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Wrapping Up for Christmas

To look at this blog, you’d think I hadn’t read a book since February. That isn’t true, but it’s close enough to being true that I really have to find a convenient time warp where I can catch up on reading without having to cut back on anything else. For the record, though, I’ve read the following (excluding books that I’ve completely forgotten I read):

Revival – Stephen King

Cover for Stephen King's Revival

Electricity: Not necessarily our friend.

Stephen King works in the modern tradition of bestselling horror, which to my mind began with Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby, though you could track it back further to some of Richard Matheson’s early, lower-profile novels like I Am Legend. But it was Levin’s runaway bestseller and the movie that followed that seemed to break the dam open and led directly into William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist, which led into…a long line of Stephen King novels that’s continued from Carrie through whatever his most recent book is. (It’s hard to keep up.) The modern horror tradition places a strong emphasis on settings that are familiar almost to the point of banality, which the author uses as a means of creating a suspension of belief so profound that you’ll buy into whatever unexpected curve ball he or she pitches out of their word processor to shatter the banality into terrifying shards, like Rosemary’s neighbors turning out to be a coven of Satan worshippers or Carrie turning out to have telekinetic powers brought on by her first menstrual period.

Revival, however, is King’s homage to the older generation of horror writers that he (and I) grew up reading from an age when we were young enough to accept outre settings that were nothing like the world we lived in. It’s specifically an homage to, and in many ways an updating of, Arthur Machen’s 1894 novella “The Great God Pan,” which is about individuals who have managed to glimpse the true nature of reality that lurks behind the shallow scrim of the mundane, a reality so different and so much more terrifying than the world they thought they lived in that it drives them mad when they discover it.

King, as is often his wont, carries the story’s setup to such verbose extremes that I began to worry that he was losing track of the horror element that Machen had been considerably more focused on. Those worries turned out to be needless. Almost every scene in Revival pays off eventually and turns out to be essential to what follows. Whether what follows is worth the wait is a matter of taste. The glimpse of the reality beyond reality at the end is indeed terrifying and I find that it’s come to haunt me even more in retrospect than it did while I was reading it. To accept it, though, it’s necessary to have your belief suspended so tautly that nothing can possibly yank it down. Thankfully, mine was up to the challenge. The novel threatens at times to become a slog, as you learn more about the relentlessly ordinary protagonist than you really want to know, but it never quite bogs down completely. Then again, I’m a long-time fan of old-time horror, so nothing was going to prevent me from getting to King’s take on it. And I’m glad I waded through the sometimes interminable exposition required to get there.

This, I should note, is one of those first-person stories where the most interesting and significant character isn’t the narrator but a secondary character who wanders in and out of the narrator’s life. (H.P. Lovecraft’s classic horror novella “The Thing on the Doorstep” is similar.) And if there’s anywhere that the book falters it’s in the believability of that character, who crawls farther out on a limb of eccentricity every time we meet him. There are moments toward the end when it feels like King is fighting to keep him just grounded enough that the reader’s acceptance of him as a real person won’t turn into a hot air balloon and float away, but it’s touch and go for a while. In the end King pulls it off, but by that time I was so thrilled to see him finally get to the story’s ultimate revelation that I was ready to believe anything King told me.

The title, incidentally, has multiple meanings, one of which is simply King’s revival of old-school horror. I’ll leave it to potential readers to discover the others. (There are at least two more.)

The Brilliance Trilogy — Marcus Sakey

Cover of Written in Fire

Book three of the Brilliance Trilogy

I reviewed the first two books of this trilogy, Brilliance and A Better World, in earlier installments of this blog. To summarize: I loved them. A lot. But I reread them in preparation for the third book, Written in Fire, and I was thrilled all over again. Sakey pulls off the whole Brilliance enterprise — the adverb is unavoidable — brilliantly.

