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Books To Look For
Sparrow Hill Road, by Seanan McGuire, DAW Books, 2014, $11.99.
Indexing, by Seanan McGuire, 47North, 2014, $14.95.
I get tired of how the mythic matter that appears in most contemporary North American books is based on the legends of other places, mostly Europe and Asia. I get why that is. Just as most of us living on this continent are part of a melting pot of race and culture, so too are our mythologies, fairy tales, and folklore.
But North America's been around long enough to develop some of its own myths, and I wish more writers would dip into them. There have been a few exceptions, notably utilizing Native material, or exploring the Wild West. But there's another piece of real Americana that has yet to be tapped and that's car culture. Which includes, though is not limited to, classic cars and hot rods, roadside diners, eighteen-wheelers, and the highways themselves.
And before anyone writes to me, I know that these sorts of things exist elsewhere in the world, but they don't appear to have the same mythology as they do here. Hot rodding was born in the California desert. There are thousands of miles of trucking routes. And where is the equivalent of Route 66 in other parts of the world? (I suppose in terms of finding a place in modern car mythology, Germany's Autobahn comes close, but it's still not the same.)
Mystery and horror writers have tapped into this material for years. Fantasists? Not so much. And certainly not with the mythological assurance that McGuire brings to the table. She takes a staple of the horror genre—the girl dying on the way to her prom—and from that simple anecdotal tale weaves an interlocking series of stories with a resonance that echoes the tales of Robin Hood or the legends of King Arthur.
Rose Marshall is the prom queen in question, dying at sweet sixteen in 1954, run off the road by a man named Bobby Cross (though it's a while before Rose realizes that). Instead, she wanders the roads and highways of a twilight world able only to manifest in the flesh if someone lends her a piece of clothing. And she's forever sixteen.
The book is episodic, but it doesn't read like a straightforward reconstruction of stories cobbled together. It's more like those myth cycles I mentioned above, moving around in the character's life, revealing her afterlife piecemeal rather than in a linear narrative. And I can't even begin to convey that narrative thread.
Let's just say that Sparrow Hill Road is a rich tapestry mixing folklore with highway myths and anecdotes, including a bunch of stuff that McGuire made up that has the weight of mythological truth. At one point, her character says (the story is written from Rose's amiable first-person point of view): "There's a secret language written across the length and breadth of North America, etched out in highways and embellished in side roads." Sparrow Hill Road gives you the chance to understand that language and visit the twilight Americas that lie just under the one we already know.
This is my favorite book in a long time. It's tragic and funny and has a big heart. And it's chock full of fascinating ideas that a lesser writer might have strung out into half a dozen books, yet the story never feels crowded.
Having finished Sparrow Hill Road, I thought I'd try one of the series, except a friend pointed me to Indexing, another of McGuire's standalone collections/novels. I wasn't as intrigued with the concept going in as I was with Sparrow Hill Road, mostly because the idea of fairy tale characters living hidden amongst us has already been done (and done well) with the comic Fables and (not so well) with the TV show Once Upon a Time. But it turned out that Indexing was less Fables and more Jack of Fables (both by Bill Willingham) in that it deals with the metastory of fairy tales and the characters' own awareness of their place in the stories.
One of the best things about Indexing is that it's nothing like Sparrow Hill Road other than that the author approaches it with the same skill. It has a first-person perspective as well, and also an episodic feel, although in this case the narrative is more linear. But there the similarities end.
The lead character in Indexing is Henrietta Marchen, a special agent for the ATI Management Bureau. The ATI stands for "Aarne-Thompson Index," a multi-volume index designed to help folklorists identify recurring plot patterns of folktales. It's a real thing. But Marchen and her fellow agents use it to identify fairy tale intrusions into the real world. I'm hoping that's not a real thing.
The problem is that not only are fairy tales based on true events that took place somewhere, sometime, but they also keep reoccurring, looking for that happy ending. In the process, they do a lot of damage to the people around them, the ones who are innocently standing in the path of an onrushing story. Marchen and her companions are there to stop that from happening, because once a story starts, it won't stop on its own. When the Bureau's agents fail, people die, because the story's "happy ending" doesn't include bystanders surviving.
Indexing has the tone of a police procedural, albeit one twisted and shaped through a prism of fairy tales. Instead of investigating an armed robbery or murder, they're dealing with a Sleeping Beauty, say, in which all the inhabitants of some multi-story apartment building have fallen into a deep enchanted sleep and the team has to cut through a briar hedge just to get on the scene.
