Filler content with Pendragon Press

A couple of reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #39:-

PENDRAGON PRESS

Gardner Goldsmith’s BITE (Pendragon Press paperback, 81pp, £4.99) comes with back cover blurbs from Christopher Golden, Mark Morris and Brian Keene. It’s the story of Sylvester Cole, who you can think of as Philip Marlowe reinvented as a one man Winchester brothers. After too many years spent living off the map and killing vampires, Cole plans to retire, when into his life comes the beautiful Ashley, with a plea to dispose of the vampire tracking her. Though there are holes in her story, Cole is persuaded to help as a way of reconnecting with his humanity and assuaging any guilt he may feel at having slain her vampire sister, while the fact that Ashley is beautiful isn’t a disincentive either. There follow various alarums and excursions, one of which involves the police, before the rug gets pulled out from under the feet of both Cole and the reader.

There’s little that’s new here; we’re in territory that’s already been pretty well mapped by Charlie Huston with his Joe Pitt novels for one, and those who caught my Supernatural reference above will also have an idea where Bite is coming from. Goldsmith does come up with an excellent twist at the end, and what he lacks in originality in the body of the story is more than made up for with lashings of style. It’s the snappy prose and the character of Cole himself that brings sauce to the table. He is pretty much the stereotype for this kind of story, hard-bitten and not allowing himself to care, until redeemed by the love of a good woman, with a collection of interesting friends, possibly too much reliance on alcohol, a dark deed in his past, and the suggestion that this is something he is running away from. And all of this combines to make him an interesting anti-hero for the sixty or so pages of the novella, though if you passed the guy in the street you’d not give him a second glance, or possibly mistake him for a tramp. Goldsmith’s writing is appropriately terse, with some metaphors and similes that provide an interesting slant on the story and make the book a pleasure to read, while its depiction of a Las Vegas that seldom makes it onto the screen of CSI adds an intriguing backdrop. I had a good time with it, and am happy to play d’Artagnan to the three blurbeteers listed above. Recommended.

Two short stories add ballast to the book. ‘Alone’ was well written but negligible, a brief picture of a man waiting for them to come and get him, with a last sentence that throws the narrator’s reliability into question. More substantial is ‘Sigil’, with another lone man ruminating on the past, but as we come to realise the nature of the idyllic memories he so cherishes, the complexion of the story changes along with our sympathy for the character.

I’m not sure if FADE-OUT (Pendragon Press paperback, 122pp, £8) by Gavin Salisbury is a novella or a short novel, but I suspect the former. Jane Matthews appears to be an ordinary student, living at home with her parents, except that she is the only person who ever leaves the house. Over a period of time the rest of the family have lost the ability to communicate, with speech and writing denied to them. They have kept this a secret from the outside world, with Jane going out to do the shopping and having contact with others when necessary. But the acquisition of boyfriend Sean, who at first doesn’t believe what she tells him about the family, leads Jane to the realisation that the authorities need to be involved, and the family are committed to a medical facility, where doctors make some progress in teaching them to communicate with pictures, even though they can’t identify the cause of their condition. When Sean starts to stumble over his words, Jane arranges for them to join the unit also, but in the days ahead she becomes increasingly concerned about what is happening, prompting her to take drastic action.

Fade-Out is undeniably well written, told from the viewpoint of Jane and with the feel, in the opening sections at least, of some Ballardian soft apocalypse unfolding. Salisbury is very good at portraying the breakdown of the family unit, how each member copes with their disability and the attendant frustration, veering over into rage in the case of Jane’s father. She herself is an interesting personality, a young woman with a massive burden placed on her shoulders, and the way in which she responds to the crisis, a mixture of wanting to do the best for those she loves and resentment at what is happening, comes over very well.

And yet having set this situation up, Salisbury doesn’t seem to have anything interesting to do with it, and so the spectre of the evil government is raised, forcing Jane and Sean to go off the reservation. But nothing much happens consequently, no nationwide manhunt, with our heroine and her man staying just a step ahead of the men in black – they spend a few weeks as lodgers in a London desres and fomenting some sort of grass roots movement to spread awareness of the new disease, all of which felt like killing time, and slightly unconvincing (nailing up posters and holding public meetings in rented halls in the age of the internet and global village). More pertinently, I lost sympathy with Jane completely, given her apparent indifference to the fact that she may be spreading the disease. She is concerned only with wider issues insofar as they affect her family, and while applauding the author for avoiding the cliché of a pitchfork wielding mob the way in which her actions appear to be accepted as reasonable behaviour by everyone she informs of her mission struck a false note. I don’t think I would be quite as understanding if told by someone that they had a dangerous illness and didn’t really care too much if I caught it as a result of their actions. To me the character became entirely selfish, and when eventually her escape is revealed as an unnecessary ploy because the authorities haven’t gone ape shit after all, the whole thing fizzles out, with little to reflect on other than the various theories tentatively offered to explain the condition and the revelation that the stories Sean tells Jane of his family are all made up.

It is a book about communication, set in a time when technology has made it all too easy for us to talk with each other, but with an ever decreasing ratio of signal to noise, and ever increasing blurring of the line between fact and fiction. It poses the question of what happens when we are unable to communicate, left prisoners in our own skulls. And it also prompts thoughts about the reliability of communication anyway, and whether lies have a social worth, albeit mostly as a side issue. It’s a book with a lot of good ideas and strong themes, but I can’t escape the feeling that the author didn’t quite know what to do with them, how best to communicate his own message, falling between two stools, those of character study and thriller wannabe. I liked it, but I didn’t feel entirely satisfied, or convinced that this is how things would actually go down if such a plague appeared.

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