Friday, March 06, 2015

"Don't Look Behind You" by Fredric Brown Gravetapping

by Ben Boulden Gravetapping
Posted: 05 Mar 2015 07:40 PM PST
Fredric Brown is a writer I have heard much about, but a writer whose work I have only sampled. I have read a few short stories, and no more. I recently read his short story “Don’t Look Behind You” and was impressed by its style, reach and cleverness.

Justin and Harley operate a small printing shop on Amsterdam Ave in New York City. The two only take enough business to keep the facade of legitimacy in place, but their real business is the printing of counterfeit five- and ten-dollar bills. A business that is doing quite well until Harley is murdered in an Albany hotel and Justin is called in and held by the police. The cops seemingly care less about Harley’s murder and more about the counterfeit shop the two men operate.

When the police finally release Justin he discovers the police are not alone in their interest in the Amsterdam printing shop—Harley had partners who want the printing plates, and they treat Justin as poorly as the upstate cops did. In fact, they don’t seem to care much what happens to Justin if it leads them to the plates.

“Don’t Look Behind You” is a cleverly plotted story that takes you in one direction only to quickly and smoothly swerve into another, and then another. It opens with a raw slash of narrative:

“Just sit back and relax, now. Try to enjoy this; it’s going to be the last story you ever read, or nearly the last. After you finish it you can sit there and stall awhile, you can find excuses to hang around your house, or your room, or your office, wherever you’re reading this; but sooner or later you’re going to have to get up and go out. That’s where I’m waiting for you: outside. Or maybe closer than that. Maybe in this room.”

It is told in first person with a twist—the narrator isn’t necessarily who you think it is and the story doesn’t necessarily lead you where you think it is will. The prose is spot on; re-read the passage above and if you don’t want to read more you’re crazy. But the best part of the story is its plot and the affect it has on the reader. The narrator speaks directly to the reader—not as an audience member, but as a principle character—and it has a chilling effect that made me shudder with bliss in the closing paragraphs.

“Don’t Look Behind You” was originally published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine in May 1947. I read it in the fine anthology A Century of Noir edited by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins.

I have been slowly cleaning up some of my older reviews—blogger tends to mess-up the formatting from time to time—and I decided this one should have new life at the top of the blog. It is truly a wonderful story.

Thursday, March 05, 2015

Book Review The Silence by Tim Lebbon

The apocalypse is hot right now. While the trend for zombies has crested and the young adult dystopian boom is dying out, today's fiction continues to wonder about what happens after the end of the world. The appeal of the concept is simple: what would you do if society crumbled?
Tim Lebbon's The Silence brings a new interpretation of the apocalypse that plays deftly with the tropes of the genre. When a cave-diving expedition in Moldova accidentally unleashes a fast-multiplying swarm of batlike beasts, the world struggles to respond: panic spreads across Europe with the monsters in its wake. In a small English village, a fourteen-year-old girl named Ally watches the growing chaos, monitoring it via social media and gathering information about the creatures and their behavior. As the danger grows closer and Ally's family must leave their home, Ally herself may be the key to their survival. The creatures hunt by sound and Ally, who has been deaf for years, can teach her family to live silently.

Though this is being published as a Young Adult novel the elegance of the language, the intensity of the situations and the sophistication of the psychology make this a book for adults as well.

Even if you've tired of end times fiction in all its forms, let Tim Lebbon prove to you that the genre was just waiting for a master to turn it into something fresh, vital and memorable.

Yesterday’s Adventure: 'Red Belts' (1920)

Yesterday’s Adventure: 'Red Belts' (1920)
by Fred Blosser

Like the great Talbot Mundy and Harold Lamb, Hugh Pendexter regularly contributed rugged outdoor fiction to ADVENTURE magazine in the periodical’s heyday -- the World War I era and the early 1920s.  Where Mundy wrote about derring-do in contemporary India and Palestine, and Lamb favored the Middle East of the Crusades and the Russian steppes of the Cossacks, Pendexter staked claim to early American history for his subject matter.  

One of Pendexter’s best, RED BELTS, was serialized in ADVENTURE in 1919 and appeared in hardcover from Doubleday in 1920.  The setting is the Old American Southwest of 1784, when the "Southwest" comprised the territory between the southern Appalachians and the Mississippi.  The settlers along North Carolina’s western frontier hope the mother state will send fresh militia troops over the mountains to deter attacks from hostile Cherokees and Creeks.  Their hopes are dashed when they learn that North Carolina has ceded the region to the fledgling federal government to pay the state’s Revolutionary War debt.  The national government doesn’t have the resources to defend this distant territory, which will later become Tennessee.

