Monday, October 31, 2011

The Metamorphosis of Jane Doe

A few weeks ago, the website hosting my second published story, Linger Fiction, ceased lingering. As I've always thought I should have a sample of my fiction writing here on this blog, I've decided to post it, and Halloween seems as good a day as any and better than many. So, enjoy...

Jane went because she hated herself, hated her life.

"Change," she told herself in the vacant lobby, past the empty elevator shaft, and onto the stairs. "Change," said as she pressed on a door with a hole where the knob should have been.

The room beyond was a studio apartment with linoleum floors and bare walls, all weakly illuminated by an electric lamp on its side. The odor was an olfactory hallucination, a rank impossibility in such a building: an all too real antiseptic – nauseating in its intensity – covering a natural aroma, a smell like entrails and sweat, dirt and hard sun.

"Change," whispered to herself, a prayer and a talisman.

A figure was hunched over in the far corner, beating his fingers on the ground, claws clacking on the tiles. "In or out," he said, breathing out lazy rings of smoke. "Come or go."

"I heard you can change me."

He wheezed and laughed. "A predator, right? Something with claws and guts, something that doesn't back down?" He threw his cigarette, and it rolled to a stop by her leg, smoking impotent on the ground.

He stopped laughing. "I'm always fucking right," he said. His head was surrounded by distant gold, a dull halo in the shadows.

Jane's head was swimming. "I don't want to be me anymore," she said, thinking of John.

He stood up and tottered over to her, features flat and furred. "It will all be okay," he said, grip too tight on her arm. "Might want to shut your eyes."

"Will it hurt?" she asked.

"Change isn't easy. Never as simple as you think it'll be." Then he was fumbling with something in the darkness, and the needle was sliding into her flesh. "And you never know what you're going to get."

He shoved her down, and she landed on her hands and knees. The antiseptic stench was parting, now, gates coming wide to reveal what was beyond. She felt lost, felt found, felt like her body was made of dripping cement.

"It's not like that," he said. "Not visiting some guy and telling him what you want to be."

Her eyes were wide open but she couldn't move. Her limbs were loose and weighted, her flesh flowing like a silt-filled tide.

"No one else can make you assertive," he said, then he dropped to all fours beside her, circling her with a natural gait that made a mockery of her crude writhing. His eyes shined in the dark.

Her nails dropped away, but prey's hooves came instead of hunter's claws. He was straddling her now, his too-large jaws just above her tender throat.

"All others can do," he said, "is hunt you down."

Jane Doe, prey to the end, didn't struggle beneath him.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Stephen King - Skeleton Crew

I've often heard that Stephen King's as good a writer of short stories as he is of novels, or – from some – that he's even better in that form, but my one experience with the man's short fiction, Everything's Eventual, did anything but confirm that opinion. Still, Everything's Eventual collected stories written relatively late in the man's career, and, as I've now said many times on this blog, all of the man's later works have failed to live up to his earlier, in my opinion. So we come to Skeleton Crew, the second collection from the man that many consider the greatest of all horror writers, and the man that – if the bibliography in this very volume's to be believed – is not only the bestselling horror author but the best selling author of all time. Does the collection live up to the man's reputation? Yes and no, really. Almost everything here's at least enjoyable, but there are two or three or more limpers for every homerun. But, of course, those homeruns sure can fly.

One of the things that I found most interesting in the collection is that many – though certainly not all – of the stories here are of a very different kind of horror from what King generally writes.  For a while now I've divided horror into two general groups: stories where the horror comes from the characters/humanity, such as the majority of King's work (The Shining, Pet Semetary, etc), and then stories where the horror comes from the unknowable world around the characters, Weird Fiction ala Lovecraft. Many stories here fall into that latter category, The Mist foremost among them. The Mist is, of course, the highest profile story here, initially released in the horror superstar anthology Dark Forces and, more recently, made into a movie and, as a result, released as a brief standalone volume (though why that would improve on the collection I've no idea). The reasons for the story's success and prevalence are damn easy to see: put simply, The Mist is one of King's best tales.

As always, King proves himself an incredible writer of people. Our narrator, David, and his wife and son are forced to huddle away from a ferocious summer storm. As they do, King humanizes each of them with quirks of diction and action, as well as the touching and believable ways that they interact with one another. Later, King extends that to the story's secondary characters, often establishing entire personalities with only a line or two, like when the narrator explains that he didn't care for Bud Brown, who seemed to fancy himself the Charles de Gaulle of the supermarket world (p. 51) or one of the descriptions of Mrs. Carmody: The easiest [person] to pick out was Mrs. Carmody in her blazing-yellow pantsuit. She looked like an advertisement for yellow fever. (p. 54)

The story proper gets started as a mist begins to approach from a nonsensical direction, a mist so dense that nothing can be glimpsed from within. As it comes, David and his son are, along with much of the town's population, in the only nearby supermarket, and it's there that they're trapped, for strange and horrible creatures walk the mist, monstrosities made up of tentacles and monolithic size that have turned the mist-drowned world into an alien hell unimaginable. The mist is change inescapable and catastrophic, and the heart of the story is the way that the ensemble cast reacts. Some collapse in despair, others refuse to believe what they be, blind themselves with regulations and routine, or try and escape their situation by fixating on an increasingly malevolent god.

