You know: in a foolish, undiscriminating way, I've been happy these last few months. I don't know why. I just am. I love my friends; I love my pupils; I love what I read; I -- dammit -- love my thoughts. I love the taste of oranges.
Thornton Wilder in a letter to Gertrude Stein, Aug 14, 1936

Wednesday, December 28, 2011


What do you do if you are about to graduate from a small Buddhist college but do not come from a priestly family and therefore have no job opportunities open to you. If you have the proper skills, and a strong stomach, you might join The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service. This group sees to it that corpses abandoned in garbage dumps or found in the woods or the trunks of cars make it home to where their remains truly belong. But special skills do come in handy. One is a computer hacker; one is a dowser able to find corpses not water; one channels a foul-mouthed alien through a hand puppet; another, who for some reason appears to be a little girl, is an embalmer; and, most helpful of all is Kuro Kuratsu who is able to speak to the recently deceased.

Eiji Otsuka's manga series promises to be ghoulish fun. One story involves a necrophiliac father, another a hair dresser determined to assemble the perfect woman. Most surprising is Eiji's ability to write funny dialogue, something you don't get a lot of in manga. There may be visual gags and outrageous situations in most series, but The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service at times has the verbal spark of good comic film writing. In one scene the group argues over whether they need to buy a train ticket for a corpse. Numata, the dowser, has the group constantly eating the same brand of instant noodles so he can collect the labels and enter a contest for a Prada windbreaker. Throughout, they banter and give one another a hard time like any group of twenty-year-olds, they just happen to be carrying around dead bodies.


The Simulacra is PKD's grand, panoramic novel. He sweeps the reader from the highest corridors of power in Washington, D.C., to the lush rain forests of the Pacific North West and the colony of mutants who inhabit them. We meet Nicole Thibodeaux, the First Lady of the United States and the most powerful woman in the world; Richard Kongrosian, a psycho-kinetic musician who performs without touching the keyboard; and Looney Luke, semi-legal dealer in jalopies, outdated spacecraft good enough for a one-way trip to Mars. There is intrigue, betrayal, deception, and the threat of war.

Wait a minute. PKD didn't write grand, panoramic novels. Not that all the above isn't true. In fact it suggests no more than a fraction of the goings-on inThe Simulacra. But it all goes on in the usual two hundred or so pages common to PKD's novels. This is his most chaotic book. Every chapter for the first third of the novel introduces two or more new characters. What connections there will ever be among them is difficult to imagine. But much of what happens focuses on pleasing Nicole, who spends much of her time auditioning new acts to perform at her functions, or planning yet another televised tour of the White House. (Only readers of a certain age will get this joke.)

PKD tossed a lot of stray ideas into this one. Most of the ideas or good, the situations very funny, but he does not manage to do much more than let them fizzle out towards the end. Readers may be either irritated or exhausted, but the wiser choice is to just go along for the ride.

As in most of the novels from this period, there is moment when a female character lets loose with either a kind of praise or criticism that PKD must have wished for or dreaded hearing from whoever was his wife at the time. Here is Nicole talking about Richard Kongrosian.

"Oh the hell with it," Nicole said. "I'm tired of his ailments. I'm tired of having him pamper himself with his hypochondriacal obsessions. I'm going to toss the entire power and majesty and authority of the state at him, tell him point blank that he has got to give up his imaginary diseases.

Ouch. But even though Kongrosian is a hypochondriac he still has the power to psycho-kinetically transport one of Nicole's gun-wielding agents to the White House laundry room when necessary. The author remains in control.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011


BAO BAKO BAKO -- sound of a distant helicopter          

ZU ZURU -- sound of body dragging itself on the ground

PAN PAN -- brushing dirt off pants

PITA -- sound of fly landing on eye

BUBUN -- sound of flies

BUUUUN -- buzzing flies

GA -- footstep

PURAN -- sound of an arm falling off a stretcher

JI -- zipper starting to open

JIIIII -- zipper unzipping

BIKUN BIKUN -- body starting to twitch

GEBOBOBO -- vomiting blood

DO -- an organ hitting the floor

GAKO GAKO -- old car sounds

GIKU -- gulp sound effect

PORI PORI -- scratching head

SHIN -- sound of silence

GATA GATA KATA GATA -- headless body starting to shake

GOGOGOGOGO -- rushing water

Selected from the sound fx glossary of  The Kurosogi Corpse Delivery Service (vol 1) by Eiji Otsuka

(English translations of Japanese manga usually leave the sound effects that are crucial to the image in the original  kanji lettering.  The above are transliterations of kanji words into Roman lettering)

Thursday, December 15, 2011


The set up for the story involves a pun that only works in Japanese. When Hikari wrote his name on his shoes -- is this something Japanese teenagers do? -- he accidently wrote Hikaso. And since he draws all the time, all this schoolmates call him Picasso.

