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Monthly Archives: July 2021

“Ordinary Horror” by David Searcy

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In recent years, David Searcy has become known for his essays, with excerpts from his nonfiction book Shame and Wonder being included in The Paris Review and Best American Essays. But he got his start as a novelist, and his debut, Ordinary Horror, was described by Publishers Weekly as “audaciously original.” Variously described as “quiet horror,” “literary horror,” and “psychological horror,” the book follows retired teacher and widower Frank Delabano. Frank’s pride and joy are his rosebushes, so he’s dismayed when he observes signs of gophers digging around them. He sends away for a plant called gopherbane that should get rid of the critters without harming anything else. Imagine his surprise when the supposedly non-flowering gopherbane plants bloom! But that’s not the strangest thing that happens, although Frank is hard-pressed to explain exactly what is strange.

This book is all about atmosphere. Searcy imbues ordinary objects and actions with sinister meaning. Looking out his window at night, Frank finds that the pool of light under a streetlamp makes him uncomfortable because something hidden by the darkness might step into the light, thereby making itself known. He has no particular reason to think anything is lurking in the dark, but if there is, he’d prefer it to remain unseen. On another occasion, he finds that children at a local playground have made a giant saurian footprint. Normally, this would be cute, but because Frank’s field of vision is limited, he can’t be sure that there really is only one footprint. What if he were to find more of them, proof that this one is part of a full set of tracks and decidedly not made by local kids?

Searcy masterfully creates a sense of dislocation. Part of this is due to the reinterpretation of ordinary situations, but there’s more to it than that. Present-tense narration is often maligned when used in long-form works, but here it makes the reader feel caught up in the mystery alongside Delabano. We’re not afforded the comfort of knowing that the story is safely over. Searcy also employs long, complex sentences and paragraphs, which increase the feeling of being swept up in a current. We’re also presented with a number of ambiguous scenes. Is a neighbor’s behavior ominous or merely eccentric? Is the dark shape that just ran around a corner a stray dog or something weirder? All of this adds up to a persistent feeling that everything is just a little off-kilter.

The ambiguity of the story and the poetic writing style won’t be for everyone. While I typically enjoy quiet horror, I found Ordinary Horror a little too obscure at times. But I did appreciate Searcy’s skill and the unique concept behind the plot (if I’m understanding the climax correctly). I think devoted fans of quiet horror will find this a rewarding read.

“Hyperion” by Dan Simmons

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Dan Simmons has written in a variety of genres, from the historical mystery of Drood to the King-esque horror of Summer of Night, but he’s probably best known for his science fiction trilogy The Hyperion Cantos. The first volume of this trilogy, Hyperion, is essentially a futuristic retelling of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. A group of pilgrims seeking out a mysterious creature known as the Shrike arrives at the planet of Hyperion just as a fleet is massing to attack it. To pass the time as they journey to the Shrike’s stronghold, they tell stories of their lives.

I’ve been reading and watching science fiction since I was a child, and this may well be the most creative sci-fi novel I’ve ever read. Some of the stories incorporated into the overarching narrative would be publishable as standalone short stories. The Priest’s Tale, for example, is a masterwork of horror. Yet Simmons doesn’t neglect the need to connect the individual stories into the overarching framework. Indeed, the pilgrims’ stories intersect more and more with each one told. I certainly have nothing against short fiction collections, but Hyperion is a novel, and Simmons really makes it feel like one.

Beyond the structure of the novel, the science fictional concepts are fascinating. The forest of tesla trees that Father Paul Duré has to make his way through is very cool, as is the house whose rooms are each on a different world. On a larger scale, Simmons creates a number of interesting societies and subcultures to populate his setting. I wish we had learned more about the Templars and their treeships, but I enjoyed seeing glimpses of their worlds-spanning nature preserve, and the chase across it was full of tension and action. The Consul’s Tale highlights the tension that exists between the main Hegemony of Man and the colonies that were founded during the chaotic final evacuation of Earth centuries ago, and which have been isolated from the bulk of human society since then.

If I had to make any complaint about Hyperion, it would be that the novel ends on too much of a cliffhanger for my tastes. But I honestly didn’t mind this as much as I did with The Half-Made World because of the sheer excellence of the book as a whole. I wholeheartedly recommend Hyperion to all science fiction fans, and I hope the sequels The Fall of Hyperion and Endymion can meet the very high bar it sets.

