Friday, April 26, 2013

What Makes You Die (Apex), by Tom Piccirilli

Because it always feels so personal, it’s hard to separate Piccirilli’s work from the man himself. It certainly doesn’t help the situation when he names his first person narrator Tommy Pic. Of course, he knows that and I’m fairly certain that the bastard is intentionally messing with us (or, more pointedly, me).

Of course, nothing seems particularly clear for Tommy, either. Ever since he belly flopped from near midlist stardom of a sort, he’s been black-out drunk, living in his mother’s basement and not able to sell a damn thing. We join him waking up in the boobyhatch, welcomed by friends and relatives who may or may not really be there and with no recollection of what he did. At least there is the script his agent is so excited about that he doesn’t remember writing and can’t seem to be able to read. Add an extinct Komodo dragon, witches, ghosts of kidnapped childhood friends and a several pints of Jameson and then try to find a way to continue writing what may very well save or destroy his career.

Needless to say, reality gets a little fuzzy between these pages.

I think it’s fair to say that What Makes You Die is intended to be a companion piece to Every ShallowCut, which is explicitly referenced in a nice bit of Petey’s Blue Rose blues. Not so much a sequel to that story, but perhaps an answer to the questions raised within it. Or maybe it just raises more questions. It gets to be a bit of a sticky wicket there, but I’ll get to the navel gazing in a moment.

Like everything Pic writes, WMYD is intense, searing, heartfelt and honest. The desperation and need is palpable and a bit overwhelming at times. I adore how well he weaves the hallucinations through the reality, blending the two until it is almost impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins. As a reader, it 's hard not to feel like I became Tommy Pic for a while and that's always a feat. Then all of this is conveyed with that odd combination of blunt force and poetic grace that Tom has developed over the years. As a simple piece of entertaining, if a tad emotional painful, fiction, it works wondrously. It may even be a tad less bleak than his work usually is.

Now for the navel: I mentioned my belief that Tom may very well be messing with us (me) earlier. The ebb and flow of hallucinations and objective experience, of irreality and reality, are so indistinguishable and this narrator is so incredibly unreliable that it's hard to tell what has actually happened here. There is definitely a struggle to regain self and purpose and value but there is no clear way to tell how the struggle ends. Triumph and tragedy get muddled in the mixed mentality of our humble narrator to the point that our answer seems less like an answer and more like another question. I can’t be more specific that that without giving too much away.

But, this ambiguity of form and purpose is what kicked my ass here. His work has never been as simple as it seemed, but now… wow. There hasn’t been a doubt in my head for some years now and WMYD confirms my belief that Tom Piccirilli is one of the great literary writers of our generation. No bullshit hyperbole there, just an honest opinion. Whenever someone whines to me that we have no one nowadays that can stand next to Hemmingway, Hughes, Shelly, Cervantes and their compatriots, I can point to this book and tell them to suck it.

If you want a quick, powerful and not quite fun but still entertaining read, it satisfies. If you want to dig deeper and get lost in the well, you can certainly do so. But I’ll end with what I was left mumbling into my pillow upon finishing this: “Fuck you, Pic. Thank you.”

Saturday, April 6, 2013

The Ghost IS the Machine (Post Mortem Press), edited by Patrick Scalisi

***note: usually, I post my own reviews here, but I have a story in this anthology, so I handed the reviewing duties to someone else.- Anton Cancre***

First, this is a great read – very entertaining throughout as a collection of short ghost stories. Some of these are extremely well written, draw the reader in, and deliver a chilling blow that is effective and spooky. Sadly, most of these (with the exception of two) have no similarity to the Steampunk genre greater than the use of some form of device or machine. If you are hoping to find work reminiscent of H.G. Wells (with a haunted time machine) you’ll probably be disappointed. Most of the writers featured are horror writers and there is little incorporation of Industrial Age steam powered or gear and cog style alternate technology. If you like a good ghost story and aren’t too picky about the use of the term “Steampunk”, this anthology is well worth reading.

My only real complaint with the book is a lack of editing/proofreading resulting in many, many typos.

The stories are divided by The (Fanciful) Past, The Present, and The Future. Stories listed under The (Fanciful) Past consist of – you guessed it – stories set in the past. The first is probably the best example of Steampunk and, at the same time, my least favorite. “The Voice in the Box” by J. David Anderson tells the tale of an inventor who builds a mechanism to communicate with his dead fiancĂ©. While I understood what the voice in the box was doing after the first named individual was tracked down, the protagonist never seems to, even in the end when he…well… does something predictable that I won’t give away here. The second story from The Past is harder to define. “Interchangeable Parts” by Anton Cancre is not really steampunk except for the use of cogs and gears – it tells the tale of a ghost haunting a cog much as she haunted her own miserable life after immigrating to America and going to work on an assembly line assembling said cogs. Beautifully written, visual, bitter and fun to read. Don’t be disappointed when you come to the end and…nothing happens. That seems to be the point. The rest of the stories in this opening section are entertaining but not the best to be found in this collecton.

The next set of stories take place in modern times. Most are very good but, again, are good ghost stories as opposed to Steampunk stories. Notable are Joe Hill’s “Scheharazade’s Typewriter” and Rose Blackthorn’s “Eidess”. Others are well-written stories that have really been done to death, for example “The Iron Prophet”, a story about a self-fulfilling prophecy after a man is told how he will die and “The Ghost of Ozzie Hobbs” (although, I actually love this little story about summoning the evil spirit through calculators! Another reason to hate math). “Video Express” by Kristopher Triana is a real gem. It should be done as an episode of The Twilight Zone.