Amidst all this, though, King refuses to give in to defeatism. His writing is dark, often and in this case punishingly so, but he still will not let go of the worth he sees in humanity. Carrying the fire was a very big deal for him, the narrator writes of his son. It helped him forget about being afraid. (p. 28) And it does more than that; by the end, the characters are, for all that they know, alone, and it's only their will that keeps them and all going. But King's optimism is not a blind one, and his triumphs are never easy or certain. I know that I've very often criticized the man's endings, but the ambiguous final scene of The Mist is absolutely perfect, filled at once with hope and horror in equal measures.

If The Mist challenges King's optimism, Survivor Type does its best to hack it off with a buzz saw. This  is a story of human determination, and, while reading, it's almost impossible to not think that, sometimes, it goes too far. But, as the narrator says, the only mortal sin is giving up. (p. 423) As we begin, the narrator's trapped on an island, alone and with no food. His fate seems sealed, but he disagrees and will always disagree. The center of the story soon becomes this question: How much shock-trauma can the patient stand? (p. 407) And the answer: How badly does the patient want to live? (p. 407) Well, our narrator wants to live very badly indeed, and, as the tale progresses, is forced to cut off and eat his own limbs to survive. This is a sickening story, that I won't deny, but it's written so compellingly, and with an undercurrent of the most perverted idealism, that it's impossible to ever look away. I won't be forgetting this one for a while, and I dare say you won't be either.

Beachworld, The Raft, and The Monkey are also tales of man facing an inevitable fate in an uncaring world. The first two are both extremely enjoyable, but The Monkey proves more perplexing. Essentially, the ending destroys the metaphor the story's built on. We begin as the main character sees his sons playing with a windup monkey toy that he had in his childhood. His reaction, one of abject terror, confuses them. The monkey, as we found out, dominated his youth as it clanged its cymbals together to signal each death around him. Now it's returned, and he sees it as tragedy returning to savage his idyllic life. Now, it must be stressed that the monkey itself does not kill its victims; it's not some cheap monster movie villain. No, the monkey merely clangs as they die from seemingly unrelated means. The monkey, it seems, is death, its shadow over each and every tragedy in the narrator's life. And yet, at the story's end, the protagonist succeeds in throwing the monkey into a lake, and the monkey – which has, for the entire story, been built up as a personification of death itself – is gone for good this time. […] The monkey would not be back to draw a shadow over Dennis's life or Petey's. (p. 195) So the narrator just killed death? Huh?

Of the other types of tales present, the most forgettable are generally the shortest and most violent. Here There Be Tygers is a quick story whose only event of note is the teacher being slaughtered by a tiger, but Cain Rose Up takes the cake in this category, a brief but bloody piece in which a student massacres his classmates. These certainly contain horror, but they don't make us care, and, without that, the horror's just spectacle. Most, however, are better than that, even if a fair few are competent horror like Word Processor of the Gods that show up, have a decent time, and then fade away without leaving much of an impression.

A few of the stories here distinguish themselves more in the manner of their telling than in the events told, primarily Mrs. Todd's Shortcut, The Man Who Would Not Shake Hands, and The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet. By far the most successful is the last of those just listed. The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet is a conversation between an editor, an agent, a writer, and the writer's wife, and it focuses on a story of insanity that the editor received. Of course, the editor – and King behind him – admits that the one thing the American reading public doesn't need foisted upon them is another story about Going Mad Stylishly in America […] But this story was funny. I mean, it was really hilarious. (p. 500) And so it is. The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet is absurd, simply told, and damn fun to read.

Alas, the other two frame-focused don't work nearly as well. The Man Who Would Not Shake Hands is a genteel story too proper in its telling to allow much humor beyond a polite nod and too vague and insubstantial to be particularly affecting. Mrs. Todd's Shortcut, on the other hand, is an interesting but far from exceptional tale about driving off the map and the addictions and dangers therein. In both cases, the cumbersome nature of their back and forth telling delays what satisfaction there is long past the point of sustainability, drowning their already meager cores with verbiage that's adequately written but does little or nothing to excite.

But I'm just getting lost in the details and the negatives. Those stories I've just pointed out and criticized? There are flaws in all of 'em, flaws – a tendency to excess, sentimentalism, and/or what have you – but you know what else? They're (almost) all still involving tales, and you can bet that goes double for those I didn't critique and triple for those I praised. King can make you care with a line, can pen a character like almost no one else, can draw you in with irrelevancies and keep you there with quirks and mannerisms and realities like nobody else. It's great when King generates dread thick enough for you to drown in, when he makes you laugh, and when he pens the human race's condition and downfall in a hundred page novella. But all of that's superfluous to his real charm, and, even in his weakest tales, even as King's pacing and construction and themes fall down and fall away, it's still damn hard to look away from the page and from the character's that he's so excellently birthed from nothing at all.

Skeleton Crew is like Stephen King's career in miniature. It's got a huge amount of work, all of which makes you care, almost all of which is decent,, with the occasional burst of brilliance so radiant it justifies every unnecessary word in the pieces that surround it. This is, without a doubt, worth purchasing for The Mist, and I can promise that you'll have a good time with just about all the rest, even if damn few of them will still be kicking around in your skull two weeks later at the least expected moments.