Left to their own resources, the settlers face a choice.  They can rely on their own sparse numbers as frontiersman John Sevier insists, and take pre-emptive action against the Indians if necessary.  Or -- as the sinister Major Tonpit and his co-conspirators suggest -- they can leave the union and seek the protection of Spain, which still rules a goodly part of the continent, including the southern waterways that lead to the rich markets of New Orleans.

Pendexter had the narrative gift of bringing early American history vividly to life.  There are enough chases, double-crosses, and shootouts to keep action fans engaged, but the strongest scenes are those in which the wily John Sevier matches wits rather than bullets or steel with Chief John Watts of the Cherokees and “Emperor” Alexander McGillivray of the Creeks to extricate himself from their hostile strongholds, where his hosts would like nothing better than take his scalp.  The story underscores a lesson that bears repeating: the early politics of America were fragile and contentious.  To appreciate where we are as a nation, we need to know where we were in the beginning.

Stylistically, much of  RED BELTS (the title refers to red wampum belts, the Indians’ signal for war) will strike modern readers as emphatically old-fashioned:

  • As in other stories from the early days of ADVENTURE, profanities and obscenities are strictly censored.  “By God!” is written as “By ---!”
  • Historical information that today would be incorporated into the action or the dialogue, or put into an afterword, or simply kept in the author’s head, is spooned into the narrative.  Clearly, Mr. Pendexter invested a lot of research into the book, and he wasn’t reluctant to share the results with his readers.
  • The narrative focus meanders a bit.  Although the first couple of chapters suggest that young frontiersman Kirk Jackson will be the protagonist of RED BELTS, he disappears for much of the rest of the book.  John Sevier takes center stage instead.  It would have been a great movie role for the late Rod Taylor in his prime.

Along those same lines, some of Pendexter’s cultural views would have been inoffensive to readers in 1920, but now carry considerable baggage.  Accepted in the context of the author’s times, they don’t bother me too much.  Others may be more sensitive.  Regardless, Pendexter tells a crackling good story.  It’s a shame that this kind of fiction -- U.S. history with a jigger of bourbon -- isn’t as popular as it once was.  Black Dog Books recently reprinted the novel as RED TRAILS, along with some other vintage Pendexter titles.

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

“Hawksbill Station” by Robert Silverberg

“Hawksbill Station” by Robert Silverberg

Ben Boulden at Gravetapping
Posted: 28 Feb 2015 11:03 AM PST

I’m a new arrival to the school of Robert Silverberg. I read The Book of Skulls in 2005 and I’ve made a point to read at least some Silverberg every year since. A few weeks ago I found a TOR Double—No. 26—that featured “Press Enter” by John Varley on one side and Robert Silverberg’s “Hawksbill Station” on the other. The TOR Double contained the text of the original story published in Galaxy in 1967. The story was expanded and published as a novel in 1968. A novel I have not yet read.
Hawksbill Station is a penal colony used to segregate political dissidents from the general population. It is much like the Soviet gulags of the mid-Twentieth Century, except there are no guards, no fences and no returns. A wall of time, two billion years long, separates Hawksbill and the society that created it. It is on an Earth that has yet to witness its fish crawl from the sea. The camp’s only connection with the future, what the men call “Up Front,” is a device called the Hammer and Anvil—a time machine that only operates from the future to the past. And it is the lifeline of the small penal colony. It is where the new inmates, and the meager supplies arrive from.
“Hawksbill Station” is an intriguing story. It alters the Cold War prison tale into dystopian science fiction. While the model of the prison is clearly based on the Soviet-style gulag, the story is as much about capitalism as it is about communism. The idea: oppression is oppression no matter its wrappings. With that said the politics of the story are less important, much less, than the story itself. The setting, as dark and desolate as it is, has a beautiful surreal sense—picture an Earth with no mammals and no flora inhabited by trilobites, a wild ocean, and several dozen men.
The story is only 86 pages in mass market, but Mr Silverberg, with a sparse and seemingly simple prose, is able to create both the world and the characters in a detail that many writers are unable to do in three- or four-hundred pages. He makes the characters, all of them, sympathetic and likable. The antagonist is two billion years from where the story is told and is really nothing more than the shadow of a bogeyman.
“Hawksbill Station” is the real deal. It is a science fiction story that tells something of who we are as a culture, and more importantly, what we are as individuals.  It is a truly excellent story.
This review originally went live June 20, 2012 in, mostly, the same form. I still haven’t read the expanded novel version, but it is very much on my reading list.