Collectively, the series is about a civil war between genius-level mutants called brilliants and the ordinary humans who feel like they can no longer keep up with their intellectual superiors. I was impressed not only by Sakey’s believable depiction of the mutants but by the way he gives each of the three books its own slow-rising plot arc, with each one not fully starting to grip until about halfway through, at which point they become impossible to put down. He manages to sustain this through the entire three-book serial arc as well, except the peak comes in the final third, which is a hat trick that I wish other writers of trilogies (see below) could pull off as deftly.

There’s a touch of deus ex machina in the way the final novel is resolved, with Sakey setting the resolution up in advance but not in a way that’s totally believably in retrospect, letting everything hang on a moment of hubristic boasting by one of the characters that I think the character would have been savvy enough to avoid. But everything else about the third novel is so compelling that I’m more than willing to forgive this lapse. Sakey’s mutants are fascinating, but the one that stands out is the frighteningly vivid Soren, a sympathetic bad guy who sees time move 11 times more slowly than other human beings, even other mutants, do, which makes him horrifyingly dangerous, because he’s thinking 11 times more rapidly than the hero, but also isolates him from his peers in a way that leaves him open to manipulation by the book’s real villain, who orchestrates much of the apocalyptic chaos of the final scenes through the charismatic way he makes people like Soren think that he actually cares about them even while he uses them to achieve his own ends.

Sakey’s greatest strength is that he makes every character’s motivations feel genuine and in many cases sympathetic, even when what they’re motivated to do is appallingly wrongheaded. He leaves a hook at the end that could be used for a sequel, though Sakey says he has no intention of writing one. However, he’s been letting other writers play with his carefully constructed world and, though I haven’t read any of the non-Sakey spin-offs, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them don’t continue where this novel leaves off.

I’m not sure I want to revisit this world, though. Sakey does such a satisfying job of telling the story that I’m worried I might see some lesser writer mucking it up. For all intents and purposes the story has now been told and told well, and that’s how I want to remember it.

The 5th Wave Trilogy – Rick Yancey

Covers for the 5th Wave trilogy

From the sublime to the tedious.

When I reviewed the first, eponymous novel in this series I raved about it. Yancey’s characters were complex, their relationships were compelling, their moments of self-revelation felt meaningful and Yancey’s writing frequently rose to the level of unexpected poetry. When I reread it to bone up for the rest of the series the poetry was still there but the rest seemed a bit flat, probably because I remembered too many unexpected twists from my first time through. It still stands pretty well as a complete work, though, and I’m sad to report that, except for the threads Yancey leaves dangling at the end, it should have remained a standalone experience.

The Infinite Sea, the second book of the trilogy, tells two stories, each of which could have been wrapped up in a couple of chapters instead of stretched out to half the length of a novel. Much of the time Yancey seems to be padding his way toward book three just so he can do the full triple-book treatment that seems to be required now in YA fantasy and science fiction whether the stories merits it or not. As much as I enjoyed them, I blame the Hunger Games novels (or perhaps the Twilight series, which I haven’t read) for that. There are entire scenes in The Infinite Sea that feel like they’ve gone on forever even when you realize that Yancey is going to make them go on even longer and if I hadn’t been as determined to finish this trilogy as I’d been to finish Sakey’s, I probably would have put the book down partway through (virtually speaking, because it’s on my Kindle, which I’d still have to pick back up to read something else) and moved on to more promising pastures. But I figured the third novel had to be better.

And it is. The Last Star picks back up with characters from the first book who vanish for long sections of the second and starts telling a real story again, but it still feels padded with unnecessary dialog and scenes that loop back so frequently to the same repetitive arguments that I wanted to tell Yancey just to get it over with (or possibly shoot me) to put me out of my misery. He finally does — get it over with, not shoot me — and the fact that I can’t even remember how it ended probably says more about how weary of the book I was by that point than any specific criticism I could make — if I could remember enough to be critical. I do remember that the climax was designed to bring tears to my eyes, but I was too sick of the characters by then to muster even a slight layer of optical mist over whatever it was that happened to them.

