Michael Marshall Smith’s Everything You Need… and Some Things You Won’t Forget

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I’ve been singing the praises of Michael Marshall Smith’s short fiction for longer than I care to remember and, given how relatively little work he does at shorter lengths, the appearance of a collection of his work is reason to celebrate.  Everything You Need (Earthling Publications; 280 pages; 1,000 signed copies; $45), his first collection since 2003, is one of those infrequent reasons.  The book gathers 17 stories, with six published here for the first time.

Smith has a knack for taking relatively simple situations and casting them as symbolic of more macroscopic issues, and representative of situations that most, if not all, of us will face. Take, for example, “This is Now,” wherein a group of men, longtime small-town friends just beginning to grow a little long in the tooth, reminisce about a night in their youth, when they forced their way into a secured area (the nature of which is both fascinating and frightening) and barely escaped with their lives. Not surprisingly, they’re moved to try and breach that barrier again in an attempt to recapture their youth. In one character’s simple reflection, Smith manages to capture a universal sentiment for everyone over a certain age:

“As I looked now through the fence at the other forest I was thinking how long a decade had seemed back then, and how you could learn that it was no time at all.”

In a way, both “Walking Wounded” and “Different Now” are about definitive moments in relationships.  In the former, a past experience begins to physically haunt protagonist Richard, leading him back to a former residence that was the site of said experience, while the latter centers on a couple’s argument that spirals out of control, leading one to walk out and leaving the other to try and pick up the pieces in a world that has literally been broken by their break-up.

There are a couple zombie stories (nearly requisite these days) to be found in these pages, but you wouldn’t expect Smith’s takes on the sub-genre to be perfunctory, and these certainly are not.  “The Last Barbeque” is related as a description and transcription of a video that  records two men preparing for a barbecue at a strangely-deserted lakeside location, while “The Things He Said” concerns a solitary man in a remote cabin, reminiscing about his father while detailing his rigid daily schedule.  Both are stories are unveiled in layers, with their true nature not revealed until the innermost levels are reached.

It’s possible that one of the reasons I like “Unnoticed” so much is because of its locale, just a few miles from me, but there’s much more to like in this tale of a man who suddenly notices a building in his neighborhood, with a strange automobile from yesteryear (but…not quite) that’s somehow been shoehorned into the building lobby.  Sometimes, when we tend not to see things…it’s safer that way.  The setting for “Sad, Dark Thing” is even closer to my house, and the story is even better, involving a man on a Sunday drive in the Santa Cruz mountains, who stumbles upon what seems to be an extremely low-rent, and half-assed tourist attraction, but which turns out to house an extraordinary, if very dark, find.

Melancholy would be the word I’d use to describe much of “The Good Listener,” although this story of a son tracing his deceased father’s final steps, which include a mysterious missing period of time, is ultimately redemptive.  The son’s thoughts about the gap in his father’s history represents one of Smith’s best passages:

“I’m happy for the hole to remain. I no longer feel the need to fill it. There have always been silences in the world, and that’s the way it should be. There should be gaps. Sometimes it’s in those moments of silence, of dead air, that the meaningful things happen. It’s good we have things listening to all our stories now, keeping track of everything we have been and done.

It’s even better if, like the best listeners, they turn a deaf ear from time to time.”

Speaking of exceptional passages, although “The Woodcutter” is not one of my favorite stories in the collection, it does contain another prime example of Smith capturing a universal truth in a few sentences:

“He knew himself well enough to know that this was a bad idea, however. It was this kind of impulse that had gotten him here in the first place, a tendency to grow tired of one kind of life, of its hierarchies and constraints and rituals, and to think he could flip tracks. It didn’t work… Sometimes when Spike spent afternoons killing time in bookstores he wanted to go up and tap the shoulders of the people earnestly browsing the Self-Help section and tell them this fact, that they should give up on the idea of change and try to make friends with who they were before they did something dumb and fucked up what they had.”

The last story I want to call out is “What Happens When You Wake Up in the Night,” a deliciously dark (literally) tale, in which a family of three wakes up in the middle of the night to find themselves trapped in an unfamiliar, pitch-black room, with no exits.

In the publicity notes for this collection, Earthling Press publisher Paul Miller says:

“A decade ago, my press was privileged to publish Mike’s last collection, which was hailed as ‘stellar’ by Publishers Weekly and a ‘major publishing event’ by Ellen Datlow… As strong as that collection was, I believe this one is even better.”

My first thought was that, no, this is not a better collection than that previous collection, More Tomorrow and Other Stories… not even close, really, because Smith was still in his short fiction heyday ten years ago, and has mostly concentrated on novels since then, and the lack of focus on short fiction would have to be evident in this collection.

But.

But.

As I skimmed back through these stories and reviewed my notes in order to write this review, I had no choice but to acknowledge that this is in fact one helluva collection. I still don’t think that I can declare it better than More Tomorrow, but it’s definitely in the same league.