“The Book of Dragons” edited by Jonathan Strahan

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From The Hobbit to A Song of Ice and Fire to the iconic TTRPG Dungeons and Dragons, dragons have been a cornerstone of the fantasy genre. In 2020, Jonathan Strahan put together an anthology of stories featuring this grandaddy of all mythical creatures. Enhanced by Rovina Cai’s lovely art, these stories were a joy to read.

Even in such a uniformly excellent collection, some pieces were standouts. I loved Ken Liu’s “A Whisper of Blue.” In this tale, the fire breathed by dragons powers the electrical grid, and so-called dragon whisperers keep the dragons calm and persuade them to provide this resource. The story has a lot to say about our energy economy and the boom-and-bust cycles that can occur when a valuable natural resource is discovered near a small community. K.J. Parker’s “Habitat” presents a unique take on dragons, and like Liu’s story, it’s full of social commentary—in this case, on war. “Lucky’s Dragon,” by Kelly Barnhill, is just plain heartwarming. A precocious young girl unexpectedly manifests a tiny dragon during a school science experiment, and the dragon soon begins to cause problems out of all proportion to its size. I loved Lucky, I loved her eccentric neighbor, and I loved the dragon. Peter S. Beagle, of The Last Unicorn fame, contributes “Except on Saturdays.” While Lucky is a child, the protagonist of this story is middle-aged verging on elderly. But meeting a dragon has a tendency to reignite childish wonder. This is also a heartwarming story in its own way.

In Western folklore, dragons breathe fire. But dragons have an important place in Asian mythology as well, and that mythos associates dragons with water. Brooke Bolander’s “Where the River Turns to Concrete” features a river dragon who ends up in human form. Bolander has created a protagonist you can really root for, and I would be happy to read more stories set in this world. Zen Cho’s “Hikayat Sri Bujang, or, The Tale of the Naga Sage” tells the story of a naga who has left his home in the ocean to seek enlightenment on an isolated mountain. Despite all the main characters being nagas, the complex family relationships will probably feel familiar to many readers. And J.Y. Yang’s “The Exile” puts a science-fictional twist on the water dragon, with a dragon and hir human priest being exiled to a remote planet.

The Book of Dragons is packed full of a wide range of interpretations of the titular creatures, so there’s likely to be something here for everyone. I really loved this book, and it introduced me to a couple of authors whose work I wasn’t familiar with.

“A Man of Shadows” by Jeff Noon

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Arthur C. Clarke Award winner Jeff Noon introduces private investigator John Nyquist in A Man of Shadows. Nyquist lives in a city divided into two halves: Dayzone, with innumerable lamps that keep it permanently lit, and Nocturna, which exists in permanent darkness. When the teenage daughter of a wealthy industrialist runs away, Nyquist is hired to find her without getting official law enforcement involved. But there’s more to this case than meets the eye, and the missing girl’s fate may be intertwined with a series of insoluble murders that have terrorized the city.

In addition to the city’s split between permanent day and never-ending night, it features a myriad of different timescales that the citizens switch between as they move from one place or role to another. This makes for a really fascinating setting. I’ve been reading and watching science fiction since I was a little kid, and I’m always impressed when an author manages to create a world that doesn’t feel like anything I’ve seen before.

I liked the central mystery of the story as well. It soon becomes clear that Eleanor isn’t an ordinary teenager, and that while saving one girl would certainly be a noble goal for Nyquist, the stakes are even higher than that. Noon has been described as a writer of weird fiction, and A man of Shadows fits under that umbrella. The divided city and fractured timelines are treated as normal by the characters, but other elements of the story appear to be outside their understanding. Places and beings that seem to be genuinely supernatural intrude into a setting that’s otherwise more science fictional than fantastical.

Unfortunately, despite these strengths, I found it a struggle to get through the book because I had a lot of difficulty connecting to the main character. I don’t have any objections to the archetype of the hard-boiled noir detective, but I just couldn’t get interested in Nyquist. While this was a major impediment to enjoying the book, I can appreciate Jeff Noon’s skills as a writer and would be interested in checking out his stories that focus on a different character.