Standouts: The Mist, Survivor Type, The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Mark Lawrence - Prince of Thorns

Prince Honorous Jorg is one part lovable bloodthirsty rogue and one part prince cruelly deprived of his throne. It's an interesting combination, a genuinely unsympathetic character as the protagonist and seeker of such a high position, and so, of course, one's first thoughts most likely go to the potential failings, or, more accurately, ways to negate the unsympathetic part. This would not, after all, be the first Epic Fantasy to give us an antihero with a long list of whitewashed crimes and a resume of pure and justified badassery. But the first half or so of Prince of Thorns does not fall into that trap. No, this is not a stand up and cheer tale prettied up with a sheen of grime. Lawrence is quick to show that Jorg's brand of darkness is not skin deep. By the second paragraph, innocents are dead, and our faces are shoved into the aftermath:

The town square ran red. Blood in the gutters, blood on the flagstones, blood in the fountain. The corpses posed as corpses do. Some comical, reaching for the sky with missing fingers, some peaceful, coiled about their wounds. Flies rose above the wounded as they struggled. This way and that, some blind, some sly, all betrayed by their buzzing entourage. (p. 1)

That's not the only such moment, far from it. No, Lawrence takes his concept, and he runs with it. but the problem with all this is that, while it's dark, and while it's vivid, and while it's gory, and while the first person narrator has a quite enjoyable mixture of arrogance and imagery and humor, there's no reason to care. I don't, of course, mean just in the first few pages, because we're just meeting our cast then, and it makes far more sense to introduce our pillagers with pillaging than with knitting. But the depth doesn't come. These are murderers, and we see them murder and wisecrack, but we don't see an inch deeper into any of them from the moment we see them first nab a ring to their first grinning rape scene to their deaths. Between some of the chapters, Lawrence gives us one sentence descriptors for some of them, and they're all things like: Knife work is a dirty business, yet Brother Grumlow is always clean. (p. 59) An amusingly written fun fact, sure, but insubstantial; you could change the names of just about all the brothers and nothing'd change about their new personas besides size. As for the brother's ultimate goals, Jorg is quick to point out that they're not just aimless butchers. Echoing the marketing quote mentioned a ways up, he scoffs when a soon-to-be-dead innocent says that he's fifteen:

Fifteen! I'd hardly be fifteen and rousting villages.

By the time fifteen came around, I'd be King! (p. 4)

But that's, as far as one can tell from the opening dozens of pages, utter tosh. Jorg talks big, but he takes no strides in that direction at all. The opening chapters of the novel consist of Jorg wandering to and fro and killing people, at one point scaring away a ghost with the empty time where my memory won't go (21), lurid violence described and committed for the sake of lurid violence. Through it all, it must be mentioned that this is no more a realistic picture than the unblemished farmer-to-be-king, just with blacker than black instead of whiter than white.

Interspersed with all this are flashback chapters to the death of Jorg's royal mother and brother, to Jorg's recovery and discussions with his tutor, and to Jorg's eventual flight from his castle, in pursuit of vengeance. The scenes of initial murder are well done, but it's the second of those two groups that, surprisingly enough, proved the most effective for me. The discussions of world and philosophy first of all provide our first delicious clues that this is not a standard fantasy world but rather a post apocalyptic one and then, more importantly, provide an excellent juxtaposition for the demonstration of Jorg's ruthless views in action that we get in the present day chapters.

Even here, though, there are problems, aspects of Lawrence's world that seem done for dramatic effect and thematic thrust but which niggle badly as the novel proceeds. The greatest of these, and the source for many of the novel's oddities, is the court world of Ancrath. Basically, in the royal world of Lawrence, people are irrelevant as more than chips upon the game board. This makes perfect sense, but it's taken to simply silly extremes, because, for some reason, the royals themselves are not considered important. After Jorg is wounded, his tutor says that the king will visit, to which Jorg thinks: I knew my father would not waste time on me whilst it seemed I would die. I knew he would see me when seeing me served some end. (p. 27) Until it would serve some end? The near dead man's the heir to the throne, god damn it! The prince is most certainly a matter of state. This is, however, soon surpassed in terms of insane negligence when the nation that, in a surprise attack, killed the king's wife and attempted for both of his sons (getting one) is forgiven in exchange for the rights to the Cathun River, three thousand ducats, and five Araby Stallions. (p. 57) At this point, things aren't so much insane as inane. Count Renar nearly wipes out the royal line, the king shrugs and gets a river.

All this leads to the most puzzling aspect of the novel, namely why, exactly, Jorg is doing the whole bloody bandit thing in the first place. We witness his departure from the castle, breaking a gang of violent marauders out of the dungeons and then joining them in their flight, but nowhere do we get an explanation for it that makes any sense. In the scene, the choice is presented as one between the calm pragmatism of the tutor and Jorg's need for vengeance. But that's utter nonsense. Jorg wants to be king? Well, congratulations, my boy, you're already in line for the god damn throne. You want vengeance on another sovereign nation? Well, the way to do that is not you, an unnamed black "Nuban" (seriously, he never receives a tag that I saw besides his nation of origin), and two dozen outlaws. It's through your father's armies, which you will come to own and command in but a handful of years. He's not doing this to be his father's enemy, mind you. He's not staging a coup. No, he's, though afraid of his father, even aiding his interests. By riding around like a blood-splattered fucking Robin Hood.

