Book Review: The Compleat Traveller in Black by John Brunner

The Compleat Traveller in Black by [Brunner, John]

Hi everyone,

Eric here, and before I get into my review, I need to share a little update.

When I first started this website earlier in the year, I’d stated that my goal was to upload a new story (or chapter) every three weeks, and I’ve been mostly able to keep up with that schedule…but now things are different.

It’s been two weeks since I uploaded Chapter Three of ‘FROM THE SHADOWS,’ and to be honest, I’m going to need more time to finish Chapter Four. The only way I could get it up by next week would be to rush it and upload something far below my standards (and something you, the reader, probably wouldn’t even enjoy).

So how much more time do I need? Right now, I’m thinking it’ll be sometime in late September. Ideally, I’ll be back to the new-installment-every-three-weeks routine after that. We’ll see.

Anyway, I hope I haven’t let any of you down. I really appreciate you all taking the time to check out my work, and I look forward to being able to share more stories with you later on.

BUT…enough about me. Let’s talk about The Compleat Traveller in Black.

Recommended by James Stoddrd, my favorite living author, John Brunner’s The Compleat Traveller in Black is a Fantasy short-story collection. In broad terms, these five tales are about the adventures of the title character: an enigmatic little man who wears a black cloak and wields a staff made of light, a man who is tasked by an even more enigmatic master to travel the world and battle against the forces of magic and chaos, all in order to usher in an era of stability and reason.

How does he go about accomplishing this? Well, even though he fights against it, our hero wields powerful magic himself…but it comes with a catch: most of his power is restricted, unable to be used except when granting the wishes of others, and his nature requires him to grant almost any he overhears, even if it ends up setting his mission back…or making the wisher worse off than before.

For the most part, I enjoyed this book. It has a lot of plusses in its favor.

For one, I appreciated the recurring morals. While the most obvious one would be that old adage of ‘be careful what you wish for,’ there was another one that really spoke to me. Several of the stories deal with the folly of humans and the gods they worship. One even features a city whose population arbitrarily decides to worship a new visitor as a god. While moments like this could be interpreted as a swipe at religion, to me it came across as more of a warning against mindless devotion. Thanks to sites like Twitter and Facebook (both sites that I love, mind you), it’s easier than ever to follow someone (author, actor, politician, professor, whatever), to uncritically hang onto their every word, making this warning more relevant than ever.

Another thing that made this book really fun was its vocabulary. If you love learning new words, this tome is a must-have. Brunner has no reservations on using obscure or even archaic terms. Thanks to him, I’ve discovered (and fallen in love with) gems like cantrips, baldric, and glabrous.

Of course, the main selling point of the book is the stories themselves, and, largely, they did not disappoint. My favorite moment in the book is probably somewhere in the middle, where we’re treated to a surprising-but-fitting twist where someone makes a wish not for any personal gain but to intentionally help the Traveller. I really loved seeing the Traveller’s reaction to this unexpected (even to him) development.

Despite the book falling into the ‘Sword and Sorcery’ vain, the last three stories are very restrained in violence, managing that neat trick of providing just enough detail for you to put together an image in your head.

That sadly, brings me to one of the book’s major flaws. While the last three stories were retrained when it came to violence, the first one was definitely not. While I’m not against this sort of thing, the way it’s used in this debut tale just doesn’t fit with that story’s other scenes, both clashing with and detracting from them.

As for the second story, it has a weird, uncomfortable fixation on brother-sister incest, with not one, not two, but three villains who either engage in it or try to (thankfully, no case is depicted graphically). I’m wondering if Brunner had read or seen some disturbing news story about the subject at the time and wanted to vent his revulsion into the tale. While I can certainly understand this revulsion, it just made for an awkward read.

Overall, I’d still recommend it, but if you have a weak stomach, skip to the third story.

You can buy the book here (US) or here (UK).

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Book Review: Deadman’s Tome – Monsters Exist

Hi there everyone.

Due to some technical difficulties, the upload schedule for chapter three of From The Shadows has been set back by a week, meaning that instead of being finished and uploaded on the 17th, it’ll be uploaded on the 24th instead (God willing).

While I won’t be able to access my computer for long periods of time this week, I thankfully found enough time to do this little review. I hope you all enjoy it, and I hope you consider giving this ‘tome’ a look.

What would make a serial killer stop dead in his tracks, terrified? What could drive a man to serve the entities that slaughtered his mother when he was a child? What kind of story could you possibly expect to get from the synopsis, “Willy Wonka meets Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son“?

