Apr 17, 2011

Monkey droppings - sci-fi epics, haunted wilderness, and unnerving neighbours

The monkey reviews three books today, to clear his shelf.

The monkey ranks them from least favourite to most.

The monkey likes ranking. And ranks.

Refer to the monkey as Commodore Monkey from now on.

Hellhole (Tor, 2011)Hellhole, by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson
by Brian Herbert & Kevin J. Anderson

Pretty much all you need to know about Hellhole can be summed up in its cliffhanging final sentence: “With this war, we will make his planet a true hellhole.”

Translation: this ain’t a subtle work. I cannot say from personal knowledge how Brian Herbert’s continuation of father Frank’s Dune series ranks as compared to the originals, but from what I’ve read in Hellhole I’d say, “Not good.”

That’s too damning, however. Judged on its own performance, Hellhole is a fun space opera; hardly artful or incisive, but would likely make a good mini-series. Yet comparisons with Frank Herbert’s seminal masterpiece are inevitable, particularly when both books concern planetary politics, alien races, strange religious beliefs, and mad dictators intent on galaxy domination. Dune was almost biblical in its construction, an expansive, encompassing, engrossing piece of world-building that meticulously crafted theological underpinnings to guide its fantastic universe. Hellhole is a blunt instrument, a sledgehammer retelling of the settlement of America, except this time, the settlers make peace with the indigenous peoples rather than slaughtering them wholesale. Dune was fresh; Hellhole is recycled.

But it is fun, in an obvious way. I hadn’t read a sci-fi space epic since Neal Stephenson’s grandiose Anathem, and while this may seem like heresy (it does to me), I found more sheer entertainment in Hellhole’s pages than in Anathem’s ponderousness.

Taking place ten years after a failed rebellion, disgraced leader General Tiber Adolphus has been exiled to the Deep Zone planet of planet Hallholme (read: Hellhole) rather than receiving a death sentence.
  • NOTE: As an aside, can we all agree how lucky for the publisher that the original name of the planet wasn’t Peaspoot, Sheetcrack, or Matherfluck? Dodged a real bullet there.
On Hellhole, Adolphus bides his time, building up settlements and paying out planetary tributes to the power-hungry Diadem Michella Duchenet. But he’s also sowing seeds among the fifty-three other planets in the Deep Zone, altering transport routes and forming alliances. When explorers discover the original inhabitants of Hellhole (long thought dead from an asteroid strike), Aldolphus realizes that there might be a new way to rid his planet of the Diadem’s chokehold.

This is fairly standard sci-fi world-building, filled with broad expositional characters, speechifying, and ridiculous names. I suspect half the fun of writing such operas is the creation of unusual character appellations; a quick referral to the handy glossary reveals Ishop Heer, Encix, Kerris Urvancik, Rendo Theris, and Tel Clovis, among many others. Every character is clear and obvious; bad guys are hissable, good guys are noble. The alien race of Xayans are laughably spiritual and ludicrously naïve.

But again, it’s just fun. I won’t carry Hellhole in my soul as I do Dune, Brian Herbert and his co-writer Kevin J. Anderson are hardly maestros, but I never resented the time I took to read it. Call it a b-movie of a book, one of those films on TBS that you get sucked in to watching despite their obvious flaws. I loves me some Stanley Kubrick and Duncan Jones and Ridley Scott, but sometimes a Roland Emmerich or Michael Bay can be just the thing to wile away an afternoon. Or David Lynch’s adaptation of Dune, come to think of it.


The Silent Land (Doubleday, 2010)
by Graham Joyce

I had never heard of Graham Joyce, but I vaguely recall once perusing his novel Indigo, with an accompanying front-cover rave from Stephen King (a recommendation I can never again trust, thanks to his grossly over-enthusiastic blurbs on the covers of Bentley Little novels—man oh man, The Walking was just terrible). The Silent Land, however, comes with a rapturous blurb by geek god Jonathan Lethem, a writer whose shoes I am not worthy to lick. So in I dive, not knowing what to expect, keeping myself purposely vague on the plot details.

A short while later (the plot just zooms by), I emerge, unscarred but shaken and genuinely spooked. The Silent Land is hardly a genre-buster, but this atmospheric and ghostly little chiller is just the thing for a quiet night alone, with the wind howling outside for added oppression.