So, anyway, this rather unsubstantiated premise is heading somewhere, though not quite building. What's the difference? Well, in one, tension steadily rises as events ramp up towards the next event. In the other, we simply stumble about till the next step pops out at us. I'll give you the paragraph in which Jorg decides to head home and kickstart the plot, and you tell me which it is:

I shouldn't have been turning for home, picking up my old ways, and thinking once more about vengeance upon the Count of Renar. That's what instinct told me. But today instinct spoke with an old and dry voice and I no longer trusted it. I wanted to go home, perhaps because it felt as though something else required that I did not. I wanted to go home and if Hell rose up to stop me, it would make me desire it the more. (p. 89)

Jorg gets home, learns that his dad's got a sorcerer and a new wife, demonstrates what he's learned on the road, and is tasked to prove his worth (or, as near all hope, die in the attempt) by, essentially single handedly, taking over the impregnable castle for another contender to the empire's throne for which all these kings and counts are fighting. And so it is that we enter a totally different book, or, at the least, the polished gem version of the first half's first draft.

In Gelleth, just about every aspect of the book's opening returns, albeit immeasurably stronger. The post apocalyptic world's no longer a king's road with some philosophers strapped on for color. No, we're now trawling fallout zones and dealing with mutations, hatching dastardly plots with just as dastardly remnants. Instead of aimless meandering based on instinct-but-not-instinct-because-instinct-can't-be-trusted, we've a master plan twisty and tricky enough to inspire a good bit of awe. And as for Jorg, well, that's where the biggest changes of all come from. What felt like empty bluster before the king and mere douchebaggery against unarmed peasants comes across as fantastically daring, perhaps even sadistically heroic, against the red haired people of Gelleth.

How do you defeat a nation with but a handful of men? How can you survive at a task you were meant to die carrying out? How can you win a war with more factions than you've subjects, break a cycle of violence, end a struggle that's began decades before your birth? Well, near the novel's opening, Jorg gives us some answers: The way to break the cycle is to kill every single one of the bastards that fucked you over […]. Every last one of them. Kill them all. Kill their mothers, kill their brothers, kill their children, kill their dog. (p. 64-5) Such bloodthirsty words meet bloodthirsty actions, Jorg stepping outside rules and expectations both with a move drenched in low cunning and at once so deplorable, so callous, and so fantastic that my jaw dropped.

Let's zoom out before I've given the whole blow by blow. The novel, thankfully, does not return to the aimlessness of its opening, though it doesn't ever quite reach the peak of Gelleth's annihilation. Still, things build to a martial climax and worldly revelation, one executed quite powerfully and also rather expected (or perhaps I should say fittingly inevitable), seeing the worthlessness of men in this grand war: the land is not in the hands of who it seems to be, the great players are themselves but pawns, and the dark and magical powers behind the scenes are ruthless and uncaring about the men that die in their stead. Amidst all this, there are a few turns of phrase that're right out of vintage Lovecraft, in near praise of a certain Cthulhu and man's ignorance:

We wrap up our violent and mysterious world in a pretence of understanding. We paper over the voids in our comprehension with science or religion, and make believe that order has been imposed. And, for the most part, the fiction works. We skim across surfaces, heedless of the depths below. Dragonflies flitting over a lake, miles deep, pursuing erratic paths to pointless ends. until that moment when something from the cold unknown reaches up to take us. (p. 266)

All of this, however, comes, depending on your perspective, either too early or too late. Any fantasy reader of recent years can, of course, tell me the other work in which scheming sorcerers bend patriotic nations to their whim. I'm speaking, of course, about Joe Abercrombie, [and know that SPOILERS for First Law trilogy are to follow] where the revelation that the causes the protagonists battle for are lies and that the protagonists themselves are horrible people is the capstone of his trilogy. To me, the difference between that end game revelation of futility is what differentiates that trilogy from Abercrombie's Best Served Cold and The Heroes, both of which had the same near-nihilistic edge without getting any of the investment of the opening's hope, fraudulent as such light might have been.

In the comparison there, Prince of Thrones falls into the second category. (Here let me pause for just a second and, in order to avoid any repetitions of a certain relatively-recent internet kerfuffle, state that the comparison is between Prince of Thorns and Abercrombie's books, not Mark Lawrence and Abercrombie's books; here, the reading habits of the author matter not at all.) Prince of Thorns paints a fabulously bleak world, in which hope seems lost and triumph impossible within the boundaries of morality, but these dark thematic points are dulled badly by following the purposeless violence of the novel's opening. While that killing does make sense, viewed within the novel as a whole, it's effect is not to indoctrinate the reader but rather desensitize and distance them, leaving them seeing not their world as a dark place but rather this dank and unpleasant creation as one, but, thankfully, as one that – thanks to the superficial but omnipresent and ocean-deep layer of blood everywhere – can be handily differentiated and separated from our own.

