Filler content with Huston, Steve Rasnic and Melanie Tem, and Whiteley

Three more reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #4:-

HALF THE BLOOD OF BROOKLYN BY CHARLIE HUSTON

(Orbit/Del Rey paperback, 256/225pp, £6.99/$13.95)

This is the third Joe Pitt book, and for those not in the know the back drop to the series is a vampire society in New York that exists beneath the human radar, with various gangs competing for limited resources. As the book opens Joe is head of security for the Society, whose boss Terry is looking to strengthen their position by making alliances with vampire clans in Brooklyn. Joe is sent as muscle on a diplomatic mission to the Freaks, who operate a ghastly circus as a cover for their activities, but of course things inevitably go wrong with the intervention of another clan, Jewish vampires who want to send a clear message that everybody else needs to stay away from their territory, and the only option for Joe to put them right is through the use of deadly force. There’s plenty of other stuff going on too. Matters reach crisis point with Joe’s girlfriend Eve, who is dying of AIDS, forcing on him the difficult decision to turn her or not, while surprising changes take place in the hierarchy of the mystically inclined Enclave and ‘the girl’ is back with a plan to discover a cure for the vampire virus. By the book’s end, Joe’s status has altered radically and there are signs that a war may be brewing between Society and the powerful Coalition.

Huston is adept at juggling all these various plot strands, on the one hand providing a stand-alone story for the casual reader who decides to drop in and on the other moving along the general story arc and whetting the appetite for more. His writing is fast paced, with a nice touch in one liners courtesy of Joe, whose tongue is as sharp as ever, and plays nice counterpoint to his underlying compassion, albeit he can be ruthless as all get out with those he considers deserving and is getting increasingly weary of being used by those who claim to be his friends. The action scenes are plentiful and exciting, a particular strength of Huston’s, but he doesn’t neglect the quieter moments either, with Joe at his most empathic in those rare times of calm between the storms. We get more insight into the motivation of series characters like Terry and feminist vampire Lydia, with the subtext that, blood drinking aside, they are just like real folks, with all the concerns and politicking that implies. There are also some memorable new characters, such as the freak show crew, who introduce their own brand of gore into the proceedings, though my suspicion is they’re not onboard for the duration. The only reservation I had was to do with the Jewish vampires, who at times seemed like caricature Jews, with their idiosyncratic way of talking and mannerisms, as if they knew nothing of the modern world, had become parodies of who they are supposed to be. It’s a small point though, and doesn’t negate the enjoyment of the whole.

THE MAN ON THE CEILING BY STEVE RASNIC TEM AND MELANIE TEM

(Wizards of the Coast paperback, 384pp, £9.99)

Where to begin in telling you how good this book is? Perhaps with a history lesson. The Man on the Ceiling began life in 2000 as a chapbook published by American Fantasy Press. It won the Bram Stoker Award, the International Horror Guild Award and the World Fantasy Award, the only work ever to scoop all three of the majors. Harlan Ellison described it as ‘exquisitely compelling’, Dan Simmons said it was ‘incredibly frightening, ineffably sweet and absolutely unforgettable’, while Peter Straub chipped in with ‘grabs the genre by the scruff of the neck and lifts it right off the ground’, and you can bet I’m not going to argue with any of those guys, especially Harlan.

So what’s it about? To quote from the book, ‘This piece is about writing and horror and fear and about love’. I’m taking that from the ARC and I’m not bothering to ring Wizards of the Coast to check the line made it into the actual book, because it’s a fair summation regardless. Another phrase used, almost a refrain in fact, is ‘everything we tell you is true’ and yes, there is something of the memoir about this book, life filtered through the eye of the imagination.

Okay, but what’s it about? It’s about Melanie Tem and Steve Rasnic Tem, two writers inviting us into their lives. It’s about the art of fiction and it’s about all the fears that we try to contain and defuse through horror. It’s about a man and a woman, their love for each other. It’s about bringing up a family of five adopted children, the ties that bind and the heartrending moments when they are broken. It’s about being honest, even when it hurts. It’s about death and tragedy and all the other things that terrify us, only here shown for what they are rather than processed, packaged and presented as a monster who’ll conveniently go back to wherever it came from when the light is turned on or the story reaches THE END.

