We love ’em but you probably haven’t read ’em. Being a voracious reader means reading everything and anything you can get your hands on. Sometimes we find junk, sometimes we find a gem. With that in mind, we ask our esteemed panel the following question…
I sometimes wonder if my fondness for science fiction comes from the fact that I grew up in the plot of an SF novel. My generation was the subject of a grand social experiment: based on the idea that all Canadians should be bilingual, we were schooled mostly in French from kindergarten to high school. Unlike in a dystopian (or utopian) novel, of course, the government wasn’t able to compel bilingual education, so there were only a few parts of the country where it became common. Ottawa, where I grew up, was one of them, and – probably due to a mix of fear of Quebec separation and a sense that French would inoculate us against American culture – my generation’s parents embraced it enthusiastically.
Those of us in the French immersion program didn’t care why our parents had decided to put us in it. What we knew was that we got to read way better books. While the English-program kids read Dick and Jane, we were reading Asterix, Les Schtroumphs (the Smurfs) and Tintin and learning about things like white slavery, the heroin trade and Belgian linguistic politics. Best of all, while our counterparts were reading Very Serious Books about kids dealing with social issues (this was the ’70s) we were reading Surreal 3000.
Even for Immersion, Surreal – known in English, to those few who’ve heard of it, as The City Underground – was unusual. Not only was it SF, it was probably the first Quebecois SF novel ever written – the first of many books written by Suzanne Martel, whose mother had to forbid her from writing more than eight hours a day as a child – and certainly the first Canadian SF novel I ever read. That alone was enough for it to make an impact, but its premise certainly didn’t hurt. The idea of teenagers living in a society confined to the remains of the Montreal subway system, a thousand years after a nuclear war had devastated the world and left, appealed to me for a number of reasons: just being set in Montreal was cool enough – growing up in Ottawa, nothing was cooler than Montreal, especially its Metro system – and the post-apocalyptic setting connected simultaneously with my fear and fascination with the risk of nuclear war. One element that was lost on me – though I suspect it had a lot to do with the book’s appeal to Quebecois readers – was the idea that French had survived in Canada to the year 3000: something that was still an open question in 1963, when the book was first published, and which was still a live political issue when I read it in the early 1980s.
Thirty years later, the grand experiment has resulted in neither utopia nor dystopia – though my grandfather complained about the French on his Corn Flakes box to his dying day – but instead, as usually happens in the real world, places where the future took root more strongly than others. The world did not blow up, in part due to the efforts of people who were inspired by books like Surreal. (Ask me some day about how the role of the peace movement in ending the Cold War has been written out of the history books.) Quebec is still in Canada, though we had a few close calls, and French is healthier there than at any time since 1759 – but most people in the rest of the country still don’t know it. I still live in Ottawa, one of the few places where French immersion is the default, and both of my sons are in immersion. I don’t know if they will read Surreal 3000. I suspect that Martel’s other famous novel, Jeanne, fille du Roy, has had a longer life in the immersion program: a historical novel about the early days of New France, it hits two curricular birds with one stone and has the reassuring quality of looking to the past rather than the future. Surreal probably wouldn’t have the impact on them that it did on me, anyway. There are plenty of Canadian SF/F novels now, some even set right here in Ottawa, and the apocalypses we fear today are less sudden and more subtle. But then, Montreal is always cool, and so are subways, and while there’s comfort in looking back, there’s also a powerful appeal to the idea of being the first one to step outside the safe confines of home, and see what’s out there.
Hands down, that honor goes to the High King of Kantmorie saga by Ansen Dibell. Whenever I list authors who influenced me, I name a handful whom everyone knows: Doyle, Cherryh, Heyer. But when I add Ansen Dibell to that list, people always draw a blank.
In the ’80s, Ansen Dibell wrote a series of novels that included: The Pursuit of the Screamer; Circle, Crescent, Star; Summerfair; Tidestorm Limit, and The Sun of the Grand Return. In these, she chronicles the adventures of Janus, a mostly human young man training to be a lawyer (essentially) who befriends a large cat (Lur) who turns out to be an alien rebodied into that form. Janus just wants to impress Poli, one of his mother’s non-human (Valde) empathic guards. Lur want Janus to destroy the buried space ship that keeps putting his consciousness into one body after another, an endless cycle of life that he no longer wants. Did I mention that the space-ship actually has a giant fish for a brain? And that’s just the beginning of the first novel…
The books go on to track the story of Janus and Poli as they try to keep the world from breaking down into war without losing their humanity (term applied loosely). I first read the series when I was in college, and was fascinated by the concepts of identity as it relates to the physical body and the “soul,” and the amazing writing of Dibell as she convinced me that an empathic, female-dominated society could actually exist.
