Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Model

Because great news comes in twos, my twitter story The Model is now up free at Trapeze. Check it out, it's brief and rather cheery. Or, at least, one of those.

[Note: since this fell on a Tuesday, this week's review will be posted on Friday.]

Monday, August 29, 2011

Publication v3

My story The Dummy will be appearing in Bards and Sages Quarterly come January.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

George R.R. Martin - Fevre Dream

Released in 1982, Fevre Dream is George R.R. Martin's third novel. While much of his early work is Science Fiction, this is a historical Horror novel, one as concerned with steamboats upon the Mississippi as it is with the vampires it contains, and one that proves as adept at conveying the majesty of 19th century America as A Game of Thrones was at showing us a certain pseudo-medieval world. Yes, this is a vampire story, but it is anything but a shallow imitation of 'Salem's Lot or any of the genre's other classics.

Like all of Martin's work, Fevre Dream is a story of characters. Abner Marsh is a large and honest man, someone slow but bright, the ugliest man on the river (p. 11) and one of its biggest dreamers. He's a steamboatman through and through and has served in every position up tom and most certainly including, captain, but he's now lost just about everything save sympathy due to crushing ice and cruel fate. Abner is a gruff character not much given to warmth or gentleness, but he's a good man that refuses to bow down to circumstance.

Into the picture comes Joshua York, a suave man of indeterminate age, strange hours, and stranger companions. He has a proposition for Captain Marsh: York will supply the money for a steamboat if Marsh is willing to captain it for him. And if Marsh is willing to never, ever question the peculiarities of him or his companions. So their partnership begins, with Marsh kept in the dark. Of course, as any reader of horror worth their salt should be able to guess within a page of their meeting, Joshua's more than he seems. But that does not mean that the novel soon devolves into empty chase scenes. No, Joshua and Abner's relationship is far more complex than that. The chemistry, and eventual friendship, between the two is breathtaking, even while it has to grow around the holes in their knowledge and the mistrust that they can't help but feel.

Damon Julian and Sour Billy Tipton complete our list of characters, and their relationship could not be more different. Julian is the most powerful living vampire, and perhaps the eldest, while Sour Billy is the human he uses to do his bidding. Their relationship is one of greed, with each intending to exploit the other for all that they are worth, and each interacting with others entirely through fear.

The conflict between York and Julian is the central thread of the novel, but far from its only focus. Martin's pace here is slow, drifting down the course of the story and seeing all there is to see rather than sprinting through. The first half of the book, in fact, is almost devoid of direct conflict, instead focusing on setting the scene and building the atmosphere. Martin is able to characterize with only a handful of sentences, and his descriptions are rich and stately, filling the pages with a world over a century old that fills as vivid as the reader's own:

Even empty of carpeting, mirrors, and furniture, the long cabin had a splendor to it. they walked down it slowly, in silence, and in the moving light of the lantern bits of its stately beauty suddenly took form from the darkness, only to vanish again behind them: The high arched ceiling with its curved beams, curved and painted with detail as fine as fairy lace. Long rows of slim columns flanking the stateroom doors, trimmed with delicate fluting. The black marble bar with its thick veins of color. The oily sheen of dark wood. The double row of chandeliers, each with four great crystal globes hanging from a spiderweb of wrought iron, wanting only oil and a flame and all those mirrors to wake the whole saloon to glorious, glittering light. (pp. 32-3)

That splendor, however, can be deceptive. Numerous characters are enamored with beauty, and good is closely aligned with the creation of beauty. And yet beauty is what so often leads to evil, what draws both vampires and thieves. Darkness, too, frequently lurks behind beauty, and the splendor of the Fevre Dream and the river towns it passes through is soon tainted by what lurks underneath: "This city – the heat, the bright colors, the smells, the slaves – it is very alive, this New Orleans, but inside I think it is rotten with sickness." (p. 130) In that way, the majesty of the novel's opening is subverted as its core turns out to be rotted and sick. Great works are built on the backs of slaves, noble characters may be filled with evil, and the beauty of Julian and the ugliness of Marsh provide no indicator of the man beneath the skin.

Fevre Dream, at first, seems a specimen of character driven horror, focusing on the personal struggle between Joshua York and Damon Julian and the darkness that comes from within men. But, as time passes, it soon becomes clear that the conflict is not between those within our brightly lit steamboat and those against another but rather our brightly lit steamboat against the entirety of the darkness without and within: "I thought him evil at first, a dark king leading his people into ruin, but watching him…he is ruined already, hollow, empty. He feasts on the lives of your people because he has no life of his own, not even a name that is truly his. Once I wondered what he thought of, alone, all those days and nights in darkness. I know now that he does not think at all. Perhaps he dreams. If so, I think he dreams of death, an ending. He dwells in that black empty cabin as if it were a tomb, stirring form it only at the scent of blood." (p. 291)

Even as he draws horror from the same wells as Lovecraft and his cohorts, however, Martin's conclusions are vastly different from the cosmic pessimism of the Weird Tales originators. For Martin the unassailable power of darkness is plain, but that does not give you an excuse to surrender. Here, virtue can only be found among the choices we make when faced with inevitabilities: "Choice, you said," he volunteered finally. "That's the difference between good and evil." (p. 178) And so, despite the ephemeral length of their lives, and the vanishingly small nature of their chances, Martin's characters become romantic heroes.

