Friday 31 August 2012

The Orphan Palace by Joseph S. Pulver Sr – reviewed by John Greenwood

What would be an effective method to convey a character’s emotion of overwhelming hatred, say for his parents? Here’s how Joseph S. Pulver Sr goes about it in The Orphan Palace (Chômu Press, pb, 376pp):

“The HATE…The HATE…grinding…The HATE…LARGER…LARGER…hatehatehatehatehate…”

These are techniques that Pulver uses throughout the novel: ellipses (more than in any other book I’ve read), sentence fragments or just single isolated words, words capitalised for emphasis, words run together, and of course repetition (of the fourteen words in this fragment, eight are just the word “hate”). It doesn’t express, it just reminds us what the author should have found some means of expressing.

To describe The Orphan Palace as experimental fiction doesn’t give much of an indication of how Pulver organises his material. “Stream-of-consciousness” isn’t a term that helps much either, because the chains of sentence fragments, strung along long threads of ellipses like a funky gothic necklace, are not merely an attempt to reproduce the inner monologue of the protagonist. This is fairly typical:

“The stiff wall of Nightblack frozen forever takes all of you into its disaster of old rage… 
The monster mask growls, hungry knife-thorn swallows dawn.
Smears ointments of blind worm seed and dead tongue curse on crouching hearts smashed on Null…
The blind moon-tempest mask ringing with translations of All Fall Down-rises, its seven torch-eyes writhe…shines as a shadow drinking the tear-miles of open blood veins…”

I suppose you could call it a prose-poem, or beat poetry, but what it brings to mind most readily is the lyric sheet of a heavy metal band. Like an extended rock opera, there are whole pages where no line reaches the other side of the page, and no sentence finds its full stop, on occasion even using the “/” character to break the line. Pulver quotes Springsteen before the book gets going, and lists his preferred soundtrack at the end. Since the advent of Spotify it would be possible for readers to listen to Pulver’s recommended tracks while working through the book, but the artists he cites (from Kronos Quartet to Steve Earle) have little in common with his unvarying vocabulary of blood, death, sexual predation and insanity, familiar to me from early eighties metal bands (Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Accept, Dio, early Metallica) but no doubt still the core business of contemporary metal and goth bands. When not staring into the Abyss, Pulver has us adrift in a small-town America of sleazy bars and cheap motels, whisky slugged from the bottle and cold coffee from paper cups, easy girls drawn to the mysterious drifter (morphing into the iconography of Hair Metal).

It’s not all improvised coda: there is a plot, and it concerns Cardigan, ex-inmate of an occult, abusive orphanage, hard-drinker, arsonist and serial killer, who is making his way East across the USA, shooting up lonely gas stations, burning down motels, picking up women in bars before murdering them and mutilating their bodies. He’s on a mission of revenge against the evil Dr Archer, whose obscure but depraved experiments on the kids in his charge have turned Cardigan into a monster. Along the way, Cardigan tries to penetrate the mystery of a series of pulp noirish novels he finds in every motel room he visits, and is advised along the way by a number of supernatural or perhaps hallucinatory mentors.

A lot of strange things happen: plot devices are introduced (such as a coin to magically detect lies, and a ghoulish impregnation) and are promptly forgotten about. Stranger still, Cardigan, who is seen casually slashing up women for fun in the first half of the book, is by the second half almost one of the good guys, at worst troubled, if rather more than misunderstood. An old friend from the orphanage urges him to give up his quest and settle down to run a beachside bar with him, as though we had switched channels from American Psycho and found ourselves in the closing scenes of The Shawshank Redemption. His violent outbursts start to take on a more moralising intent. He murders a man who tries to hit a dog in a park, and I got the impression that I was invited to applaud this vigilante justice. He confronts a violent pimp and sets the prostitutes free, imploring them to go and seek the light. Oddest of all, Cardigan shoots the pimp’s bodyguards, only to find them alive and well on the next page, and slays them again.

Over and above such slips, any reader without amnesia or psychopathy should be wondering how this is the same character who was driving around with a woman’s severed nipple in his pocket just a few days previously. And despite over three hundred and fifty pages of impulsive slaughter, theft and arson, the police only appear in the book once, and show no interest in Cardigan’s rampage. While I wasn’t expecting social realism, the complete lack of consequences in The Orphan Palace gives it the feel of somebody who has discovered a cheat to turn off the cops and gain powers of invincibility in Grand Theft Auto.

The best that can be said of The Orphan Palace is that it has a restless, grotesque fecundity, like the random strings of images and words that one is aware of just before sleep descends:

“…a face in the bridal chamber mirror…Baby…HER FACE…BABY…a serpent with seven eyes…I LOVE YOU…the skull of an angel kissed by the mysteries of the worm…she bellows…I will possess your demon art…I knit gloom with your October fables…fly back to the Stygian dew of my texture spread in regal luster…”

But the language sticks so closely to the clichés of Lovecraftian gothic horror that it becomes predictable. The slackness of the narrative, combined with these long stretches of formless ranting about the Hounds of Tindalos and other such touchstones of weird fiction, make The Orphan Palace a slog through well-trodden territory with little compensation other than the grim satisfaction of having made it to the last page.