And those readers who actually have read the first three books might now protest, “What? I’ve never heard of those last two books!”
That’s because the last two books weren’t picked up by DAW, but the Dutch and French publishers of the series did buy them. Therefore avid fans can get the final two books in the series overseas…provided that they can actually read one of those two languages. Because the books were quite expensive, I teamed up with an Australian fan to procure copies in French, then I photocopied them and sent her the originals. Yes, we’re that desperate to read Dibell’s books.
Someday when I’m older, I hope to finish the translation that I’ve started, but right now I have to get back to writing my own books about empathic characters.
Douglas Draa has published a few short stories this past year. He is also the editor of Weirdbook. Douglas is an ex-pat Buckeye who lives in Nuremberg Germany with his wife and daughter.
I love Strange Eons because it was Robert Bloch’s final tribute to his friend and mentor H.P. Lovecraft and tons of over-the-top fun to boot!
To my knowledge, Mr. Bloch never wrote another Cthulhu Mythos story after this novel. I figure that that is reasonable seeing that he brings the entire “Cthulhu Mythos” to an end in this book. Yep, in the novel, the Stars are finally right!
Now let’s take a look at Strange Eons. I can’t say that Eons is a great literature. But it is goofy and insane fun. I love that Bloch was audacious enough to take the Mythos to its logical foreshadowed conclusion.
The story itself is broken down into three sections and told as a mystery. The first section deals with two art collectors in Los Angeles who literally stumble across and purchase a painting that turns out to be the genuine painting that appeared in Lovecraft’s story “Pickman’s Model.”
This sets off a chain of murders by some mysterious group that wants the painting and will go to any lengths to recover it and to hide any evidence of it even existing. The murders themselves all appear to be modelled after famous death scenes from Lovecraft stories. This is quite apparent to the two collectors since one is an HPL aficionado and the other is the target of the aforementioned chunk of HP exposition. Eventually our two collectors meet untimely and grisly ends. Thus ends the first section of the novel.
The second section picks up about six months later and the ex wife, who is a photo model, of one of our dead art collectors gets dragged into the whole mess by being hired to model in some ads for a new cult that has popped up in LA. She then gets approached by government agents who are investing the sect as part of a supposed racketeering investigation. Turns out this sect is heavily involved with the Return of Cthulhu and the government knows this.
After a series of HPL-inspired murders and chases involving denizens straight out of Lovecraft stories our heroine gets initiated into the inner circle of a international group of spies, scientists and diplomats who are waging a shadow war against the Cult and the Cthulhu Mythos deities. By the end of the second section we learn the cult has infiltrated all levels of government and society by means of bribery and mind control. Our heroine is finally kidnapped and forced into a marriage of convenience with Cthulhu himself. She then on their wedding night receives from Cthulhu the gift that keeps on giving and as a result of this gift she goes insane.
The third section then moves up 30 years to circa 2009 or 2010. We know this from two reasons. The first is that we are told that it’s thirty years later and the second reason it that everyone seems to have video-phones on their office desks. Our new protagonist is a young reporter who is investigating the resurgence of the Cthulhu cult from the first two sections. It seems that the cult had been busy recruiting members and spreading death and terror around the globe before being put down by various governments. Anyways it now seems that someone has been doing their best to convince the public that there never was any Cthulhu Cult and the end of the world is not approaching. Our young reporter finds out otherwise. It seems that his foster father is behind the efforts to convince the world that everything is just fine and that there is nothing to worry about. We also find out that the young reporter is an orphan whose mother died insane after his birth without ever revealing who was the father of her child. I bet that you can guess where the final 20 pages of the book are going. Like I said earlier, the Stars are finally right! All in all, Strange Eons is a fun read for HPL and Robert Bloch fans. The second section is the best part of the book. It reads like an old Mannix episode, then switches into high gear as “The Man From U.N.C.L.E vs. The Mythos.” We even get treated to an all-out nuclear attack on R’lyeh! What I did find really clever in the book is that the protagonists were never sure if the cultists were mocking them by recreating death scenes from Lovecraft, recreating the murders for their own (the cultists) amusement or that HPL was a visionary who saw these future murders in his dreams and then incorporated them into his stories. We do learn through the novel that Lovecraft knew what was going on through the visions he had while dreaming, personal investigations and that his stories were meant as warning to future generations. So if you like Bloch or Lovecraft I can highly recommend this book. You can give it a pass, though, if you’re not interested in either.
