Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Trail of the Cloven Hoof by Arlton Eadie

The Dancing Tuatara Press imprint of Ramble House has once again rescued a lost thriller from obscurity. Kudos go to John Pelan who located the complete book length adventure which had been serialized in Weird Tales during the 1930's. Although the editor of that magazine had chopped the original novel into bits for inclusion as a serial, Pelan discovered the complete adventure had been published in book form. His hard work has resulted in the first reissue of the 1935 novel.
In the introduction, John Pelan describes how the original serial version of Cloven didn't seem up to Eadie's usual high standards. Although I haven't read the serial version, I do think I understand why Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright might've cut the original down to size: it tends to run on too long in some sections. After the fourth or fifth description of the isolated moors of England, you want to move onto an new passage. And there is also an annoying tendency of the author to phonetically render the local dialect. Not to mention his snobby descriptions of the lower classes.
The novel starts with Hugh Trenchard, late of medical school, on a walking tour of England. He finds himself in an isolated village where one Silas Marle is battling the "Terror of the Moor", a half-human, half-stag creature. Hugh is later joined by his old school mate Ronnie Brewster, a local doctor. Let's see, there is Lucien Felger a foreigner who runs a near-by insane asylum with sinister connections. Also in this cast is Sergent Jopling, the regional police officer. There's at least one mysterious woman. Add a few disappearing bodies, and we have the standard British pre-WW2 thriller.
I would dismiss this book as not up to the usual high standards of what Tuatara reproduces were it not for the final chapters. Let me say that the last few chapters redeem the whole novel. I was hit by some surprises I didn't see coming and a gripping conclusion. Which makes the entire book worth reading.


Monday, December 20, 2010

Naming of Parts by Tim Lebbon

I usually don't care for zombie books or movies. Every since George Romero and company spooked everyone with Night of the Living Dead, they all seem to be retreads. And really, just how many times can you revisit that theme without making it seem boring? I thought once S. King got into the game, it would be over. Now even AMC has jumped on the corpse wagon with The Walking Dead (which I'll probably watch once it comes out on DVD).
But Tim Lebbon's short novel, Naming of Parts, struck me as a different angle which might be worth reading. How would a 12-year-old boy deal with the complete collapse of the world around him? What if he wakes up one morning to find dad blasting away with a shotgun at the next door neighbors for now apparent reason? This is the plot of the book.
It's a short read, you can get through it in one sentence. I doubt the entire book is 60 pages. But it is a page turner and has some odd angles. For instance, the zombie outbreak effects every living thing, even foxes are described as standing aimlessly by the side of the road. I wish the book hadn't ended so abruptly, but it's still worth the time if you can find it.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Dolphins of Altair (1967) by Margaret St. Clair

1967's The Dolphins of Altair is the beginning of Margaret St. Clair's "psychedelic" period. It would continue on with The Shadow People (1969) and conclude with The Dancers of Noyo (1973). Although the plots of the book are significantly different, her use of the California coast, environmentalism, and counter-cultures all link these books. They are also told in the first person.
Dolphins is told from the viewpoint of a dolphin historian named Amtor. At the beginning of the novel, the dolphins, or sea people as they refer to themselves, have become distressed.The seas are becoming increasing polluted. Humans are capturing and placing dolphins into naval research stations for underwater warfare training. The dolphins form a council and decide to reach out telepathically to three people: Madeline Paxton, a secretary at the Half Moon Bay naval research station; Sven Erikson, a former soldier and dock worker; and Dr. Edward Lawrence, a clinical psychiatrist who works for the US navy.
Madeline proves to the most receptive to the Dolphins' cries for help. Sven later joins her. Finally, Dr. Lawrence hires a boat to drop him off on the a rock far off the California coast. Together, they concoct a plan to free the imprisoned dolphins from the research station. Using Sven as a courier, they steal a powerful under water mine from a weapons shipment and give it to the dolphins. The mine is then dropped by one of the dolphins into a deep trench off the coast where it explodes, causing an earthquake. The earthquake, timed to be a minor one and on a Sunday evening to minimize loss of human life, bursts open the dolphin pens, freeing the sea people to the open ocean.
But then Dr. Lawrence disappears from the rock, with no explanation given. Moments later, the rock is strafed by a navy plane. Several of the dolphins are killed and Madeline is wounded. Why did Dr. Lawrence betray them? Do the dolphins have time to come up with a new strategy now that war between them and the "splits" (humans) seem to be immediate?
The launching point for the novel seems to have been the US Navy Marine Mammal Program where dolphins were studied for their ability to hunt for mines and rescue seamen. The navy has always claimed no dolphins were ever trained to attack humans. Obviously, the very concept of dolphins being manipulated by humans was offensive to St. Clair.
One of the more interesting ideas put forth in the book is that humans and dolphins originated from the same species. According to the dolphin historian, millions of years ago, the commons ancestors of both creatures migrated to earth from a planet in orbit around the star Altair. Over the millennia, some of the settlers stayed on land while others returned to their natural environment, the water. At some point in the distant past, the land dwellers began mating with terrestrial primates, producing humans. This is the origin of "The Covenant" mentioned in Dancers of Noyo.
The book is well-plotted and easy to dissolve into. Much of it consists of conversations between the dolphins and their human allies trying to figure out the least destructive means to strike back at the surface dwellers. This could be the original ecological science fiction novel. There are no themes of magick or Wicca in this novel.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Margaret St. Clair Ephemera