Like Sparrow Hill Road, the story has a measure of humor to leaven the seriousness of many of the situations. I appreciated the loyalty between the members of Marchen's team—something that holds up even when they don't necessarily like each other very much.
And also, as in Sparrow Hill Road, the various small plots that lead into a bigger story are too complex to quickly convey in a short review such as this. Suffice to say that if you enjoy the current trend of urban fantasy, you'll love what McGuire does here.
Afterlife with Archie by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa & Francesco Francavilla, Archie Comic Publications, 2014, $17.99.
I read Archie comics as a kid but stopped reading them many, many years ago. I know there were changes made as time went by, but in my mind Riverdale was a timeless place. Archie was forever trying to decide between Betty and Veronica, Jughead's appetite never lessened, Reggie was always going to be a tool. Glancing at the covers of the various Archie family digests at the checkout line in grocery stores over the years merely reinforced that impression.
Now, comics don't often make the news, but the Archie Andrews character is as much a pop culture icon as Superman, so it makes sense that every outlet would carry the news that Archie had died, sacrificing his life to save that of a friend. What I found confusing was that this was an adult Archie—at least I was confused until I discovered that there'd been a magazine published for some time called Life with Archie that depicted two ongoing story lines. In one, Archie had married Betty; in the other, Veronica. The issue in which he dies combines the two story lines and is very coy as to who is actually his wife when he dies.
What surprised me about all of this attention is that months earlier, another comic was launched called Afterlife with Archie in which Riverdale is overrun by zombies, and it didn't seem to get the same coverage.
Both are imaginary stories within the confines of the Archie universe, but it strikes me that Afterlife with Archie is the more shocking. For anyone who grew up on these comics, the idea that an adult Archie would give his life for a friend doesn't have quite the same impact as having a zombie apocalypse imperil the teenage boy and his friends.
I'm not a big fan of zombie stories, regardless of the medium. Some are better than others, but they all boil down to us being introduced to a cast of characters, some likeable and some not, and then watching them get picked off one by one until we get to the end. There are variations, of course, and some creators do a better job than others of making characters that we can invest in, but the bottom line usually remains the same. It was shocking when George Romero first had them come shambling into our consciousness. Now, not so much.
Except when you take a bunch of wholesome kids like the Riverdale gang, kids that many of us have known all our lives, and put them smack dab into the middle of a horror show such as this.
It starts with Reggie running over Jughead's beloved dog, Hot Dog. Desperate to save the dog, Jughead brings Hot Dog to Sabrina (of Teenage Witch fame) who makes the mistake of playing with the dark arts to revive the dog. The characters of Pet Sematary and any number of other horror novels and films could have told them that this is a Bad Idea. The dead can come back, but they're never the same when they return.
In this case, Hot Dog bites Jughead and the goofy, food-loving teen is the first to fall victim to the contagion.
Cut to a Halloween dance at Riverdale High where Jughead shows up in his "amazing costume" and all hell breaks loose as he starts to chow down on his classmates and their chaperones.
The tone of this series is unquestionably dark—something that is brought sharply into focus when one considers the lightness of the original material from which it takes a sharp left turn. Some devastating events occur within the pages of this trade paperback (which collects the first five issues), but there is a ray of hope by the time we get to the end.
Unfortunately—for the characters—this is an ongoing series and considering what's happened so far, I'm not sure if any of them will survive in the long run. If the previous history of zombie stories holds true, there's a lot more carnage to come.
Writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and artist Francesco Francavilla do a terrific job, retaining the essence of each character while still making them more realistic than their previous, simple cartoon versions. There are some truly moving scenes (such as when Archie's dog Vegas protects him against an attack by Hot Dog, or when Archie confronts his zombie father) and the art throughout is terrific.
Afterlife with Archie isn't a kid's book, with its graphic psychological and physical violence, but it's very well done. You don't need familiarity with the characters to follow the story, though without it you'll certainly lose some of the shock value and resonance.
But I'm not sure I'll read much further. The next issue (#6) features Sabrina and a whole Cthulhu Mythos take on the cost of her helping Jughead in the first place. Coming up—I suppose—the survivors of the first trade paperback will continue their struggle with the zombie menace and no doubt get picked off one by one. But this five-issue collection is really outstanding.
The Well at the World's End: A Tale, by William Morris, Open Road Media Sci-Fi & Fantasy, 2014, $0.99.