The U.S. horror community, for the most part, doesn’t eagerly seek out fiction in translation. Moreover, the book’s themes (alienation, anxiety, humiliation, guilt, debasement, and loss of control) don’t lend themselves to mass appeal. For that matter, neither do the transgressive ways in which those themes are worked out.
That’s already three strikes against it, but there are more! The English translation is provided by an obscure Czech publisher called Twisted Spoon Press (another translation is also available, from an equally-obscure small press). Also, it’s one of those books that defies easy classification. Some would argue that it’s not horror at all. Some might call it literary fiction.
But the literary scene has never fully embraced it. According to Ungar biographer Dieter Südhoff, the initial public and critical reaction to the book was — at best — an ambivalent one, marked by “revulsion and fascination.”
Despite reports that Ungar had heavily edited The Maimed before publication, it was still thought to be too dark, graphic, and outré. Thomas Mann called it a “…horrible book, sexual hell, full of filth, crime and deepest melancholy — a monotonous aberration…”
Mann wasn’t the only one to think The Maimed was beyond the pale. The Czech writer Robert Saudeck said that “…literature will never again see a book like this, which places all the ugliness of animalistic behavior in the spotlight in such a torrid way.” Critic Stefan Zweig called it “magnificent and monstrous, alluring and abhorrent, unforgettable although one would like to forget it and escape its abusive oppression.” Writer and editor Gerhardt Pohl called it “a sexual chamber of horrors.”
Pohl went on to say: “This Hermann Ungar has a terrible preference for — what is the most simple way to say this — for bad taste, for the miasma of the soul, for stale, sweaty, dirty situations and his lack of sympathy for those with weak or sensitive nerves borders on the perverse.”
But the transgressive nature of this book is part of its appeal to me. I found the ugliness, the anxiety, the melancholy, the oddity, and the bleakness refreshing. This isn’t horror fiction as a commodity mimicking the melodramatic storytelling style of pop culture. This isn’t horror fiction as a road to ultimate reassurance. This is horror fiction as a truly disturbing experience, alternatingly cerebral and visceral.
Ungar’s book reminds me of others I’ve read in recent years: obscure titles, available in translation, similarly straddling the line between horror and literary fiction. Morbid, intense, introspective, pessimistic, nightmarish works. Sadegh Hedayat’s The Blind Owl. Leonid Andreyev’s The Red Laugh. Roland Topor’s The Tenant.
These books may be relatively old, but they strike me as far more innovative than many of today’s offerings. Most can be acquired via the usual online booksellers (some, actually, as ebooks) or directly from the publishers. If you’re open to a new experience with horror, I highly recommend them.
When I talk to my friends about their favorite horror stories, Stephen Dobyns’s novel, The Church of Dead Girls, never comes up. I was introduced to it during a horror class I took in college, and my instructor, Scott A. Johnson, classified it as literary horror. If you’re like me, you’re probably rolling your eyes at the literary part, but don’t let that put a sour taste in your mouth!
It’s worth your time, but you do have to have a little…patience.
The charm of this book comes from its obsessive narrator. We start with the dead girls, no spoilers there, and they are described in such vivid detail that it’s almost too much (unless dead kids don’t bother you — in which case you probably need therapy, not fiction). Basically, we get five pages of prologue describing the morbid scene. Needless to say, it hooked me from the start!
Then…things get a bit odd. The narrator dives into the small town where the story takes place with the same attention to detail with which the dead girls were meticulously described. Sounds great, right? You’ll get to know every street, every shop, every neighbor, every rumor this town has to offer to the point where everyone’s a suspect in a crime that hasn’t even happened yet.
Oh yeah, the prologue is the end and the first chapter starts weeks before the first girl actually dies. This structure builds tension on several levels. You’re wondering who will die, who will kill them, and what else might happen along the way.
This is such a fascinating book to read, but I’ll be the first to admit that it’s not for everyone. I’m either delusional or most people haven’t been lucky enough to stumble across this overlooked gem of the macabre.
