answers to the mystery of life, the universe, and everything.
To appreciate The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy you must like Monty Python (author Douglas Adams has writing credits in an episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and appeared in two others, and his British comedy influences are plain). Here’s an example of the type of humor you’ll find:
Vogon poetry is of course the third worst in the Universe. The second worst is that of the Azgoths of Kria. During a recitation by their Poet Master Grunthos the Flatulent of his poem “Ode to a Small Lump of Green Putty I Found in My Armpit One Midsummer Morning” four of his audience died of internal hemorrhaging, and the President of the Mid-Galactic Arts Nobbling Council survived by gnawing one of his own legs off. Grunthos is reported to have been “disappointed” by the poem’s reception, and was about to embark on a reading of his twelve-book epic entitled My Favorite Bathtime Gurgles when his own major intestine, in a desperate attempt to save life and civilization, leaped straight up through his neck and throttled his brain.
The very worst poetry of all perished along with its creator, Paula Nancy Millstone Jennings of Greenbridge, Essex, England, in the destruction of the planet Earth.
Although The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is ostensibly mere over-the-top comedy, part of the reason (I believe) for its enduring appeal are its pithy insights about the nature of humanity and the universe and mankind’s raison d’etre. Overall it’s well worth reading and/or listening to.
This review also appears on SFFaudio.com .
Sunday, April 26, 2009
So she was turned to a pillar of salt. So it goes.
—Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five
During World War II, author Kurt Vonnegut was taken prisoner by the Germans and held captive in the city of Dresden, which was later reduced to flaming rubble during a harrowing fire-bombing by American forces. According to Vonnegut, the city was a gorgeous center of art, architecture, and fine civilian life; its value as a military target was negligible. “What I’ve said about the firebombing of Dresden is that not one person got out of a concentration camp a microsecond earlier, not one German deserted his defensive position a microsecond earlier,” Vonnegut said.
Somewhere between 25,000 and 120,000 civilians (the upper figure is an early estimate, which has since been revised downward to 25,000-40,000) were killed in the inferno of incendiary and high explosive bombs. As such, Dresden remains a controversial, dark chapter of America’s involvement in the war.
Slaughterhouse-Five is Vonnegut’s look back on this dreadful event. It’s not a traditional biography, but a modified account of his own experiences as seen through the eyes of Billy Pilgrim, a tall, awkward, disconnected dreamer who is drafted into the army and thrust into combat. Pilgrim is a pathetic soul with the appearance of a “filthy flamingo,” involved in tragic events beyond his control.
Captured during the Battle of the Bulge, Pilgrim and 100 other soldiers are shipped to Dresden to serve as prison-labor. At night they sleep in a storage-cave beneath a slaughterhouse amidst the butchered carcasses of animals, and it’s this arrangement that allows them to survive the attack. After the firebombing, they emerge the next morning to find the once-beautiful Dresden so utterly destroyed that it resembles the surface of the moon.
A part of me feels guilty for reviewing Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five on a science fiction/fantasy Web site. The connections of this classic anti-war novel to the science fiction genre are tenuous, but it attains this designation (in some circles) due to the presence of the Tralfamadorians, a race of aliens that capture Pilgrim and bring him back to their planet for examination. During his months on Tralfamadore, Pilgrim is placed in a sort of zoo, his body and mind laid bare to the curious aliens.
The Tralfamadorians may be simply the imagination of an unwell, traumatized mind. Pilgrim is emotionally unbalanced, suffers a head injury after the war, and reads voraciously of the novels of science fiction writer Kilgore Trout, one of whose novels concerns an alien abduction that sounds suspiciously like Pilgrim’s own experiences on Trafalmadore. But the Tralfamadorians—real or not—allow Vonnegut to explore the concept of time and our place in it, which is the larger theme of the novel. The Tralfamadorians can see in four dimensions and have no concept of time; life just is, and human existence is a series of events and happenings with no beginnings and ends. Events simply occur; wars are fought, we are powerless to stop them and it’s ridiculous to think we can. Free will is a farce.
Pilgrim’s time among the Tralfamadorians allows him to experience his life in this fourth dimension, moving his mind back and forth to the past and future, seemingly at will. He is able to see his own death, and relive events from his childhood, his marriage, and his career as an optometrist. But Pilgrim’s wandering, time-traveling mind returns again and again to the terrible events of Dresden, an experience so powerful that his mind is unable to make sense of it. It just is, and all he can do with the rest of life is to try and look upon the good times in his life, the moments of joy, and not linger too long over the blackened, shrunken bodies of Dresden, or a fellow American and friend executed for salvaging a teapot from the ruins.