Ultimately, Prince of Thorns is a novel built around an interesting concept, written in an enjoyable manner, and more than capable of both shocking and intriguing. Alas, it's also a novel that shoots itself in the foot rather badly right outside the starting gate. Lawrence's final creation is fascinating enough that I may return for the hopefully more cohesive sequel, but too flawed for me to be able to say that Prince of Thorns really works.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season Three

Buffy: World is what it is. We fight, we die. Wishing doesn't change that.
Giles: I have to believe in a better world.
Buffy: Go ahead. I have to live in this one.

At the end of the second season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, our titular vampire slayer's beaten and scarred and gone. Her lover's dead by her hands, her city's been ravaged, her ties severed, she's wanted by the police and expelled from her skill and fleeing the deaths and injuries and torture that have set upon her circle of friends and allies. In the closing moment of the last episode, she leaves Sunnydale behind.

With the opening episode of season three – the fantastic Anne – we find her entirely adrift in the big city, waiting tables under an assumed name, having turned her back on her destiny and her life and those around her. She's not the only one. Los Angeles seems a city composed entirely of the apathetic and the alone, those that fled their responsibilities and their lives and found that they had nothing left. Kids come here, a representative for the Family Home says, and they got nothing to go home to, and... this ends up being the last stop for a lot of them. The disillusioned and the destroyed wander the streets here, and they are quite literally no one.

And so it is that Buffy descends into hell, for, as a slave driving demon tells her, What is Hell, but the total absence of hope? The substance, the tactile proof of despair? Of course, this is Buffy the Vampire Slayer, rather than a Ligotti tale, and so our heroine is not about to be permanently defeated by depression, be it in emotional or demonic form. The fight scene that acts as the episode's climax may not be as spectacular as the chilling first half, but it, and the set up before, were are still enough to make the most composed viewer want to stand up and cheer. The episode's final blow, however, comes later, for our final shots are of Buffy returning home and of her mother opening the door to greet her.

By the end of the season's third episode, the status quo so shattered at the second season's end is essentially back in place, the awkwardness of returns and departures now buried. What is not so easily repaired, however, are the lasting effects, small mannerisms and flashes of character that never go away and never cease to inform the show's present. The way that Buffy's mother can't help but ask, again and again, if Buffy is once again departing.

But, of course, season three does not merely rest on its laurels once its players are back into position. Like season two, season three has a villain, and an overarching plot, that gives the arc shape while the characters evolve. Here, however, the balance is radically different. Structurally, the season can be largely divided into two parts, and, in the first, there's almost no greater conflict at all, simply Buffy and her allies dealing with struggles as they arise and, above all, facing the consequences of their own actions, present and prior. [Oh, and note: this review contains SPOILERS for near all episodes discussed.]

The problem that arises from this is essentially one of excess. In the last season, the moments of dramatic character change and upheaval, the times when the battle between good and evil was drastically rearranged by an event unforeseeable and revelatory, were the highlights. Here, though, the battle for good and evil takes a back seat, or perhaps slips out the trunk, and those moments of character change are all there is, which can, after episodes concentrated in such a fashion, render the illumination rendered less effective than it should be.  But, I stress, this isn't a problem of a weak element. Far from it. Put simply, many of these episodes (though obviously not all) are excellent.

The primary tool used here by Whedon and co is one of contrast, either introducing new characters or developing radical new situations to show their characters in new lights. And what those contrasts almost invariably show us is responsibility. Season two focused on acting in impossible situations, on how it's our actions, not our circumstances, that make us who we are. Season three shows us the consequences of those actions, and no move – no matter how justified or triumphant – is devoid of repercussions.

Nowhere is this theme more evident than with Angel – and yes, I know what you're thinking, fellow first time viewer (if you exist – oftentimes I feel the only one in the hemisphere that's not yet seen all seven seasons), Angel does return. My first thoughts upon this were something along the lines of: worst cop out ever. Thankfully, however, Whedon doesn't simply pop Angel into his old situations after a six line explanation about his death and move on. No, Angel returns as more beast than man, and, when he regains his sanity, it's something that feels earned, not something given by authorial decree. More important still, however, is the fact that Angel does not ever reintegrate himself among Buffy's allies in the way he once was. Giles still distrusts him – a tad sore over that whole torture issue – Xander's still doubtful, and Buffy knows that they can never again grow as close as they were.