The 5th Wave should have been at most a duology and I’m not sure Yancey shouldn’t just have made the first novel longer and wrapped it all up there. Still, the first novel remains worth reading, though you might want to take a pass on the sequels and imagine your own resolution. It’ll probably be better than the one Yancey supplies. Or at least briefer.

Borderline (The Arcadia Project) – Mishell Baker

The cover of Borderline

The borderline between well-written characters and well-worn premises.

This is the book I’m reading now, in bits and pieces of snatched time, mostly before I fall asleep at night. It has a fascinating beginning setting up a fascinating heroine that unfortunately leads into a well-written but overly familiar detective procedural with an interesting if not entirely original fantasy overlay that doesn’t quite lift it above the pedestrian level of detective procedurals in general. But Baker’s writing is excellent, her wit sharp and lively, and I’ll read it through to the end. It’s not giving me the sort of thrill I got out of Sakey’s frequently noirish take on mutantkind, but maybe it’s unreasonable to demand that every book hit notes quite that high.

As with King’s Revival, the title has more than one meaning, though the more interesting one is that the protagonist suffers from borderline personality disorder. This is the main element that lifts the novel above the level of standard fantasy noir, but as the book goes on her psychological diagnosis begins to seem more and more like an excuse for the sort of snarky first-person narration that detective fiction writers have been using since Raymond Chandler published The Big Sleep. The book’s depictions of Los Angeles and the film industry are quite good, though, and at this point are holding my attention more than the heroine’s mental disorder or the physical problems resulting from a suicide attempt that occurred before the novel begins. (Both of her legs are prosthetic, a detail that’s handled so believably that I wonder if author Baker has personal experience with it or is just really good at research.)

If the novel surprises me by transcending its fairly predictable underpinnings, I’ll write about it again later. Otherwise, I’ll only say that the novel is worth reading if you don’t have anything more compelling at hand or if you just like procedurals, a form of fiction I used to read by the bucketful. At some point, though, I think my bucket overflowed. Maybe yours hasn’t yet.

The Old New Weird: Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

Annihilation cover

The cover should really be weirder than this.

Weird fiction was a genre of fiction even before there was such a thing as genre, which is really more a publishing term that tells bookstores what shelves they should put books on and gives self-published e-book authors some area of fiction that their books can excel in on’s many bestseller lists. The term “weird fiction” was coined by 19th century Irish writer Sheridan Le Fanu, who specialized in what we would now call mystery and horror fiction, but which were then just part of the general mainstream of literature. Weird fiction encompasses ghost stories, horror stories and just about any stories in which something unusual and distinctly creepy is going on, whether or not it has a supernatural element to it. It lent its name to one of the greatest of all early 20th century pulp magazines, Weird Tales, probably best known today for having published most of the major work of that towering master of weird fiction, H.P. Lovecraft, with whose death in 1937 the popularity of weird fiction died too, leaving it as a niche genre that only a few writers, like Robert Bloch (better known for writing the novel Psycho than for his weird fiction) and Ramsey Campbell, continued to work in. In recent years, though, the genre has undergone something of a revival, much of it in a form called the New Weird, which nobody is able to define but everybody seems to agree is what’s being written by authors like China Miéville.

Jeff VanderMeer is an expert on weird fiction, having not only edited (along with his wife Ann VanderMeer) several collections of old weird and new weird fiction, but having written quite a bit of it himself, including the short story collection City of Saints and Madmen and the novel Finch. I grew up on the stories of H.P. Lovecraft and read quite a bit of the old weird fiction in my teens but have really only become aware of the renaissance in weird fiction recently, mostly from reading the introductions to Jeff and Ann VanderMeer’s anthologies (which you should read — the introductions, I mean — if you want to know more about weird fiction than I’m telling you here, though this Wikipedia article is also helpful). I had been meaning for some time to explore the newer contributions to the field and when I noticed that Jeff VanderMeer had begun a new trilogy of weird fiction novels collectively called The Southern Reach, it seemed like an ideal place to start. I’ve now read the first novel in the series, Annihilation  — the second novel, Authority, will be published this May and the third novel, Acceptance, will be published in September — and can report that, while I’m not sure whether it belongs to the old weird fiction or to the new weird, it is unquestionably, undeniably weird.