Good choices alone, however, are not enough. Time and time again, Joshua faces Julian in battle, and he loses each time, because Julian is unconstrained by conscience and Joshua is not: Joshua had drugged his own beast, had tamed it to his will, so he had only humanity to face the beast that lived in Julian. And humanity was not enough. He could not hope to win. (p. 354) Intentions are not enough to earn triumphs in Martin's world. To achieve something beyond empty heroics, Martin's characters must, to some extent, embrace the very barbarity that they fight, and, therein, comes the almost insurmountable challenge of drawing the line between strength to fight evil and becoming evil oneself.

Throughout, Joshua York is defined by defying the status quo. For millennia, vampires have simply fed. Driven by their need to kill – the red thirst – they ignored morality and took what they required. York does not see them as evil in that period. As he says, Without choice, there can be no good nor evil. (p. 177) But now York has found a cure, a way to banish the red thirst without the need to revel in murder and blood. Only now can he condemn his fellow vampires, those that choose not to abandon their old ways. As such, it is fitting that his greatest foe, Damon Julian, is no longer a prisoner of his thirst. The too-human need to do harm proved ephemeral in him, and, like Joshua, he is no longer bound by it. Yet he still chooses to do harm.

Martin, of course, extends the metaphor to encompass humanity as well. York was born around the time of the French Revolution, when superstitious peasants executed his father while he and two servants escaped. The father, far too much a creature of the night to believe in anything more damning than amorality, does not blame the peasants who come for him: "They cannot help themselves. The red thirst is on this nation, and only blood will sate it. It is the bane of us all," (p. 154) words later used to describe the Civil War that explodes in the background of the narrative. York rejects that idea, claiming that humans are under no compulsion from the thirst; only an evil nature made [them] do as [they] did. (p. 171)

So, from all of this, Martin's point seems to be that we are not good or bad because of our circumstances but because of our choices and that, no matter the odds, we must not allow ourselves to be swept up by evil. Alright, that all makes sense, and it's a message that's well conveyed – except, that is, when Joshua goes and muddies everything up. Traditionally, vampires sort their hierarchy and prove their dominance with a contest of wills, with the loser subjugated to the winner forever, or, at least, until a stronger vampire comes along. Joshua prefers not to use this method, instead attempting to allow his followers a choice. This most certainly fits with his character. After all, vampires would hardly have become a force for good if they only ceased murdering due to being strong armed into the decision. When they choose to defy Joshua, however, he is not above challenging and defeating them. That, too, fits well with the novel's themes: when the right path cannot be achieved by intentions alone, force must be used to ensure that evil does not triumph.

These mechanics become troublesome, however, when Damon Julian enters the picture. First, Joshua attempts to sway him with words, and then with strength. Both times he fails. Joshua, of course, does not surrender. Though he is outmatched, he battles Julian again and again and refuses to give into Julian's immoral way of life (death?). And yet, when it comes to Julian's other followers, Joshua expects nothing of the kind. There comes a point when Abner decides that he will attack the vampires by day with armed men and explosives. Instead of agreeing to the destruction of an evil he cannot vanquish, Joshua says that, if he must, he will fight beside his fellow vampires, because they are not truly evil, for [Julian] controls them. (p. 302)

But is that any excuse at all? After all, the truly evil Damon Julians of the world are rare. Yes, men do instigate great atrocities, but the vast majority of the damage is done by those neither good or evil that simply follow orders, those – to put it as Martin might – swept away by the red thirst that cannot help themselves. (p. 154) Those French peasants so long ago were not scheming masterminds. To say that those carrying out the works of evil men are not only not in the wrong but also deserving of protection is bizarre, a seeming direct contradiction of Joshua's earlier (and later) refusal to accept circumstance as an excuse for evil.

Despite that one inconsistency, however, the buildup of ideas and tension in Fevre Dream is almost flawlessly executed, the world of the novel steadily and inevitably darkening as the characters' dreams fade out of sight and as their nightmares take the stage. The book's middle is a succession of climaxes, followed by the laxly paced and decades-spanning Fevre Years section. On my first read, some years ago, I thought this to be the novel's main weakness. Now I'm more conflicted. This is a great character moment, as well as a thematic one, but it's undeniable that it comes at the expense of much of the prior chapters' tormenting tension. The climax that comes after the lull, however, is anything but an iffy proposition, featuring a fantastic literalization of Joshua and Julian's battle of wills and of their moral philosophies while, around them, the other vampires awake as night dawns.

