“Mister B. Gone” by Clive Barker (Harpercollins, 2007)

Mister B. Gonestarstarstar

The moment you pick up this book, you know you’re in for a treat.  It’s small and compact, inviting, around 200 pages long.  On the front black cover is the title in Gothic type: Mister B. Gone, with Clive Barker carved in rough letters beneath.  Between the two lines is a strange pictograph making one curious and interested.  On the back is the same symbol and not another word.  Turn the cover and there is a strange marble page design, which kind of looks like a webbing of veins and arteries, followed by two title pages, then the book begins with these words: “BURN THIS BOOK.”

Bestselling author Clive Barker hasn’t released a book in some time, and is currently in the middle of his four-book Abarat series, as well as the third book in the Art trilogy due sometime this decade or the next.  And yet the concept for Mister B. Gone suddenly occurred to Barker one day and he was supposedly unable to do anything else until he got this book out of his head.

This book is about a demon.  In fact, it’s a book written by a demon; it’s his story, because he’s trapped in the book.  He has but one request for the reader: to burn the book and free the demon by killing it, presumably sending it back to the ninth level of hell.  His name is Jakabok Botch, and as he continuously tries to convince the reader to burn the book, he reveals more of his life story.

It is the sixteenth century, and when the demon is trapped and scooped from the ninth level of hell to the surface by a group of people looking to make a profit from selling demon skins, Jakabok’s adventure begins.  He soon befriends another demon, Quitoon, of a much greater size and power than him, and their friendship lasts over a hundred years, as they spend their time terrorizing and demonizing the world.  The story builds and builds to a crescendo involving Joahnnes Gutenberg and the invention of his revolutionizing printing press which will irrevocably change the world.

While Mister B. Gone lacks the depth, development and sheer incredulity that one is used to with Barker’s work, it is nevertheless a great little horror story.  And each time Jakabok threatens on the page that he is coming up behind you with a knife, the reader can’t help but reflexively stop and look behind them.

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Originally written on November 10th 2007 ©Alex C. Telander.

“20th Century Ghosts” by Joe Hill (William Morrow, 2007)

20th Century Ghostsstarstarstar

The first time you pick up the hardcover copy of 20th Century Ghosts, you know you’re in for a treat.  The book is cloth-bound in darkest black, sans dust jacket, with a sticker on the front listing the title and author, along with a haunting black and white photograph.  As one opens the cover, one is greeted by a dried blood-red inlay, followed by the white pages of writing.  It is almost as if one is opening a black and bloody wound to read what Joe Hill has to offer.

20th Century Ghosts is a short story collection of modern horror, revealing what else has been going on in the mind of the author who brought us the bestselling Heart-Shaped Box.  Originally released in hardcover two years ago in England, Joe Hill fans will be happy to have this beautiful hardcover edition available at the more affordable price than the out-of-print edition only available on the likes of eBay.

With a quick introduction from Christopher Golden, author of The Myth Hunters and Strangewood, the collection kicks of with a chilling story titled “Best New Horror.”  It is about an editor of the annual Best New Horror collection who is sent a fresh and disturbing story for the next edition, featuring a level of the macabre and disgust that he hasn’t seen in a long time.  The editor seeks out the author and finds himself in his very own horrific story on a level with that of the one that so entranced him.  The title story, “20th Century Ghost,” is a classic modern-day ghost story about an old movie theater that is being haunted by a young girl who loved to watch movies until she died suddenly one day at the theater.  Now she returns every once in a while to engage a movie viewer in chilling conversation.