So that's not very interesting. But things pick up when Picasso and his almost girlfriend Chiaki have a helicopter fall on them. Chiaki dies. Picasso suffers only minor injuries. Several days later, Chiaki appears Tinkerbelle-like from the pocket of Picasso's school jacket. Surprise! Picasso is also dead, and his body will rot unless he uses his drawings to help others. First he spots a schoolmate with a dark aura, then he draws a mysterious picture, then he is physically sucked into the picture, then he figures out what is wrong, then he makes things right. In Vol. One he does this four times.

Finally, some one has created a manga that uses an absurd premise you might expect from a prime time, network series. It has good production values but it's boring.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011


Ramsey Campbell's home page opens with a quote from the Oxford Companion to English Literature. It informs us that Campbell is "Britain's most respected living horror writer."

My copy of the OCEL is a fifth edition and has no entry for Campbell at all. If it did, that first statement might be followed by this bit of information: Charles Dee Mitchell has attempted to read five of Mr. Campbell's works and only succeeded in finishing three. And trust me, in the case of those I abandoned it was not because I was too terrified to turn another page.

Ramsey Campbell, Family Man

Ramsey Campbell may neither travel well nor date well. He has an American following but is a much bigger deal, obviously, in Great Britain. He is, after all, their most respected living horror writer. He has been publishing since the late 1950's, and his most recent novel came out just this year from one of the presses that do high-priced, short runs of fantasy, horror, and science fiction titles. The books I tried were early to mid career novels. The Doll That Ate His Mother (1976), The Face that Must Die (1979), The Nameless (1981), The Hungry Moon (1986), and The Influence (1988). Perhaps the past two decades have seen a remarkable transformation of his style and storytelling, but it is not as though the ones I read came un-recommended. The Face That Must Die was a somewhat fancy reprint with an introduction by Poppy C. Brite and a few really bad illustrations. The Influence won the British Fantasy Award and is on the Guardian's list of best sf and fantasy. The Hungry Moon, absolutely the worst of the lot, is the novel chosen by the Horror Writers' Association to represent Campbell's work.

So is it just me? Of course, if that turned out to be the case, I would be the last person to admit it. I found the books mildly entertaining to unreadable. The thought that they might be genuinely frightening or even unnerving never crossed my mind.

To start with the ones I didn't finish. The Hungry Moon is an overlong tale of Druid magic resurrected in the modern day by a religious nut. Campbell introduces us to too many of the residents of Moonwell, a village in Northern England. We learn what supposedly makes each one interesting and that takes a while. Then the event happens and we see how each of them react. Since I started skimming and finally quit the book, I don't know the full panoply of horrible things that go on. But in the first chapter you learn that the village of Moonwell not only no longer exists but has been removed from maps, memories, and the telephone directory. The Influence concerns an evil great aunt out to possess the soul of her grandniece. If it had been a movie on TV and I could fast forward the commercials I would have watched it. But I couldn't read it.

Random Spooky Image

The other three novels are about psychopaths, two of them with some black magic references. The best of them is The Face that Must Die. The anti-hero, a Mr.Horridge, is a deranged young man obsessed with the evils of homosexuality. Great Britain decriminalized homosexuality in 1967, and decade later, Horridge sees the twisted results of the legislation everywhere he turns. He and his hammer will do what they can to remedy this situation. When the book first came out, portions were excised supposedly because they were too shocking. The complete text did not come out until 1982. Now the book just seems like fun. Horridge is crazy, and the block of flats on which he focuses his rage is peopled by characters only one of whom is gay and none whom have any idea what's coming. Like some of those old British stage thrillers, this is a shocker that now plays as black comedy.

Campbell lives in Liverpool, and what he does best it create the down-in-the heel atmosphere and characters of that dismal, at least in his rendering, Northern England city. Everything is rundown, the weather is miserable, the people often not very bright. I especially liked the paranoid, pot-smoking hippie and the scatterbrained artist who lets a psychopath into her flat thinking he is the plumber.

So big deal, Mr. Campbell is not my cup of tea. If anyone, however, finishes The Influence, I am curious to know if anything even vaguely unpredictable happens by the time it is over.

