Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Books in 2008, #4

#4. Isaac Asimov's Halloween edited by Gardner Dozois and Sheila Williams

Okay, the funny thing about this book is that I started to read it early on in October 2007, hoping to publish a review before the titular holiday arrived. Then, uh, I got busy. Doing something. I think writing shtuff. Oh well, I finally finished up the remaining stories so here's what I thought of them a few months later…

This rather misleading anthology of "tricks and treats" opens with "Words and Music" by William Sanders, a story of the ever-so-old battle between man and the Devil. A flat-toned Cherokee Indian medicine man attends a church gathering on the premise that there's evil afoot. Luckily, he brought his magical guitar with him. Not too long after midnight, a band shows up, and the music they play puts almost everyone under a dangerous spell. It's up to our medicine man to put the Devil in his place via a battle of guitar solos. While the story has its charm and authenticity, I couldn't help but grimace as the guitar solos got more and more dramatic. I liked a lot of the language and characters here, but the plot was a bit too much for me to enjoy…and I play guitar. Oi.

I guess Halloween is all about the Devil doin' y'all wrong. In "Beluthahatchie" by Andy Duncan, a man named John is riding a train to Hell, but refuses to get off at the penultimate stop. Instead, he keeps going until he finds himself in the barren town of Beluthahatchie. He first meets the hounds of Hell, which are hilariously non-Hellish, and then along comes…dum, dum, dum…the Devil. There's no real battle here, but John eventually decides he'd like to be some place else despite his songs being praised by the dead. So he plans to steal the Devil's ride.

Though "Renaissance" by Nancy Kress was published almost ten years before the under-acclaimed Gattaca ever saw SF light, I couldn't help but think of them as one in the same. A few key points differ, but it basically boils down to this: the ability to play God and genetically alter babies before they are born. A famous Hollywood couple decide to do just this while also using it as a publicity stunt to further their popularity. The baby's grandmother watches all this, horrified and ashamed, knowing full well the consequences of her daughter's dreams the moment she sees the child's perfectly programmed face. This was all right even though it relied a little too heavily on a surprise ending. However, I did enjoy the mythological griffin that appears in the grandmother's daughter's dreams.

"Dikduk" by Eliot Fintushel is about a young, Jewish boy who tries to invoke the power of Mephistopheles using an ancient, magical book he recently found. This one didn't hold my attention for too long, though the dialogue worked well enough, but I quickly discovered that there'd been an error in the story's printing. It was incomplete. The remaining half of the piece is available online, but I didn't care enough to finish it. Oh wells…

"Pickman's Modem" by Lawrence Watt-Evans is an interesting short story for all the things that it gets right about online transmissions. In it, a man named Pickman disappears for some time from the message board field only to return later on thanks to a newly purchased used modem. George Polushkin, a fan of reading Pickman's oafish retorts, quickly notice that his posts—and writing skills—have changed dramatically. Fearing that Pickman is merely a hacked account, George takes a trip to visit his friend the next day where he discovers that his still oafish-minded friend is not responsible for the online flamewars. This was a quick, wry, and fun story, despite its dark twist being ruined in the introduction from the mere mention of one word: Eldritch. If you have no idea what that's all about, you'll probably enjoy "Pickman's Modem" on the first go.

"Thorri the Poet's Saga" by S. N. Dyer & Lucy Kemnitzer is a murder-mystery set in old Iceland times. The piece is heavy on names, bloated on poetic clues, and slower than the sea on a calm day. The crime-solving duo were nearly interchangeable to me despite one having clairvoyance and the other having lots of attitude, and I think I can really just chalk this one up to being the sort of story I greatly dislike.

The only part of "He-We-Await" by Howard Waldrop that I actually enjoyed reading was the time devoted to the correct process of embalming. The rest of the novelette focuses on an ancient Egyptian king and his legacy, which was lost to the passing of time. Eh, this felt more like alternative history, and that's just never something I got into. The writing is good, even with the occasional wacky moments, but much like the previous story this just isn't the sort of thing that interests me. Others might find it more rewarding.

"The Shunned Trailer" by Esther M. Friesner is hilariously awesome. Friesner never seems to disappoint me. In this one, a Harvard lad partying it up on Spring Break wakes up after a crazy night to discover himself in a trailer park, cared for by frog-like people that worship the Great Cthuhlu. Sure, the premise is very out there, but Friesner manages to keep things interesting because she 1) writes strong prose and 2) seems to effortlessly channel Lovecraft here. What do Elder Gods and the such have to do with Halloween? Not much, but they make for well-imagined stories.

In "The Country Doctor" by Steven Utley, a man returns to his childhood town of Gardner when he learns the place is on the verge of flooding. Once there, he learns the secrets of dead residents. And one exhumed body reveals something more horrific than just losing a graveyard's worth of history. Utley gives us a slow story that is all about building memories and crushing those warm, remember-when feelings at the end. A very quiet piece, but I enjoyed it. I'd say more, but it might ruin the reveal, which I found to be fascinating and creepy.

The last story in Isaac Asimov's Halloween, "The Golden Keeper" by Ian R. MacLeod, is also the longest. In fact, it might just be a bit too long. We are in Ancient Rome with Lucius Fabius Maximus, an accountant that is on the search for lost artifacts. The story unfolds as journal entries, which never really make me want to fall face-first into the words, but it gets interesting once Lucius and a slave of his begin interacting. Otherwise the novelette is a whole lot of history and memories of Grandmother and times when things were much simpler. The piece goes on like this for some time before reaching an actually satisfying conclusion. So, the payoff is worth the read, but I'm worried many might be daunted at the slow—and I mean slow—start. Still, MacLeod writes very well and the bits pertaining to d├ęcor and what people ate back then kept my intrigue.

There you have it. Not the greatest gathering of stories, and certainly not even horror stories. Most were merely atmospheric in tone or place, but leaned more strongly towards fantasy than anything else. The only real reason I'd pass this one along is if someone like humorous tales about Lovecraftian mythos.

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