Thursday, July 12, 2012

Book Review: The Place Called Dagon, by Herbert S. Gorman


This great little weird novel was recently rescued from obscurity by publishing house Lovecraft's Library. According to Lovecraft scholar S. T. Joshi, HPL mentions having read The Place Called Dagon in his letters (1928) and also in Supernatural Horror in Literature. Though he called it "purile" at the time, there is much academic speculation that TPCD may have influenced classics such as "The Dunwich Horror" and "Dreams in the Witch House," and perhaps fear of comparison even played a part in HPL's reluctance to release "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward." Conversely, it is almost certain Gorman had never heard of Lovecraft -- the name "Dagon" wasn't original to HPL's 1917 short story -- and just happened to stray into the weird for this one novel. (Gorman wrote several, though he is now mostly forgotten).

Despite its anomalous state, TPCD actually sits quite proudly in the weird tradition, somewhere between Blackwood and Lovecraft: in some ways it recalls Blackwood's classic tale "Ancient Sorceries," but instead of time-haunted Europe, is set instead in HPL's eldritch and inbred New England.

(Mild spoilers follow.)

Gorman's hero, a young doctor who has assumed a practice in an out-of-the-way Massachusetts valley, soon begins to suspect ancient and evil secrets persist beneath the hard, practical veneer of the town of Marlborough. Lo and behold, it seems the locals are in fact descended from survivors of the Salem witch-cult, and strange rites are being resurrected in the dark woods. The cast contains some pretty stock weird figures, including an arrogant arcane scholar, his disturbingly alluring wife, and a dour and malevolent preacher. Sometimes assisting the determined doctor in his search for the truth: Marlborough's now housebound former doctor -- a reticent (and mildly alcoholic) adviser on town matters; a beautiful and friendless orphan ingenue; and a stolid local farmer who is both kinder and cannier than he appears.

It's Gorman's rather modern writing which prevents TPCD from being "just" another forgettable pulp horror novel -- certainly, he's less long-winded than Blackwood and less purple than Lovecraft. His lyrical descriptions of atmosphere and landscape and keen insights into human motivation keep the tale interesting, and his candid take on female sexuality seems quite progressive for 1927. TPCD is a quick and enjoyable read, and deserving of being resurrected into the pantheon of the good weird. Four solid stars.

Book Review: All Men of Genius, by Lev AC Rosen


All Men of Genius is a charming foray into a burgeoning genre that might be called "whimsical adult fiction." (See also Gail Carriger, Lev Grossman, etc.) Drawing on both Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde for tone and characterization, Lev AC Rosen’s debut novel is a sparkling Victorian steampunk concoction of romance, intrigue, cross-dressing, mistaken identity and lots and lots of moving parts – some of them quite dangerous.

When Violet Adams, a talented and visionary young scientist, applies to the exclusive college of Ilyria, she is quite confident of her acceptance. The problem is that Ilyria is an all-male institution, and she has applied under the name of her twin brother Ashton. Can Violet maintain the gender-bending ruse for as long as it takes to prove she (or any woman) is as skillful as any man working in her field? Need I say that complications ensue? If you've ever read Twelfth Night or The Importance of Being Earnest, you’ll have a sense of where this is going . . . except you’ll have to add a lot of gears, steam, and creepy subterranean vaults into the equation. (And if you've read neither, it's okay. You'll still enjoy this clever book, and it might inspire you to do so!)

Peopled with lively characters, full of witty banter and romantic mistaken identity, All Men of Genius still has enough dark moments to make it a thrilling steampunk adventure. Don't mistake this book for young adult literature, as despite the book’s comedic tone, some very adult situations are presented without ambiguity: sexual situations (and misunderstandings) abound; booze flows; there is some rather impressively foul language (although it’s mostly from a rabbit); and a great deal of evil-robot perpetrated violence. For sure, this one’s a delight for the all grown-up kids out there, and I’m looking forward to more from Rosen and hope he continues to impress with his unique take on the classics – both literary and sci-fi.

Book Review: Under the Dome, by Stephen King

Under the Dome: A Novel


Likely King's best novel in years, Under the Dome grabs you at the first page and never lets up, with a propulsive narrative that is both as disturbing as you might expect, and even more so. Everything you need to know is right there in the title: the town of Chester's Mill, Maine has become cut off from the world by a mysterious transparent "dome" which appears out of nowhere on a crisp fall day. No one can leave, and no one can enter. The town is on its own.

Less a traditional horror story (though there's plenty of gruesome moments), and more a hostage situation on a grand scale, UtD is most effective when showcasing the evil men (and all the other inhabitants of beleaguered Chester's Mill) can do when traditional moral structures collapse around them, when the world shrinks and becomes alien and full of menace, when any idea of a sympathetic, or even rational, god has gone the way of fresh supplies . . . and fresh air.

Along the way the reader meets a cast of characters roughly the size of a small Maine town; chief among them the corrupt Selectman who views the crisis as a golden opportunity; the adolescent whiz-kids intent on helping to solve it; the Revelations-spewing meth addict who runs the town's Christian (and only) radio station; the overtaxed PA who becomes the town's de-facto doctor; and leading the cast, a former soldier on the drift, who manages to just miss his opportunity to get out while the getting is good.

With strongly delineated heroes  -- flawed though they may be -- to root for, and plenty of despicable self-proclaimed "good guys" to hiss at (small-town cops and elected officials take rather a drubbing, as do unchristian Christians),UtD takes an inexplicable disaster and puts a human face on the toll it exacts. I won't say any more than this -- when I was halfway through the book, I couldn't imagine any way things could get worse for Chester's Mill. Fortunately, good old Uncle Steve's imagination is a long way from running dry.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Summer TV Disaster

Did you ever find yourself watching something truly, shamefully horrible because the good show you usually watch in that timeslot is on hiatus?  Well, it's Thursday, 8 pm -- suddenly I'm looking at a "Vampire Diaries"-sized hole in my schedule. Nothing is on, so I just leave the TV on for white noise. And then I looked up, and all was lost.

That's right, I succumbed to the lowest of the low -- not "Livin' for the Apocalypse" or "Confessions: Animal Hoarding" -- although I admit to enjoying watching the nutters. Makes me feel better. It was much, much worse. It was "Take Me Out," a tackier "Dating Game" for 2012. Really, really, really. Awful. And I'm not even referring to the exploitative aspects, which I know should bother me, but I'm too busy wincing at the canned flirting between "girls" dressed like it's a Cosmo cover-shoot, and "guys" with ripped abs in sparkly shirts and fauxhawks. I am also busy marveling at all the shapes and sizes total douchebags come in.
And host George Lopez? He's a poor man's Chuck Woolery.

Why would any of those people want to date each other? And why would we watch?

Oh, right. TVD is on hiatus.