Shock Totem #10 (Jan 2016)
- The State of Shock Totem Publications, or We Are Not ChiZine Publications
- Closing for Submissions
- Shock Totem Returns!
- Apex Publications Acquires Shock Totem Book Line
- The Head, the Tail, the Whole Damn Thing: Musings on Jaws, Part 8
- The Head, the Tail, the Whole Damn Thing: Musings on Jaws, Part 7
- The Head, the Tail, the Whole Damn Thing: Musings on Jaws, Part 6
- The Head, the Tail, the Whole Damn Thing: Musings on Jaws, Part 5
- The Head, the Tail, the Whole Damn Thing: Musings on Jaws, Part 4
- The Head, the Tail, the Whole Damn Thing: Musings on Jaws, Part 3
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Author Archives: Mason Bundschuh
Here is an awesome sci-fi premise: Humans find at the edge of the solar system the entrance to a vast network of dimensional portals leading to other worlds all across the universe. No one knows who built it, or how it works—only that is does work.
With that tantalizing grand sci-fi mystery as a premise we begin Star Road, by Matthew Costello and the late Rick Hautala, a high-speed space action thriller that tips a hat, head, and most of the shoulders to Joss Whedon.
(Another name worth mentioning is Mad Max. But while the influence of Road Warrior and Firefly are superficially evident, I felt that the execution of Star Road owed more to A.E. van Vogt, for better or worse.)
This is first and foremost an action road-trip with plenty shoot-em-up “car” chases. Read if you want creepy alien mech constructs swarming over your spaceship while you’re in a firefight with a battle-cruiser, read if you want blast-em-up car chases on rickety jet ramps built over primordial oceans where sea monsters just might take a bite out of your ship if you get too close.
There’s a distinct horror flair that occasionally overshadowed the rational “why?” required by science fiction. Anyone remember that scene in Galaxy Quest when they have to pass through the timed mashers and fire to get to the Omega 13? That’s in here. But if car chases in space are your thing, look no further. (And for all you romance readers holding your breath, sorry, there’s next to zero romance. Go back to your dinosaur-on-human erotica.)
Where was I? Oh yeah, Star Road doesn’t have the massive cast of a true space opera, but there are plenty of characters coming in and out of the scenes. You have your requisite crew mish-mash: a war-weary gunner, a cool-handed captain, the scientist, a religious Seeker, a salty space-miner, a spunky adrenaline-junkie, and the government guy-with-secrets. Add to that a seemingly omniscient/omnipresent Super-Duper Space Federation, and a gaggle of space pirates called the Reavers—I mean, the Runners—and you can see why this was a fun if somewhat recycled read.
While we are down in the thick of things with the main group of characters, we’re told to care deeply about the larger struggle between Empire and Rebellion, as well as the internecine strife within the Rebel group. But the larger struggle never felt wholly tangible or meaningful.
Costello and Hautala write from multiple vantage points to connect us to the secret motives and thoughts of each character as they rush towards the final showdown on a distant planet. However, this relentless head-hopping ends up wearying me, and I end up not feeling close enough to any character to really understand or care for their motives. Speaking of motives, sometimes there just weren’t any. I caught myself facepalming with a “What are they thinking?” or “Why would they do that?” a few times.
(By the way: Hard sci-fi readers beware. They actually drive on the star road. In space. No, I don’t know why there is gravity. I think Asimov just twitched in his grave.)
But Star Road is about action and high-speed chases and creepy alien corpses being resurrected so heroes with blasters can fry them into bacon bits (rather than, say, about emotional resonance and astonishing truth about the human condition). I just wish that that awesome sci-fi premise we started off with resolved into a mind-blowing sci-fi answer.
Tim Powers’s most recent novel, Hide Me Among the Graves, is a rich parallel history full of dark magical realism set in Victorian England.
Hide Me Among the Graves totally redeems vampires from sparkly teenage banality and brings us back to something really horrific that owes more than a tip of the hat to Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s terrifyingly seductive corruptions. (See LeFanu’s amazing novella Carmilla)
In fact, I get the impression that he wrote Hide Me Among the Graves as a vampire novel much in the same way that Crocodile Dundee told those would-be muggers “That’s not a knife…THIS is a knife.”
If there was a dictionary entry for “Magical Realism” it would have a picture of Tim Powers (and he’d be haloed with hand drawn stars and consummate V’s to indicate majesty and stuff).
If you’re not familiar with Tim Power’s modus operandi, he loves to take historical characters and events (in this case, English Pre-Raphaelite artists and poets) and re-imagine their lives, motives, and actions as if magic was, er, real.
For example, in Hide Me Among the Graves, John Polidori, author of the 1819 short story “The Vampyre,” is in fact a vampire with a claim on the talented Rossetti family (artists and poets of the Pre-Raphaelite movement). Throw in a pitch perfect revision of the scoundrel adventurer Edward John Trelawny as a cantankerous old monster-hunter, and the rebellious ancient Queen Boadicea, and you’ve got a sprawling, well-researched novel that subverts real history in delightful ways.
Fair warning: skip it if you get bored by anything that’s not an easy read full of splatter and shock and explosions.
But if you want something you can really sink your teeth into, Hide Me Among the Graves is an intelligent, frightening, historical, literary, and deliciously dark novel. It’s all the best of Victorian Gothic horror with all the best of modern literary dark fantasy.
I was eager to get my hands on editor Ross E. Lockhart’s newest anthology, Tales of Jack the Ripper, and I was not disappointed when I did.
There is a definite “weird tale” edge to many of the stories (and poems) in the anthology, which in this reader’s opinion is a GREAT thing. It might even be expected from Lockhart, who also brought you The Book of Cthulhu and its follow-up, The Book of Cthulhu 2. This doesn’t mean you can pigeonhole Tales of Jack the Ripper.
When I cyberstalked Ross Lockhart, he had this to say (before slapping a restraining order on me): “With Tales of Jack the Ripper, I’m not only paying tribute to the 125-year tradition of Ripper literature, I’m also showcasing authors who bring a unique sense of voice and place to their craft. And who offer something new to the Ripper legend.”
You needn’t worry about reheated or threadbare Ripper tropes. Each writer took a fresh look at Saucy Jacky for the anniversary of the terror and fascination he wrought in London in 1888.
Though numinous dread is a thread throughout, there are plenty of “straight (razor)” thriller tales in shades of gothic or gritty noir, and don’t forget transgressive tales of psychopathery (my new word, you’re welcome). There were few spots where I felt certain authors fell into too much telling and bald exposition, but the good in this collection far outshines any such fumbles.
I had my particular favorites, and I know you will too. “Abandon All Flesh,” by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, stands out with its knife-sharp writing voice, accentuated by a deft twining of Aztec symbolism with Ripper legend to deliver a masterful story.
In “Jack’s Little Friend,” Ramsey Campbell crafted a dizzying psychological downward spiral and showed us all how creepy second-person POV should be done.
Shock Totem’s very own Mercedes M. Yardley actually gave me toes-to-top chills with “A Pretty for Polly.” I won’t tell you any more about her haunting story, read it yerself.
In fact, you need to get up off your lazy duff and buy this collection. Pick your favorite story and come back to argue with me via the “comment” feature below. Go on, I’ll wait here while you click over to the publisher or Amazon and press BUY.