All that, however, is merely the set up for the crisis at the heart of his character, which shows itself beautifully in Amends. For Angel is back for a reason, and he does not know what that reason is. What he does know is that the brutality of his past is returning to him, inescapable, and, in the episode, it's revealed that his savior is no force for good but rather the unsnappily titled First Evil. Despite that rather uninspired moniker, the creature's what it says on the tin, namely an evil that predates man and all else, a dark deity of sorts. And it is using Angel for its purposes. Desperate, he takes the only way out that he can think, but, as far as Buffy's concerned, that's just playing into defeat's hand, for there's never an excuse to simply give up, no situation in which you can lay the blame on the world and walk away. It's always up to you: You're weak. Everybody is. Everybody fails. Maybe this evil did bring you back, but if it did, it's because it needs you. And that means that you can hurt it. Angel, you have the power to do real good, to make amends. But if you die now, then all that you ever were was a monster. (Amends)

The next episode, Gingerbread, is another of the show's greatest and raising an entire host of fascinating questions that cut to the show's core. It shows the people around Buffy, the much-murdered residents of Sunnydale, rising together to, for once, try and take their lives into their own hands. And it shows how, due to their inexperience and the faultiness of their leadership, they simply make things worse in every possible way. It shows the reactions of the often off screen elder generation to the show's events. And, most interestingly of all, it shows how Buffy, despite having now spent years fighting evil, and having saved the world again and again, is no closer to victory than ever. Is victory even possible? If not, is there a point in fighting? To that last, a Buffy quote from the prior episode might reveal some further things about her character: Strong is fighting! It's hard, and it's painful, and it's every day. It's what we have to do. (Amends) At its end, Gingerbread does as many Buffy episodes do, and the issues, once raised, stand aside so that the big bad may be sufficiently pulped. While the climax is great fun, I found myself still thinking about the moral questions raised well into the next few dramas and wondering how Buffy could ever sufficiently answer most of them without the easy out of a villain to maul.

Xander, Willow, Oz, and Cordelia spend much of the season involved in the messy business of life. The relationships of the last season – Xander and Cordelia, Willow and Oz – continue at first, and there's a damn fair bit of hilarious dialogue, but it is, of course, when things go to hell that it becomes interesting. Xander and Willow, see, soon discover that their oh-so-innocent friendship may be developing less oh-so-innocent aspects. And, as they each face death alone, they end up going for one last big smooch. Of course, in a quite successful instance of it's-not-deus-ex-machina-if-it's-bad, Oz and Cordelia walk in right at that moment, leaving our two good friends left to deal with the slight problem of a betrayal that's very much in their alley. What makes the whole thing work, besides the show's near mystical skill at managing to make us both laugh and care, is that there are no easy answers here, and the problem's refreshingly devoid of blameless misunderstandings or easily straightened out ruffed feelings. When Willow and Oz get back together, their relationship's deeper for its strife. And, when Xander and Cordelia don't, it's damn hard to blame Cordelia in any way.

Cordelia's rage at the whole thing leads us to The Wish, where a demon grants good old Cordy her wish that Buffy Summers had never come to Sunnydale. Surprise, surprise, that turned out to not be such a good idea, and, in the course of the devastation to follow, we run into the vampire equivalents of Willow and Xander, which are evil, rampaging, and quite together, to the fury of Cordelia. The whole episode is damn fun and ends in the kind of bloodbath that's hilarious for how many lines it crosses and how many unkillable characters meet their abrupt ends. That evil Willow appears again some time later in Doppelgangland, sliding into Willow's life and sticking out like a leather-clad thumb, forcing non-vampire Willow to take the spotlight and take on some of the characteristics of her foe in order to defeat her.

Xander, too, gets one very focused episode, though his has less fangs. The Zeppo shows Xander alone, the one member of Buffy's Scooby gang at this point that's not either a member of a mystical cult or possessing of mystical powers, against a foe less grandiose than the end of the world, but still quite deadly: namely disillusioned (and dead) youths with a bomb, no morals, and a desire to fuck some stuff up. Here it's made clear that it's force of will and morality that make a hero in Whedon's world, not strength, though the latter certainly doesn't hurt. (Incidentally, this was one of several moments I had while watching the show where I wondered how on earth they got away with a show about violence done on school grounds to teenagers. Then I realized all this was the year of Columbine, and my jaw dropped…)

But let's circle back to The Wish for a second. It, like the preceding season's Halloween, is an episode where, as you could probably tell from my prior description, everything's changed in an instant, only to be changed back later, with both transformations occurring by magic. It works, for the most part, by being damn fun and takes advantage of its quasi-cannon status to end in a delicious bloodbath that's so great for its unexpected nature. But it's not the only such magic-changes-everything (for lack of a catchier title) episode in this season. The other, Band Candy, is far less successful, and is an example of a tendency that Buffy occasionally develops, namely that where the humor totally sabotages plot, believability, and character. As a result of some magic band candy, the town's entire adult population seems to go insane, devolving into… *gasp!* teenagers! Between that and Oz's soon-coming comment (They're teenagers. It's a sobering mirror to look into, huh?) one gets the sense that this is supposed to fall somewhere between profound and hilarious. Alas, neither quite comes off. See, the adults are not so much teenagers as simpering and giggly mental defectives, and, while the physical comedy of their every twitch might lead to a chuckle or two, the overall effect is so profoundly silly (it got that one, at least) that I'll admit Snyder's character in particular never recovered its gravitas. Other such problematic episodes can be found (Homecoming, for instance), but are thankfully not the majority.