Actor Ethan Hawke (of Dead Poets Society and Hamlet fame) serves as the narrator and does a nice job reading with an understated, dispassionate voice that perfectly fits the tone of the novel. This Blackstone Audio production also includes an unexpected and enlightening 10-minute interview with Vonnegut on the final disc. Here Vonnegut reveals that Pilgrim’s character was based on a real person, Edward Crone, an American who died in Dresden. “He just didn’t understand the war at all, what was going on, and of course there was nothing to understand—he was right,” Vonnegut says.
This review also appears on SFFaudio.com.
Tuesday, April 7, 2009
Desperation contains some effective action sequences and the usual dollop of King-ian gross-out horror scenes, though there’s little actual frightening stuff in here. The book walks a hazy middle ground between a straight-up horror story and an examination of the nature of faith and the personage of God, and at least (for me) never really succeeds with either objective.
The basic problem I had with Desperation is that it contains no memorable or even particularly likeable personalities. The closest we get to a main character is John Edward Marinville, a pretty obvious stand-in for King himself (Johnny is a graying popular writer and member of the Baby Boomer generation whose career is starting to flag, and embarks on a cross-country motorcycle trip to attempt to find inspiration for his next novel. Which is apparently identical to how King arrived at the idea for Desperation). But after his introduction Johnny gets placed on the back burner as King juggles a bunch of other introductions, and we don’t learn what makes him tick until the book is nearly through.
I will give King some benefit of the doubt as the Penguin audio book I listened to for this review was abridged, and King’s original text is cruelly slashed. It’s apparent that some character development was left on the Penguin cutting room floor. The audio version is (somewhat) saved by narrator Kathy Bates of Misery fame, who does a fine job as the reader.
The rest of the characters are your standard cast of interchangables, save for David Carver, an 11-year-old boy who is able to communicate directly with God. King was certainly ambitious with Desperation: Like he did with The Stand, King inserts God directly into this book. He also spends some time exploring the nature of God through David’s struggle to reconcile a being that is supposedly all-knowing and all good, but is also cruel and demands borderline unbearable sacrifices of his worshippers here on earth. In the cruelest act of all, King writes, sometimes God lets His broken and suffering people live.
Opposing our band of heroes is the demon Tak, an evil spirit penned up in a 19th century mine—the China Pit—located on the outskirts of the small, secluded town of Desperation, Nevada. Tak is freed when a modern-day mining company accidentally unearths the ancient shaft. There’s an old legend in Desperation that a group of Chinese miners were buried alive in the mine after the shaft caved in, and the white miners outside sealed them in, alive, after deciding a rescue was too risky. In another weakness of the book, it’s not apparent whether the Chinese had stumbled onto Tak, or whether he was summoned by the curses of the dying, vengeful workers trapped inside.
Tak has the ability to inhabit the bodies of his victims, and he uses his hosts to embark on a murderous rampage that wipes out nearly the entire population of Desperation. Last of all Tak takes possession of Collie Entragian, the hulking town sheriff, and using his body and his cruiser rides up and down Highway 50 snaring unwitting hostages one by one.
Entragian/Tak locks his hostages in the Desperation town jail for use as human hosts (demon-possessed bodies wear out rather quickly and gruesomely, we learn). But spurred on by a vision from God, David manages to squirm through the bars of his cell and free the group. The rest of the book follows David as he accepts God’s command to defeat Tak. But first he has to overcome the group’s skepticism of God and his own shaken faith, which is cruelly tested again and again.
The middle of the book is a rather uninspired, drawn-out sequence of the group holed up in Desperation’s movie theatre. The book ends in a final showdown at the China Pit as the survivors attempt to seal the shaft. I wanted to see more of the inside of the mine, which seemed to have lots of potential as a set-piece, but the book ends rather abruptly.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention a scene in which Johnny/King shouts out, “God forgive me, I hate critics!” before detonating a cache of explosives. I have to believe that King wrote the scene with a big grin on his face, and I certainly got a laugh out of it, even though I’m likely among the critics for which King has little use.
Note: This review also appears on SFFaudio.com: http://www.sffaudio.com/?p=5221
Saturday, March 14, 2009
As it turns out, my fears proved ill-founded. Thinner is an entertaining little novel that is, at its heart, about big concepts, including guilt, the dangers of not accepting responsibility for one’s actions, and the ruinous, generation-spanning cycle of destruction wrought by revenge. Thinner is positively short by King standards (about 300 pages), moves quickly, and contains a couple nasty little shocks that keep you on your toes and leave you feeling unsettled.