Easy one, actually, because I have a go-to book to re-read when I’m feeling down, but so far nobody I know has ever heard of it. The Magic and The Healing by Nick O’Donohoe. It was published in 1994, I think (I first read it when I was 15), and is out of print it looks like (wish it weren’t, or at least that it was on Kindle), but copies are still around. It has two sequels that are awesome also, Under the Healing Sign and The Healing of Crossroads.
It’s urban fantasy mixed with portal fantasy, with a character who is dealing with losing family, her work life/future goals falling apart, and serious health issues. Plus it has unicorns! I re-read the whole series every few years, especially if I get really sad. The characters are like old friends now, and they are so well written and the world so well developed that I can almost imagine this could be real and that if I can just find the right road, I, too, could end up in Crossroads. That’s a rare gem kind of read, in my mind. I think it’s a pity these books aren’t still in print and wildly popular. Anyone who loves portal fantasy, veterinary medicine, unicorns, urban fantasy, and truly three-dimensional characters will love these.
I’m a fan of used bookstores. I also have some friends at small presses. Believe it or not, that is a great recipe for discovering books that most people have never heard of. In no particular order, here are some obscure titles you might enjoy:
Pen Pal, by Francesca Forrest – Published through Amazon’s CreateSpace platform in late 2013, the book was introduced to me by an editor friend. This epistolary young adult novel follows the unexpected friendship between a young woman who lives in a floating city and a political prisoner. I loved the interplay of politics, coming-of-age, cultures on the fridge, and social assumptions towards assimilation. Forrest writes in such a way that you are immediately invested in the characters. Also? There is a prison that is inside a volcano.
Starship and Haiku by Somtow Sucharitkul – Purchased on a lark due to the weird name. And it’s a weird book. Best thing about this book is how the author treats and shows telepathic communication between humans and whales, since, like, whales don’t talk, or think like we do. As much as I enjoyed how the telepathic conversations with an “other” are presented, I never got fully invested in the characters or the plot. Winner of a Locus award, this little book was just too weird for me.
The Cyberiad by Stanislaw Lem – OK, so this one isn’t very obscure. Or maybe it is. While slinging puns and poetry, the robot engineers Trurl and Klapaucius build incredible machines that only sometimes work as expected. Lots of literary humor and whoever translated this from the original Polish is an absolute genius. If you’ve never read Lem, I heartily suggest you start here, because The Cyberiad is just awesome.
Whitechapel Gods by S.M. Peters – An atmospheric steampunk horror novel, this book spoiled me for steampunk. It’s dark and visceral, and years after reading it I can still hear the nails-on-a-chalkboard sound of Clacks-infected beggars dragging their useless limbs against the cobblestones. The plot has a Matrix feel to it, so if you ever wished there was a mash-up of The Matrix and steampunk, S.M. Peters wrote if for you back in 2008. Not only is this title obscure, but the author is as well, with very little information about them online. Makes me wonder if they published this book under a pseudonym.
The Best Japanese Science Fiction Stories edited by John L. Apostolou and Martin H. Greenberg – Featuring Japanese science fiction from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, this collection took nearly a decade to put together. A study in culture and context, these stories straddle dark yet low-stakes science, strange investigations, and even the hilariously sensual adventures of a piece of cardboard. An unforgettable collection, but good luck finding a copy.
It’s hard to believe that anything associated with George Takei could be obscure and unknown. But the book he wrote with Robert Asprin, Mirror Friend, Mirror Foe, languishes with a seven-digit rank on Amazon with a measly five reviews, and does not even have a Wikipedia page.
And that’s a shame.
First of all, Ninjas. In. Space!
Secondly, reprogrammed robots. EXTERMINATE!
Thirdly, and last from lastly, it’s a book with a heart. It’s love versus duty, love versus tradition, love versus family — but also love of duty, love of tradition, love of family. It’s clearly not Asprin’s book alone — it is, for one thing, deeper and subtler than what I’ve read of Asprin’s work, resembling in its clarity some of John M. Ford’s better novels.
Sharing the dismal Amazon ranking is another of my favorite books — A Choice of Destinies by Melissa Scott. Zeus-Ammon appears to Alexander the Great in a dream and directs him, in effect, “Go West, young man!” Characterizations are exquisite, research of this alternate history is painstaking, action is edge-of-seat, and, sure enough, great reviews — all five of them.
This book also holds the distinction of having been picked out of my carry-on bag by customs officials in a small Caribbean nation’s main tourist airport, and practically read in its entirety before being returned to me. Whether they were looking for a good book to read on vacation, or screening for potentially subversive literature, they would have done right to keep it.