Based on my own acquaintance with the field, I can tell you that weird fiction doesn’t emphasize a lot of the things that traditional fiction does, like character and plot, and only emphasizes setting to the extent that a story’s setting can contribute to its overall weirdness. H.P. Lovecraft occasionally introduced memorable characters into his stories, but by far his most memorable tended to be the frequently unnamed first-person narrators of his stories and their voices always seemed to be the voice of Lovecraft himself, though without the sense of humor he frequently displayed in his letters to friends. What is paramount to weird fiction is mood and the most common mood in weird fiction is dread, which can be either mild or so extreme that it causes the characters to become insane. Lovecraft was fond of saying that his narrators escaped insanity only through a form of denial, “the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents” as he puts it in his most famous (though far from best) story “The Call of Cthulhu.” (Sometimes they also resorted to morphine, which I gather was easier to obtain in Lovecraft’s day.)

In Annihilation, Vandermeer makes his priorities clear. He doesn’t even bother to give his characters names, referring to them only by the roles they play in the expedition that makes up the novel’s plot: the anthropologist, the psychologist, the surveyor. The narrator herself — all of these characters are female — is simply “the biologist.” The goal of their vaguely defined expedition is to explore a mysterious region known as “Area X” and it’s never clear where this region is, not just where it is on our planet, but whether it’s actually on our planet or even has a physical existence at all. It could well exist in the characters’ minds, given that nobody (with the possible exception of the psychologist, who seems to be running the expedition for the explorers’ “superiors,” a government agency known only as the Southern Reach) even seems to know how they arrived there. They crossed something called “the border” while in a state of hypnosis induced by the psychologist, who apparently also induced in their minds certain keywords that would cause them to respond in pre-programmed ways, including keywords that would cause them to commit suicide if necessary. We gradually learn that this isn’t the first expedition into Area X and that nobody seems to be sure how many previous expeditions there have been or whether the explorers returned from them. (Some of the explorers, like the narrator’s husband, did return, but with such altered personalities that the narrator is convinced that at some point in the expedition he was replaced by someone, or something, else. The narrator believes, based on notes she finds that her husband left behind in a mysterious location called “the lighthouse,” that he actually headed off even more deeply into Area X in search of a boat that he could use for further exploration.)

Much of the story concerns the discovery of a large hole in the ground with a staircase leading down into it, a frequent trope in Lovecraft’s work. Everybody calls this “the tunnel,” except for the narrator, who calls it “the tower,” insisting on seeing it as rising even though it’s distinctly descending. As the explorers climb down the staircase, they find phosphorescent writing on the wall relating (in English) a semicoherent narrative apparently being written by some creature that has worked its way down to an even lower level of the “tower.” Before they descend more than a short distance, the explorers decide to branch out in small parties from their base camp (which is simply the point at which they found themselves when they awoke from their hypnotic transition to Area X) and explore nearby points of interest, but gradually…well, I won’t give away any more of the plot, though VanderMeer is so obviously reluctant to make any coherent sense of this story that I’m almost hesitant to use the word “plot” to describe it.

As an introduction to weird fiction, I can’t think of a better place to start than this novel. It’s short — 56,000 words, which is barely more than half the length of one of the Hunger Games novels — adeptly written and distinctly evocative of, well, weirdness. If you prefer your fiction a bit more conventional, though, you’d be better advised to avoid it, because conventional is one thing VanderMeer is very intent on not being.

Back From Hell and Seriously Pissed: Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey

Book #14 for 2012: Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey

Cover of Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey

Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey

There’s a certain kind of hardboiled crime story that practitioners of the genre, both writers and filmmakers, turn to when they want to tell a story that’s particularly violent and has a strongly motivated protagonist. It’s the one where the main character — you wouldn’t exactly call him the hero — is a guy who hung around with a rough gang of criminals when he was younger and was betrayed by them when they abandoned him to the police or just left him for dead. Now he’s back and he wants to get revenge on those bastards in especially gruesome ways.

