Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Trends in E-Reading

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Review: Carnacki the Ghost Finder

Carnacki the Ghost Finder by William Hope Hodgson (1913)

If you wanted to solve a crime in late Victorian London, you called Sherlock Holmes.  If you wanted to solve a spooky crime in Edwardian London, you called Thomas Carnacki, the ghost finder.

Between 1910 and 1912, William Hope Hodgson wrote a series of short stories in The Idler and The New Magazine featuring his supernatural detective Carnacki.  Based on the aforementioned Mr Holmes, Carnacki's brief was to investigate supposed haunting–usually ones with a suitably grisly facet to them.  These stories, which where collected in 1913 and in an expanded edition in 1948, follow a rigid formula.  The narrator of the story and three friends gather at Carnacki's London home for dinner followed by the detective treating them to an exciting tale from his casebook.  Everything is more or less wound up at the end and Carnacki sends them all home.

The variety comes in the cases themselves.  Some are genuine affairs of outright demonic hauntings by malevolent supernatural beings.  Others are fakes perpetrated for one reason or another and some are a weird combination where the fakers unwittingly collide with the eldritch.  The stories do have something of a repetitious quality with Carnacki forever letting off the flash of his camera or hiding in the protection of his "electric pentacle", but what makes them work is the uncompromising atmosphere of terror that Hodgson brings to the stories.  Carnacki is an honest enough character to admit when he's scared out of his wits, even when it turns out to be a trick, and Hodgson's descriptions of what is like to be sitting in the dark while something paces and pants around the room is truly frightening.  This is enhanced by Hodgson's talent for finding spine-tingling throwaway descriptions of his horrors that cunningly seed the reader's imagination. This is not a book to finish just before bedtime unless you've left on all the lights and are absolutely certain that the noise you heard after turning in really is just your daughter's pet mouse running in its wheel.

Otherwise, it can be a very uncomfortable night.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Review: Doctor No

Dr No by Ian Fleming (1958)

The Secret Service officer in Jamaica and his female No. 2 go missing and James Bond is sent out on what seems like a routine investigation of a man and a woman who've probably just done a runner, but missing files, mysterious tails and an assassination attempt point Bond to the island of Crab Key–the private kingdom of the incredible Dr. No.

The sixth of the James Bond series, Dr No, is a direct irect continuation of From Russia With Love, taking up right after Bond returns to duty after a near-fatal poisoning by Smersh agent Rosa Klebb.  Where Russia was a straightforward Cold War story, Dr No is far more fantastic as Bond and his West Indian friend Quarrel follow the leads that end in a clandestine visit to Dr No's island.  There Bond encounters Honeychile Ryder, a strange girl who is a mixture of resourcefulness blended into a childlike nature.  Their attraction for one another against the backdrop of eluding Dr No's men is already interesting, but when they are captured and escorted into the lair of the mysterious madman with steel claws for hands, the novel takes on an almost surreal quality.  This is heightened by No's entertaining Bond and Honey to dinner and polite conversation in luxurious surroundings that Bond is all too aware are just an ironic prelude to an evening of torture and murder.  Worse, he learns the reason behinds No's madness and that it involves more than just preserving his evil wonderland.

Though not well received on its first publication, Dr No has aged well over the years–not the least because the film adaptation formed the template for all later Bond villains right down to the sumptuous lair and the Nehru jackets.  It's full of the usual blend of "sex, sadism and snobbery", but added into the mix is the friendship between Bond and Quarrel that ends in tragedy, the strange protective/sexual relationship with Honey and the delicious banter as Bond and Dr No cross swords over drinks.

Not the finest of the Bond series, it is nevertheless a straight plot with a satisfying conclusion that puts it firmly in the middle rankings of the books.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Review: The Dunwich Horror

The Dunwich Horror by H P Lovecraft (1928)

The Whateley family who live outside of the forgotten, decadent village of Dunwich in Massachusetts's Miskatonic valley are shunned as freaks and wizards–especially Wilbur Whateley, who was born of an insane albino mother and an unknown father.  A profoundly ugly child, Wilbur grows and develops at an alarming rate.  Before he's even a teenager, he's the size and maturity of an adult.  And along with his barely human appearance, his grandfather is versing him in all manner of unspeakable occult lore that has something to do with shunned Sentinel Hill and the reason why more and more of the Whateley house boarded up and hollowed out as if to hide and make room for... something.