In this season, the exploration of Giles's character is focused entirely on how he relates to Buffy. This works very well for the first half of the show, culminating in Helpless, where he finally breaks free of the Watcher's Councils far off and uncaring diktats and aids Buffy. This earns him their ire, something quite in keeping with the season's overall theme. Alas, this is where things get rather less fascinating. Giles is fired and nominally replaced by a new Watcher, Wesley. This all, of course, might have been more shocking if the new Watcher shtick hadn't already been played earlier in this very season in Revelations, but anyway. When we were first introduced to Giles all the way back in season one, he came off as a pedant, but, in the course of the show, we grew to realize the strength of the man behind the regulations. Wesley, on the other hand, is just a pedant. Vampire Willow had a brief but memorable stay, and Faith (soon to be discussed in full) makes us reevaluate large aspects of Buffy's character, but anyone who hadn't already grasped that Giles was more than the rules by the time Wesley showed up is likely of subhuman intelligence. All this might lead to some drastic change if Giles didn't stay around, essentially making Wesley just an additional and highly superfluous part of the group, basically just an annoying voice at conferences to be silenced by a clever jab or two.

But, of course, the season's center is the slayer, and the true soul of season three is Eliza Dushku's Faith, a second slayer who comes to Sunnydale, and a character as opposite from Buffy as can be. Now, this isn't the second time that Buffy's been met by another slayer. Kendra came in season two, first called forth during Buffy's brief death in the first season's Prophecy Girl. Kendra did everything by the book, while Buffy – quite literally – had never heard of the book, Kendra had no life at all outside her slaying, and so forth. But while the differences between the two were clear, they were also skin deep. Faith, summoned by Kendra's death in Becoming, is nothing like that.

Like Buffy, Faith has a loose interpretation of the rules, a general disregard for precise and arbitrary authority, and a perpetually rebellious spirit – along with, one must not forget, a witty sense of humor. But, for Buffy, these things function as a relief, as a temporary escape from the duty that she knows she must never forget  and a reason for that duty. That's not Faith at all. Faith is a slayer, and that's all she is, a woman defined entirely by confrontation and rebellion. The triumphs and tribulations of the job have come to dominate every aspect of her personality. Violence is her work and her relaxation. For her, the fight against evil has become more important than the reasons for the fight. In fact, she's forgotten those reasons entirely. The mortals around her have no purposes besides exploitation and cheap, meaningless sex.

So we come to the season's second half. Here, the character growth and plotting merge, leading to a succession of some of the show's absolute strongest episodes focusing upon Faith. In Bad Girls, while on a desperate demon-stopping mission with Buffy, Faith kills a man. Throughout Bad Girls and its follow up, Consequences, Faith is forced to face the realities of what she did, and she, unwilling and unable to accept the guilt, forces herself to believe it does not matter, that she, as a slayer, is entitled to anything – anything at all – that she needs in her fight:

Faith: What if he was? You're still not seeing the big picture, B. Something made us different. We're warriors. We're built to kill.
Buffy: To kill demons! But it does not mean that we get to pass judgment on people like we're better than everybody else!
Faith: We are better. (Consequences)

As Buffy and her allies turn on Faith, rejecting her logic, Faith realizes that, for her, the fight trumps the cause. And so it is that Faith comes to Harry Groener's Mayor Wilkins, the season's villain. Wilkins is a tidy, germaphobic, punctual, and warm hearted monster, a source of endless homey cheer and dark plans. The relationship that he develops with Faith is replete with a paternal love, a gift giving and forgiving tyranny that's twisted and fun and beautiful to watch. Throughout, no matter how dark her deeds, it's the flickers of unacknowledged and unallowed remorse that plague her and make her so fascinating to watch.

In the fight against Faith, Buffy and her allies have a major disadvantage. Essentially, that they're not batshit insane:

Giles: Faith has you at a disadvantage, Buffy.
Buffy: Cause I'm not crazy, or cause I don't kill people?
Giles: Both, actually.

But, as the fight continues and the stakes rise, that changes, and both Angel and Buffy flirt with the darkness they oppose. In Enemies, Angel goes undercover, pretending to be the turned Angelus and pretending to both join the Mayor and betray Buffy. The mission's a success, and he and Buffy learn what they meant to about both Faith and the mayor's plans, but, all the same, their actions take a great toll on their relationship. That, however, is nothing compared to what comes in the finale, the two part Graduation Day. As Angel lies poisoned and wounded, Buffy turns away from the Watcher's Council, and away from her morality, and sets out to find Faith and kill Faith in a last ditch effort to save her lover. As with her and Angel last season, Whedon doesn't allow her the easy way out, doesn't let his heroine simply kill a monster. No, after their confrontation and battle, we're shown a final scene with Faith, and it's on her human side that we turn away from her. The actual final confrontation with the Mayor – a bit silly, perhaps, but the show's damn well earned its upswing climax by that point – is enjoyable, but nothing compared to the turmoil that was the double episode's middle.

The third season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer presents some of the series' finest moments, and radically advances the arcs of most of its characters, though it, over all, doesn't quite have the cohesion of the second season. Still, the occasional weak episodes are more than made up for by the general excellence of the rest. As it stands here, Buffy is a show both hilarious and involving, dark and bright and full of heart. It's also a show whose fourth season I'm about to go watch…

STANDOUTS: Anne, The Zeppo, Graduation Day, Gingerbread, Amends

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Reading in June

I haven't since July posted one of my supposedly monthly reading recaps, with the books being discussed being from way back in May, and, while they're far from the blog's centerpiece as far as content/insight go, I do miss them a tad. Wandering about the delightfully cluttered "Hat Rack" section of my hard drive I noticed I'd actually written a summary of my reading in June but never posted it, so I decided it was high time for a jump back to the halcyon days of summer, the distant days of June...