When it comes to setting and pacing, Fevre Dream might seem an anomaly of sorts in Martin's catalog, but it's linked to the man's other work by the themes it explores and the fantastic quality of its execution. The book's epilogue takes place decades later, in a graveyard overlooking the Mississippi River as the river rolls on and on, as it has rolled for thousands of years. (p. 361) Our characters have departed, the changes that they wrought have been forgotten by almost all, and the very world that they lived in has faded. But we can still see that they made a difference. I've read Dracula, 'Salem's Lot, and more, and I don't think that we've ever, or will ever, see a vampire novel that can equal Fevre Dream.

[Note: all page numbers from the numbered Subterranean edition]

Friday, August 19, 2011

On Silence

You've probably noticed by now that things have been a bit quieter here than usual, especially on the non-reviews front. Well, I've noticed it too, and I apologize - alas, things aren't likely to get better soon. I dislike using this blog as a soapbox for the minutia of my life, but it's probably worthwhile to mention that I've just relocated to Ohio and that just about every element of my life is in flux at the moment and will, without a doubt, not settle down in its old position. Amidst all this, I do know a few things, and one of them is that I've no intention of letting the Rack wither away. I've come to love the ability to post my thoughts here more than a bit, and that's not even mentioning those of you who comment. So, the Rack shall live, but my amount of free time will likely be diminished a fair bit. Reviews will be coming every Tuesday, and I'll be making an attempt to keep the rest of the week as unbearably worthwhile as possible, but know that the last carries no promises.

After all that, I feel like I should end with a bit of more uplifting news. While I won't say who the author is, for fear things fall through, I will disclose that I've got an interview coming with someone so awesome that I've been agonizing over every word of the questions for weeks now. The interview won't be ready for some time, I don't think, but trust me - it will be worth the wait.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Adam Nevill - The Ritual

After debuting in 2004 with the limited edition of Banquet for the Damned, and the novel's subsequent mass market release, Nevill cemented his name just last year with Apartment 16. The book was remarkable not only for being so unabashedly horror in a time when the genre, outside of a duo of giant names, seemed more straightjacket than style in terms of sales potential, but also for the coverage the novel received both in general review venues and in countless blogs, horror and otherwise. Between those two books, and their success, it doesn't seem silly at all to call Nevill, along with his contemporary Joe Hill, the biggest author in horror to debut this side of the millennial divide. The man's new book, 2011's The Ritual, is, like everything in the man's catalog, an exploration of a different sub genre of horror. This time we've got, as Mr. Nevill himself put it in our interview, a "Great Outdoors" novel, and – for a time – it seems poised to not only live up to its two predecessors but far surpass them. Alas, it does neither.

We begin with layers of isolation. Luke, a rebel and loner well into middle age, meets up with his three college buddies for a reunion camping trip through the virgin forests of northern Sweden. But those dear friends of his youth have all changed, matured, and left him behind. Now, together with them again, he finds himself lonely in their midst:

He had been so excited about hanging out with them all again and looked forward to it for the six months following Hutch's wedding, when the idea was first mooted. But the trip had been so wretched because he recognized so little of the others now. Which made him wonder if he had ever really known them at all. Fifteen years was a long time, but part of him had still clung to the notion that they were his best friends.

But he was truly on his own out here. They had nothing in common any more. (p. 24)

But, of course, the isolation is not merely an interpersonal one. Luke and his friends are far from the world, utterly cut off and off the trail in the midst of virgin forest. Into this comes an ancient monstrosity, a manifestation of the forest bent on slaughtering the unprepared modern men that wandered into its depths. The  two conflicts feed off one another, with the attempted escape that dominates the first half of the book not so much a flight as a war of attrition, and the conflicts of personality established prior becoming deadly hindrances that must be overcome.

It's as the hunt continues that Nevill's characterization really shines through. We see everything from Luke's perspective and so, at the book's start, his companions seem nothing but belligerent, Phil and Dom as believable middle aged men, but more homogenous archetypes than living, breathing people. The friendlier, and more competent in the outdoors, Hutch, too, seems spineless in the way that he refuses to take a side. As the book progresses, however, the intricacies of each of them become clear in their growing desperation. Without anything so laborious as flashbacks or extended reminiscences, Nevill manages to demonstrate the bond between the friends with nicknames, reliance, and confessions.

Though it's the devilish chase that's paramount now, it soon becomes clear that each of their catastrophes started long before they first set foot in the woods that brought them to a head. Phil and Dom – outwardly wealthy, successful, and happily married – are each on the verge of economic disaster and are both stuck in empty, loveless marriages. Both Phil and Dom reached for happiness, thought they'd found it, and now find themselves struggling to stay afloat in the world at large and upon their blistered feet in the present. Only Luke seems to have gotten what he sought from college on, but the independence he craved has a bitter cost. Luke's at home here, in this struggle of life and death, but he's nothing else: ability with no hope for a better life. As he says, It's the other world I can't cope with. I'm hopeless in it. (p. 201) Of our fourth character, Hutch, his interesting opening does not lead to as much development as the other two, in part due to his relatively early move to off screen. There are hints, given by the others, that maybe Hutch's middle of the road, integrated but not opulent, lifestyle led him to contentment where their path's failed – but, of course, those views were from the outside, and, by the time of those statements, Nevill's already shown us many times how flawed such views can be.

