Monday, October 25, 2010

"Catch and Release" by Lawrence Block

"Blood-chilling" and "creepy as hell" are the phrases that come to mind after reading Lawrence Block's story about a fisherman with "unusual" tastes. You see I put "unusual" into quotation marks because, of course, I don't want to spoil the surprise.

Although this story has nothing in the way of the supernatural or fantastic, it is horrifying. Block's character emerges fully-formed from the story and is easily its strongest aspect. "Jack" is both a metaphorical and actual fisherman somewhere in the backwoods of America.

He used to be a normal fisherman, and he would prepare his catch each time, scaling, and deboning what he caught. But, no longer! Now, he's a catch and release man.

But he has a secret.

The secret isn't really that much of a secret, and knowing that the metaphorical fishing refers to his luring of women into positions of weakness is only part of the story.

Like I said, it's creepy good. Great Halloween-time story too.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

"Mallon the Guru" by Peter Straub

Peter Straub is one of the greats genre writers I've never read before.

This is a tasty bit of his writing, but really it just left me wanting more. Which is a good thing. Sometimes.

Sometimes too, though, it makes the little bit seem insignificant and unworthy of attention. That's basically what happened here. It's a fine story. It's interesting and somewhat thought provoking, but I know that it won't be sticking with me the way "Goblin Lake" or even "The Knife" has. (And those weren't even the best in this collection.)

It's all about a self-absorbed American guru-wannabe, Mallon, together with his spiritual leader, Urdang, on their way to meet up with a real guru in India. An omen and a slight shift in the cosmic dance between life and death leaves Mallon on the wrong side of the spiritual equation.

It's not that it was a bad piece. It's not that it didn't entertain me. It's more that this is a book filled with big fish, and this is just a medium-sized fish. Not good, not bad. But forgettable. And, in the end, it's too abrupt. That's the only real criticism I can level against it.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

"Goblin Lake" by Michael Swanwick

A good old-fashioned fairy tale.

Sort of.

Swanwick's story is set in the seventeenth century somewhere around modern-day Germany. The perfect place for a fairy tale.

But it takes a kind of meta-twist when the characters engage in a discussion about their roles as characters in their respective stories.

It's a harmless tale, really, and one that ends sweetly, and perhaps not as bitter-sweetly as Swanwick intended. For Jack (arguably the prototypical name for a fairy tale character) winds up outside his story. Happy, but not immortal as he would have been were he to remain inside his tale.

Ultimately, it's a story about stories, which can be very good, or not. And I think it does well, reflecting on the nature of different character types, the power of characters within stories, the reader's power - or lack thereof - to effect those stories. It's no surprise this story made it into the collection, for it's just the kind that Gaiman would love.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

"Weights and Measures" by Jodi Picoult

Easily the most poignant and touching of the stories in Stories to this point.

"Weights and Measures" tells the story of Abe and Sarah (yes, like in the Bible) following the death of their daughter.

As usual, only more so this time, I hesitate to reveal much of anything. Frankly, the story is wonderful. It's heartfelt and deeply sympathetic. Picoult portrays the loss of a child as though she had experienced it herself. Perhaps it's not so hard to conjure those feelings of loss and grief if one has something to love deeply. Perhaps a parent has no trouble at all imagining what kind of devastation would result in the death of one's child.

So I figure either Picoult is a parent, has lost a child (God forbid), or is just that bad ass of a writer.

In any case, the title and story cleverly relate in a way, somewhat like "The Stars are Falling," which I reviewed here a couple of weeks ago. Here, the fantastic elements of this story tie intimately to the loss of the daughter, as does the title. The beauty of the story is that the death of the child physically manifests itself in the parents. Ultimately they embody their loss.

I'm not sure that this is the best writing. But it does fit Elmore Leonard's rule, "If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it." "Weights and Measures" does not sound like writing. It's simple, elegant in places, gentle, but persistent, and quite touching.

Monday, October 18, 2010

"The Knife" by Richard Adams

Yes, I do believe this is the very same Richard Adams of Watership Down fame.

This story is short. Really short. Not like Gaiman's "Nicholas was..." short, but only about two pages in this particular edition.

The story is intended to be somewhat disturbing, I think, and in that it somewhat succeeds.

I think.

We have a knife. A young man who wants to use it. And the thoughts of that young man as he considers his fantasies and the knife that is, in fact, very real.

Not too much more to say, frankly. Just glad to be back. Hopefully I can keep things up for a bit, though this weekend will be tough as we jaunt off to Texas for a short spell.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

"Juvenal Nyx" by Walter Mosley

Walter Mosley is most well-known for his detective fiction and the like, but in this case we have something akin to a vampire story.

So far this was by far my least favorite story in Stories. The strength of it, however, lies in the mythology of the creatures that, for lack of a better word, are vampires. They drink blood, they are paralyzed by sunlight, they can command humans using their voice. Very Bram Stoker-y.

But then there are some key differences. (Please pardon this digression, for I am a sucker for discussing the minutiae of various mythologies.) These vampires bite not by using either extendable or extended canines (a.k.a. "fangs"), but by an extendable tooth in their lower jaw that humans simply don't have. Therefore, these vampires leave just a single, tiny prick in the victim. Furthermore, these vampires are drawn to procreate (see, "create a new blood-sucker") by the smell of the intended progeny. This smell is so strong that the vampire falls in love. Then, because the creator will just keep drinking from their newly-created lover until said lover is dry as dust, the creator must abandon its creation.

To be fair, this is another story that feels like Mosley was working on creating a world for a novel. Too many characters for a short story. Too many undeveloped details.

More importantly, the story itself fizzles around the middle. The pace of it bogs down. It loses direction and strangely morphs into a new love story. Then Mosley (misguidedly) attempts to transform the character into a philanthropist, then (if the latter two diversions weren't enough) it ends with a subterranean hunt for a supernatural dog-rat-beast. The end itself feels tacked on to create a pseudo-circular story, too neatly ending precisely the way it began.

Monday, October 11, 2010

"The Stars Are Falling" by Joe R. Lansdale

Never heard of Lansdale before. You? I think I like him, though, after reading this short story, the longest of the bunch so far.

The main character, Deel, is a WWI vet, coming "back from the dead" to his rural farm, wife, and child. The story essentially deals with Deel's unfamiliar life, his unfamiliar wife, and his inability to rejoin society effectively. In that way it has a similar feel to many post-war short stories, such as Tim O'Brien's.

What sets this story apart are the masterful connections throughout the story. The title, which is one of the recurring motifs, ties together the farm and the battlefield, as well as life and death, which find Deel in both places.

Another excellent aspect of the story, and one that I respect whenever I encounter it, is the way Lansdale openly and obviously reveals the plot's trajectory. It's a kind of dramatic irony that allows the audience to see what the character(s) cannot. The move takes some of the mystery out of the ending, but replaces it with a different kind of question. Instead of "What is going to happen?" the audience wonders, "How is it going to happen?" It's a subtle but interesting reversal of audience expectation, and I almost always like it when it works as well as it has here.

Other cool stuff I like