Zoe and Jake awaken early one morning during a ski vacation to get on the mountain before the tourists carve up the slopes. Trapped in an avalanche—a mightily effective piece of claustrophobic writing here, as Zoe struggles to right herself under hundreds of pounds of snow—the pair find their way back to the village to discover everyone gone. They wait for people to return, expecting that the town was evacuated as a precaution, but as the days stretch by it becomes apparent that something has gone drastically wrong.

Joyce is not exactly traversing new material here; Zoe and Jake’s predicament is the stuff of the Twilight Zone, two people trapped somehow outside of reality. There are echoes of King’s The Mist and The Langoliers in its construction, as well as the video game Silent Hill, although monumentally less gory. The Silent Land never crosses the road into outright horror, but Joyce can create a hauntingly evocative sense of despair and loneliness like few others.

Joyce is a craftsman, and while the structure may not be unique, the author layers on more than enough style to make the story his own. The Silent Land was recently nominated for the Shirley Jackson award, and it’s easy to understand why; Joyce shares with Jackson her marked economy of words and marvellous dexterity with mood. The Silent Land does not re-invent the wheel; the ultimate ending can be seen a mile away, being a staple of many similar entertainments, and this obviousness contributes to the slightly less-than-enthralling finale. It is a letdown to have the cards revealed, the magicians showing the trick, and having figured it out so easily.

Nevertheless, The Silent Land is a superior spook machine. Joyce has a canny grasp of characters and dialogue which raises the storyline from the merely weird to one that is greatly, enjoyably creepy. Read this one with the lights low, and a cat curled on your lap for company. As Zoe and Jake’s predicament unravels, you may find you’ll need the companionship as you check over your shoulder at every noise.


Sarah Court (ChiZine, 2010)
by Craig Davidson
You really are such magnificently grim bastards. Trashing utopias is how you party.
If Hellhole is entertainment for a lazy afternoon, and The Silent Land is a late evening’s ghost story, then Sarah Court is the book for two a.m., when your brain is tired and decides to play tricks on you. And if Jonathan Lethem’s praise of The Silent Land intrigued me, Sarah Court’s triumvirate of Peter Straub, Chuck Palahniuk, and Clive Barker grabbed me by the throat and demanded some attention, dammit!

Sarah Court, a series of five interweaving stories all set around a neighbourhood near Niagara Falls, is one strange little beastie. Craig Davidson has previously written a book of short stories and a novel, both set in and around the sport of boxing. Yet while boxing does make an appearance here, these tales are far different than I expected; gritty, moving, and often unpredictably eerie and horrific.

Translation: I loved Sarah Court, but I’d never want to live there.

Davidson’s stories are outwardly simple, only revealing layers of complexity when the other stories begin to overlap. There’s a father whose job it is to fish corpses from the river, and a son vainly trying to regain his glory as a stuntman. A doctor disgraced for uncertain reasons. A former boxer who now works as a high-end enforcer of the infamous American Express Black Card. A boy who thinks he’s Dracula. An unwilling powerlifter. A strange woman with a revolving door for foster children.

And through every tale, there are hints of unnamable corruption, usually in the guise of animals or elements of the corporeal body, reminding me of nothing so much as filmmaker David Lynch and his genius at creating unclassifiable dread. Red spider mites teem in a deer’s eyes, “so many as to give the impression it’s weeping blood.” A can of paint has “the hue of diseased organ meat.” Squirrels abound in Sarah Court, somehow playful yet harbingers of some interior evil a la the sinister owls in Lynch’s Twin Peaks. “The owls are not what they seem.” And in several tales there is the presence of a perplexing transparent box holding “a squirming mass the size of a medicine ball.”

While Davidson wreaks some sinister havoc on his characters, there is a grounding in reality that keeps Sarah Court from becoming weird for weird’s sake. There is an outlying supernatural element, but Davidson’s horror is far more the horror of character, of people causing unconscious destruction through their own ill-conceived desires. No resident of Sarah Court gets off unscathed; there are emotional cripplings, physical disfigurements, and mental implosions. There is also good, a desire to rise above the fray, making the climax of each story almost overpowering in each person’s sad realizations of their weaknesses.

Sarah Court is a startling, often brilliant collection, further proof that publisher ChiZine is the go-to publisher for unsurpassable genre literature (even more proof: just began Gemma Files’ A Book of Tongues, and wow wow wow). Mr. Davidson’s neighbourhood has never seen a beautiful day in its life, and I do not want to be a neighbour. However, I will walk its streets from time to time, whistling in the dark to keep the demons at bay. And watching for squirrels.


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