Through all of this, Nevill writes with clear, utilitarian prose that effectively conveys matters of characterization and action. Every once in a while, though, he unleashes a few paragraphs of flawless writing that's somehow as conversationally delivered as it is evocative:

And what is that hanging from the tree line? Stretched between the black fringe of the wood like washing blown from a line and caught in the high tiers of forlorn branch and limb, something flutters. They could be shirts, holed and ragged. Discarded things with torn sleeves. There of them, matched with three sets of frayed leggings, thin as long johns arranged below. And all stained with rust.

Skins. Stripped from dead things. Peeled off and flung upwards to hang like pennants, about the place you sought refuge in. (p. 142)

Of course, The Ritual is far from the only Great Outdoors horror story. One of the earliest examples, and certainly a classic one, is Algernon Blackwood's "The Willows" (1907), where characters canoeing enter a bizarre and otherworldly reason untouched by man. But "The Willows" was a short story, and so closer parallels, at least in terms of structure, might be found in Stephen King's The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon (1999) and Dan Simmons's The Terror (2007). In The Ritual, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, and The Terror, we have characters in extreme environments (the woods, the woods again, and the arctic, respectively), and in each the environment is personified in a supernatural menace.

More importantly, each shifts from its central conflict of Man vs. Nature (and supernatural beasty) when it comes time for the climax. The reasons for this are pretty clear: in texts so made of inevitability as these, there's no possible climax with the players already introduced but the protagonist's demise. This might be fine in a short story, but it would be a rather downbeat climax for an exercise stretching into the hundreds of pages. In The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, King solves the problem by introducing an outside party, a hunter, to deal with the monster and rescue the narrator. Achieving the same aims with a tad less dues ex machina, Simmons broadens his novel by the introduction and expansion of the Inuit mythology only hinted at in the rest of the narrative.

So how does Nevill solve this problem? As it turns out, not well. At the halfway mark, Luke reaches the dwelling of a group of black metal musicians, the band Blood Frenzy, eager to summon the beast in the name of Odin, great Wotan who mutters in our blood. (p. 283) Now, the problem is not that the group is unconvincingly depicted. Anyone who's ever interacted with the rather one track members of the modern black metal scene (or, as they'd no doubt put it, kvlt), will feel they know each of these characters. There's even an obligatory declaration of "Poseurs!" at the mention of Dimmu Borgir. (p. 268) No, what the fatal flaw in this solution is rests in the soul of this quote:

Though something notable was missing now. But what was it? From inside him, there had been a removal or a raising of something like a weight. A something that had driven him, wasted him, spent him, left him witless, big-eyed and alight with panic for so long.


Fear. The choking of it. The flinching and the paralysis. The relentless expectation of its cold jolt. Fear had finally gone from him. (p. 245)

Luke feels no fear for a moment there, and, though danger soon returns for him, it does not for the reader. The spell breaks in the divide between parts one and two, and the novel goes from a momentous death march resplendent with isolation and death to an excruciating wait in a house of inanities. A large part of this is due to the members of Blood Frenzy. Believably portrayed they might be, but scary they are not. They're, as Luke himself observes, pathetic. They are, as he tells them, a cliché. (p. 345)

These delusional teenagers are not harbingers of a grand revolution but rather misfits, and even if they might be dangerous with a knife, they're a damn poor substitute for the supernatural terror that dominated the novel's first half. While that terror wanders aimlessly outside, Luke spends near two-hundred tension destroying pages with the band members, listening to their doomed (full of shit (p. 323)) plans and their shallow posturing, and the fact that it's meant to be as ludicrous as it is does nothing to redeem the section. The climax, when it comes, should be devastating. It's the moment when the characters of the novel succumb to the bestiality between them and leave all veneer of civilization behind, a conclusion drenched in blood and desperation. There Luke tells his foes: "Mercy is a privilege out here. Not a right." (p. 381) Such a statement should shock us, and the developments mere pages later should terrify. But after so many pages of nothing, even drastic character evolutions and the beast's return can mean little, and the novel that began on so thunderous a note ends with an agonizingly drawn out whimper.

The Ritual, it must be stressed, is not without its strengths. Here are two hundred pages so fantastic that they are not only Nevill's best but, perhaps, some of the best ever penned in the genre. Nevill's grasp of characters and tension has never been greater than here, and he uses all of those skills in the first half. But the face painted drudgery of the second half's overlong refuge destroys all that, a noose well positioned to strangle the beginning's brilliance. In the end, this is a novel too flawed to retain its power.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season Two

The first season of Buffy boasted a mixture of imaginative storylines and tired plots, a group of characters that varied between fascinating and shallow, and special effects that were generally rather cringe worthy. The second season of Buffy, on the other hand, fixes almost every problem that marred the first. A warning before we continue, though: this review will include SPOILERs for most episodes discussed.