As my obsession with the mysterious Science Fiction writer Margaret St. Clair continues, I find myself forced to seek-out tangential material. Recently, I obtained a copy of Margaret St. Clair: Space Frontierswoman (1986) and a men's' magazine, Dude, which contained one of her short stories. I'm sure more material exists and perhaps one day I will find that elusive photograph of her.
Margaret St. Clair: Space Frontierswoman (2nd revised edition) is volume 15 of Galactic Central, "Biographies for the Avid Reader". It was put together by Gordon Benson, Jr. and describes itself as a "working biography". Format-wise, it can be described as a chap book, is printed by photocopying, and appears to have been set in type with an early home computer graphic program. It's a mere 10 pages in length, but does attempt a complete listing of all her short stories and novels. 113 stories are listed as having been published, as well as 11 books. There is also a third section listing the 8 "Oona and Jik" stories as having been published from 1947-49. I haven't encountered these stories as of yet. It's a concise little listing, but contains no new biographical information.
The Dude magazine was one of the many publications aimed at the swinging bachelor which appeared in the wake of Hugh Hefner's success. It was published from 1956 to 1976 on a bi-monthly basis. Most of the articles dealt with the good life: European women, French stage shows, and booze. In September of 1959, Margaret St. Clair published a short story in it entitled "The Lost One". It's not mentioned in any anthology of her works.
I mention this short story because it has become my favourite one by her. "The Lost One" shows St. Clair at the top of her game and clearly demonstrates her ability as a writer. The plot is simple: a divorced lawyer goes to a bar to drink his troubles away and meets a mysterious, beautiful woman. She tells him how much he resembles her dead husband and they go home together. Weeks later, the lawyer feels a longing for the mysterious woman and returns to the same bar where he sees her with another man. To tell anymore would ruin the story, but I will say the ending hit me with a brick to the head.
Hopefully, I will find more material by and about her in the future.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Diamondback: It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time

I've never met Derrick Ferguson, but he seems like the kind of guy I'd hang out with. Every week he and a fellow cinemaphile Tom Deja broadcast podcast Better In the Dark, a show recorded in Derrick's basement. For the longest time I would listen to the show while I worked on refinishing my upstairs bathroom. I became so enamored over the show I would quit grouting tile just to find more episodes for listening. To listen to Derrick and Tom play off each other, their love for New York City movie houses, their encyclopedic knowledge of obscure TV shows, well, it made the job of ripping out lap boards much easier.
But now I'm finished with the remodeling.
Guess I'll have to tile another floor just to justify listening to their show.
I'd known Derrick was a writer every since listening to the show. However, his books can be difficult to find. Since he was also a pulp fan like myself, I was determined to find at least one of them. And the first one I've ran across is Diamondback.
Ferguson has described the novel as his attempt at doing a modern spaghetti western film in book form. I have to admit, all the elements are there: the stranger coming to town, the rival gangs, the beautiful saloon girl. It's set in the mythical town of Denbrook, which is a corrupt major United States city (I picture Philadelphia, but then I'm right next door to the city Where All The Brothers Love Each Other). And it is also one of the bloodiest books I have ever read.
The plot is simple: Denbrook's major crime lord Titus Hegemon is planning to retire and turn his operation over to his loyal lieutenant, Nickleby Laloosh. He has one big score left. Hegemon's paid for a gun shipment which will roll into town born in the guts of three tractor trailer trucks. To make sure he doesn't have any problems, Hegemon pays to have the Denbrook police round-up all the rival crime bosses and hold them till the deal is sealed. It looks to be a good plan.
But he hasn't planned on Diamondback Vogel showing up in town. Diamondback is a legendary gunman whom everyone had thought dead. Within 24 hours of his arrival, the city of Denbrook is ripped apart by gang war. And the trucks have yet to arrive.
When they do, it causes a battle right out of a WW2 movie. There are factions too numerous to mention all trying to get their hands on those guns and they manage to shoot each other to pieces within minutes of the weapons' arrival.
I should also mention the lack of any admirable personages in this novel. Everyone is playing their own game, trying to outsmart, their rivals. No one is the least bit sympathetic, save Diamondback, who does let an innocent person flee the carnage.
A sequel is promised.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Rite of Passage by Alexi Panshin