I’ve stated before that Stephen King was, in his early career, batting very nearly 1.000 as a writer. If you take a look at his work from 1973’s Carrie through 1987’s Misery and The Eyes of the Dragon, King was consistently great. I submit that The Tommyknockers (1988), written at the height of his drug and alcohol problems, was the first true misstep in King’s career. Now that I’ve finally read Thinner (released in 1984), I find that my rule holds true. It’s a fine book from King’s classic period.
Thinner tells the story of Billy Halleck, an overweight lawyer who gets distracted while driving home (his wife is giving him a handjob) and accidentally runs down an old gypsy woman crossing the street. Halleck avoids what should have a manslaughter conviction because the judge is an old golfing buddy and lets him off the hook. But Halleck can’t escape the scales of justice. The ancient father of Halleck’s victim curses Halleck by laying a scaly finger upon him and uttering the single word, “thinner.”
In the coming weeks, Halleck’s weight begins to drop alarmingly. When the doctors rule out cancer, Halleck realizes that the gypsy’s curse has taken root. The rest of the novel features Halleck chasing down the gypsies to get the curse lifted as his weight plunges from a high of 252 pounds to half that.
King has the problem of trying to convince the reader that a steadily weakening lawyer from a wealthy Connecticut suburb is capable of exerting enough pressure on a stubborn gypsy clan to lift the curse. He neatly sidesteps this problem by introducing the character of Richie “The Hammer” Ginelli, a minor mafia boss and a former client of Halleck’s. Ginelli assists Halleck by lending his unique and persuasive “services” learned in the hard-knock school of organized crime.
There’s a lot to recommend in Thinner. Taduz Lemke, the old gypsy with the power to curse, is a wonderful character, an ancient soul (over 100 years old) from the old world, the last of the Magyar chiefs. Although he’s initially unlikeable, King renders Lemke and the rest of his gypsy clan sympathetic. Though they are dirty and uneducated, and routinely skirt (and cross) the boundaries of the law, the gypsies are treated with open hostility from the hypocritical communities that they visit. Men like Halleck view the gypsies as an unwelcome disease in their safe and pure suburban communities, which are actually corrupt at the core with their unequal systems of justice, “old boy” networks, and inherent prejudices. When Halleck claims that Lemke’s daughter is equally at fault for the accident, since she didn’t look before crossing the street, he shows his unwillingness to accept responsibility for his own actions. Worse, Halleck took advantage of an unfair system of justice and never had to pay for his (and his wife’s) carelessness. Lemke’s curse is a painful lesson in admitting one’s guilt: “There is no push, white man from town,” Lemke says, again and again throughout the story. “No push.”
If you’re a Generation X-er you’ll appreciate the 1980’s time machine that is Thinner. In it you’ll find references to Apples and TRS-80s, Thunderbirds and Novas. Halleck’s family physician casually blows cocaine during a checkup and it doesn’t seem out of place here, given the period. Halleck’s daughter is mentioned as playing a year long game of Dungeons and Dragons.
Thinner contains very little horror until the end and is more accurately classified as a thriller, which may be why King adopted his (unsuccessful) pseudonym Richard Bachman during the book’s initial release. In Thinner, King was attempting something a bit outside his reputation as a horror author.
Veteran actor Joe Mantegna provides the narration for Thinner and he is magnificent, particularly in his portrayal of Ginelli (no surprise here, given that Mantegna has appeared in various gangster films). I’ve previously railed against the inclusion of music in audio books, but this version by Penguin makes excellent use of it, in particular its use of a chilling, off-putting theme whenever the gypsies—or Halleck’s alarmingly plunging weight—are mentioned.
This review also appears on SFFaudio.com: http://www.sffaudio.com/?p=4640.
Saturday, February 28, 2009
The character of Elric first appeared in print in 1961 in a short story entitled “The Dreaming City.” Author Michael Moorcock later expanded the work into a short novel, Elric of Melnibone (1973). Though not perfect, I consider this latter a must-read for fans of fantasy fiction. It’s a marvelous work of imagination whose beautiful trappings include Imrryr, a city of alien architecture and strange, often abhorrent customs; demon-summoning sorcerers; and appearances by elementals and the gods of chaos. It combines the fast-pace and adventurous swagger of pulp fiction with a main character prone to brooding meditation and self-doubt.
