Friday, 28 October 2016

Horror Week 2016: The Birth of the Modern Vampire: Lord Byron, John Polidori, and The Vampyre

John Polidori.
Everyone knows the scene. On a stormy Transylvanian night lit by a full moon and serenaded by the howling of a wolf, a mysterious coach pulls up to a dilapidated castle. Timidly, the coach’s passenger makes his way to the castle door. As the door slowly creaks open, we finally see the lord of the manor—a formally dressed nobleman with regal bearing—a creepy and ironic image of a proper European aristocrat.

At which point, Count Dracula bids us welcome.

Dracula is not like other traditional monsters. His elegance and sophistication set him apart. Much like a Bond villain, Dracula could almost pass as a head of state or a captain of industry. The horror comes from our knowledge that underneath that polished exterior lurks a creature ripped out of nightmares and campfire stories. And that contrast between the outer and inner character provides the complexity that separates not only Dracula, but most modern vampires from all those more interchangeable creatures that go bump in the night.

Horror Week 2016: “The Masque of the Red Death” by Edgar Allen Poe

You don’t have to look any further than kids’ campfire stories to realize that the best scary stories are timeless. Good horror can seize you by the throat no matter how much time has passed since its inscription. Perhaps that’s why, autumn after autumn, year after year, readers return to the works of Edgar Allen Poe, a 19th century master of the macabre.

When Mario asked me to be part of this project, I knew I wanted to revisit “The Masque of the Red Death.” Even though this story was written in 1842, it continues to be hauntingly timeless, touching on the same horror themes that scare readers still today. Better yet, enough time has passed that it’s now in the public domain, and anybody can read it for free.

In 2016, it may often feel like the world is ending, and that’s a theme we visit often in contemporary fiction. I can think of at least two modern bestsellers that explore the idea of a plague that eradicates society, prompting an apocalypse: The Stand by Stephen King, and Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. Poe’s “Masque,” however, is one of the earliest. In this story, the Red Death’s excruciating pain is matched in terror only by its guarantee of death.

Thursday, 27 October 2016

Horror Week 2016: Turn of the Screw by Henry James

Turn of the Screw is a novella penned by nineteenth century British author Henry James. Considered to be part of the literary ghost story genre, the novella was originally published serially between January and April of 1898 in Collier’s Weekly Magazine, being later compiled into a single volume the following October.

The novella provides a ghost story that is unlike many of the ghost stories being produced during the nineteenth century, which is what makes it so fascinating to me. Rather than having a purely supernatural gothic story, James’ tale creates a sense of anxiety through eerie realities. Its unnamed narrator is a young woman who is hired as governess to two children at Bly, a remote English country house belonging to the children’s family. What begins as a pleasant summer in the country soon turns  distressing and traumatic as the governess becomes convinced that the children are consorting with a pair of malevolent ghosts. The ghosts you see are of two former employees of Bly: a valet, one Peter Quint, and a previous governess, Miss Jessel. In life the two of them had been scandalously discharged for their forbidden sexual transgressions with one another, and their spectral visitations with the children hint at Satanism and possible sexual abuse. Clearly, as the governess sees it, ten-year-old Miles and eight-year-old Flora must be protected. But her attempts to protect the children from hazards that are possibly immaterial, she instead winds up traumatizing the little girl and killing the little boy. 

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Horror Week 2016: “The Boogeyman” by Stephen King

While I'm not a huge horror or scary-movie fan, as in a fanatic, I did love watching the Nightmare in Elm Street series, American Werewolf in London, and a number of other movies back in the 80s and 90s. The scariest movie I've experienced was 1979's Alien. I watched that movie, ill-advisedly in hindsight, with my younger siblings back in 1985 in my basement bedroom. That night, after my siblings went upstairs to go to bed, I found myself alone in my room. I then realized what a stupid thing I had just done. Needless to say, I didn't sleep the whole night because of the sheer terror I experienced watching Alien. To this day I remember that night and how terrified I was and how impossible it was for me to sleep in the basement, alone, with the darkness in the room and just beyond my bedroom door. The slightest sound would jolt me from the bed so I ended up cowering in a corner of my room just praying for the sun to come up.