I was browsing an internet bookstore the other day and came across The Well at the World's End by William Morris, the best known work by the man who, among many other artistic achievements, invented the fantasy novel (and that was The Wood Beyond the World). By this I mean a novel wholly set in a world not our own. Prior to Morris, authors' characters would stray from our world into some other magical realm.
Told in an old-fashioned style (old-fashioned even in Morris's time), it's a rambling tale of a young man named Ralph of Upmeads who, against his parents' wishes, sets off to seek his fortune. When he hears of the Well at the World's End, he makes it the central object of his quest for its water "saveth from weariness and wounding and sickness; and it winneth love from all, and maybe life everlasting." It's a long story, usually published in two volumes, but the length adds to its charm, for one falls into the sway of the language and the many characters and adventures Ralph meets along his way. (And I love the idea that "Ralph" was considered a good name for a romantic lead in Morris's day.)
The reason I mention browsing online is because the book was free at the time I found it. Legally free. It's now a dollar, which is still less than the cost of a cup of coffee. That made me curious and I went looking for works by some of the other classic writers in the field. I found more books by Morris, as well as titles by Lord Dunsany, Robert Nathan, James Branch Cabell, H. P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, William Hope Hodgson, and many others. All free, or available for one or two dollars.
Pardon my naïveté, but I was genuinely surprised that such a wealth of great fantasy classics is so readily available at affordable prices.
When I first started tracking down these classic books in the 1960s and '70s, I had to haunt used bookstores with a long list in my pocket, and there was rarely a payoff. Most libraries didn't have anything I was looking for, and it wasn't until Lin Carter came along with the Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series that these titles became readily available.
Carter has been criticized—mostly for his fiction, which was enthusiastic but somewhat lacking in originality. He can't be criticized for his editorial eye, however. I'm guessing there was a whole generation of fantasy writers who owe their love of the field to those books printed under the Sign of the Unicorn, which was the logo for the series. Carter's choices were remarkable. He also wrote introductions for those books with the same enthusiasm with which he tackled his fiction, but they were far more successful. There are many books in the series that I didn't think I'd like but tried simply because of how Carter wrote about them. And he was invariably right—at least insofar as I was concerned—because many of those stories became my favorites.
If there's anything lacking in the field at the moment it's an editor with a singular vision such as Carter's and a publisher willing to back him/her up. I'd love to see those classics reintroduced to the current fantasy audience, a new title dropping every other month or so the way they did under Carter's editorship, which gave readers the time to immerse themselves in the story fully before another book appeared on the stands. Many of us devoured those books in a day or so, but because there was so little fantasy available, and the books were so good, we tended to reread them many times.
What was so good?
Simply all the things that I'm forever talking about in this column. Fascinating stories. Beautiful prose. A true sense of wonder. And perhaps most telling, individual stories. You wouldn't mistake Dunsany for Howard, Morris for Cabell, either in how they approached the fantastical material or the prose style they used to write their stories.
Be that as it may, I can't imagine a publisher supporting such a line in the current publishing atmosphere. It's not their fault. Most readers have come to expect one kind of story—fast, romantic, epic, told in straightforward prose—and the classic writers were writing to a different audience, one that was willing to spend more time allowing the story to unfold. Those readers didn't mind the idiosyncratic, and sometimes old-fashioned, voices of the authors.
The current audience for such books is small today. But happily, as I've discovered, a great many of them are readily available—at least in eBook format. Simply type in an author's name at any of the many digital bookstores on the Internet and one can begin to explore.
If you don't like one author, try another, because as I mentioned above, they are all very different from one another. For a place to start, might I recommend this Wikipedia entry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ballantine_Adult_Fantasy_series. It lists the eighteen titles that preceded the series, all sixty-five titles that appeared in the series, plus two more novels that came out in 1974 after the series was canceled, and even another two dozen titles that were under consideration for the series (like Anatole France's The Revolt of the Angels and nine different books by Eden Philpotts).
I don't recommend these books for any sort of an academic understanding of their historical significance. These are stories that should be read for pleasure and the sense of wonder that they impart to their readers.
The only thing lacking in these eBook editions is that most of them sport generic, non-illustrative covers—so different from the covers that introduced the series, that art being as individual and idiosyncratic as the books they illustrated. And of course there's the fact that these stories almost seem to demand the weight of paper pages rather than digital words on a screen. But I for one am delighted to discover that they still exist in a form that can be appreciated by today's readers.