Finally, the future section is the shortest and probably the best of the bunch. “Watch” by Jay Wilburn is the only other example of a real Steampunk horror story. Set in a vague future time after the “Plague Wars” where a return to steam-powered technology, trains, dirigibles and the like abound, a device salvaged from a deep sea wreck compels Jonah, our hero, to abandon his life and carry out the will of the soul trapped inside. Jonah travels by train through the western wastes to Ninevah Heights where the device intends to make a family repent – through Jonah – for a sin committed by their ancestors. Well written and chock full of name symbolism, this one was by far my favorite. The last is “Afterimage” by Alexis A. Hunter. More Cyber- than Steampunk, a blind woman is given sight via an implant of mechanical eyes and starts to see people and events from someone else’s life. I had to go back and re-read to make sure the name of the company that installed the eyes wasn’t GeneCo. This one was very good and the horrific ending left me pretty satisfied.

All in all, I greatly enjoyed this Anthology and highly recommend it. Good ghost stories, great short fiction, but don’t count too much on the Steampunk tag.

buy it here.

reviewed by Laura Langford

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Sidekicks! (Aliteration Ink), edited by Sarah Hans

“I'm no Hero,” she repeated. “Real Heroes die young. They're too honest, too good. I can't help playing dirty. That's why I'm just a sidekick.” She shrugged. “At least I get to live.”
-“Worthy”, M.E. Garber

When someone decides to write about a sidekick, they're deciding to write a different kind of story. It isn't going to be about glory but it might be about honor. It won't be about power, or at least not about the display of it. It won't be grand or clean-cut, it'll likely be petty and messy. Murky. And there isn't nearly as high a chance of getting the girl, or the guy. Of course, that is why these stories, in both the telling and the reading, appeal to a different set of people. Pinko socialist that I am, I just happen to be one of those people.

Sidekicks! is an anthology about the second string, the background players and the partnerships behind the heroism and villainy and minor and major plots both to gain and thwart control. Despite what the cover art may seem to imply, the tales don't just focus on spandex clad four color warriors. Those are there, but there are also yarns of serial killers, Sheriffs, third world regimes, wizards, assassins and more. If you want variety of genre and style, buddy, you got it here.

I can't go further without mentioning the introduction, by Pseudopod honcho Alastair Stuart. Normally, intros are throwaway background or generic back-patting and, as such, not worth mentioning. But this guy... Lays out a heartfelt, intelligent basis for the whole damn thing with honest wit that manages to pull of a true rarity by being as meaningful as the stories themselves. There's a reason that the analyses on Pseudopod are as much of a reason to listen as the stories they tell there and this man is it.

Patrick S Tomlinson's “Coffee and Collaborators” does a great job of setting the tone with its irreverent manner and statement that the heroes and villains are overpowered dolts that would destroy the world and themselves if their sidekicks did not reign them in. Meanwhile, Donald J. Bingle explores the machinations behind political power that will have you looking at whoever is off to the side of the podium rather than the one behind it with the wondrously named “Second Bananna Republic”. It's impossible to not mention Matt Betts when he appears with a grim tale of what happens when the backup oversteps their bounds and runs the risk of being viewed as the hero in the weird western “The Old West”. And then there's “Hunter and Bagger”, Alex Bledsoe's of serial killers and arrogance that plays out like an old Ananzi story.

As good as those stories are, two truly got what I wanted this anthology to be about. “Hero” may not be the most inspiring title, but Kathy Watness uses this tale of a second rate Wizard and his assistant to underline the main value of a sidekick. Someone to keep the hero grounded, to provide a leg up when needed. The one who may not be able to beat the bad guy or scale the mountain, but gives the one who can the extra push needed. All without intruding or controlling their actions (something that pairs it well with M.E Garber's “Worthy”). Then there is Alexis A Hunter's “The Balance Between Us”, a tale of war and muddled morality where no path is safe or righteous. In such a situation, the right partner can help prevent the worst decisions when the need for a choice between horrors must be made. It isn't about ego or pride or even being right but simply about making it out the other end hoping to be able to live with yourselves. Damn brilliant, both of those stories.

Yes, there are a few tales that fall a bit flat, mostly due to a lack of true narrative to give them a sense of wholeness, but there aren't any that I didn't at least partially enjoy. My biggest problem is the overwhelming amount of “The Sidekick is the Real Hero” stories where in the hero is an egotistical, bumbling fool who only succeeds because of a sidekick that does everything for them (much like Without a Clue did for Sherlock Holmes and Watson). While I get the desire to turn the trope of the weak, ineffectual sidekick on its head, simply saying that the sidekick is really the one who is great and the hero is kinda stupid and always getting into trouble only switches paradigms. This kind of half-way deconstruction doesn't change anything unless a new paradigm is established and kinda bugs me.

Despite that rant, and largely due to some damn fine yarn spinning, I enjoyed myself reading this. I recommend ignoring the bland title and somewhat single minded cover art (pretty though it may be) and give this a whirl. I can pretty well bet you'll find something you like.