I haven't watched a proper horror movie in many, many years. As I've gotten older the genre just doesn't appeal to me anymore. The most recent "horror" movie I saw was Tucker & Dale vs Evil. It was just enough to remind me of the experiences I was missing out on -- watching horror movies -- but not too much to keep me awake at night. These days I need only to look at my bank account statements or bills, but I digress. Tucker & Dale vs Evil was a beautifully well-executed movie that is a perfect example of its genre, i.e., horror-comedy.

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Horror Week 2016: “Children of the Kingdom” by T.E.D. Klein

T.E.D. Klein
T.E.D. Klein is one of the great could-have-beens. He wrote some of the best and most memorable horror stories of the seventies and early eighties. Derived from his first published story, “The Events at Poroth Farm”, he wrote the masterful, if lengthy, novel, The Ceremonies (1984). His 1985 novella, “Nadelman's God” won the 1986 World Fantasy Award for best novella. It, along with three other novellas, was published in the 1985 collection, Dark Gods. And then he started to fall silent.

According to his entry at the Internet Speculative Fiction Database, he only published a few more stories. Wikipedia credits him with co-writing the screenplay for Dario Argento's 1993 Trauma. A second collection of stories, Reassuring Tales, finally appeared in 2006 to little fanfare. Over the years, it was reported he was working on a second novel, but writer's block kept it from ever materializing. Despite considerable acclaim over the years from writers like S.T. Joshi and Thomas Monteleone, he's just faded away, someone known to horror connoisseurs but little beyond their circle.

Monday, 24 October 2016

Horror Week 2016: Exorcising the Shame and Guilt – How I Learned to Love Horror

Regular readers of the blog (if there is such a thing here at SUR) will know that I’m not a huge horror fan. It’s something I’ve actively avoided in my fiction for years. There are a few reasons for this. I’m generally not too keen on the esthetics of the genre. Slasher films as a whole and specific film series of the “torture porn” variety like Saw and Hostel where the examples of the genre that popped up in my head when I thought of horror. The biggest reason for my dismissal of the whole thing is that I came to it with preconceived notions of what any given book or movie would be when it’s labelled as horror. I watched those movies and attempted to read those books with the intent of finding those things I didn’t like as a way to prove that yes, indeed, horror as a genre is a piece of shit and it is best avoided.

I’ve reconciled with a lot of that thanks to Stephen King, particularly thanks to one of his most famous books Salem’s Lot. I mentioned some of that in my review of the book and there was certainly something cathartic bout the whole admission of guilt and wrongdoing towards the genre. It’s still occasionally difficult to admit that I was so dismissive. I dismissed it all, regardless of when or where a piece of horror fiction came from, it all ended up in the same space in my brain: the trash bin.

Sunday, 18 September 2016

Short Story Sunday 18: Reading Neil Gaiman’s Trigger Warning, Part One

I’ve been a fan of Neil Gaiman’s writing since my early teens. Surprisingly, I discovered him through his novels and not his comic book work. I say it’s surprising since I fell into the world of American comics in just a couple years later. No matter, I’ve followed him across genres since I first finished American Gods and I’ll continue to read anything I come across that has his name on it. I’ve rarely been disappointed by this decision.

Sadly, as life takes it course you sometimes find yourself with a shortage of spare time. When that happens, things like picking up any new book by a favourite author don’t always happen as planned. It’s for that reason that I’m only reading Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances now. I’ll be reviewing each story and poem here as a series of post for Short Story Sunday. This is the first one of these posts.

“Making a Chair” by Neil Gaiman
Read in Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances (2015)
First appeared in print in Trigger Warning (2015), but previously appeared on the CD An Evening With Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer (2011)

Sunday, 17 April 2016

Short Story Sunday 17: John Moore and Harry Turtledove

This is an exciting installment of Short Story Sunday. Well, maybe not for you, but it is for me. This marks the first collection that I’ve reviewed in its entirety (except for all of the non-fiction articles). I hope to review many more science fiction and fantasy stories and I hope you stick around and get inspired to read a few of your own.