From there Hill takes the reader on a journey into different kinds of horror.  A man in a Kafkaesque world awakes as a giant cockroach.  A young boy is kidnapped by a terrifying hulk of a man who admits he won’t hurt him, but simply wants to watch him.  A short and enchanting tale about the ghosts of trees.  The fascinating story about a boy who can fly whenever he wears his childhood cape.  Not all stories are of the horror variety, but more the mundane and yet still able to move the reader.  “Pop Art” is the incredible and yet strangely enchanting story about a world where some people are “inflatable,” composed of little more tan plastic and air and must be careful not to get caught on anything sharp, or they will deflate and die.  It is a moving story about a boy and his relationship with one of these inflatable people.  A considerable number of the stories in 20th Century Ghosts involve children, specifically young boys.  Perhaps Hill is turning to his own childhood imagination, or maybe he feels that childhood is a time when the imagination is most creative and easily convinced, even if the demons and monsters that are imagined are actually real.

While Heart-Shaped Box was not as great a book as I’d hoped, 20th Century Ghosts has convinced me that Joe Hill is an entertaining and talented new horror writer, who is still working somewhat in the style of his father, Stephen King, but as time passes and more stories and books are written and published, he will no doubt become one of the most popular and most interesting of today’s horror writers.  I look forward to reading his next work.

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Originally written on October 26th 2007 ©Alex C. Telander.

“From the Dust Returned” by Ray Bradbury (William Morrow, 2001)

From the Dust Returnedstarstarstar

Ray Bradbury’s “other” Halloween book, From the Dust Returned, is over some fifty years in the making, beginning as a spark from a single story in his early twenties that he would continue to add on to throughout his career.  This spark of a first story, “Homecoming,” was originally published in Mademoiselle magazine and featured unique artwork (which is here reproduced on the cover of the book) by a then relatively unknown artist by the name of Charles Addams.

In the style of his Martian Chronicles, this book feels very much like a collection of stories that are linked together through the characters, as well as specific chapters that provide the cement, binding them all together.  From the Dust Returned consists of a most unique haunted house where the dead that unite and meet there are of all the same family, with exotic and incredible names like Cecy, Uncle Einar, and A Thousand Times Great Grandmére.  Cecy is a unique corpse of a woman who spends her times in the dust dunes in the attic, sending her soul and spirit out into the world to occupy and experience anything and everything, whether it be a drop of rainwater on a rock, a young lover’s heart, or a giant eagle flying across the sky.  Uncle Einar is a special uncle with thin veiny wings that allow him to take flight like a giant bird and travel wherever he pleases.  And A Thousand Times Great Grandmére, who has existed in her decrepit state for many thousands of years has stories and experiences to tell that make everything else seem short lived and mundane.  And then there are many more brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, nephews and nieces from all over the world who come to visit.

The main character, a young boy called Timothy, is also unique compared to the family for he is an ordinary human boy who is left as a babe in a basket on the doorstep of this doomed mansion, and is raised in this very strange family.  But with his humanity, he has a different viewpoint, and his job is to record the stories and experiences of these most strange and unusual family members.

While From the Dust Returned seems to unravel a little sometimes, with some stories going on tangents that never quite return to the coherent plot, there are gems in this book that are unlike any other I have read.  Along with The Halloween Tree, it is a perfect book to be read, and to read aloud, around and during Halloween.

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Originally written on October 23rd 2007 ©Alex C. Telander.

“The Halloween Tree” by Ray Bradbury (Knopf, 1972)

The Halloween Treestarstarstarstar

I read this book every October because it’s the perfect Halloween book.  It’s taken me a couple of readings, but I now finally realize that The Halloween Tree is the equivalent for Halloween what A Christmas Carol is for Christmas: an enchanting journey into the history of Halloween where one leans much and is changed by it.

A group of eight boys are on their way out to trick or treat on Halloween, all in different costumes – skeleton, mummy, gargoyle, etc. – and head over to the final friend’s house, Pipkin.  Pipkin is sick, doesn’t look well at all, but is essentially the leader of the group and has never missed a Halloween, so he tells them to go on ahead to a specific house and he will catch up with them.