Because in the end, it's the stories that matter, not how they're delivered to us.
Tales of High Hallack: The Collected Short Stories of Andre Norton Volume 1, by Andre Norton, Premier, 2014, $22.95.
I was a latecomer to science fiction—or at least I was if you don't include the sf of older writers such as Burroughs, Wells, and Twain. But I shied away from space opera and pretty much anything with a spaceship or aliens on the cover. I'm not sure why. I don't think I ever tried them. I just decided I didn't like them (the way that teens are sure of everything). I know I tried some of those early pre-Star Wars sf films and I didn't care for them. Maybe that just carried over to the books.
Still, while I read pretty much everything else, I liked fantasy the best. As I mentioned above, there wasn't that much readily available, so when I was perusing the bookstore shelves one day for something new and came upon Huon of the Horn by Andre Norton, I gave it a try. This was the 1963 Ace edition and I loved the old-fashioned language and the author's take on Oberon et al. When I went looking for more titles by her, I was surprised to discover this was her only real fantasy book (you know, with elves and such). All the rest was space fantasy.
But I'd liked it enough to give the other books a try and after running through what was available by Norton I started reading the pulp magazines and other sf books. I mention all of this because I'm grateful to Andre Norton not only for her own work, but for how she broadened my mind and introduced me to all the many worlds and possibilities to be found in the rest of the sf field. I wonder how many people came to sf because of her?
Now, of all the worlds she created, I'm sure Witch World was the most popular. She certainly produced a great number of Witch World stories—some twenty books and collections, not including the later collaborations. The Witch World books had a wonderfully fresh feel to them when they first came out. I can attest that they stand up to rereading and the various editions are relatively easy to track down, new and used. The stories present a little more of a challenge so I was pleased when this book, the first of three volumes, showed up in my post office box.
The collection includes a few Witch World stories, and it doesn't disappoint. From the first entry, set in ancient Britain, telling what really happened between Merlin and NimuŽ, all the way through to the final one set far in the future where old children's rhymes map out a path to hope, this is vintage Norton. The fascinating characters and settings, the clear, straightforward prose, all fueled by her unending imagination.
It's lovely stuff and if you don't know her work, this is as good a place as any to start.
Alien Hunter: Underworld, by Whitley Streiber, Tor Books, 2014, $25.99.
Whitley Streiber has taken a lot of flak over the years for his belief in alien abductions. Maybe that's why he's turned from writing non-fiction, autobiographical accounts on the subject, to fiction ones. It's a way to keep the conversation going without having to deal with reviews postulating that he's lost his mind.
I don't have a real opinion on either side of the argument. It seems far-fetched, and it's never happened to me, or anybody I know, but the world's a big and strange place so who can say? Maybe there are highly secretive aliens out there just waiting to get their hands on us.
What I do know is that it makes for great fiction and one thing's for certain: Streiber hasn't lost his ability to tell a good story.
Underworld is a sequel to Alien Hunter, and I suppose the second volume in a series that may run for many books. In the first novel, police detective Flynn Carroll was searching into the mysterious disappearance of his wife, correlating the details he had about her case with those of other cases throughout the country. This brought him to the attention of a super secret government agency that not only specialized in policing the alien presence in the United States, but was working hand-in-hand with agents from alien worlds because it turned out that the ones causing trouble here were criminals on their own world.
Carroll is brought into the task force, and when Underworld opens he's still working with them. The job's not simple. Although the alien criminals are responsible for any number of reprehensible acts, Carroll has been told to contain them, not kill them. That's hard to do since the creatures have superhuman strength, speed, and intellect. They're impossible to capture and they have no problem leaving the bodies of innocent humans strewn in their wake.
When Carroll gets cut off from the agency, he goes rogue, determined to take the monsters down once and for all. But this raises another issue. He seems to be the only human who can come close to matching the aliens in terms of strength and speed, which begs the question: what exactly is he?
Like the previous book, Underworld is a fast-paced and brutal read. Events unfold at an unrelenting pace. A few familiar faces are back: Diana Glass, the woman who first recruited Carroll to the task force, and Carroll's old friend Mac, a human criminal who has some secrets of his own. There's also a new member to the task force, the alien Gt'n'aa, whom they call Geri. But this stays Carroll's story from start to finish.
And also like the first book, the plot never quite takes you where you think it will. Which is what this reader really likes in a story.
Material to be considered for review in this column should be sent to Charles de Lint, P.O. Box 9480, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada K1G 3V2.
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