The answers to these and other questions await you in the horror anthology, Deadman’s Tome: Monsters Exist.

I heard of Monsters Exist through one of its authors, S.E. Casey (writer of the aforementioned Willy Wonka meets Saturn story) after the two of us had bonded over our mutual appreciation of the Jon Padgett horror collection, The Secret of Ventriloquism, and I decided to go ahead and check it out.

As the title suggests, each of the book’s 14 stories centers around a different, very memorable monster.

How memorable are these creatures? Well, in one tale, we get a relentless carnivore who, once it’s had a taste of your blood, will not be satisfied until it devours you–no matter how much time passes or how many barriers stand in its way. In another, there’s a local boogeyman, an intelligent beast who won’t just kill you but try to do so in a way that pins your death on your closest friend. In yet another, we’re treated to a variation of Sasquatch that–instead of tearing you limb from limb and killing you outright–opts to go the route of Lucifer from Paradise Lost and The Joker from The Dark Knight, tempting you to bring your doom upon yourself.

As you’d probably expect from a book about monsters, there’s a lot of disturbing violence to be found. Sexual references and other harsh language are also present but largely kept to a minimum. See my review of Padgett’s The Secret of Ventriloquism if you want an idea on what kinds of language bother me and what kinds don’t.

While this had no impact on the rating I gave this book on Goodreads (4 stars), I wish the editors had changed the order of the stories. ‘Mr. Deadman’ opens the book with a delightfully morbid introduction that channels not just Rod Serling but also Alfred Hitchcock. Besides the intro, Deadman also contributes a story (Lake Monster), and if that story had been the final one in the anthology, Deadman’s ‘About the Author’ section at the end of the tale would have provided the perfect bookend for his already excellent introduction. As it is, it’s in the middle, so the opportunity is missed. I understand that the stories are listed by the authors’ surnames, but for the sake of that bookend, I wish Deadman had broken that rule for his own contribution.

All in all, Monsters Exist is an imaginative, excellent and affordable read for anyone with a taste for the unsettling. You can find it on Amazon’s Kindle store here (US) or here (UK).

Book Review: The Wobbit by Paul A. Erickson

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Most of the stuff I’ve uploaded here has been either horror or talking about horror, so I thought I’d change things up a bit with this next post.

The following review was originally posted on Goodreads about two years ago. While a lot can change in just two years, my high opinion of this book has stayed the same.

Keep in mind that this is not a review of Harvard Lampoon’s Hobbit spoof of the same name. To date, I haven’t read that one. It might be just as excellent, but if you want the book I’m about to talk about, make sure you get the Paul Erickson book instead.

Tolkien was no Stephen King; the novels published in his lifetime never exceeded single digits. Sooner or later, most Tolkien fans find themselves in the midst of this particular crisis: what do you do once you’ve finished reading his books but are still craving more? How do you revisit his magnificent worlds while keeping things fresh and interesting?

You might try reading one of the derivative knock-offs that came out in the ’70s or ’80s, or you might dig into The History of Middle Earth and read the early (and sometimes vastly different) drafts of Tolkien’s stories…or you might opt to revisit Tolkien’s work in the form of parody.

That brings me to The Wobbit by Mr. Paul A. Erickson. This book not only let me revisit one of the crowning achievements of fantasy literature but had me laughing out loud all the way through.

The basic plot is, as expected, the same, but the specifics have been twisted; I’m even tempted to call the end result wonderfully deranged.

Timid yet heroic Bilbo Baggins has been replaced by the sarcastic and ruthlessly pragmatic Bulbo Bunkins. Thorin Oakenshield, the grim “King Under the Mountain,” has become Borin Oakmanfield, an incompetent CEO with a penchant for holding business meetings at the worst possible times. Together, they, along with a band of Dwarves and a cowardly and publicity-obsessed wizard, set off on a dangerous journey to the “Only Mountain” to kill an evil dragon and recover Borin’s fortune.

It’s not just the leads who have changed either. Nobody from the original is safe in Erickson’s hands. Beorn becomes (the Incredible) Bjork, a jolly green giant whom you wouldn’t like once he gets angry (although our heroes learn that he’s just as dangerous if he becomes overjoyed). The trolls Tom, Bert and William become Joe, Harry and Shirley, three fellows (you might call them “stooges”) with a tendency for in-fighting and hair-pulling and whose injuries produce the most improbable sound effects. The vicious wolf-like Wargs become the Rargs, equally vicious beasts prone to odd exclamations (such as “ro boy!” and “rut ro!”). As for what Erickson does to Gollum, I don’t want to spoil anything; all I’ll say is that author is clearly familiar with Looney Tunes.