The Elric stories are deliberately iconoclastic, taking an ironic stance in opposition to traditional/Tolkienian high fantasy and their often conservative worldviews. Elric is the reluctant emperor of Melnibone, a decadent, fading, yet still powerful kingdom that has dominated the Young Kingdoms of the earth for 10,000 years (think of Rome had it never lost its military might and was ruled by emperors like Caligula for millennia). Drunk on the blood of conquest, immoral to the core, and frequently under the influence of dream-inducing drugs, the Melniboneans live by the philosophy, “seek pleasure, however you would.” Slaves perform all the menial work, and some have been surgically altered/bred to perform single functions like singing a single, perfect note, or rowing a war-galley.
The army is unwaveringly loyal to the lineage of the Ruby Throne, as are its emperors—until Elric inherits the throne. He begins to question the old traditions, including the Melnibonean’s right to rule the Young Kingdoms with an iron fist. At heart Elric wants to abdicate the throne and run away with his love, Cymoril. But he’s afraid that the next in line to the throne—his cousin, the wicked Yrkoon, a throwback to the cruelest lords of Melnibone—will institute a reign of terror in his stead.
Yrkoon and his followers despise Elric, whom they perceive as weak and a threat to Melnibone’s place of power. They devise a plot to kill him during a barbarian invasion from the sea. Elric leads a successful attack that routs the barbarians, but at his lowest ebb (Elric’s weak constitution requires him to take a potent concoction of daily drugs to maintain his energy), Yrkoon shoves him into the sea. Weak and weighed down by his armor he begins to drown.
Thinking Elric slain, Yrkoon sails home and assumes the throne. Elric, however, is saved by a whispered spell to an elemental god of the sea and returns to Melnibone to punish and exile his cousin. Aided by a handful of followers, Yrkoon takes Cymoril hostage and escapes the Dragon Isle to start an uprising in one of the barbarian kingdoms. The remainder of the book includes Elric’s quest to get Cymoril back, which culminates with Elric’s recovery of the powerful but cursed Stormbringer.
Elric of Menibone starts off exceedingly strong with some memorable description and characters. Moorcock succeeds in making Melnibone feel like an alien place, as torture, incest, and dining on human flesh are routine occurrences (a scene with the sinister court torturer/chief interrogator Dr. Jest—a thin, sinuous man wielding a merciless, razor-thin scalpel—is forever seared into my memory). Moorcock’s portrayal of magic is exactly the way I like it—powerful and capricious, accessed through great grimoires capable of summoning great powers of darkness, but also prone to turn on the caster in unpredictable ways.
For all its strengths, however, Elric of Melnibone—and in particular its sequels—are not perfect. Moorcock is blessed with a tremendous imagination, but at times I find that he fails to deliver on his promise. For example, we’re told that the Melnibonean sorcerer-kings engage in drugged dream-sleep that allows them to wander other worlds and universes, “consort with angels, demons, and violent, desperate men,” and learn the accumulated lore and magic of the Melnibonean race, all from their dream couches. As a result of these dream-quests, their minds are millennia old. It’s a great concept. And yet how does this activity result in a character like the impetuous Yrkoon, who acts like a spoiled 25-year-old prince instead of a thoughtful sage suffused with the wisdom of ages? I also found the Elric series slips into repetition in later books as Elric battles one demon after another. His world-weary attitude in itself grows tiring after several books as well.
Finally, I must state that I found this Audio Realms AudioBooksPlus presentation a mixed bag. The reader, Jeffery West, was talented and altered his voice enough to create recognizable characters. This version also featured a brief overview/introduction read by Moorcock himself, a very nice, unexpected bonus. But the production was marred by the head-scratching decision to play music in the background throughout the entire reading. This included a loud heartbeat sound played during dramatic scenes. After a while I ceased hearing the music, but at times it was jarring and took me out of the flow of the story.
Note to Audio Realms and other audio book producers: The thought is appreciated, but please drop the soundtracks and stick to the text.
Note: This post also appears on SFFaudio.com.
Tuesday, November 25, 2008
—Ray Bradbury, The Halloween Tree
This review may be a little out of season, but it was with relatively recent memories of carving jack-o’lanterns and taking my costumed children out to trick-or-treat that I listened to The Colonial Radio Players dramatized adaptation of The Halloween Tree by Ray Bradbury. This neat little tale is ostensibly for children and young adults, but it contains an illuminating look into the origins of Halloween as well as an honest exploration of our own cultural view of death, that greatest of all mysteries.