For a long time I completely ignored short fiction, but in recent years it’s become an important part of my life. Due to an increasingly busier schedule and new responsibilities, I’ve got less time to read novels. I was sad about that at first (and I still kind of am) but I decided to view this as an opportunity to explore another part of literature I didn’t pay much attention to before. Like everything else, not all of the short stories I read are good. Some, even with their short length, aren’t even worth my time. Still, I’ve read plenty of good-to-great stories to remind me of how satisfying short fiction can be. Below are just a couple of good examples.

Sunday, 20 March 2016

Short Story Sunday 16: “The Blabber” by Vernor Vinge

This is our first Short Story Sunday edition where I write about only a single story. I’ve tried to avoid that as I’d prefer to showcase more than a single author by post (special editions notwithstanding) and more than a single story. Variety is nice and so are posts that are longer than just two hundred words. This post is different because the story being reviewed is quite long. It’s a novella, really. Still, it’s science fiction, it’s short, and it’s really quite good.

“The Blabber” by Vernor Vinge
Read in New Destinies Volume VI/Winter 1988 (1988), edited by Jim Baen
Originally published in Threats … and Other Promises (1988), editor unknown (but might also be Jim Baen)

“The Blabber” is part of Vinge’s Zones of Thought series which include a trilogy of novels that begin with the award winning A Fire Upon the Deep. Not only is that an excellent title, but it’s said to be an excellent read. I wouldn’t know as my copy remains unread. I’ll get around to it one day and likely sooner now that I’ve read this novella which takes place just after the events of the first book.

Sunday, 13 March 2016

Short Story Sunday 15: Catherynne M. Valente and Rick Cook

No introduction this post, we're heading straight into the reviews.

“How to Become a Mars Overlord” by Catherynne M. Valente
Read in Year’s Best SF 16 (2011), edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer

“How to Become a Mars Overlord” is written as a seminar intended on providing guidance to people interested in conquering the prized planet, Mars. Valente is more interesting in recreating a sense of wonder and yearning for the red planet than she is in telling a story. All of her examples of Mars overlords are pastiche or echoes of pulp stories featuring the titular planet. If they’re not recognizable as a creation of another author, then they’re created by Valente with that same spirit in mind. The whole thing is very inventive and full of energy but it’s done in a style that doesn’t work for me.  

Sunday, 6 March 2016

Short Story Sunday 14: Andy Duncan, Charles de Lint, and David G. Hartwell Tribute

This series originally began with a focus on science fiction short stories. I think it’s a genre that works really well with this particular form of writing and it’s given me the opportunity to read more short stories and more science fiction, two things I feel I don’t do often enough. However, Short Story Sunday is the home of all short stories and I’m pleased to say that we’re diving head first into the fantasy genre. I’ve reviewed some of Robert E. Howard’s original Conan the Barbarian stories here too, but that’s just not enough! Short Story Sunday needs more fantasy and can’t limit itself to muscular barbarians and squishy monsters. There is plenty of room for other fantasy stories such as those of politically minded Hobbits and Travelling Littles.

“Senator Bilbo” by Andy Duncan
Read in Year’s Best Fantasy 2 (2002), edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer (uncredited)
Originally published in Starlight 3 (2001), edited by Patrick Nielsen Hayden

This story is based on a simple idea. What if the infamous white supremacist senator Theodore G. Bilbo was a descendant of Bilbo Baggins? Well, we’d end up with a filibustering, speech spewing, and racist hobbit. There isn’t much more to this story than playing out that idea, but it’s very well done and quite enjoyable.  

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Galapagos by Kurt Vonnegut Review

I’ve only read one Kurt Vonnegut book before this one, Slaughter-House Five, though I’ve stayed interested in his work ever since I’ve read that book. It’s probably been four or five years since I read my first Vonnegut but the man is a fascinating character in his own right (and no, I’m not making reference to Kilgore Trout but the reference is there if you want it). Several months ago I went to a bookstore with the intent of buying another Vonnegut book. This is my kind of writer and I owe it to myself to explore his oeuvre. I couldn’t pick out a single book and after arriving at a shortlist of three books, I asked my wife to pick. She singled out Galapagos and, here we are, a few months later with a review about humanity’s destruction and rebirth as a new species.

