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, February 22, 2012


Regular of readers of Philip K Dick would not expect him to write a novel exploring social issues, but in this case that is what he seems to think he is doing. The result is a muddle of ideas that try to stay topical while medium level PKD weirdness circles around them.

The setting is the late 21st century, and overpopulation, combined with a shortage of jobs, has become the major problem facing the human race. The solution has been to warehouse those who request it in suspended animation with the promise of awakening them when social conditions change. This is also a racial issue. "Cols" are now the majority population, and also the least employable. "Caucs" maintain the systems of government while millions of Cols become "bibs," -- the name given to those warehoused sleepers. (I never quite figured out the "bib" allusion. Also in the book are "Jerries," the older generation that can still remember the way things used to be.)

It is a presidential election year, and the Republican Liberal Party candidate for the first time is a Col. Jim Briskin wants to be president and in his brilliant speeches is willing to say what he thinks the people, and the Col majority, want to hear. He promises to close the warehouses and find a way to resolve the bib situation. He proposes pursuing some outdated technology called planet wetting to create habitable colonies. He will also close down Thisbe Olt's pleasure satellite The Golden Door, an orbiting brothel with thousands of working women and a enormous clientele. Thisbe's operation has been legalized as a means of keeping the population down. (Question mark. Exlamation point. WTF)  None of Briskin's ideas are really feasible.

Then there are the Jerry Scuttlers, devices that are intended to transport their owners anywhere they want to go. Unfortunately they have design flaws. One owner complains that his always delivers him to Portland, Oregon. A repairman, however, discovers that the machine has a rent in its fabric that delivers one to a verdant, apparently virgin land that could solve the immigration problem.

So PKD has his usual half dozen plots in play, but much centers on that flawed Jerry Scuttler and the fact that Briskin may be able to come through with his promise of closing the bib warehouses. But when the new land is discovered to be a version of Terra itself that has followed a different evolutionary path than our own planet, new racial problems arise with how to treat the inhabitants there.  They are not homo sapiens but intellectually capable offspring of hominid strains removed from our history.

The Crack in Space has subplots that go nowhere and  either resolve themselves almost as soon as they are introduced or need quick sentence summaries toward the end of the novel.  Nothing about it addresses in any coherent way the social issues it raises. It is at its best when played as farce, with characters traveling the planet in their Jet Hoppers and scrambling to put together a winning presidential campaign, But it remains a muddle and, unusual for a PKD novel, manages to become somewhat dull. This despite that fact that one character is the unicephalic twin George Walt -- one head, two bodies, two personalities. He is the proprietor of the Golden Door and is briefly worshipped as a god by the inhabitants of the parallel universe opened by the defected Jerry Scuttler.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

MANGA MANIA: PARASYTE Vol 7 by Hitoshi Iwaaki

Another volume, another blood bath. This time it does not involve a high school. Humans are onto the parasyte infiltration of municipal government, and they plan a raid to determine just who is infected. For some reason they think it is a good idea to bring in a necrophiliac serial killer with a talent for spotting aliens to help. But you just can't trust those necrophiliac serial killers. 

We also learn that not all parasytes are created equal. Some are tougher than others, especially those who look like a G.I. Joe. They can absorb bullets and spit them back at you. 

In the concluding portions of this volume, at last love comes to Shinichi. And Migi, the parasyte inhabiting his right hand, has been sleeping more than usual but wakes up to work out a spectacular escape for the climax.

Thursday, February 9, 2012


Tom Piccirilli with a cute dog
The less Tom Piccirilli encumbers his novels with plot, the better they are. At least that has been the case in his five early horror novels I have read: Hexes (1999); The Deceased (2000): Night Class (2002): A Choir of Ill Children (2004); and, Headstone City (2006). The novels are by no mean short of grotesque and often unpleasant incidents. But Piccirilli works by accumulation not by character arcs and interwoven themes.  His theme is consistently that of a young man, in his late twenties or thirties, who must come to accept his role in society, wether it is  the gangland of Brooklyn or a backwater town somewhere in the American South. But the novels are not traditional Bildungsromans. This is not in the world of David Copperfield or The Apprenticeship of Wilhem Meister. These are nightmares.