Leviathan Wakes, the creation of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, is a Science Fiction novel manages to be a gripping mixture of Space Opera awe and a horror-derived, maybe even noirish, sense of claustrophobia. In the midst of all that, the book's fast paced, fun, and stars two excellently portrayed characters.

I'll admit to some measure of disappointment with The Blonde on the Street Corner. This is the third novel of Goodis's I've read – coming after The Wounded and theSlain and Black Friday – and both of those were downbeat tales of the low and the lonely, each depressive and captivating in its way. The Blonde on the Street Corner has the majority of the formula down. Our protagonists are deadbeats in the depression, bumming off their families with no prospects whatsoever. So the theme's there, and Goodis's prose is dotted with the same flares of poetic sorrow that I've come to expect. But what's missing is anything to grab the reader. This is a book that simply meanders along, but, unlike The Wounded and the Slain, we're never really presented with a reason to care. Though this certainly isn't a bad read, it's nowhere near the level that Goodis is capable of operating on.

The Hour of the Dragon is the only full length novel of Conan the Barbarian that Robert E. Howard ever penned. It's filled with all the hallmarks that are associated with the character – or, perhaps I should stress, those hallmarks that come from the creator's tales and not the lobotomized cinematic or otherwise later versions. This story is filled with adventure, intrigue, and tension, and though Howard manages to drag Conan through almost every aspect of his former life – pirate and thief and so on – it never feels like a rehash or like there's an author up above the pages dragging the characters this way and that without giving them any say. As for the writing, it's Howard's usual, which is to say that it's equal parts painfully exuberant excess and vivid mastery. If you're a fan of the character, this is a necessary read.

The full version of Thomas Ligotti and Brandon Trenz's screenplay Crampton – the earlier, abridged, and derivative version of which I read earlier this year – is a fascinating read for any Ligotti fan. The expected themes – the ephemeral and illusory nature of the world, the hollowness of all existence, and so forth – are present, but the author's hypnotic prose is absent, replaced by tightly written dialogue, bits of banter, and even expletives. Crampton moves at a fast and enjoyable clip, and the finishing anticlimax is powerfully done, but I still do have to say that, overall, the depressive and vivid ecstasy that Ligotti's writing normally brings is, by necessity, absent here. This is an interesting item to be sure, but it's most certainly just for the diehard collector, and not just because of the forbidding price tag.

George R.R. Martin's as adept at short stories as he is at doorstopper epics, and almost every one of the tales in this collection shows his mastery of the form. Reviewed here.

Fevre Dream, Martin's novel of Vampires and steamboats, has lost nothing with time, and it wasn't diminished on reread either. This is a novel rich in characterization and atmosphere, something not to be missed by any fan of Martin's work. Reviewed here.

In many ways, All the Pretty Horses is an inversion of the author's landmark Blood Meridian. John Grady Cole, our protagonist here, is a romantic and a dreamer trespassing on the brutal and unforgiving Wild West that McCarthy's become so justly famous for, and the results are at once heart breaking and even, at times, beautiful. Though I can't say that this novel's as revelatory as Blood Meridian, it's still an excellent read.

The third collection of horror writer Reggie Oliver, Masques of Satan is a volume of subtle ghost stories woven into theater backdrops. My reaction to Oliver is very similar to my reaction to the M.R. James stories I've read, and I mean that both in the positive ways that Oliver's adherents cite and also in the negatives that those Weird Tales-devotees would most certainly not agree to. Like James, Oliver writes in a formal but inviting style, and his words draw you in and make you feel like a part of the conversation. Also like James, his mastery of his subject area is obvious from every word he speaks, but – due to the aforementioned welcoming tone – the knowledge imparted is interesting rather than onerous. Oliver's ghosts, however, are – like James – the least interesting parts of his stories by far, little twists of the supernatural that aren't particularly memorable in and of themselves. I enjoyed this collection a fair bit, but I'd hesitate to recommend it at the forty or fifty dollars you're likely to find it for, and I certainly was not enamored enough with the stories here to spend the several hundred needed to read the author's first and second collections.

I'll admit it: I'm just bewildered here. Boneshaker was a forgettable read packed with problems and a few good ideas that weren't even taken advantage of. How, again, did this ever get near a Hugo? Reviewed here.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

The Weaving Knight

So, some of you may have noticed this new addition to my Essential Reading list a few weeks back, but, for those of you who didn't, I figure it's about time for you all to head over to The Weaving Knight, a blog run by my close friend Travis Knight. Travis's currently over at Oswego University, wrapping up his majors in Creative Writing and Education. When he's not busy with the minor workload all that entails, he writes excellent fiction, including a short story soon to be appear in Revelations, a magazine of post apocalyptic fiction. Over at The Weaving Knight, meanwhile, Travis writes reviews of fantasy and all else, and they're filled with engaging writing, humor, and a damn nice chunk of insight. Oh, and windmills. Don't forget the windmills.