Some sections are written by Melanie and some sections are written by Steve, and sometimes we don’t know who is speaking out of the page, either one or some fusion of both. They reveal things about themselves and about each other. They weave truth and story together to produce something that is less yet also more than both, which is perhaps what writing is, ultimately, all about. And they tell us about that man on the ceiling, who is demon and guardian angel both, who is real even though they made him up only five minutes ago, who is the ghost in each and every machine, who is the genius loci of the place in which they live given a face and a form. And it’s all wrapped up in the most exquisite language, with every single sentence, every single word, carefully chosen in a celebration of the writer’s art and paean of praise come funeral dirge for life itself.

While I love horror fiction I sometimes feel that the genre is too accepting of its limitations, that we have the most terrifying and wonderful and exciting stories to tell, and yet the ways in which we tell them are constrained, formulaic, hidebound even. Well Steve Rasnic Tem and Melanie Tem have ignored all the expectations foisted on genre fiction by critics and consumers alike to produce something that is pure art and the first absolutely necessary genre book of 2008.

LIGHT READING BY ALIYA WHITELEY

(Macmillan New Writing hardback, 304pp, £14.99)

Pru and Lena are RAF wives, consigned to the usual round of coffee mornings and gossip while their husbands are away at war, but the suicide of one of their fellow inmates when she discovers that her husband is having an affair with Lena’s changes all that. Lena learns her friend’s secret hobby; Pru collects suicide notes. The pride of her collection is that of former child star Crystal Tynee, the single word “Fripl”. On a whim the two women decide to investigate and see if they can uncover the meaning of this cryptic final communication. The trail leads them to Allcombe, where menacing teenagers prowl the streets and Crystal’s mother lives alone and in fear. While everything may be fine and dandy in the woodshed, there’s evidence of sinister goings on at the local old people’s home, and Pru and Lena just may have bit off more than they can possibly chew.

Whiteley knows her onions. She gives the reader an intriguing mystery to cut his or her teeth on, remorselessly piling the details on top of each other, adding a slice or two of sex for flavour and a soupcon of violence to create tension, and then she pulls an ending out of left field that is as unexpected as it is right, and if you want to approach the book on that level, then chances are you won’t be disappointed. Regardless, Light Reading is not a mystery story any more than Thelma and Louise was a road movie, and never mind how much vehicular mayhem filled up the screen. If you need a crime genre tag to slip on its toe, then a fitter comparison would be the black comedies of Carl Hiaasen, transposed from sunny Florida to the environs of a rundown English seaside town in the off season (and Pru with her suicide note collection is just the sort of oddball who would appeal to Hiaasen, though she’d need to lose weight, have breast implants and do serious time down at the tanning salon).

The title is ironic. Whiteley’s prose is elegant certainly and insinuates itself into the reader’s consciousness with a deceptive ease and lightness of touch, but her subject matter is grim, giving rise to a pitch black comedy that keeps the reader continually on edge. The deprecating tone of voice throughout – the acerbic humour with which Pru responds to the dullness of her life, the casually mocking eye that Lena casts over herself and others – is beguiling, even when it describes things we would rather not know about, such as unhappiness, old age and death. The things that are said, the crisp observations and witty rejoinders, are a constant source of delight, but often we laugh as an alternative to crying, humour as the antidote to despair at all the missed opportunities and small tragedies that fill the page and these people’s lives.

Character is central. Specifically, the friendship between Pru and Lena is what drives the book, an attraction of opposites. Pru is rather frumpy, overweight and not really concerned with other people’s feelings, pushing them away so that she can nurse the secrets of her past in solitary. Lena is the more outgoing, sexually frustrated and looking for love in all the wrong places, wanting to open up her life but unsure how. They really have nothing in common except mutual disdain for the other wives and throughout the book they dance round each other, seeking a moment of shared honesty but scared of the consequences. The real impetus of the book is not in finding out what happened to Crystal Tynee, but discovering what will happen with Pru and Lena. The rest is window dressing. Fripl, in fact. Recommended.

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