Alexi and Cory Panshin wrote one of the best histories of early science fiction, The World Beyond the Hill, in 1989. I found the book at a bookstore in Wichita, Ks when I lived there in the early 90's and read it cover-to-cover in one sitting. So it was a surprise to me when I found this neat little book at Indian Path Books a few weeks ago. Needless to say, it ended up in my "To read" pile.
Winner of the 1968 Nebula award, Rite of Passage shows the influence of the dean of American science fiction, Robert Heinlein. As a matter of fact, Panshin even discusses the book's creation here and how Heinlein figured into the writing. I note that Mr. Panshin lives nearby in Quakertown, PA. He also lists Harper Lee as an influence on the novel, which anyone familiar with To Kill a Mockingbird will understand.
The novel follows several years in the life of Mia Havero, who lives on a massive interstellar star ship nearly two hundred years in the future. Obviously there was a huge advancement in technology from the present since the first of the interstellar ships was completed in 2041. Sometime afterwards, a series of wars, brought on by overpopulation, led to the destruction of Earth. Fortunately, a number of other planets outside our solar system had been colonized, so humanity was able to survive. The ship in which Mia lives was made by hollowing out an asteroid. It was built to haul colonists across the galaxy, but the scientists and engineers piloting the ship decided to stay on board after the last colonists were delivered.
Told from the viewpoint an older Mia, the story begins with her moving out of one quadrant of the ship into another at the age of twelve. Her parents having split up, Mia is raised by her father, who has a prominent position in the ship's society. She yearns to be a "synthesist", a person who has accumulated a general, but expansive, amount of knowledge. Her best friend Jimmy, also twelve, wants to be a ordinologist, or classifier of information.
There is one small hurdle they with both have to overcome: The Trial. At age fourteen, after extensive survival training, all children are dropped off the ship at the nearest inhabitable planet. They are expected to survive on their own for one month. At the end of a month, they are picked up. If they manage to survive on their own, the child is now considered an adult and welcomed in the ship's community with all rights and responsibilities. There are no exceptions.
Much of the book leading up to The Trial consists of Mia's recollections of her interactions with other kids and daily life on the ship. She spends a lot of time reading up on ethics at the encouragement of her tutor, Mr. Mbele. She also learns how to ride a horse, since the kids are dropped on primitive planets with them for transportation.
Because of resource limitations, the population of the ship is strictly controlled. Families seldom have more than one or two children. One of the source of disgust is the colonial planets, whom the ship trades information and knowledge with to get needed raw materials. The ship people refer to the colonists as "mudeaters" who practice primitive "free birth". The ship itself has a eugenicists who approves and encourages birthing based on genetic records.
The final test of Mia's class before undergoing The Trial is a tiger hunt. A group of kids are sent out into a wilderness park with their adult survival instructor in pursuit of a full grown tiger. When they do encounter the tiger, they have to kill it using only the knives they carry and whatever rocks can be found. Amazingly, they do it with few injuries. It's Panshin's credit as a writer that he can make this passage so believable.
Mia is finally dropped with her class on a planet known as Tintera. There has been little contact with the planet since it was colonized a 150 years previously. The kids split-up, Mia deciding to spend her month on Trial exploring the planet.
What she encounters is a society similar in technology and organization to what the United States knew at the Civil War. She manages to confront a band of ruffians on horseback before getting bushwhacked. Mia's nursed back to health by an old man named Kutsov who lives alone. She learns enough about the society where she's been dropped to rescue her best friend Jimmy from a territorial prison. They both manage to hide out in the woods until the month has passed and the pick-up ship arrives.
Half of her trial class never make it back to the ship. After hearings are held in the ship's assembly, the citizens decide to punish the inhabitants of Tintera in the worst way possible. I won't spoil the ending of the book for those who want to read it. But I will say the over riding message is how the worst deeds can be justified by the best intentions. Consider Crime and Punishment: it's remarkably simple to justify killing an old woman.
Rite of Passage shows the mark of the time in which it was written. Panshin assumes it would be easy to organize a self-contained society with few internal problems. But this is a minor point. It's a landmark book which needs to be read.