The Halloween Tree opens with eight young boys gathered together on Halloween night to go trick-or-treating. A ninth boy, Pipkin, is notably absent from the group, and when he finally emerges from his house it’s apparent something is terribly wrong: He’s pale, moving gingerly, and clutching at a lancing pain his side. But the call of Halloween is too strong and he joins his friends. Later we learn that Pipkin is suffering from an acute bout of appendicitis.
The boys decide to go trick-or-treating at a haunted house, and there they encounter the ghostly, skeletal, white-haired Mr. Moundshroud. Moundshroud takes the boys to see The Halloween Tree. En route they have to cross a deep ravine, which proves to be a metaphor for the Valley of Death, and Pipkin fails to reach the other side. When the boys call to him, his pumpkin light goes out and he vanishes from sight.
Moundshroud offers to take the boys on a dreamlike trip back through time in order to save Pipkin. Along the way he reveals the origins of Halloween and its association with death. The boys travel back to ancient Egypt and view that culture’s reverence of the dead, including its great pyramid-tombs, mummies, and the worship of the sun god Osiris, murdered each night by his jealous brother only to rise again the next morning. They are whisked away to pre-Christian Europe and encounter the cowled, scythe-wielding Samhain, the druidic god of death from which Halloween derives its origins.
The boys witness the extinction of the druids and their religion at the hands of the murdering Romans, whose polytheistic approach to religion is itself eradicated by the coming of Christ. “Now the Christians come and cut the Romans down—new altars, boys, new incense, new names,” Moundshroud says. Here I’ll mention that The Halloween Tree includes a subversive view of Christianity, as the boys witness the persecution of innocent witches in the dark ages in the name of Christ.
The boys’ journey continues to 16th century Paris and Notre Dame Cathedral and finally to Mexico for the Day of the Dead celebration. Their strange, dreamlike trip not only reveals the origins of Halloween, but also illuminates our own view of death here in the United States—cemeteries are lonely, cold places, and when someone dies we turn our attention to moving on and forgetting, rather than remembering and honoring our deceased loved ones. When contrasted with Bradbury’s bright description of The Day of the Dead, our cultural reaction to death seems stunted and sad in comparison:
By every grave was a woman kneeling to place gardenias, or azaleas, or marigolds, in a frame upon the stone. By every grave knelt a daughter, who was lighting a new candle, or lighting a candle that had just blown out. By every grave was a quiet boy, with bright brown eyes, and in one hand a small papier-mâché funeral parade, glued to a shingle, and in the other hand a papier-mâché skeleton head, which rattled with rice or nuts inside.
Halloween, this odd, out-of-place holiday that has persisted through the ages, and remains with us now as a night to beg for candy in a costume, is revealed as an ancient ritual denoting the end of the harvest season and the onset of cold winter, of night, and of death. Its origins trace back thousands of years and span multiple cultures. “Four thousand years ago, one hundred years ago, this year, one place or time, but the celebration’s all the same—the Feast of Samhain, the Time of the Dead Ones, All Souls, All Saints, the Day of the Dead, El Dia de los Muertos, All Hallows, Halloween,” Bradbury writes.
In the end the boys are presented with a difficult choice to bring Pipkin back from the dead, one that involves a paganistic sacrifice to the dark gods. I won’t spoil the ending. But there’s a great line where one of the boys asks Moundshroud, “Will we ever stop being afraid of the night and death?” Moundshroud (who may be death himself, or the spirit of Halloween) replies reassuringly, “When you reach the stars, boy, yes, and live there forever, all the fears will go, and death himself will die.”
I had a few minor quibbles with the presentation of the story. The Colonial Radio Theatre presentation at times relied too heavily on unnecessary sound effects and crashing music that threatened to overwhelm the story, although the voice of Moundshroud, Jerry Robbins, was excellent, as were the production values. The tale also contained a bit more whimsy (a giant kite that whisks the boys back through time, etc.) than I typically like, but Bradbury is such a gifted, poetic writer that it mostly works.
Death may be our greatest mystery, but Bradbury is not afraid to look into its cold, impenetrable depths in search for meaning. The Halloween Tree illuminates the subject with a ghostly pumpkin candle whose light remained with me long after the tale was over, which is one sure mark of a good book.
Note: This review also appears on SFFaudio.com: http://www.sffaudio.com/?p=3656