One of the defining stories of Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos, The Dunwich Horror is also one of the most accessible, having later been made into a 1945 radio play and a 1970 feature film.  It's a frightening story of barely contained evil that is bent on breaking through and overwhelming our world, but its real power is the mounting revelation of the "other" as the oppressive decadence of Dunwich gives way to the evil of the Whateleys, who have sold out the human race, then the fate of Wilbur that uncovers his secret and then the even greater menace that this releases on the world.  Though the climax is a bit underwhelming, owing to being related by witnesses who only see it from a distance, the outcome is saved by one of the most chilling final reveals in weird fiction made even more frightening by its matter of fact statement.

Monday, 21 May 2012

Review: A Storm of Swords

A Storm of Swords: A Song of Ice and Fire: Book Three by George R R Martin (2000)

In the third volume of Martin's multi-volume epic, the war continues as the surviving kings battle for control of Westeros, Danerys works to build an army, the scattered Stark family members try to find their way and an ancient evil gathers its forces in the far north.

A Storm of Swords is essentially a place keeper of a story, which is unfortunate because it's also a giant doorstop of a novel that takes many manhours to plough through.  It took me three weeks, though to be fair I did take time off to read three other books along the way because this one was such a slog.

Nothing really happens here except in the final few chapters and the rest of the book boils down to long, long accounts of people going from here to there, people getting killed horribly, people getting mutilated horribly, being threatened, getting married, getting married against their will and getting threatened with getting married against their will.  Rinse and repeat each step so often that it gets tedious.  Martin's philosophy is that if it works once, use the same plot device 273,964 times.  I think he's trying to avoid having his books turned into a drinking game by making it unwinnable.  Worse, he keeps adding in more and more characters for no very good reason and he insists on doling out everyone's life story down to the last detail so that the reader ends up completely confused as to who is who, what is of importance and why we had to learn so much about a person who just gets slaughtered horribly five pages later.

As usual, Martin's book is a curate's egg.  Some parts of it are excellent.  The only problem is that he insists on mixing the good bits with too much filler.  He continues to jump between the stories of various main characters who almost never meet each other except briefly and the Danerys plot is so completely disconnected that you could cut out every word from all the books up until now and never notice.  I often feel that instead of writing these interminable bricks Martin would have been better served by breaking them into a series of smaller books so that instead of five volumes and counting we'd have 20 or 30 and counting. Besides, I think a thin volume titled "The Slavers of Astapor" or "Attack of the Wildings" has a lot more zing to it.  Though I don't know that a novel exclusively about the Sansa character would be much of a read.  200 pages of someone repeatedly kicking a human puppy isn't very entertaining

My greatest complaint about Storm is the brutality of it.  Some readers claim that this adds to the authenticity, but that only holds true if you know next to nothing about the real Middle Ages, which were no where near as violent and treacherous as depicted in this fantasy.  People are being betrayed, ambushed, beheaded and generally mistreated so often and so casually by their lords that in the real world the "nobility" that acted this way would in short order be ostricised, excommunicated, deposed and seriously dead within a week.  And further more, people in real feudal societies don't go around burning villages and slaughtering peasants left, right and centre.  With 13th century technology that very soon becomes too much like hard work and, more importantly, you're burning the crops and slaughtering the workforce that are supposed to make your conquest worth the effort.  It's like robbing a bank and setting fire to the money.

More to the point, it was established that before the first book Westeros enjoyed fifteen years of peace and prosperity, so where did all these noseless, earless, one-eyed bandits who'd sooner kill you as look at you come from?  Where did they learn their murdering?  Under whom did they apprentice their thugism?  Correspondence courses, presumably.

And here's a tip for Martin: If you're going to have Machiavellian characters, read Machiavelli.  The first lesson of The Prince isn't "make yourself completely unreliable".

So, it's on to volume four.  Let's hope the plot starts to move and Martin starts shedding characters or I may need to solicit help for reading some of the chapters.

Monday, 7 May 2012

Max Beerbohm's literary caricatures

Mr H.G. Wells foreseeing things
100 Years of Illustration looks at Max Beerbohm's graphic opinion of his literary contemporaries.