Simply put, Galapagos is an evolutionary journey recounted from the point of view of a million years in our future. There and then, the ghost of a man from the 20th century is telling the story of the crisis which befell humanity in 1986 and how unusual circumstances made the Galapagos Islands the hotbed of evolution for a second time in the history of the world. It’s on one of its volcanic islands that the last survivors of humanity find themselves the originators of the next step in human evolution.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Naruto 3-in-1 11 (volume 31-32-33) Review

I owe a lot of thanks to the person at Viz Media who thought of collecting some of their popular, multi-volume manga into these delightful omnibus editions. It works so well for shonen manga and I’m sure that even non-shonen manga read well in this format. More manga for less money! What’s not to love? Well, if you’re talking about this particular 3-in-1 volume of Naruto, there is one thing. One character, to be exact, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

The opening volume to this omnibus, volume 30, includes the final few chapters of the Kazekage Rescue Mission arc. Sakura and Granny Chiyo are fighting Sasori, one of the Akatsuki’s members. With this fight, Masashi Kishimoto has given readers multiples examples of the kind of jutsu and attacks that puppet masters wield in battle. Seeing the experience of Granny Chiyo’s mastery of puppet jutsu used against the powerful and inventive puppet jutsu of her grandson, Sasori, is very enjoyable. Throwing Sakura in the mix and having her show off her surprisingly strong physical attacks simply adds to the enjoyment of this fight and this story arc. It’s also a good showcase of Sakura’s new abilities. This is the first time we see Sakura fight following her training with Tsunade and it’s impressive. I find that Sakura has been grossly underused in Part One and it’s nice to see her get some much deserved attention here. It’s very successful and make for a few great. She’s fearless compared to the younger Sakura we used to know. In this fight she proves to be strong, resourceful, and a commendable team player.

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

"The family circle is a triangle": Stray Toasters review

Bill Sienkiewicz (pronounced sin-KEV-itch) is a masterful artist. Some of his works in comics rank among my all-time favourites. His collaboration with Frank Miller on Elektra: Assassin and Daredevil Love and War are some of the most memorable and masterfully told comics I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. His career is filled with milestone issues in some of the most popular titles. His style of art incorporates many types of artistic techniques resulting in a unique and immediately identifiable style. Having Sienkiewicz inking another artist’s pencils is enough to give a comic a stylish vibe. His influence is huge and I’m sad it took me so long to read Stray Toasters which he wrote as well as illustrated.

Anybody who’s even flipped through a copy of this comic can attest to its strangeness. While I can say without any reservations that I love his art, I can’t say the same for his writing. When I consider it, there are some similarities between his approach to art and writing and while it suits one, it doesn’t suit the other. The energetic and chaotic art style doesn’t translate well to the written word. Stray Toasters is incredibly confusing and out of that emerged my frustration as a confused reader.

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

A Model World and Other Stories by Michael Chabon Review

I first discovered Michael Chabon a few years ago when I read a copy of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. It’s one of those books I picked up pretty much on a whim. I saw someone read it on the bus. It was a trade paperback version with the shiny Pulitzer Prize for Fiction sticker on it. I must have seen the novel displayed at a bookstore because I ended up with buying and reading it. I love it so much I read it twice in the same month. Then I loaned it to a friend and never got it back. Luckily I found an identical edition at my local used bookstore and I own it once again. It’s one of my all-time favourite books. There are many things to love about it and there a parts of it that stick in my mind, even to this day, years after I originally read it.

During that same trip where I bought a new (but old) copy of The Amazing Kavalier & Clay I also bought a few other books by Chabon. I’ve wanted to read more of his work but for years I kept forgetting about it when stepping into a book store. Being in the middle of at least half a dozen other books right now, I was fighting the urge to dive into one of my new Chabon acquisitions. I wanted to finish a few of my other books first. Needless to say I settled down with A Model World and Other Stories last Sunday and I’ve been having moving and enthralling lunch hours these last few days.

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens Novelization Review

Some unexpected things have happened with my readings habits throughout the years but one thing I never would have predicted is that I enjoy reading novelizations of movies I like to watch. It started because of Star Wars mostly and while I haven’t read tons of novelizations since I discovered I like reading those kinds of books, it’s a trend that will likely continue for many years. Recently, a little movie came out continuing the story began so many years ago with the release of Star Wars in 1977. That movie is Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens and it’s pretty good. It’s not a masterpiece, but I don’t think anybody was realistically expecting one. Generally speaking, we wanted a good movie and we got a good movie. We also got a good novelization courtesy of the Grand Master of novelizations Alan Dean Foster.

