Regular blog readers have probably heard of James Hutchings, who runs the blog Teleleli (inspirational images and text for adding some fairy-tale elements to your D&D), not to mention the online games Age of Fables , Westward! , and Hunters, and a dungeon-generating tool for LL and T&T. So James is a busy guy.
He offered me a free copy of his latest book, The New Death and Others, in exchange for a review. (Apparently a LOT of folks got the same offer. This is probably a good move on his part from a marketing perspective.) In all honesty I probably would not have bought the book on my own initiative, since it is in e-book format only. Even at $.99 (practically free!) I’m not interested in buying e-books, since I don’t use a Kindle or Nook and stare at a screen most of the work day all ready. But if you want to buy it, you can use Amazon or Smashwords. So I printed out the PDF as a digest-sized booklet so I could read it and tore through it at a few breaks and lunches at work.
The book is a collection of short and very short stories, poems, and jokes. (The jokes may technically be extremely brief stories or poems, but they look like excerpts from some comedian’s routine (maybe Stephen Wright). Example from “The morning post”:
He turned on the radio. It was the mime hour. He turned down the volume, but that just made the mime clearer.
He looked at his mail. He’d been invited to a bondage party. He couldn’t go: he was tied up. Anyway the last time he went to a swingers’ party some guy accused him of not looking at his girlfriend.
There was an invitation to a family reunion. His great-great grandfather had been kicked out of Ireland for not starving. When he came to America he met up with an Englishman and a Scotsman. They got a job walking into bars to give comedians ideas. During Prohibition they joined the Amish and walked into barns.
Some funny lines in there, but not the book’s strong suit.
The poems are a mix of completely original verses and adaptations of some classic stories (R.E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Lord Dunsany). These are generally entertaining but read more like song lyrics than poems, in my opinion. As Scottsz points out in his review , the H.P. Lovecraft piece in particular reads like something Iron Maiden would do, or maybe Nile. There is a bit of repetition in all the adaptations. Some of the repetition is effective and some is awkward, making me think he needed some filler for some verses. For example, near the end of Under the pyramids we have:
I stumbled, howling in the dark
in misery and fear
perhaps for days, perhaps for weeks
or for ten thousand years.
Perhaps for days, perhaps for weeks
beyond all and guilt or shame. (…)
Hardly a mortal sin, and I’m not really a big poetry fan, so it doesn’t spoil the poems for me but it did break my concentration.
The largest part of the book is the short stories proper, which come in at least three kinds: straight fantastic fiction (for example, “Todd,” “The dragon festival,” and “The city of dust”); fable/fairy tale style shorts which often have a twist, moral, or joke ending (for example, most of the stories of the “gods”, “Monsters,” and “The bird and the two trees”), and lastly a number of pun-filled romps (“Everlasting fire,” “The adventure of the murdered philanthropist”). Maybe a fourth category, which overlaps the first three, are the satires…at least a fourth or third of the stories including satire (ranging from the juvenile to the really biting).
I enjoyed most of the stories. The ‘twist endings,’ while not used in every one, were common enough that by the time I was getting to the end, I was a little annoyed by them. But some of the stories were really, really good, and perhaps the only ‘failing’ of the collection is its unevenness. Mr. Hutchings may have done well to have an editor pare this down to a smaller collection, or perhaps arrange them into sections. As it stands the shift from humor to horror is mostly at random, and the only organizing principle seems to be to alternate between prose and poetry. I think a much slimmer volume collecting just the “gods” stories (Love, Fame, Destiny, Death etc.), and another with just the straighter fiction, and perhaps another of just poetry, would be workable, or better yet if the stories and poems that are feel more unfinished or derivative were omitted or revised…
The influence of Lord Dunsany is very strongly evident, and for this reason I will certainly keep the digest I printed on my book shelf and re-read those parts I really liked. (In fact I probably would have been better off reading it in bits, rather than straight through. The puns and satire probably work better in small doses.) Some readers might also be a little put off by his aggressive moralizing about politics and religion, although in my case I found nothing that offended me…but I’m pretty left wing and irreligious.
So, if you like fantastic fiction, satire, and fable, you will really like this collection. If you take literature terribly seriously, you’ll hate a lot of it. If you like Lord Dunsany but wish he was around to satirize reality TV and the digital age, you’ll love it. Despite all my reservations above, I loved this little collection.