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Monthly Archives: September 2017

“Gwendy’s Button Box” by Stephen King and Richard Chizmar

Fans of Stephen King rejoiced to hear that he would be returning to his iconic setting of Castle Rock in Gwendy’s Button Box, a novella co-written with Richard Chizmar. Gwendy Peterson is given a box by a mysterious stranger. The box has a row of buttons and two levers. One lever dispenses coins; the other dispenses candies. The buttons do something else entirely.

Stephen King’s books have always been just as much about the human characters as they are about the supernatural goings-on, and Gwendy’s Button Box is no different. Gwendy has to deal with all the normal troubles of growing up: bullies, changing relationships with her friends, romance, and deciding what she wants to do with her life. The enigmatic box colors and perhaps influences some of these events, but the focus of the story always remains on Gwendy herself.

Many of King’s stories contain references to others, giving the sense that they’re all taking place in one interconnected universe. Castle Rock itself is of course a feature of King’s earlier work, and there are a couple of mentions of familiar names in this novella. However, King avoids having Button Box become too weighted down with Castle Rock’s rich past. The story lives in the present, maintaining a sense of immediacy that keeps the Constant Reader turning pages.

–spoilers ahead—

My one gripe with this story has to do with the box’s motivations. (Look, it’s a Stephen King book; talking about a box’s characterization is totally legitimate.) During the climactic struggle with Frankie, Gwendy notes that the normally light box suddenly becomes heavy enough to be used as a bludgeoning weapon, and suggests that this is because the box “wanted to be heavy.” But this is inconsistent with the ending of the story, which seems to imply that the box is a force for good. (And some people have pointed out that Richard Farris dresses in black and has the same initials as the Man in Black, a.k.a. Randall Flagg. Which implies that the box might not be a force for good. What I mean to say is, the narrative is giving mixed messages about the purpose and alignment of the box.)

“Of Sand and Malice Made” by Bradley P. Beaulieu

I’ve fallen in love with Bradley P. Beaulieu’s Song of the Shattered Sands series and was happy to find out that he’s written a couple of novellas set in the same world. Of Sand and Malice Made indirectly expands on one of the story threads from the main series: Ramahd’s involuntary entanglement with the ehrekh Guldrathen. Here, a younger Ҫeda attracts the attention of Rumayesh, another ehrekh, and must extricate herself from the mortal peril this entails.

In Twelve Kings in Sharakhai, we learn that there are four nations surrounding the Great Shangazi. We learn a bit about Qaimir through Ramahd and Meryam’s storyline, a bit about Mirea through Juvaan, and a character who plays an important role in Emre’s past is Malasani. But we hear very little about Kundhun. Sand and Malice gives us a window into that enigmatic country and enlarges the Shattered Sands universe.

The novella also introduces the reader to new forms of magic and to new life-forms that inhabit the Great Shangazi. In addition to further expanding the setting presented by the main series, this portrays the world as a place where even known territories can hide wondrous (or terrifying) mysteries.

As Ҫeda seeks to free herself from Rumayesh’s clutches, she learns more about the mysterious ehrekhs. While Sand and Malice can be read independently of the main series, I can’t help thinking that some of what she learns here will be vital in the later books. It’s definitely whetted my appetite for the next Shattered Sands novel, and I’m also looking forward to seeing what other tidbits about Ҫeda’s world will be revealed in the two further novellas that are forthcoming from Beaulieu.

“Medusa’s Web” by Tim Powers

I first became aware of Tim Powers through his collaborations with James P. Blaylock in the latter’s collection Thirteen Phantasms (reviewed here: https://ninashepardson.wordpress.com/2017/01/09/thirteen-phantasms-and-other-stories-by-james-blaylock/). He gained some wider notice when Disney adapted his novel On Stranger Tides for the Pirates of the Caribbean film of the same name. To me, Powers was a fantasy author, so Medusa’s Web was a bit different from what I was expecting when I picked it up.

Medusa’s Web tells the story of a brother and sister who return to their aunt’s decaying Hollywood manor after her suicide. There, they discover a secret network of people who use mysterious two-dimensional creatures known colloquially as “spiders” to send their minds backward or forward in time. This discovery is connected to an incident the siblings experienced as children, which left psychological scars on both of them.

Like the best science fiction stories, this book pairs an inventive premise with a compelling portrayal of human relationships. At first, Scott and Madeline get the cold shoulder from their hosts. That changes over the course of the book, but so does the affinity between Scott and Madeline, particularly as Madeline’s obsession with their shared childhood experience deepens. Powers does a great job of giving the reader both a story with a great “wow!” factor and characters they can care about.

While science fiction is usually focused on the future, some remarkable sci-fi tales have been written that are also love letters to the past. Catherynne M. Valente’s Radiance, for example, recalls so-called “golden age” sci-fi. Tim Powers does something similar here, weaving notable figures of the silent film era into the story he’s telling. While it might seem paradoxical, this focus on the past adds another layer of depth to the book.  All in all, this is an intriguing book and well worth reading.

“The Fisherman” by John Langan

John Langan’s novel The Fisherman is what you’d get if the award-winning memoir H is for Hawk had been written by H.P. Lovecraft. The first part of the book is a moving account of how a hobby (in this case, fishing) helps Abe to recover emotionally from the death of his wife. Something about sitting on a riverbank in the early hours of the morning, casting his line, soothes his grief. When a coworker suffers a similarly devastating loss, Abe invites him on a fishing trip, hoping it will have the same salutary effect on him. It does help, and the two men develop a friendship.

And then everything goes sideways.

One thing I’ve always admired about Stephen King’s novels is that they’re just as much about small-town life, interpersonal relationships, and the secrets people keep as they are about whatever supernatural being is menacing the characters. The Fisherman has a similar strength: it’s just as much about friendship, grieving, and the restorative power of a beloved pastime as it is about the malign power that dwells at Dutchman’s Creek. Abe, his friend Dan, and the man who faced the menace of Dutchman’s Creek before them are fully-realized characters. Similarly, the location of the creek is vividly described, making it feel like a place that you could stumble across while driving around upstate New York.

This is not to say that the supernatural elements of the story aren’t excellent, because they are. The Deep One-ish creatures that live in and around the creek are delightfully creepy. Langan does a good job of creating an ever-building sense of wrongness as the character get closer to the center of the mystery. And that center, when reached, turns out to truly deserve the name “cosmic horror.” (There’s also a bit of an Easter egg for readers of Langan’s short fiction, which makes the novel feel like part of a larger setting.)

The only real flaw here is an imbalance between the present-day and “flashback” sections of the book. Abe and Dan aren’t the first to encounter the ominous Dutchman’s Creek, and a large part of the novel tells us the story of the man who was. That nested tale was engrossing, but the final section, which returns to the present day and gives us the climax and denouement of Abe and Dan’s story, felt like it rushed by too quickly.

The Fisherman won the Bram Stoker Award for Best Novel, and the accolade is richly deserved. I was already looking forward to Langan’s upcoming story collection, Sefira and Other Betrayals, but this made me even more eager to read it.