Though it didn’t really surprise me, The Force Awakens book was pretty darn close to the movie experience and so my reaction was essentially the same. This is not the best novelization I’ve read but it’s still good. In some ways, I like it more than the movie. In some other ways, I don’t. This mostly has to do with the fact that when I read the book I lose the good elements from the movie such as the actors’ portrayals of their characters and the movie’s visuals. I’m well aware that I’m not saying anything revelatory here. It kind of comes with the territory of novelizations. However, if I’m comparing this to my experience reading other Star Wars novelizations, this one falls a little short. That’s because the original trilogy’s visuals and the actors performances are engraved in my mind’s eye. My multiple viewings of the original trilogy actually supported and improved my reading of their respective novelizations. That is not the case with The Force Awakens. I’ve seen it once and while the viewing was fresh it my mind when I read this book, I simply don’t have the same familiarity with it that I did with those other movies.

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

2015: A Year in Review, Progress Report

Shared Universe Reviews has been one of my longest personal interest projects. It’s also been a pretty rewarding one for several reasons. As I’ve come to realize in my life, when things are rewarding it’s usually because I worked hard at achieving a goal and I’ve met my desired targets. In that regard, last year provided proof once again that the harder I work at my posts on SUR, the more I get out of it. Slowly, year by year, I’ve built a body of critical writing that I’m proud of it. I think that writing these annual progress reports helps me better assess what I’ve done, where I’m at, and what I would like to accomplish in the coming year.

For my first year of blogging, in 2013, the goal was simple. Start blogging and do it regularly. Because I was just starting I didn’t need anything more than that. In my second year, 2014, I tried to get a better grasp on the areas of entertainment on which my main reviewing output would focus on. The original idea for SUR was always comic books reviews but along the way I’ve found that I enjoy writing about others things too. The Blog Fantastic (a project in which I review fantasy novels written by authors I like, authors I want to discover, and classic series) has been one of my proudest achievements and bigger successes on the site.

Sunday, 3 January 2016

My 20 Favourite Comics and Novels Read in 2015, Part Two

No need for a detailed introduction today. This is the continuation of my list of 20 Favourite Comics and Novels Read in 2015. You can read the first part here.

10. Peace by Gene Wolfe (not reviewed)

As I mentioned on Wednesday, one of my personal goals in 2015 was to read a few really challenging books. One of those was Inherent Vice. Another one was Peace. If you’ve ever read a book by Gene Wolfe you won’t need convincing that his books are difficult to read and worth the effort required to understand them. It’s never a problem to finish reading a book by Wolfe because his prose is simply beautiful. It’s complex, but mostly approachable. It challenges the reader without being off-putting. With Peace, one of his earliest novels, Wolfe clearly demonstrates that he is a master of literature. I’m often confused by the lack of discussion surrounding his impressive body of work online. Then I look at the number of books I’ve written about here at SUR and I shut up. Reading Peace last year was an attempt to start fixing that but like the other books on this list that I didn’t review, I read it during a time where I was working on a big project and I wasn’t focused on regular reviews.

In Peace, Wolfe builds a very complex story with the use of one of his main storytelling tools, the unreliable narrator. Also important to the story is the use of memories. The plot of the book is pretty simple at first glance, but much of it is made up of lies and the reader figuring out what really happened (or at least questioning the veracity of what you’re being told). Doing this is the start to really appreciating what this novel has to offer. The book begins with an old man thinking about his past. Each section of the book jumps from one period of his life to another. Along the way Wolfe gives us impressively detailed and engrossing passages that would have been beautiful short stories if published separately. On their own, on the surface level, these are great and somewhat anecdotal pieces of fiction. When looked at together in the context of the novel’s real plot (not an old man, exactly, nor really a memoir), it’s powerful stuff. Like it sometime happens when I talk about really excellent books that have impacted me on an emotional level, I feel inadequate talking about Peace. From what I can tell though, it’s a forgotten masterpiece that modern audiences need to find and experience.