Read my reviews of individual Ramsey Campbell novels on Worlds Without End

Monday, December 12, 2011


PKD spent a great deal of time in and out of psychiatrists' offices. He had bouts of agoraphobia from the time he was a teenager and went through several spells of clinical depression. He knew the psychiatric lingo and at times used it as rigorously in his personal relationships as he did in his books.

Alpha III M2 is one of the purest creations of his experiences with mental health professionals. Alpha III M2 is a small moon in the Alpha Centauri system used by Earth as a global mental facility. The moon was one giant hospital treating all known forms of mental derangement. The fact that these break down to only a half dozen or so reflects the mid-sixties when the novel was written. The DSM had not yet expanded to include everything from psychosis to social anxiety disorder (shyness.) A minor war with the Alphanes has left Alpha III M2 to its on devices for over twenty years. Earth is finally sending ships to check up on how things are going.

Meanwhile back on earth, Chuck Rittersdorf has been tossed out by his wife, a successful marriage counselor, and now lives in a rundown conapt that sounds a little bit like the first apartment I had in college. He survives on the small salary he makes programming simulacra for CIA propaganda missions. His best new friend is a Ganymedean slime mold named Lord Running Clam. 

One reason I enjoy writing about PKD is that I can write Paragraph Two (above), follow it by Paragraph Three (above), and still be writing about the same novel. PKD said later in his career that he realized his writing technique involved starting multiple plots and then seeing how he could bring them together. I think this is usually referred to as "making it up as you go along." Chuck contemplates murdering his wife. .Bunny Hentzman, one of PKD's frequent world-renowned entertainers that exercise a bizarre control over Earth's culture, hires Chuck at a terrific salary, but counter-intelligence operations within the CIA and the Hentzman organization make Chuck a hunted man. As in a French farce of a Preston Sturges comedy, everyone ends in the same place, Alpha II M2, either shooting it out with laser pistols or making desperate diplomatic moves to keep Earth and Alpha out of a war and the main characters out of prison.

A strangely touching and revealing moment comes when Chuck, having agreed to another battery of psychological testing, has these thoughts which sound straight from the heart of PKD:

"Suppose the tests show no drift, no neurosis, no latent psychosis, no character deformation, no psychopathic tendencies, in other words, nothing. What do I do then?" ... he had an inkling that that was exactly what the tests would show. He did not belong in any of the settlements here on Alpha III M2; here he was a loner, an outcast, accompanied by no one even remotely resembling him."

Maybe not exactly a cri de coeur, but it seems one of the most personal statements PKD has made in his work to this time.

But then again, his is also improving his knack for toss away nuttiness. Here's the opening to Chapter 8:

When, late that night, Chuck Rittersdorf wearily returned to his rundown conapt in Marin County, California, he was stopped in the hall by the yellow Ganymedean slime mold. This, at three a.m. It was too much.


Wednesday, December 7, 2011


So what is the highlight of Vol 9?

A grown man slugging a ten-year-old girl in the face? No, that happens in just about every volume.

A revolt among one faction of the school that leads to dividing the buildings into enemy territories. No, that's been coming a long time.

The attack of the giant, flesh-eating starfish. Sorry, Umezo-san, you will have to try harder than that.

Sho's sudden attack of appendicitis? Really, after the bubonic plague outbreak some issues back, it just doesn't seem like that big of a deal.

The decision to operate on Sho using only an exacto knife and a pair of scissors? Now we're getting somewhere. Combine that with Sho's mother's mystic communication through the voice of the crippled girl who for some reason is suddenly near death, and you have one hell of an issue.

I can't believe there is only one volume more to go.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011


Without realizing it, Hiram and Levi had been in training for the Collapse most of their lives. They learned lessons in shop class, Boy Scouts, Renaissance Fairs, and all night sessions of Dungeons and Dragons. The began to receive instruction and train in earnest after television went all digital. On the unmonitored analog channels, 'Casters began sending out coded messages buried in the static, saying what to expect and how to prepare. Other messages were hidden in the wild style graffiti covering the walls of their college town somewhere in North Texas. When the Collapse occurred, Hiram and Levi would be among the prepared. The 'Casts had helped them assemble The Book, a sort of army training manuel for the survival of your Group. Following instructions Hiram and Levi already have established their Place in the country and stocked it with Salvage, i.e. stolen stuff. They have planned an escape route.

I was reading Noise on Black Friday. I took a break after about fifty pages, turned on the computer to check email, and saw first thing the videos of ambulances driving the fallen away from Best Buys in Colorado. Then I read the story of the woman at the California Wall Mart who pepper sprayed her fellow shoppers to protect her xbox console. And all morning I had thought I was reading a novel.