Movie fans will recognize this as the plot of John Boorman’s 1967 film Point Blank, which starred Lee Marvin. Point Blank was based on the novel The Hunter by Richard Stark, a pseudonym for Donald Westlake, one of my favorite crime writers ever. The protagonist of The Hunter was a guy named Parker, no first name, who went on to be the protagonist of a whole series of books that Westlake wrote under the Stark pseudonym.

It’s also the plot of Richard Kadrey’s novel Sandman Slim and you can tell that he was influenced by Westlake’s novel because he names his protagonist Stark and one of the villains Parker. And to remind us that he’s not the only person who’s ripped off this plot — heck, even Westlake was probably ripping off this plot, possibly from Shakespeare — he makes reference in the text to other variations as well, like the Clint Eastwood film The Outlaw Josey Wales.

The difference in Sandman Slim, which is written in the tough-guy noirish style pioneered in the 1920s and 30s by writers like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, is that the thugs are sub rosas, magic casters who live among human beings but aren’t entirely human themselves, and they didn’t send Stark to prison or leave him for dead. They literally used magic to banish him to hell — alive. While there, he fought monsters in Satan’s arena for the amusement of Satan’s generals and learned the skills of hellion magic, which is a lot nastier than the sub rosa kind. Now, with the help of the demon Azazel, his sponsor in the arena, he’s back on earth, mad as, um, hell and prepared to tear his former friends into eternally damned pieces.

Sandman Slim (the name our protagonist somehow acquires) manages the not inconsiderable feat of being both what is currently called an urban fantasy novel (to distinguish it from the Tolkien kind of fantasy) and an extremely violent hardboiled crime novel. Having once been a huge fan of this sort of novel in its more conventional form, I enjoyed it, though I have to say that the genre doesn’t hold as much interest for me now as it did when I was in my 20s and used to gobble down books by people like Hammett, Chandler, Westlake and Ross MacDonald like they were popcorn. Still, Kadrey (who has also written more conventional science fiction and fantasy) comes up with an interesting enough fantasy take on the genre to keep the book readable and inventive throughout. (There’s even a touch of Lovecraftian horror as the story goes on.) I especially like the way he uses my adopted hometown of Los Angeles as the prime setting for a war between heaven and hell (neither of which seems much nicer than the other) and a major gathering place for the sub rosa. Peacekeeping in the heaven-hell war is performed by a group of supernatural cops called The Golden Vigil, who have been around longer than civilization itself and now work with Homeland Security, and by the end of the book they’ve recruited Stark, who is both a nasty fighter with conventional techniques and an even nastier fighter with magic techniques, to do some freelance work for them. This gives Kadrey an excuse to turn Sandman Slim into a series, and he’s already written two more volumes with more presumably on the way.

I’d recommend Kadrey’s work less to people who enjoy fantasy and more to those who like their crime novels fast-moving and violent. Kadrey does a very good job of combining the fantasy and crime genres, but Sandman Slim will go down a lot easier if you’re less into hobbits and more likely to enjoy seeing a wiseass crimefighter covered with ugly hellion scars decapitate a man who goes right on talking and making wiseass comebacks while unattached to his body. Yeah, it’s that kind of book — and, yeah, I guess I’m the sort of person who enjoys it.

Just a Short Walk

Book #26 (August 14, 2010): The Ruins by Scott Smith

The Ruins is the book that I’d hoped The Passage would be and everything that Lee Child’s novels are not. It’s a perfect example of a type of book that seems rarer now than it used to be, if only because I’ve gotten harder to please as I’ve grown older. It’s an intelligent thriller, carefully thought out, written in a style that is neither flamboyantly literary nor gratingly flat, with characters that are fully realized and sympathetically flawed. If you’re still looking for some good beach reading before Labor Day, grab a copy on the way to the shore and I guarantee that by the time you hit page 40 or so you’ll completely forget how uncomfortable you feel toasting in the sunlight with gobs of lotion on your skin. (Come to think of it, given some of the scenes in the book, you might become all too aware of how uncomfortable you are.)