When I was in my early teens I was trying to find more “adult” books to read since I had outgrown the children’s section. My friends weren’t avid readers so I tended to find things through the library, either by random browsing or through their recommendation lists. One such list suggested a book called The Coachman Rat by David Henry Wilson, for older children (teens).
It sounded interesting, a story told from the viewpoint of the rat who becomes the coachman for the equivalent of his world’s Cinderella. Little did I know how dark the story would get or much of an impact it would make on me.
Though a rat, the narrator is curious about humans and because of that he’s in a position to be easily scooped up and transformed into a human coachman by the fairy godmother, who names him Robert. She then sends him off to the ball with the scullery maid Amadea, who has been transformed to look like a princess.
It feels very much like a retelling of Cinderella from the viewpoint of the coachman rat, except that the ball is over before the book is 20% through. It’s what happens afterwards that gets messed up.
Robert returns home, but as a rat who now speaks the language of humans, removing him from any prior connection with his own kind. He’s driven out by his mother because of this, which sets him on a quest to find the woman of light, the fairy godmother, who he believes is the only person who can fix his predicament. Since the woman of light doesn’t normally exist in this world though, his key to finding her is reuniting with the newly made Princess Amadea.
Getting humans to listen properly to a talking rat is difficult though, let alone one that claims to know the new princess, and Robert is too innocent to realize what it means to claim that the princess won her new position through the assistance of an otherworldly being. Most humans do not have the altruistic view of the world that Robert does.
The Coachman Rat is ultimately a tragedy as Robert learns how horrible people can be not only to other animals (which as a rat, he always knew), but to each other. It’s not just that he loses his innocence that had a profound impact on me. It’s that once his innocence is lost, Robert is willing to do whatever it takes to avenge those he cares about, even if it costs whatever is still good in him. And it does.
Robert becomes human in the worst kind of way.
The ending stuck with me for a long time, and I think it’s because even though the price was terrible, a part of me was still sympathetic towards him. I knew why he had to come to lie and murder and I was upset by the journey that had been so brutal to him.
I don’t know who put this on my library’s recommended reading list; it was like nothing else I’d read at the time, and it’s definitely not for younger kids. But even though it was a difficult journey, I’m glad I took it.
Back in my high school days, I was completely enamored of the “interactive fiction” works of Infocom. You know, the Zork people? I devoured everything of theirs I could get my hands on. I was completely invested in those games, as well as the culture of the company. Because these were games that were about writing, about story, and the game designers were storytellers first, programmers second. I loved everything about them.
So when they announced that they were publishing books that were based on their properties, I was all over that.
I was thrilled, therefore, to pick up Arthur Byron Cover’s Planetfall as soon as it came out. Or more specifically, as soon as I was able to get it, since I had to special order it at my local Waldenbooks. Because, let’s face it, I was about the only one who was looking for that book.
At the time, I adored it. I found it rollickingly funny, capturing a lot of the same humor and warmth from the game it takes its name from. Looking back at it… well, I was a teenager. I was easily amused back then.
The book takes the everyperson “you” from the games and turns that into Homer B. Hunter, a relative everyman whose main character trait is not being quite as clueless as everyone else around him. Hunter, having survived through the events of the games Planetfall and Stationfall, now crash lands on a planet and has some wacky adventures involving the locals, sexual escapades, mind-altering drugs and the ghost of a robot. As he’s doing this, the rest of the Stellar Patrol flails about in their own absurd bureaucracy.
(The Stellar Patrol being a body of absurd bureaucracy was embedded in the games; your initial mission in Stationfall is to pick up a pallet of order forms — specifically forms to order other forms.)
Along the way, Cover pokes satirical fun at Star Trek, Star Wars, Doctor Who and just about every other sci-fi property he could think of. Which is part of the problem, really. The book is far more of a mish-mash of tropes satirized instead of a proper story.
It’s hardly surprising that it’s essentially forgotten. Hell, even Cover’s webpage doesn’t acknowledge it. There was a sequel, Stationfall, which ended on a cliffhanger and a promise of a third book, which never came about. Infocom was struggling as a game company, let alone as a publisher, and their ventures into books did nothing to help their situation. Shortly afterward, the company was bought by Activision, and the nature of their output changed drastically. Still, the legacy of the games lives on, even if the books are little more than a footnote.
It features a black female protagonist in an exciting dystopian adventure that has blurred lines between fantasy and reality that are executed with perfection.