Still, you have to hand it to Chômu Press. Since 2010 they have been publishing unclassifiable out-on-a-limb fiction on a punishing schedule (twenty books at my last count), in elegantly strange covers that ought to be the envy of mainstream publishers. Like specialist species of insect hiding away in their narrow ecological niches, small presses have traditionally thrived in very well-defined sub-genres where there is a limited but proven supply of readers. Chômu (Japanese for “dreaming butterfly”) is a different creature altogether, willing, one might even say anxious, to take chances on authors who are similarly drawn to such risky behaviour in their writing. Sometimes these risks pay off (see the review of Justin Isis’s collection of short stories from TQF35), but not here.

Monday 27 August 2012

Doctor Who: Shada by Gareth Roberts – reviewed by Jacob Edwards

DNA, the Doctor, and another punt at Cambridge. Doctor Who: Shada by Gareth Roberts, based on the original scripts by Douglas Adams (BBC Books, hb, 407pp).

When Chris Parsons, in an attempt to impress a girl he’s serially failed to declare his love for, borrows some books on carbon dating from retired Cambridge don Professor Chronotis, he has no idea that the Professor is actually a Time Lord, that Chronotis’s college room is the inside of a TARDIS, or that one of the books Chris has borrowed is, in fact, the most dangerous book in the entire universe. As the coldly villainous Skagra appears on campus, armed with a mind-sucking sphere, and intent on unlocking the secret of Shada (the long-lost prison planet of the Time Lords), Chris finds himself embroiled in it all and, to his own enduring bafflement, hitchhiking through time and space with a long-scarfed eccentric known to all and sundry (even the college porter) as the Doctor.

Friday 24 August 2012

The Moon Moth by Humayoun Ibrahim and Jack Vance – reviewed by Stephen Theaker

Adapted by Humayoun Ibrahim from the short story by Jack Vance, The Moon Moth (hb, 128pp) is another interesting comic from First Second, who previously published the very decent Orcs: Forged for War and seem to be making a praiseworthy habit of looking beyond the obvious candidates for adaptation into graphic novels. An opening introduction to Vance’s work by Carlo Rotella is not uninteresting—especially insofar as he actually visited Vance to interview him—but like Brandon Flowers discussing the Pet Shop Boys in A Life in Pop he seems rather too embarrassed about his enthusiasm for his subject. Never mind, the main course is the actual comic, and that is excellent.

Monday 20 August 2012

The Avengers – reviewed by Douglas J. Ogurek

During the opening weekend of The Avengers (Avengers Assemble in the UK), directed by Joss Whedon, Americans plunked down $207.4 million to watch their beloved Marvel superheroes join forces. The earnings, to borrow a term from the Hulk’s lexicon, “smashed” the previous record-holder, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, by over $38 million. Worldwide, The Avengers brought in over $650 million in 12 days.

Frenetic, heavy on special effects, and one-dimensional, The Avengers achieves its success by giving easily-distracted contemporary moviegoers what they crave. And this film didn’t simply materialise through a portal in the sky; it is built on a foundation of several stand-alone films that show what each Avenger is capable of independently. “And now they’re coming together?” thinks the common man. “I’ve got to see that!” Brilliant marketing.

Wednesday 15 August 2012

Shelflings #2 - NOT available for free download from the British Fantasy Society!

The British Fantasy Society has made issue two of its reviews ezine available for free [accidentally, as it turns out - see below] to the general public. That means you!

SHELFLINGS #2 has been compiled by Stephen Theaker (me!) from reviews edited by Craig Lockley, Phil Lunt and Jay Eales for the British Fantasy Society website. It features almost 30,000 words of reviews by Carl Barker, Chris Limb, Craig Knight, David A. Riley, David Brzeski, David Rudden, Elloise Hopkins, Glen Mehn, Jacob Howard, Jay Eales, Katy O’Dowd, M.P. Ericson, Mario Guslandi, Matthew Johns, Mike Chinn, Pauline Morgan, Phil Lunt, R.A. Bardy, Rebekah Lunt, Selina Lock, Steve Dean and Stewart Horn.

Tuesday 7 August 2012

The Dog Stars by Peter Heller - reviewed by John Greenwood

In the world of The Dog Stars, humanity has been decimated by a combination of killer flu and a HIV-like blood disease, with only zero point something of the population surviving the apocalypse. The survivors, at least in the USA where the novel is set, can be divided into isolated homesteaders and marauding bands of scavengers. Amateur Cessna pilot Hig is one of the former, and together with his gun-obsessive friend Bangley, he defends a tiny rural airport against any feral remnants of humanity who make it over the mountain. Together they make an effective, if inharmonious team. Hig can't stomach the killing, and Bangley the ruthless tactician cannot secure their perimeter without regular flights to check for intruders approaching their borders. But after nine years of this successful strategy, Hig suffers a shock that leads him to follow a faint transmission from another airport situated beyond his fuel supply's point of no return.