Recent entertainments

It’s been a while since I’ve posted. I’ve been working on my YA adaptation of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, a big project with many aspects (such as photo research and aquisition) that will continue to keep me busy for some time. I am thrilled with the editorial support I’ve gotten from Simon & Schuster and am excited about the book that my ms. is becoming.

But woman does not live by work alone. In recent weeks I’ve enjoyed entertainments on page, stage, and screen. Here are a couple of highlights:

The Devil’s Detective, a novel by Simon Kurt Unsworth. I believe I was tipped to it by a post on the Lovecraft eZine Facebook page. It is dark (very), beautifully written, and deeply disturbing. I’m looking forward to the sequel, which I believe comes out this fall.

Peter and the Starcatcher, a hilarious, bawdy play that unfolds Peter Pan’s origin story. It’s based on a book by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, but I didn’t know that until I saw the play. Lots of laughs and well worth seeing, if you get a chance.

Green Room. Damn, what a movie. Unrelentingly violent, but compelling and very well acted. Patrick Stewart as the patriarch of a bunch of skinheads in the woods of southern Oregon will put Captain Picard waaaay out of mind. Imogen Poots inhabits her role with terrifying completeness. But Anton Yelchin, who died a few days ago in a tragic accident, gives the standout performance. The film stayed in my mind to such an extent that I had to watch the Goosebumps movie the next day to derail it. But I will see it again (Green Room, that is) one of these days.

Stephen King’s Return to Cosmic Horror

A couple of days ago I finished Revival, Stephen King’s latest. (“Latest” as of this writing. By the time I finish this post and put it up, it may have been supplanted.) I enjoyed it a lot. It was leaner and less over-stuffed than many of his novels–even many I like–and it marked a return to his roots in horror. Not chase-you-with-an-ax stuff but cosmic horror in the Lovecraftian vein. Indeed, Lovecraft’s work, along with Machen’s The Great God Pan, gets a shout-out from King when he lists his influences, and HPL, the Lovecrafty Ludwig Prinn, and other notable names in the pedigree of this particular vein of doors-not-meant-to-be-opened horror get name-checked or obliquely referenced toward the end of the novel. Revival‘s got that authentic 60s Maine flavor that King does so well, although it ends in 2014; it’s got a character-driven story and a narrator you cannot help but like and trust; and it sticks the knife deep into religion and twists it, which is something I always appreciate. In its tone and its air of dark weirdness it reminded me of another favorite, From a Buick 8. Nicely done.

What I’m reading: The Supernatural Enhancements

I hadn’t heard of Edgar Cantero’s The Supernatural Enhancements, which was released last August. I picked it up from the “New Releases” shelf at the library because the title and the Goreyesque cover art drew my eye. I was hooked when I read this back-jacket copy: “Cantero pays homage to Bram Stoker and H.P. Lovecraft and The Shining, but he’s no less enamored of The X-Files, fax machines [the novel is set in 1995], and punk girls with dreads.”

At 50 pages in (out of 353), I’m enjoying it but wondering if it will sustain my interest. On one level it looks like a modern variant of the haunted-house story; the title is from Edith Wharton’s phrase “a house with supernatural enhancements.” On another it’s a formal exercise: a clever–perhaps too clever?–mishmash of letters, diary entries, transcripts of security-camera footage, and so on. That mixed-media, semi-epistolary structure and the eerie-house setting recall Mark Z. Danielewski’s 2000 novel House of Leaves, which I loved, so I am going to keep on with this one, despite already being a bit tired of one of the two main characters. (The other one is growing on me, so they balance out.) And I’ve gotta say that, post-Shining, if you put a hedge maze next to a huge spooky building, something damned original better happen in that hedge maze. I’ll let you know.

 

 

 

Rereading an early sf favorite

The late, great S.J. Perelman wrote a series of marvelous essays under the rubric “Cloudland Revisited,” in which he reread books or rescreened movies he’d loved as a child or young man. His reactions to revisiting these cherished icons often surprised him. You can do no better than to look up a few of these pieces–I’m especially fond of “It Takes Two to Tango, But Only One to Squirm,” which recounts the experience of watching The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse after many years.

Just last week, courtesy of Interlibrary Loan, I revisited a puffy little cloud of my own.

After discovering sf in the 5th grade I tore through every science-fiction book in my school library. One was The Star Seekers, by Milton Lesser (the sf pen name of Stephen Marlowe, who wrote mysteries). I may have read it twice, because a few scenes remained vivid. It was my first exposure to the gen-ship premise: the story of a young man who sets out to explore his world, only to learn that his world is not what he thinks it is.

star-seekers-title

So I picked up the book at my branch library, poured myself a foaming flagon of Diet Mountain Dew, and set out to tread once more the path followed by young Mikal, the hero. Turns out I had remembered the Hero’s Journey pretty accurately but forgotten a lot of tedious stuff, such as the author’s frequent scorn-heaping on candy, soda, and TV. (He didn’t say anything about Diet Dew.) Nor had I realized as a kid that the “science” part of this particular science fiction novel is pretty shaky.

The Star Seekers didn’t hold up as well as other early favorites that I still love, including Jack Vance’s Vandals of the Void and Dan Wickenden’s The Amazing Vacation. Still, it was fun to read it again, and thanks to Interlibrary Loan I didn’t have to pony up $75 to buy it online.

Jack Vance: Big Books

The first Jack Vance I read was his juvenile novel Vandals of the Void, published in 1953 by Winston. I encountered it–some years later–in the library of a school in rural Indiana. I was in the fifth grade, I’d just discovered science fiction, and I was plowing through everything the library had.

Authors’  identities did not yet mean anything to me, so I didn’t associate the name “Jack Vance” with the story I reread several times and remembered long afterward for certain vivid scenes and images: a perilous descent into a lunar crevasse, a mysterious glowing-eyed villain.

I don’t recall just when I realized that the Jack Vance whose work I’d come to seek out, the author of The Dying Earth and “The Last Castle” and “The Dragon Masters,” was also the author of that long-ago story. I do remember that once, not long out of grad school, I wanted to buy a copy of Vandals of the Void and discovered that they were hard to get and too expensive for me. (Just now I saw that the first edition is selling for $200+ online.) So I ordered it from the long-suffering, ever-helpful Interlibrary Loan Department of the Philadelphia Free Library (thanks, Ben Franklin!) and illegally photocopied it. I reread those pages every so often over the years; I have them in a file folder in my office now.

Also in my office are all the various editions of Vance’s works I’ve accumulated over the years. They have survived even the most drastic of the bookshelf purges. Among them are eight battered, fragile issues of F&SF from the early 1970s, when the magazine serialized several Vance novels.

And now two additions to the shelves.

This week I received one-third of the Complete Jack Vance, now being published in six hardcover volumes by Afton House Books. This is a compact version of the famous VIE edition of a few years ago, about which I unaccountably failed to hear at the time. My newly acquired books are too large and heavy to read in bed, lest a broken nose result from an inadvertent dropping-off, but they are sturdy and handsome and meant to last a while. What glee I feel as I contemplate all those pages of wit, style, color, and elegant ferocity.

The VIE editors tried to restore Vance’s texts to something close to the author’s originals or intentions. Big Planet, for example, now contains some passages deleted as too racy by the editor/publisher. It will be a pleasure to read these much-loved works in texts that are, in many small ways, new. And it will be a treat to read those of Vance’s mysteries that I haven’t yet read.

Of course I won’t be getting rid of any of the old Vance editions. I’ll just have to annex more shelf space.