After all that improvement-trumpeting introduction, I'd like to say that the second season explodes out of the gate. Alas, it does not. The opening episode – When She Was Bad – seems hell bent on milking the first season's weakest aspects for all they're worth. Cheesy vampires come up with a plan to resurrect a defeated and cheesy looking villain, and the world quakes (I suppose). Buffy, newly returned from a summer vacation while all the vampires too took a break, is traumatized by the Master's death, and those around her theorize that, because of that, she's decided she has to be invincible. This would all be a lot more effective if, in the end, Buffy didn't turn out to be essentially invincible and defeat all the vampires single handedly, save for the Annointed One who scurries off to enact more dastardly schemes. Yawn.

In fact, the season doesn't really kick off until the third episode, where things go from overblown to exemplary with all the speed of a jet engine. So what changes? Spike. Played by James Marsters, Spike is a relatively young and sadistic vampire that comes to Sunnydale to wreak havoc and find a place for his injured vampiric paramour, Juliet Landau's Drussilla, to recover. Spike is like nothing that's appeared before in the show, a vampire draped in sarcasm and irreverence, as exemplified by his scorn for his fellow vampires: If every vampire who said he was at the crucifixion was actually there, it would have been like Woodstock. (School Hard) But Spike isn't just a witty monster. No, Marsters imbues the character with so much charisma that the viewer can't help but love him, and he grows more complex yet when one factors in his humanizing relationship with Drusilla. Soulless demons the two might be, but they clearly love each other all the same. As for Drusilla, Landau's portrayal of her is excellent, at once vulnerable and creepy, demented but somehow understandable. At the end of the third episode, Spike slaughters the Anointed One and takes over his lair, and the change couldn't be a more welcome one.

Much of the main plot is developed through the season's three two part episodes. The first, What's My Line, brings the main portion of Spike's storyline to a climax. In order to revive Drusilla to full health, Spike kidnaps Angel and plans to sacrifice him to her. To keep Buffy off his back while he does this, he evokes the Order of Taraka, a cult of deadly assassins. The double episode is filled with genuinely creepy moments and numerous instances of often surprising character growth, for Xander and Cordelia in particular. At the episode's conclusion, Drusilla is restored, Angel wounded, and Spike crippled. It's a mark of Marsters charisma that, even after being confined to a wheelchair, Spike still manages to steal every scene he's in.

The second group, Surprise and Innocence, contains a turning point for the season even more significant than the crippling of Spike. To celebrate Drusilla's birthday, she and Spike prepare to summon the Judge, a demon designed to cleanse the earth of humanity. The really interesting part, however, doesn't come until the very end of the first episode. After Angel and Buffy make love, the Gypsy curse mentioned in the first season causes Angel to lose his soul, turning him to Spike and Drusilla – and against Buffy and her allies.

Finally, Becoming parts one and two wrap up the season with a mixture of epic action and excellent character moments. Angel attempts to bring to life a world ending demon as Buffy and co attempt to restore his soul. In the middle of all of this, Spike has a change of heart and, after episode after episode of quarrelling with Angel, switches sides, saying to Buffy: We like to talk big, vampires do. 'I'm going to destroy the world.' That's just tough guy talk. Strutting around with your friends over a pint of blood. The truth is, I like this world. You've got... dog racing, Manchester United. And you've got people. Billions of people walking around like Happy Meals with legs. It's all right here. But then someone comes along with a vision. With a real passion for destruction. Angel could pull it off. Goodbye, Piccadilly. Farewell, Leicester Bloody Square. You know what I'm saying? (Becoming, Part Two) Of course, all that might make more sense if he hadn't summoned the Judge half a season earlier, but the twist is still fascinating, and further goes to show how different Spike is from your average vampire. Most of the climax is what you'd expect, but the exception is Angel's restoration moments before Buffy must kill him, an emotional high that's likely to leave any viewer more than a tad shellshocked.

It's in Becoming that the core of Whedon's beliefs, and the show's thematic heart, come clear. As things reach their bleakest, a demon from the sidelines tells Buffy: Bottom line is, even if you see 'em coming, you're not ready for the big moments. No one asks for their life to change, not really. But it does. So what are we, helpless? Puppets? No. The big moments are gonna come. You can't help that. It's what you do afterwards that counts. That's when you find out who you are. You'll see what I mean. (Becoming, Part One) Buffy isn't a hero because she was chosen – through no fault or desire of her own – to be the Slayer. She's instead a hero because of how she acts as a Slayer, and because of the decisions that she makes once the inevitabilities of her life have played themselves out.

As is no doubt obvious from the outlines of just those three (double) episodes, Whedon is utterly unafraid to shake up the framework he's set up, and it's from that that the show's best moments come from. It's no longer a fair assumption that all good characters are safe, and the season's evolutions are often impossible to predict. Spike, audience stealing bastard that he is, is crippled, and Angel, love interest and major character, becomes an antagonist and then dies. The uncertainty that soon sets in rapidly becomes one of the show's greatest strengths.