In short, Michael Marshall Smith is one of our very best authors of short dark speculative fiction, period. It’s a shame that he doesn’t write more at shorter lengths.  Bracketed with fantastic art by Vincent Chong and capped by Smith’s highly engaging story notes, Everything You Need is definitely something you need.

Carrying a Dark Passenger – David Nickle’s The ’Geisters

Boy EatingIn the recent horror film, The Conjuring, character Ed Warren says,  “Sometimes when you get haunted, it’s like stepping on gum. It sticks with you.”

That’s actually a pretty apt description of Ann LeSage’s situation in David Nickle’s novel The ’Geisters (Chizine Publications; 300 pages $16.95). As the story opens, Ann seems to be a somewhat troubled young woman — although the reasons for this are not immediately clear — who’s about to get married to attorney Michael Voors. As plot developments unfold and more of her background is revealed, we find that Ann is quite literally haunted by a poltergeist that’s not specific to a physical location, as is the traditional portrayal, but rather has become her own version of a “dark passenger,” always with her, threatening to escape the sort of psychic cage that she’s constructed to keep it at bay.  She’s managed to keep the entity — which Ann refers to as the Insect, a reflection of how she visualizes its presence — locked away, for the most part, ever since it caused an accident that killed her parents and left her brother paralyzed.

But another break-out occurs on her honeymoon, resulting in a structure fire, and then the poltergeist again makes its presence known on the couple’s flight home from their honeymoon, resulting in a near-catastrophic crash, and the death of Michael.

As traumatic as that experience is, what’s even more troubling to Ann is her last image of Michael, in the plane’s lavatory…apparently in the midst of a sexual encounter with the Insect!  She soon comes to realize that there is a sort of secret society of men who are obsessed with exactly that — sex with poltergeists.  It sounds somewhat silly as I type those words here, but it’s to Nickle’s credit that he makes the idea both repugnant and plausible.

The author describes the approach in his own words in an article he wrote for John Scalzi’s Whatever site:

“So it was that I set out to write The ‘Geisters: a horror novel about perversion,” about “…a group of men who have a twisted and erotic obsession with poltergeists. They are long past chat rooms and dungeon play. They are powerful and wealthy and determined to use those advantages to court the real thing.”

Ann’s discovery of the equivalent of NAMPLA (er, that would be the North American Man-Poltergeist Love Association) sends her underground, fleeing the men who want to enslave her poltergeist and subject it to their dark desires while at the same time seeking to rescue her brother, who’s apparently been taken in by the organization as a pawn.

I’ve long been a fan of Nickle’s work — as evidenced by my earlier review of Monstrous Affections — and The ’Geisters does nothing to diminish that appreciation.  It’s a disturbing book — and I mean that in the best possible way — and one that will likely stick with you for long after you’ve finished the last page.

I will say, however, that while The ’Geisters features a gradual, brewing sense of tension, and an inescapable feel of menace lurking just beneath the surface… when the novel does reach its climax, the power of that scene is lessened somewhat by a style that seems detached and terse, almost passive in a way.  I think it’s likely a realistic reflection of Ann’s state by that point — stunned and desensitized — but it does serve to detract just a bit from what is otherwise a very powerful novel.

XXL-Sized Eco-Horror with John Leahy’s CROGIAN

CROGIAN_shopify_largeAfter nearly closing their doors a couple years ago, Necro Press and founder David Barnett have rebounded nicely, with 11 titles published by my count since their rebirth.  One of those new titles is the debut novel from John Leahy, the somewhat-awkwardly titled CROGIAN.

In the spirit of Stephen King’s “The Mist” and countless other tales, CROGIAN is based on an ever-reliable source of horror — namely, a military experiment gone very, very wrong.  The story begins with a very engaging premise — the discovery of an alien artifact by a reclusive loner living outside the small town of Goodman, Alaska.  The top of the artifact turns out to almost literally be the tip of the iceberg, and soon word of the bizarre find reaches the military, who move in to take ownership.  A short bit of aggressive experimentation later, it turns out that the artifact is a portal to another dimension…  A few more years later, and an automated expedition is dispatched, ultimately returning with video of a strange planet of gigantic flora and fauna, and soil samples containing molecules that could revolutionize the agriculture and food industries.  But of course the military is far more interested in weaponizing the discovery, so that an enemy’s own environment could be turned against it.

The remainder of the tales is set in 2017, where the military has relocated the project to an abandoned chemical facility in Texas.  (CROGIAN is actually the code name for the military’s experiment, standing for CReator Of GIANts.)  Rancher Ken Forde and his family live adjacent to the facility, which turns out to be a very bad zip code to be in when a disaster causes the CROGIAN formula to leak out into the local environment, resulting in exactly the sort of massive growth spurts the military had hoped for — but in their own backyard, rather than in some foreign “axis of evil” country.