Demonic evil, ghosts, astral projections, some handy knowledge of witchcraft, and alternate realities are daily issues for Piccirilli's protagonists. In Headstone City, Johnny Danetello endures frequent visitations from the dead, ranging from the girl he could not save from an overdose to his mother to "the boy with the damaged head." Caleb Prentiss, an alcoholic upperclassman at a small, snowbound Midwestern university, wants to find out more about the girl murdered in his dorm room over winter break. He is often accompanied by his sister who committed suicide; and, when he receives the unasked-for blessing of the stigmata in both palms, he leaves bloody paths across the snowy campus. Thomas, the central character of A Choir of Ill Children has too many issues to go into here, but one involves the care of his brothers, triplets conjoined at the frontal lobe.

Piccirilli's locales are sharply observed locations that could exist nowhere but in his novels. In addition to the snowbound campus in Night Class and the swampy town of Kingdom Come in A Choir of Ill Children, Piccirilli delineates in Hexes the town of Summerfel -- Summerfell!-- a small town dominated by an asylum named Panecraft, a lighthouse undermined by tunnels containing some unspeakable horror, a local hangout called Krunch Burger, and a rich man's house that is more like a castle than a mansion. If you don't like things in Summerfel, you can always move the next town over to Gallows. Headstone City takes place in an imaginary neighborhood of an otherwise identifiable Brooklyn, a neighborhood where the decaying mansions of stars from the earliest days of silent film surround the enormous cemetery of the title. The neighborhood is still run by some goonish gangsters who have mostly moved their money into legit businesses but who still,  guided by a misplaced enthusiasm for their once glorious past, enact the occasional bloody vendetta against one another,

Several internet customer reviews complain that these books make no sense, but I think those readers are looking for the wrong things. Like a coherent plot. Piccirilli is a lot of fun to read. There is always that central character who knows a bit more that those around him, whether it is more effective magical spells or just that so much of what is going on is bullshit. When Piccirilli brings more plotting into the mix, things tend to wrong. The Deceased turns into little more that a pretty good horror movie, with girls, who I assume have large breasts, running around an old house during a thunderstorm. The gangster story that runs through Headstone City is not as resolved or effective as the weirdness that underlies it.

But these books are just the kind of fun I hoped modern horror novels could offer. They are literate, amusing, at times really icky, and never slow down. I understand that Piccirilli's recent novels are more straightforward crime stories, so I hope he has worked out those plotting issues. On the off chance that anyone reading this might actually pick up a Piccirilli novel, I recommend starting with the best, A Choir of Ill Children. If nothing else, you will learn a really interesting new use of the word "vinegar."

You can read my individual reviews of Piccirilli novels at World's Without End

Wednesday, February 8, 2012


OK, I was wrong on this one. After Vol 10 I was saying the series had jumped the shark and was headed for an inevitable anti-climax. But I forgot one thing. It is Japanese.

Since this is the final volume, it would be easy to make these comments into Spoiler City. So I will just list a few stand out moments:
That arm is not connected to a body

1) Sixth graders confess their undying love for one another.
2) The school cafeteria man who will not die is finally done in by the severed arm and half the face of a character that I do no believe has made an appearance before this episode.
3) Sho's mom goes on national television to ask all the children of Japan to pray for the safe return of her son.
4) And only in Japan would you get a plot development that finds the first signs of hope for a new society in the plants that sprout from the corpses of the dead school kids scattered over the desert and around the campus.

Troy about the time of his role in The Drifting Classrom
Umezu's manga was originally serialized in the early 1970's. It is still the wildest ride of any of the manga series I have looked at. A film version was made in 1987, but I can find only snippets on Your Tube. It appears to take place at an international school, so half the dialog is in English and all the characters are turned into older teens. There are musical numbers. Troy Donahue plays one of the teachers. Did I just write that. Yes, Troy Donahue plays one of the teachers.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012


(The science fiction site Worlds Without End is sponsoring a challenge for members to read one novel a month by a recipient of the Damon Knight Grand Master of Science Fiction Award. You can participate or read my and many other reviews at Worlds Without End)

Jack Williamson
1908 - 2006
Newspapermen and one gorgeous, redheaded, green-eyed newspaperwoman wait on the chilly tarmac of the Clarendon airport for the chartered plane returning the Lamarck Mondrick expedition from their two your stint in Nala-Shan. (Nala-shan actually exists. It's a mountain range in Northern China between Ninxgia and inner Mongolia's Alxa League. This could be the only trace of verifiable fact Williamson brings to his novel.) Along with the press are family members of the four returning explorers, including the elderly, stately Rowena Mondrick, blind since a panther ripped out her eyes in Nigeria some years before.

Mark Barbee is there, an old friend of the explorers and now an alcoholic reporter for the Star. He introduces himself to the beautiful readhead, April Bell, novice reporter for Clarendon's rival newspaper. She carries a small snakeskin bag that holds an adorable black kitten. Don't get too attached to the kitten.