The side stories in season two are almost universally at the high level set by season one's best episodes. As before, the various beasties that Buffy encounters are each metaphors for an aspect of her teenage life. Reptile Boy, for instance, shows us a group of frat boys that feed female sacrifices to their god – a giant snake that lives in their basement. Go Fish deals with a swim team that takes steroids. Before long, the members are themselves turning into monstrous aquatic creatures. These storylines are well executed, but the best part of them is often their connections to the rest of the show. Lie to Me, for instance, focuses on a group of humans who've discovered the existence of vampires – and have decided to worship them. The members of the cult are expertly depicted, coming off at once as desperate, deluded, and almost understandable, and the conclusion is – like everything featuring Spike – fantastic. That being said, Whedon's attempt to add a measure of moral ambiguity by making the human villain suffer from a terminal illness falls rather flat. No, Whedon, atrocities cannot be forgiven due to one's nearness to death. Still, the episode's excellent throughout. Others, such as Halloween, Bad Eggs, and Killed by Death include the vampires in more tangential rolls, but the blurring of side and main plots serves to keep the stakes high and the world believable.

That being said, the world does have the occasional gap in troubling moment above and beyond everyone in Sunnydale's herculean ability to forget mass murder within the hour of the blood drying. Principal Snyder is as enjoyable as ever in his quest to remove the 'pal' part of his job description, but the knowing discussions he has about the vampiric problem in episodes like School Hard and Becoming raise some awkward questions. First, if Snyder's aware enough of vampires to have a "usual story" in School Hard, why did he attempt to flee right into their clutches mere moments before? And, more importantly, why is he so hellbent on tormenting the Slayer in his midst if he knows the importance of her job? Furthermore, while the area around the Hellmouth is a fairly coherent place, the rest of the world is a bit sketchier. When Spike decides to evoke the aforementioned Order of Taraka to kill Buffy, one of his henchmen asks if that isn't "overkill." Excuse me? If there's one Slayer, who's the most dangerous thing since the sun for anyone of vampiric persuasion, why on earth wouldn't they slay her as quickly and surely as possible every time? 

Finally, in the episode Halloween, Buffy attempts to reconcile Angel's relationship with her to his past and decides she must be lacking in comparison with the noblewomen he no doubt lusted after in his youthful days. Well, alright, that doesn't seem too likely, but Buffy's a teenaged girl who's never met a Victorian noblewoman, so the emotions works. When Angel hears of this, however, his answer is: I hated the girls back then. Especially the noble women. […]They were just incredibly dull. Simpering morons, the lot of them. (Halloween) I appreciate the sentiment, Angel, but the idea of the nobody human Angel's shown as in Becoming's flashback ever considering noblewomen as romantic partners is a tad jarring to anybody who views the past as anything but an extended high school dance. Still, the first of my two complaints stem more from a lock of information than outright flaws, and the third is hardly major.

The show's villains are not the only recurring minor characters. A problem for me in the first season was that, aside from the show's core cast, the rest of the school essentially consisted of blank bystanders who could be counted on to be either one shot villains, dead, or both by the end of their introductory episode. It still holds true that any new character is a beasty until proven innocent, but the greater length of the season allows the writers to often show us characters and items a fair while before they grow important. The greatest example of this is Seth Green's Oz, the guitarist who begins to date Willow midway through the season. Long before the two know each other, however, the character makes appearances, and, when it's time for him to join the main characters and especially step into the spotlight for the episode Phases, he's well established and sympathetic.

Any viewer quickly comes to understand the general structure of almost any episode: there's a menace, Buffy punches the menace, the menace either flees or dies. A large part of what makes the formula work so well is the impact all of this has on Buffy's character. Her arc is still primarily concerned with her attempts to balance being a normal girl and the slayer, but the brutality of the latter has now come to affect the former, and Buffy herself has to face the consequences of the violence she uses. That leads us to Ted, the hands down best episode of the season (and the show so far). Instead of focusing on one bogey or another, Ted builds a compelling story out of Buffy's personal life. Her mother – played by Kristine Sutherland – has a boyfriend, and the two have grown close. The newcomer, Ted, wins over all of Buffy's friends, but Buffy can't get over her dislike.

As the episode progresses, Ted threatens Buffy with greater and greater punishments. What makes this so effective, especially in contrast, is that these are emotional highs achieved without any more than powerful writing. As Ted continues to harass Buffy, he eventually discovers her diary – and more than a few mentions of slaughtering creatures of the night – and says that he'll have her committed if she ever dares interfere with him. So Buffy reacts as she does throughout the season: with violence. She kills Ted, but the cheery climax of slaughtering a vampire does not follow. Instead, Buffy is ostracized and under suspicion, and she's forced to deal with the consequences of murder. Of course, this is where Whedon's fantastic ability to have his cake and eat it too comes in. After he's extracted everything he can from Ted's death, he has Ted return as a monster, exonerating Buffy from that particular transgression but very much retaining the lesson that she is capable of such things. Oh, and as if all that wasn't fantastic enough, the episode's detective and martial climaxes are some of the season's best, too.