Early on, the mutations seem relatively harmless, in some cases just freaks to be abused by the cruel and the clueless:

Ken had seen some of the clips. They had ranged from the disgusting to the psychotic: two smiling men holding up a section of an earthworm so thick that their hands couldn’t close around its body; a woman standing by an enormous spider-web who, when she touched it with a long stick, brought a huge black and yellow spider scampering from under a shed eave; two teenage boys kicking a soccer-ball as hard as possible against the shell of a colossal snail ascending a wall, the ball bouncing back each time from the shell the size of a bass-drum, the boys deciding to change to baseball, one of them throwing the ball to his buddy holding a bat, the buddy connecting perfectly with it, sending the ball smashing through the snail’s shell, both kids throwing their hands in the air and cheering.

But as time goes on, the mutations keep growing… and growing… and growing, leading to a “nature run amok” tale that’s something like an updated and more hardcore version of The Land of the Giants — for those who remember that late ‘60s TV show — although the mutations in CROGIAN are localized to a large swath of Texas and seem to be limited to plants, insects, reptiles, and fish, and (thankfully) not mammals or birds, for unknown reasons.

The remainder of the novel is taken up by the struggles of Ken and his family — and others they encounter along the way — to escape the contaminated zone and reach a safe harbor.  Their journey begins with tense, suspenseful scenes but unfortunately the repeated close encounters and narrow escapes soon start to feel repetitious.  Additionally, the interesting characters found in the early stages of CROGIAN are replaced in latter sections by far more stereotypical characters, especially some of the military villains portrayed, and there are some awkwardly-written passages to further weigh things down.

In sum, CROGIAN has a great germ of a plot, and is nicely-paced for the most part, but I ultimately wanted to like it a lot more than I did.  The novel does, however, qualify as a good summer “beach read” — meaning that, as long as you don’t focus too closely on the details, or think too much about the science or logic, it’ll keep you entertained as the tide rolls in.

Tracking Televamps with Brad Middleton’s Un-Dead TV

utv-400Billed as “The Ultimate Guide to Vampire Television,” Brad Middleton’s Un-Dead TV (published by By Light Unseen Media; 512 page trade paperback; $21.00) is a sizable tome, providing a broad, 30,000-foot view of vampires on TV, covering everything from the first appearance of a vampire on TV — in the form of Bela Lugosi appearing as Dracula on The Texaco Star Theater in September 1949 — right up through recent bloodsucker appearances in 2013.

In his Foreword, J. Gordon Melton provides a succinct, high-level view of the subject matter, noting that “Dark Shadows set the stage for the vampire to become a fixture in the nation’s living rooms,” before going on to decry how little research or scholarship there has been on vampires on the small screen…with one particularly notable exception:

“There is…one exception to the general lack of interest in the television vampire — Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In fact, it is the inconvenient truth for vampire scholars that over half of all the scholarly comment on the broad subject of vampires penned through the last century have been directed at Buffy…”

Middleton certainly tries to do his part to increase vampire scholarship with Un-Dead TV, which is broken into the following sections:

  • Single Episodes
  • The Series
  • Telefilms and Pilots
  • Animation
  • Documentaries and Reality TV
  • Variety Programming and TV Specials
  • Non-Traditional Vampires
  • No Vampires Here!  (stories thought to feature vampires, but which do not)
  • The Forthcoming and the Forgotten (projects in development, and abandoned projects)
  • Non-English Programming
  • A Trivial Pursuit (miscellanous facts and statistics compiled during writing of the book)

Each entry in each section includes production details and a synopsis, and many also include a review and some trivia.  The reviews feature both brief qualitative analysis and star ratings on a scale of Bomb to 4 stars (well, actually from a stake to 4 vampire bats, but you get the idea).

The sections seem well-researched and borderline exhaustive.  The “Single Episodes” section, for example, chronicles shows as varied as Alfred Hitchcock Presents, CSI, The Drew Carey Show, The Love Boat, and Night Gallery, to name but a few. In addition to that impressive variety, there are some intriguing episodes rated four stars, such as installments of Quantum Leap, Reaper, and Sledge Hammer!  The categories used serve as a strong organizational aid, making it easy to navigate the book, and a thorough index helps even further.

In terms of drawbacks… the book suffers from a distinct lack of graphics, resulting in page after page filled with paragraph after paragraph of unbroken text, while countless intriguing entries cry out for illustration.  (But I have to admit that adding a large number of graphics would have likely upped the page count significantly, resulting in higher production costs and likely a higher cover price.)  Also, I am somewhat mystified by the relative amounts of coverage afforded to various shows.  As a random but prime example, HBO’s influential True Blood gets a five-line entry, while Italian network Rai Uno’s obscure two-part mini-series Dracula gets nearly four times as much analysis.

All in all, however, Un-Dead TV fills a previously empty research niche, and provides lots of browsing entertainment.  Vampire lovers and scholars should find much to like in these pages.