In addition to being an intelligent thriller, The Ruins is an example of a genre I love but rarely encounter, the one where a group of people start out on a small, almost trivial adventure and then things start to go terribly, terribly wrong. This is such a small genre that right off I can only think of one other example: James Dickey’s Deliverance, which was so well written that I didn’t even notice how horrifying it was until I saw John Boorman’s hypnotic, hallucinogenic film version. (I suppose the lesson from Deliverance is that it’s possible for this sort of thing to be too well written.) Another story that falls loosely within this genre is Jack London’s terrifying short story “To Build a Fire,” where a man and a dog start out on what should be a simple walk across arctic wilderness and find themselves — the man, at any rate — in a life or death struggle.

The plot of The Ruins is somewhat on the shallow side, but you don’t notice this while you’re reading it, because Smith puts the emphasis on carefully building the suspense and keeping the POV tightly focused on each of the four main characters. It’s about a quartet of college students, two guys and two girls, on vacation in Cancún, who decide to go on a day trip into the jungle, along with a couple of foreigners they’ve met, to visit a team of archaeologists at a local ruin. They plan for this trip rather poorly, not even giving much thought as to how they’ll get back. (It involves a bus trip, a cab ride and a short walk through the jungle in a place where they aren’t likely to find another cab.) However, it turns out to be a trip that nobody really could have planned for. I’m not going to tell you any more, because to give the plot away would ruin — no pun intended — the carefully planned hook that Smith is going to put into you. This book is probably about half the length of The Passage, but it felt about one-tenth as long because I read it in rapid gulps, reluctant to come up for air.

In retrospect, I think the major problem with The Passage was that Justin Cronin didn’t build his characters as well as Smith does, though I’ll give him credit for making the attempt. Cronin’s characters seemed real in the way that the people down at the other end of your block seem real. You see them every day, you exchange a few words if you pass them on the sidewalk, but you don’t really care what they’re thinking. Smith’s characters are more like your family. If anything, you know them too well, but you always care what they’re doing and whether they’re going to hurt themselves doing it. I suspect the reason it only had a minor film version — the IMDB shows that it was an Australian production with a director and a cast I’ve never heard of — is that, stripped of the intense character detail, the plot probably seems a little silly. While Lee Child’s novels would probably work better on film, with actors to give a sense of reality to his cartoon characters, The Ruins couldn’t survive the transition, or at least it would need a top level writer-director team to pull it off and give it a properly suspenseful atmosphere.

From the reader’s point of view, though, that may be for the best. Now that you’ve seen Sam Raimi’s excellent film version of Smith’s earlier bestseller, A Simple Plan, that book has been largely spoiled for you (though, trust me, the book is even deeper and better than the film). But since it’s unlikely you’ve seen the film version of The Ruins, I say skip the film and just read the book next chance you get.

Thriller Without the Thrills

Book #22 (August 3, 2010): The Passage by Justin Cronin

Given that I’m several volumes behind in my book-a-week project and finding my life filling up with a surfeit of ways that Amy and I can amuse ourselves with entertainment media that don’t involve reading, it probably wasn’t wise of me to pick a 795-page horror/science fiction/epic quest novel as my next reading project. But it isn’t always obvious how long an e-book is going to be unless you’re paying close attention and it wasn’t until I switched this book over to my Nook that I fully appreciated its length. And, BTW, those aren’t 795 Nook pages. Those are 795 real pages. In Nook pages that’s closer to 2,500, since I had the font size set so that the Nook-page-to-real-page ratio was roughly 3 to 1.

But this book sounded so good in theory that I probably would have read it even if I’d realized I’d wind up spending more than a month plodding through it. It starts with great promise. Indeed, I had hoped that I could begin this review with the line, “Drop every other book in your reading queue and pick this one up immediately, because I’ve found the perfect piece of beach reading for you.” Alas, I can’t.

