Friday, August 17, 2012

Quick Thoughts on Three Ash-Tree Press E-Books (and a Related Title)

I knew it had been a long time since I'd updated, but three months? Ouch. It's not that I haven't been reading stuff I'd like to review. I wish I'd had time to write about several books: George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois' cross-genre anthology Songs of Love and Death (remarkably consistent in its mediocrity, with perhaps two stories actually worth reading), Kim Newman's The Bloody Red Baron (entertaining at first but runs out of energy, and undermines its own theme; the new novella in the Titan Books edition is lightweight but amusing), William Hope Hodgson's Carnacki the Ghost-Finder (a few masterpieces, but over-reliant on certain structures and devices), Caitlin R. Kiernan's The Drowning Girl (a further evolution of her extraordinary talent, with a powerful climax), Terry Dowling's Clowns at Midnight (a baffling novel made up of elements from bad horror films, saved from utter ridiculousness only by Dowling's inherent skill), and R. B. Russell's Bloody Baudelaire (a fascinating exercise in eerie ambiguity, though I'm not sure the ending works). Yes, I wish I could write more than a parenthetical sentence about each.

But I lack free time lately, what I do get I'd rather spend reading than reviewing, and what I do spend reviewing is usually on books I've committed to by accepting a review copy. I still have a few of those pending, including a ridiculously late review of Ellen Datlow's latest annual best-of, and a rather late review of Ennis Drake's 28 Teeth of Rage. But this isn't either of those reviews. I've already written one full review today, for an Amazon Vine title (remember that you can read all my Amazon reviews here), and that will suffice. Instead, here are capsule reviews of some e-books I've read lately.

A big part of the reason I bought a Kindle is the recent commitment of small supernatural fiction publishers like Tartarus Press and Ash-Tree Press to releasing some of their titles in electronic form. Ash-Tree in particular is to be commended for the substantial range of titles it has made available in less than a year, including much highly-regarded work that was out of print and only available at high prices. Buying all six volumes of Ash-Tree's collected H. R. Wakefield in hardcover might cost close to $1,000; the six e-books are available for a mere $41.94. Even for an in-print title, the e-book is still about 1/10 of the total cost of the hardcover. For readers on a budget, or uncertain they like a given author enough to want a classy hardcover, e-books are an invaluable option. I've only bought a few Ash-Tree titles so far, but as soon as I clear my backlog of unread horror fiction, I'll be picking up more. Here, in the meantime, are those reviews.

Steve Duffy, The Night Comes On: A collection of M. R. James pastiches. Generally James pastiche is as miserable an experience as Lovecraft pastiche-- if it isn't quite as groan-inducing, that's only because James' reserved style is less inherently risky than Lovecraft's febrile histrionics. What makes Duffy's work enjoyable is that he has a natural command of the Jamesian narrative voice, so that the sentences flow naturally rather than clunking along. He's especially good at the sort of light social comedy with which James leavened his terrors. The language here is, despite the storytelling mode, slightly more formal and long-winded than in James himself, which can become somewhat tiresome, and only occasionally do the key horrific images match James' best, but fans of the antiquarian ghost story will find themselves better-served by this collection than by almost any they might select. Notable stories include "Off the Tracks," a railway horror story that's one of four newly added to the collection for this electronic edition, and "Running Dogs," which is, despite the lack of traditional antiquarian elements, the collection's finest; Ellen Datlow included it in the horror half of The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror. With story notes by the author.

A. F. Kidd, Summoning Knells and Other Inventions: more Jamesian stories, though these are less direct stylistic homages, and a great many of them have to do with bell-ringing. There are 47 stories here (a third non-Jamesian), and as you might expect they tend not to be very substantial, in the literal or the aesthetic sense of the word. The gradually-constructed sense of terror of which James was a master is not much present here-- the structures are simple-- and the bell-ringing stories in particular, with their specialized vocabulary, tend to blur together in the mind. But as subtle, ghostly horror goes, Kidd is very good: her Jamesian imagery is even better than Duffy's. And there are surprises like "Great Emmanuel," whose terror is surprisingly mythic and awe-inspiring for so short a story. The non-Jamesian pieces add a pleasing variety to the collection (possibly they ought to have been mixed in among the rest) but are not enormously accomplished in and of themselves.

Chet Williamson, Figures in Rain: Not Jamesian. Well, there are one or two stories that owe some debt to James, including "Ex-Library," in which the key image from "Oh, Whistle..." plays an important role. But there are also debts to Lovecraft, to Poe, to Rod Serling... variety is the watchword here, as Joe Lansdale's introduction notes. The stories are arranged chronologically, so things begin a little roughly with competent but uninspired stories like "Offices" and "A Lover's Alibi." Soon, though, come weightier stories like "Prometheus's Ghost," which has a thoroughly creepy spirit, an unexpectedly clever solution to the problem it represents, and a bleak yet moving conclusion. Or "The Music of the Dark Time," in which Williamson manages the difficult task of writing a supernatural story about the Holocaust that doesn't feel manipulative or inappropriate. He's good at varying his style according to the demands of the story, whether it's the refined/uptight Poe-style narrator of the amusing "His Two Wives," the surreal recollections of "The House of Fear," or the journalistic parody of "A Collector of Magic." A few stories don't have much going on or their twists fall flat, but all are well-crafted, and as a whole the collection is a fine overview of a significant talent in contemporary horror. Story notes by the author.

John Whitbourn, Binscombe Tales: The Complete Series: This isn't an Ash-Tree e-book, but the stories included were first collected in two Ash-Tree volumes (which also featured one story and an extensive afterword not available in the e-book) and I just read it, so I'm mentioning it here. These weird stories about a village in southeastern England are appealing, to the extent that they are, not so much for the concepts, which are pretty basic-- a few different parallel words, a few haunted objects, a general Twilight Zone air-- as for the charm of the linking elements, a new resident named Mr. Oakley, a pub called the Argyll, and the enigmatic Mr. Disvan, who is often forced to explain to the confused Oakley the peculiar features of Binscombe life. A few good jokes are mixed in, but as with a traditional sitcom it's not so much a matter of sheer skill as of the pleasures of formula. Not all readers will find these stories worth the effort, but if read slowly, so that the overall sameness becomes a virtue rather than a flaw, they can be fun.

And that's that. I hope it won't be another three months before the next post, but no promises.