What’s perhaps most remarkable about all this is that it not only mimics the original’s plot-line but does a good job in mimicking Tolkien’s writing style. Take a look at this excerpt:

In a wholly below-ground apartment there lived a wobbit. His apartment was not as nasty, dirty and wet as a hole, but it wasn’t as fresh, bright and fun as a beach house. It was definitely at the “nasty” end of the home spectrum. Plants can cheer a place up, but the wobbit’s apartment only had the mold in the walls and mildew in the bathtub. It was a basement apartment, and that means fungus.

And this one:

Somehow his killing of the giant spider, without first begging for mercy or betraying his friends, made a great difference to Mr. Bunkins. He felt much fiercer and bolder in spite of his constant longing for a quiche Lorraine and a hazelnut latte.

Or how about this bit from when Bulbo uses a variation of Bilbo’s “Attercop” song to get more of the giant spiders to chase him:

Old Tomnoddy Sitting in a tree
Old Tomnoddy can’t catch me!
At-er-cop!
At-er-cop!
Hey you spiders follow me!

Not very good, perhaps, and mostly stolen from goblins, but Bulbo was in a bit of a rush. And it worked. The spiders follwed him, partly out of anger, and partly to ask Bulbo what “Tomnoddy” and “Attercop” meant.

So, if you love Tolkien or if you love gut-busting comedy, you really have no excuse, check it out.

What’s that? You say that Tolkien spoofs have a reputation for being, shall we say, “vulgar?” Well, fret not; other than one line of prose and the names of two of the dwarves, The Wobbit proves to be the exception to this rule, so if adult humor makes you uncomfortable, guess what? You still don’t have an excuse!

As for me, I’ll definitely be checking out Erickson’s other spoofs. I don’t know if they’ll live up to the bar he set here, but given how much I enjoyed this one, I’ll take that chance. In a sad bit of coming full circle though, I might end up in the same crisis I started with: what will I read once I’ve run out of Erickson books?

Pick up your copy here (US) or here (UK)

Book Review: The Secret of Ventriloquism by Jon Padgett

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A train that hasn’t run for 40 years is suddenly on the tracks again, with a sinister new conductor. A foul-mouthed police officer tries to solve the mystery behind inhuman, skeletal corpses that suddenly begin showing up around town. A little boy’s life is threatened by his two older brothers, one of whom died years ago. A lucid dreamer finds his nightmares following him back into the real world.

What kind of book would you think this was based on the above paragraph? If you’re like I was when this showed up in my Amazon recommendations, you’re probably thinking it’s a short story collection, and you’d be right, kind of. After all, that’s exactly how Jon Padgett’s The Secret of Ventriloquism is advertised. The stories can be read in any order you’d like, and each tale can be read on its own.

Ultimately, though, it’s actually not a short story collection; it’s a novel.

That’s right. Even though they don’t sound like they’d fit together, the bizarre, horrifying stories in this book all tie into each other. In the case of two stories, the relationship to the others is merely thematic, but the rest either share characters or reference events and places from one of the other tales, resulting in a larger, overarching narrative.

And what is this larger narrative? Read on.

Just like a ventriloquist manipulates the actions of his or her dummy, a malevolent power manipulates people and events from behind the scenes; they gain more and more control of the world…and lay waste to it. Some characters are separated from loved ones; others find their bodies forced to commit heinous acts; still others are physically twisted into oozing, nauseating mockeries of anatomy. The worst fate, however, awaits the one who dares to seek out this entity, pull back the curtain and divine its secrets.

The book’s pessimistic, bleak outlook is one I personally disagree with (I’m also not sure if Padgett himself even holds these views), but it’s an outlook that–agree with it or not–really makes these stories unforgettable. It’s Cosmic Horror in the truest sense of the term.

The writing style varies with each story, which really says something about Padgett’s skill. Some stories are written in a more-contemporary style, sometimes containing F and S bombs (which, while I try not to say them myself, don’t really bother me) or taking Jesus’s name in vain (which does bother me, but it’s thankfully the least-used of the swears). Others don’t read that differently from long-standing classics in the field.

If you check it out, be warned. I’ll take no responsibility for any sleep lost should you be foolish enough to read it at night. 🙂

If all this has made you curious enough to buy (or at least read an excerpt), here’s the book’s Amazon page and Barnes & Noble page.