The Passage (which is currently something like #7 on the New York Times hardback fiction list) starts out great guns, like a collaboration between Stephen King around the time of The Stand and Michael Crichton around the time of The Andromeda Strain. Scientists have discovered a virus deep in the Bolivian jungles that shows potential to make people immortal. It also shows potential to turn them into something like vampires. And these aren’t your romantic, civilized Anne Rice/True Blood vampires. These guys are horrific and prehistoric, about as much like the Vampire Lestat as a sabre-tooth tiger is like a house cat. They are monstrously muscled, fast as lightning, and have stalactite-like teeth that can shred a large animal in seconds. They can also pass on the virus to selected survivors, creating more of their kind.

Of course, the army scientists who discover these things believe they can refine the virus and take out the bad parts, thus obtaining a universal cure for disease, a general preventative for aging, and a way to  breed super soldiers who heal on the battlefield. They start infecting death-row convicts with the bug and locking them away in the bowels of a giant military complex to see what happens. And then — well, you can guess what happens next. The vampire convicts get loose, multiply, and set about destroying the rest of the human race.

This is the gist of about the first third of the book. Up until that point I had hopes that this would be an epic horror novel along the lines of Stephen King’s The Stand, with that same through line of unbearable tension and characters I would learn either to love or to hate. But then Justin Cronin makes an odd decision. It’s not a decision I agree with, but in retrospect I don’t think he could have made any other, because I think what I just described to you wasn’t really the story that he wanted to tell. In fact, he barely describes the part about the escaping vampires and the ensuing slaughter, giving only brief glimpses of it from news stories and handwritten accounts. Instead, he abruptly jumps 93 years into the future, when for all we can tell the only remaining members of the human race, at least in North America, are a tightly knit village of people living inside a crudely fortified town somewhere near Los Angeles. They protect themselves from the vampires — or virals, as they call them — using lights, because this is something that vampires can’t stand and it’s extremely difficult (though not impossible) to kill them with conventional weapons. Unfortunately, the lights are powered by aging storage batteries that are finally starting to go dead, which will leave the town effectively defenseless.

I won’t tell you any more than that, but there’s a lot more novel beyond that point. A LOT more. In fact, for my tastes there was a bit too much more. By this point things were starting to feel a little too much like a standard post-apocalyptic science fiction novel, of which I’ve read many, and there were times when it felt like it was going to drag on forever. There’s a large cast of characters, some of whom I really wanted to like, but I never found myself liking them quite enough to care what happened to them. Let’s just say that what happens to them involves a lengthy trek, from California to Colorado, and Cronin winds up leaving the ending way too ambiguous, which suggests the possibility of a sequel that I have no intention of reading.

None of which is to say that Cronin is a bad writer. He’s actually pretty good, but I would have preferred if he’d held himself to something a little less ambitious — a 400-page epic, say, with slightly fewer characters and slightly fewer irrelevant details. Toward the end he starts getting maudlin and while in some books I’d have found that excusable or even welcome, I never really felt that the story had earned the right to ask the readers to get teary eyed, an effect it never quite managed to have on me (and, believe me, I’ve read books that have made me uncontrollably teary eyed at the end).

So if you’re still looking for summer reading, or just for YAVN (Yet Another Vampire Novel), I’m afraid this one might not be it.

Fantasy and Science Fiction and Horror, Oh My!

Book #2 (January 14, 2010): McSweeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories edited by Michael Chabon.

I’m a great fan of genre fiction, especially science fiction, fantasy and horror. I am therefore going to make an unfair generalization: It sometimes seems as though these genres, along with mysteries and thrillers, are among the few remaining forms of fiction where authors bother to be entertaining or to engage in something that used to be called (and, in fact, still is called) storytelling. At some point in the last century the literature of entertainment (and I use the term “literature” deliberately) forked off from literary fiction (which, as Michael Chabon notes in his introduction to this anthology, is as much a genre as any other, with its own well-worn genre conventions) and became mildly disreputable. I’ll have more to say about this in upcoming weeks, especially if I get around to reading Chabon’s collection of essays Maps and Legends (which is sitting, in actual book form, on my shelf), where Chabon engages with this subject at book length, but for now I want to talk about what Chabon has put on the table in this particular anthology.