The plane lands, the much aged and visibly frightened explorers descend the ramp. They carry a heavily locked green case. The enfeebled Mondrick begins a speech, promises world-shattering revelations, then dies of asthma or a heart attack or a combination of the two, Much consternation. April Bell vanishes, but Matt Barbee has already made a date for later that night. His nose for news leads him to a dumpster near the airport terminal where he finds the snakeskin bag containing the kitten. It's been strangled by a red ribbon and it's heart punctured by an ivory pin decorated with a running wolf. It must be that same nose for news that does not make Barbee consider canceling his date.

This is the set-up for Darker Than You Think. (Oh, in case you need more clues to coming events, Rowena Mondrick drapes herself in silver jewelry and her mastiff, wearing a silver-studded collar, goes beserk when he sees April Bell.)

Williamson's novel first appeared in John W. Cambell's Astounding in 1940 as a 40,000 word serial. After WWII, the market for science fiction changed. Pulps were losing out to radio and paperbacks, but the now grown-up kids who loved sf from its pulpy origins wanted to see the stories in book form. Lloyd Arthur Eschbach founded Fantasy Press in 1946 and brought out Williamson's The Legion of Space. Respectable sales prompted Llyod to ask Williams to double the length of Darker Than You Think, and its sales equaled those of the previous novel. It's been reprinted many times. The edition I read was a Dell 1979 paperback that reproduced the original drawings by Edd Cartier, whose work, according the book's blurb, adds an extra dimension of enjoyment. Well, maybe. Certainly it adds an extra dimension of camp. My favorite is the frontispiece that features a nude woman seated on the back of a sabre-tooth tiger. She has the perky but nipple-free breasts not uncommon to illustrations of the time.

April Bell is a witch, part of the Old Breed that Mondrick wants to eliminate from the earth. Barbee, it turns out, is a shapeshifter himself. I thought is was cheating to have them turn invisible when they took animal form, but it is necessary to make the plot work. Because Williamson wanted to write science fiction and not occult fantasy, he provides some anthropological background for this demon breed and some fanciful physics for why they can walk through walls. This theory is put forth at length several times in dialogue that bears no hint of realistic human speech. 

Williamson lists this among his favorite books because it embodied much of what he learned about himself in psychoanalysis. He had been selling erractically to the pulps for years, but in 1936 he hit a wall. (He was 28.) He had been reading about psychiatry and wrote Ives Hendricks , the author of Facts and Theories of Psychoanalysis about coming to Boston from New Mexico for treatment. Hendricks suggested the Menninger Clinic in Topeka and Karl Menniger agreed to see him on April 13. With enough money to live frugally in Topeka, even paying the five dollars an hour for treatment, Williamson stayed. He was under the treatment of Dr. Charles W. Tidd, until two years kater when money ran out and he and his doctor agreed there was nowhere further to go at the time.

In Darker Than You Think Topeka becomes Clarendon. Glennhaven is an enormous and very active psychiatric hospital where Barbee makes a brief stay. There is too much plot to keep him there for any length of time. What Williamson learned with Dr. Tidd at the Menninger was to let go of some of his inner conflicts and accept parts of himself he had attempted to keep rigidly separated. How this works out for Barbee in the novel some readers found shocking.

Darker Than You Think is enjoyable but dated and creaky. Here is a clue to how you might enjoy it more. Imagine it as a black and white movie from RKO studios in the 1940's, produced by Val Lewton and directed by Jacques Tourneur. That is if you want to emphasize the moodier aspects. For a crisper image turn the project over to Robert Wise. 

Cool French cover to
Darker Than You Think

(All the biographical information in this review comes from Williamson's memoirs, Wonder's Child.)

Wednesday, February 1, 2012


When you are in a business called the Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service, you do not expect one of your clients to get up and walk away. That's what happens early on in this installment, but the kids find him later, genuinely dead. In fact, he is dead twice over. He is carrying an older, deader transplanted kidney. This discovery leads the team to a very dodgy trade in organ harvesting from illegal immigrants. It also takes the to Iraq. Since this third volume is episodic unlike the single, book-length tale that made up Volume 2, the Delivery Team still has time to encounter a murder/suicide club operating in Tokyo.

A significant feature of this series is the Glossary and Notes at the end of every volume. The glossary mostly translates the kanji used for sound effects. I used one as a Potato Weather Posting here . But there are helpful notes that give some cultural background to the plots. The notes also explain various misconceptions the authors have about Western societies that make their way into the stories.