What Hiram and Levi have been learning, what they have assembled in The Book, are lessons in ruthlessness. They will not be victims. They will take advantage of chaos. They will regard all those outside their Group as enemies, and they will neutralize them when necessary. They neutralize some unsuspecting National Guardsmen who have been called in to discourage the turmoil breaking out in malls and on the campus. They steal the NG's Humvee with its 50 caliber machine gun. It comes in handy when dealing with disgruntled suburban males who don't like the look of what's going on. Hiram and Levi pick up some followers before their escape from the city, but this crowd, only partially trained in the disciplines of the 'Casts, prove to be a mixed blessing. When one thirteen year old is caught trying to escape -- he wants to go home to his parents across town -- he is tied to a porch railing, judged, and neutralized. The Group has done the right thing. The kid knew too much.

Noise is an unsettling read. It follows its relentless logic for just 200 pages and gets the survivors of Hiram and Levi's group to their Place of safety. I am one of those movie watchers who always wonder why characters hit guards and bad guys over the head instead of killing, I mean, neutralizing them, but I also know there is always payback time. Much of what is in The Book makes an awful sort of sense, given the situation. But nobody's long-term prospects look good.

Get the message?

Monday, December 5, 2011


This is how bad things have gotten. Earth is over-heated and over-crowded. If you go outside during the day you must wear a portable cooling pack and stay under anti-thermal protective shades until you can grab a passing jet taxi or "thermosealed, interbuilding commute car." The U.N. has a forced emigration policy designed to provide colonists to Mars and a few other locations. But everyone knows that life off Earth will be even more miserable than what they face here. The colonists serve no real purpose since agriculture is difficult with frozen methane storms and pesky alien creatures that may eat either your struggling crops or yourself. When draft notices arrive, anyone who can afford one hires a psychiatrist in a box. Its purpose is to keep your mind so addled you will never pass the psych examine when the U.N. tries to ship you off to the boonies.

Barney Mayerson's shrink is Dr. Smile, and he is supposed to be one of the best. But Barney should be able to beat his draft notice in any case. He is the New York Pre-Fash consultant for Perky Pat Enterprises. This means he uses his precognitive abilities to judge whether products presented as possible new additions to Perky Pat's layout will be a success. PP is a doll with a dreamy life and dreamy boyfriend --let's face it, they're Barbie and Ken. Colonists in their Martian hovels spend hours playing with Perky Pat, aided by the illegal drug, Can-D. (The drug is manufactured on Venus by Perky Pat Enterprises.) A chaw of Can-D gives participants up to an hour or so of complete identification with PP and her world.

Life for Barney, his new girlfriend/assistant Betty, and their boss Leo Bolero is good until word comes that renegade industrialist Palmer Eldritch has crash landed on Pluto after a decade spent outside the solar system. Rumor has it that that he has brought back with him a new drug, Chew-Z. (PKD was never one to shy away from puns.) Chew-Z is better than Can-D. It requires no layouts but instead puts the user into a completely realized fantasy world. And Eldritch has won U.N approval, so it is legal. Perky Pat Enterprises will be destroyed.

This might be a good time to mention that The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch is PKD's first overtly religious novel. It is one of seven novels written during the amphetamine-fueled years of 1963/64. There is some question as to when PKD first took LSD, but it is difficult not to imagine Can-D and Chew-Z as versions of marijuana and acid. Can-D is a party drug. Chew-Z promises to reveal new levels of reality. It is part of a spiritual quest, but it could also be a trap. There comes a Voltairian moment when Barney decides to chuck everything and just tend his own scraggly Martian garden. That doesn't last for long. Barney's quest will bring him into contact with the world of Chew-Z, Palmer Eldritch himself, and whatever exists beyond Palmer Eldritch.

This is the book that 30 years ago sold me on Philip K. Dick. I had seen Blade Runner and read, since it was supposed to be PKD's best novel, The Man in the High Castle. I liked it OK, but then I happened to pick up Palmer Eldritch. The screwball pacing, deadpan humor, and imaginative monsters were the perfect cover for the serious thought that lurked in the background. Even though I was hooked -- an appropriate term when discussing PKD -- I read him only sporadically until this past year. Now reading all his SF in more or less chronological order is at times a pleasure, a chore, and even saddening. It's my own Chew-Z trip. And I am just now getting to the good stuff.

Sunday, December 4, 2011



Did you mean Jordan River?


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