One of the things I like about Chabon is that he’s a literary writer who is willing to take genre seriously. This short story anthology is a sequel to his earlier McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales, which was originally published as a special issue of Dave Eggers’ quirky literary magazine Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern. Chabon’s aim, according to his introduction (about which more in a moment), was to play with the concept of genre and to assemble a collection of writers who produce fiction somewhere in the margins (or would that be median strips?) between genre fiction and literary fiction, including literary writers like Margaret Atwood and Joyce Carol Oates who frequently spill over into genre writing and genre writers like Stephen King and Peter Straub who occasionally manage to achieve literature.

Chabon’s introduction is one of my favorite parts and I’m tempted to quote from it at length. It’s about the tricky, indistinct boundary between genre fiction and literary fiction and how it’s mostly a matter of publishing categories, not actual content. I’ll indulge in a single (albeit lengthy) quote:

“Genre, in other words, is–in a fundamental and perhaps ineradicable way–a marketing tool, a standard maintained most doggedly by publishers and booksellers. Though the costly studies and extensive research conducted by the publishing industry remain closely guarded secrets, apparently some kind of awful retailing disaster would entail if all the fiction, whether set on Mars or Manhattan, concerning a private eye or an eye doctor, were shelved together, from Asimov and Auster to Zelazny and Zweig. For even the finest writer of horror or sf or detective fiction, the bookstore, to paraphrase the LA funk band War, is a ghetto. From time to time some writer, through a canny shift in subject matter or focus, or through the coming to literary power of his or her lifelong fans, or through sheer, undeniable literary chops, manages to break out. New, subtler covers are placed on these writers’ books, with elegant serif typefaces. In the public libraries, the little blue circle with the rocket ship or the atom is withheld from the spine. This book, the argument goes, has been widely praised by mainstream critics, adopted for discussion by book clubs, chosen by the Today show. Hence it cannot be science fiction.”

This is a longtime complaint of genre fans, especially fans of fantasy and science fiction. Not only does a large portion of the literary world refuse to take even the best work in these genres seriously, but on the rare occasions when some work of fantasy or science fiction is so unquestionably well written that even the snobbiest of critics can’t fall back on calling it hackwork, they simply deny that it’s genre fiction at all. It’s as though the very definitions of science fiction and fantasy contain the term “poorly written.” When that term ceases to apply, so does the genre label.

I’ve wandered a bit far afield, which doesn’t leave me a lot of room to talk about the stories in this anthology, but I’ll talk about them anyway. My favorite is David Mitchell’s “What You Do Not Know You Want,” which reads like something Hunter Thompson might have written if he were trying to be Elmore Leonard. It’s about an antiques dealer in Hawaii trying to locate the knife that writer Yukio Mishima used to commit seppuku, and from this already bizarre premise Mitchell concocts something not only very dark but darkly funny. It left me interested enough to want to know more about David Mitchell’s writing and I’ll probably read one of his novels sometime later this year. I also liked Stephen King’s “Lisey and the Madman,” which is apparently a portion of his novel Lisey’s Story, though that novel hadn’t been published (or, as far as I know, even completed) at the time the Chabon anthology came out. I greatly enjoyed “Minnow,” a clever horror story by Ayelet Waldman, who happens to be (though the editor sneakily neglects to mentions it anywhere in the text) Chabon’s wife. And “Reports of Certain Events in London” by China Miéville, a slight, quirky, highly original story about feral, time-traveling alleyways. That’s certainly not an idea that’s been done to death.

Chabon never actually assigns these stories a genre, which I suppose is the point, but most of them fall into a niche that I’d call hyperliterate horror, which is exactly the kind of horror fiction I like. The whole collection is excellent.