The other main dimension of Buffy's arc is her relationship with Angel. For the most part, Sarah Michelle Geller and David Boreanaz manage to make their interactions fairly believable, if never quite heartwarming, though there is certainly the odd and painful appearance of melodrama: Angel, when I look into the future, all I see is you! All I want is you. (Bad Eggs) To be fair, one gets the sense that the over the top nature of much of her relationship with Angel is intended, as a reflection of most teenage romances. Later developments in the season, however, rely heavily on their love being true, not just a temporary fling, so the parts played for excess or laughs feel odd when located near the more touching scenes. Oddly enough, it's in the scenes where Angel's an antagonist that their former relationship is the most believable. The villainous Angel works well both due to actor David Boreanaz's skills and because he does, after all, have motivation to engage in the kind of psychological, cat and mouse battle that all of the show's antagonists have engaged in to a greater or lesser degree. For him, the roundabout methods of attack make perfect sense, and episodes like Passion and I Only Have Eyes for You do an excellent job conveying a love gone horribly wrong.

The season one character that changes the most here might be Cordelia. Before, she was a hilariously over the top school bully with the occasional glimpses of personality. Over the course of the second season, however, she becomes a character on par with the others, develops a believable relationship with Xander, and most certainly manages to maintain her core bitchiness. Giles, also, grows considerably in this season, as evidence of his darker past comes to light, first in the episode Halloween and then, later, in The Dark Ages. Though the modern incarnation of everyone's favorite Watcher is still a stark white, it's quite fascinating to see him wrestling with the consequences of his own actions. His love interest, Jenny Calendar, also becomes a far more interesting character than she was before, and the way that their relationship changes between episodes is always believable and interesting. By the time of the episodes in which she comes to the fore – Surprise/Innocence and Passion – Jenny's got as much agency and mystery as any of the show's main characters.

At the season's end, Spike's left, Drusilla's gone, Angel's dead, Jenny's been killed, and a wanted Buffy has fled Sunnydale after being kicked out of her mother's home. Perhaps the biggest change, however, is my appreciation for the show. I'll be watching season three as soon as I finish this review – not because of promises that it will get better, or because I feel obligated as a reviewer, or because I'm out to pass the time – but because I genuinely care about every one of the show's characters.

And… done. Time to get out those DVDs...

Standouts: Ted; What's my Line?; Passion; Becoming; Lie to Me

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Fantasy & Science Fiction: July/August 2011

This is the fifth issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction that I've read. I reviewed the two prior issues here and here.

We begin with Peter David's story, Bronsky's Dates with Death, one of the issue's several humor pieces – and, without a doubt, the best of them. The titular Bronksy's a salesman as incapable of lying as he is of shutting up, and, in his old age, all he wants to speak of is death. This causes a problem, because the benevolent death cannot approach one who thinks of him, because he "doesn’t do well with expectations." (p. 14) The two meet several times, and at each meeting death is increasingly adamant that Bronsky must focus on other matters before the other death, the malevolent one, can come to fix the problem. This is a genuinely witty story, and the ending – in which we go from laughing to caring – is superbly done.

The next piece, Peter S. Beagle's tribute to Avram Davidson, The Way it Works Out and All, is less successful, though I'll admit that part of my apathy may derive from me not knowing much of anything about the late, and evidently great, Mr. Davidson. Read without knowledge of the man or his work, all we've got is a simple story about travelling outside our reality that, while certainly competent, does little to excite or set itself apart.

Rob Chilson's Less Stately Mansions is about farming, and the author's passion for the subject bleeds through everywhere you look. Our tale takes place in a future where the earth's on a decline and deals with a man's family's decision to try and force him to sell his farm. None of the story's turns are particularly surprising, but the characterization and, even more importantly here, love for the subject matter shine through all, and the story's conclusion packs a hefty emotional punch.

Next up is the issue's cover story and centerpiece, Robert Reed's novella The Ants of Flanders. In our opening, two alien presences make their way to earth, and we follow the gargantuan teenager Bloch as he and everyone else are caught in the middle of a war waged on a scale unimaginable. The story's central thematic thrust is right up my alley. We are the Ants of Flanders here, those caught in the middle, as one of the characters theorizes: Picture some field in Flanders. […] It's 1916, and the Germans and British are digging trenches and firing big guns. What are their shovels and shells churning up? Ant nests, of course. Which happens to be us. We're the ants in Flanders. (p. 114) Reed's prose throughout all this is excellent, loaded with almost cheerily delivered macabre touches (The van's driver was clothes mixed with meat. (p. 89)), and above all a mixture of the crass and the epic:

The mass of a comet was pressed into a long, dense needle. Dressed with carbon weaves and meta-metals, the needle showed nothing extraneous to the universe. The frigid black hull looked like space itself, and it carried nothing that could leak or glimmer or produce the tiniest electronic fart – a trillion tons of totipotent matter stripped of engines but charging ahead at nine percent light speed. (p. 84)

Alas, the synthesis of humor and the grand, while excellent at a sentence level, does not work so well in the tale as a whole. We spend half the story with the Science Fiction apocalypse playing out off screen while we observe Bloch's antics – after having seen so many movies along similar lines, we're presumably supposed to fill in the apocalypse for ourselves. The other half concerns that apocalypse reaching to the characters and dragging their lives off course, changing who they are and restructuring their world. The two clash more than they aid each other. The early developments carry no impact at all. The rumors of destruction are too vague to inspire awe but too generic to create much wonder, and the tongue in cheek nature of much of the characterization serves to undermine the plot. Some of this is intentional. As one character says: Adventure is the story you tell afterwards. It's those moments you pick out of everything that was boring and ordinary, and then put them on a string and give to another person as a gift. Your story. (p. 128) But the random nature of those ordinary events sabotage the extraordinary, leaving us with a story whose grand arc feels less revelatory than arbitrary, not to mention one where the heroics feel out of place in light of the overriding antesque theme.

Joan Aiken's Hair is the opposite of Reed's preceding short: short, quiet, creepy, and resplendent with hope and despair in such a fashion that, instead of canceling each other out, each only reinforces the stronger. After a brief but whirlwind romance and marriage with a once secluded girl, and after that wonderful woman's death, the main character must deliver a lock of her hair back to the home of her birth. There, there's no outward horror here, no true danger, but all is decrepit, taken care of and helpless, it's denizens gentle, frail, and unspeakably old. (p. 144) They live in a home of perpetual decay, an atmosphere of continuous death. (p. 141) After the happiness of his love, the protagonist realizes that, by returning his physical mementos of her, he seems to be allowing her to slip from the world. This is a story of entropy on a personal level, and its center is the at once fabulous and dooming line, You'll tire yourself out. (p. 140)

Steven Saylor's The Witch of Corinth is next, a historical piece set in the time of Rome and the destroyed city of Corinth. Our protagonist Gordianus – and his teacher, the poet Antipater – meet a group of twelve other travelling Romans as they explore the ruins, and there they find riches, memories, and terror. Saylor never reveals whether the deaths are truly the work of witchcraft, but he doesn't need to. The tale's centerpiece, occurring perhaps two thirds of the way through, is a fantastic twist and even better set piece, both cinematic in its description and rivetingly creepy. Best of all, though, is the way Saylor grounds his tale in the time period, something that shows not only in the subtleties of character interaction but also in the quips they make, the best of which might be: "Oh, some women are always cursing each other. Especially the Greeks – 'Hermes of the Underworld, Ambrosia is prettier than me, please make her hair fall out.'" (p. 161)

Richard Bowes brings humor back to the fore with Sir Morgavain Speaks of Night Dragons and Other Things, a story about the enchanted sleep of King Arthur and his knights – oh, and about the enemy warrior mistakenly thrown in along with them. The story is a monologue of that knight, sometimes delivered to another knight and sometimes to the air around, and it's filled with digressions, witticisms, and clever turns of phrase and thought. Can't remember my name? our protagonist asks. Well, why should you have to, dear fellow? It's such a bother remembering peoples' names. Everyone should be able to remember his own name and not expect others do it for him. (p. 187) The speaker, it must be noted, is not sure why he's included in the generally sleeping group at all, eventually concluding that it's either a mistake or that he was put there to be myself and spread unease. (p. 189) Watching him spread that unease, always in the most conversational and genteel fashion, is quite simply a delight.

Someone Like You, by Michael Alexander, is a disorienting and engrossing story of time travel and different realities. The narrator's father was murdered by an impossible killer, and she – in numerous different timelines – figures this out and resolves to stop it, even if it's at the risk of erasing herself as well. The story's confusing at first, but soon comes clear, and the connection of the different periods is damn clever. To top it all off, Alexander's writing is littered with enjoyable quotable moments like: Ants can't blaspheme. (p. 215)

Our closing tale, The Ramshead Algorithm by KJ Kazba, begins with a scene of strange otherworldliness before the protagonist returns to earth. The portal between dimensions is located in the backyard of our protagonist, Ramshead's, father, a billionaire who cares little for the games and dementias of his second son. Though the story never returns in force to the delicious oddities of the opening, the interactions between Ramshead and his family are enjoyable, the characters and their lifestyles larger than life, and the tale overall at once gripping and humorous.

Standouts: Someone Like You, Bronsky's Dates with Death, Hair, and The Witch of Corinth

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Metamorphosis of Jane Doe

My (very) short story, The Metamorphosis of Jane Doe, is now up at Linger Fiction here. Check it out, it's got everything - words, disturbing horror, and fur. You know you can't resist that last one.