The house turns out to be the quintessential Halloween mansion, with many rooms and black windows.  Beside the mansion they find a great and ancient oak with many branches and hanging from those branches are many carved pumpkins, swinging in the breeze.  This is the Halloween tree, and as the boys watch, each of the pumpkins light up.  At the door they ask for trick or treat, and the man on the other side tells them not treat, but trick.  Terrifyingly, he appears from a pile of leaves.  He is tall.  He is skeletal.  He is Mr. Carapace Clavicle Moundshroud.

After the boys get over the initial terror, they are invited on a journey by Mr. Moundshroud.  They see Pipkin being taken into the past, weakened by his sickness, and it is up to Moundshroud and the boys to rescue Pipkin from time.  And so the boys begin their journey, forming the tail of a giant kite controlled by Moundshroud and they pass back through time and visit the Halloweens of history: Ancient Egypt, Rome, Greece, medieval Britain, Notre Dame, and El Dia de Los Muertos.

It is an incredible story where one learns the history of Halloween seen through the eyes of many different cultures, told in the unique style of Ray Bradbury.  Afterward you will feel as if you’ve actually experienced many different Halloweens and be all the more ready to experience your own on October 31st.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on October 12th 2007 ©Alex C. Telander.

“Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” Translated by Simon Armitage (Norton, 2007)

Sir Gawain and the Green Knightstarstarstarstarstar

In February of 2000, renowned poet Seamus Heaney published a new verse translation of the classic anonymous epic poem “Beowulf.”  While not a complete literal translation, Heaney’s version set out to emulate the poetic style and meter of the original writers of the poem.  “Beowulf” was first committed to parchment around the year 1000, up to then it had only existed as a oral poem recited to friends, families and subjects over fires, in mead halls, and by bards to many people.  Heaney’s translation seeks to be this version, to be read aloud to people and appreciated in its original form.  Heaney’s Beowulf, in a bilingual edition with the original Old English verse on the left page and his translation on the right, has gone on to become the most popular translation; selected as the version for the Norton English Literature anthology, and has been made more accessible to ordinary readers who don’t have a background in medieval literature.

“Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” is a poem much like “Beowulf.”  While not as epic in scale, it was likely first written down in the year 1400 and up to that point had been recited orally.  It has survived in only one form, in the original early Middle English, and now resides at the British Library.  Simon Armitage, like Heaney, has employed the use of the bilingual edition, with the original Middle English on the left page and his translation on the right, allowing the reader’s eyes to wander from left to right and right to left, examining the translation and enjoying the story.  If anything, the translation is more visible with this version, as Middle English is just a few steps away from our modern language and many words can be easily recognized, even if the spelling is barely decipherable.  Armitage admits not going for a completely literal translation, but seeking to preserve the alliterative form of the original poem, even if it means using modern words and phrasing.  The result is nevertheless a magnificent story which one reads, imagining what it was like being read or reading this poem aloud over six hundred years ago.

The story begins with King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, as they enjoy a marvelous feast in each other’s company.  Then the party is suddenly disturbed by the entrance of a giant man dressed in a full suit of green armor, by his side he carries a gigantic axe.  He then challenges King Arthur with the offer for anyone to chop off his own head with the giant axe.  If he survives, then the person will return to the Green Knight’s abode to suffer the same fate in one year’s time.  Gawain being the just, proud and humble knight that he is offers to do this job for his king.  Taking the axe he makes a mighty swing and easily separates the Green Knight’s head from his shoulders.  The Green Knight then picks up his head and makes the deal with Gawain to do the same to him on New Year’s Day one year from now.

This essentially ends the first part of the poem, with the second part focusing on Gawain’s journey across the lands to find the Green Knight’s home.  On the way he finds a great castle where a gracious king looks after him during the terrible weather.  Yet, like the Green Knight, the king challenges him, offering to go hunting each morning, while his wife offers herself to Gawain, tempting him.  The deal is that whatever Gawain does, shall be dealt to the king upon his return from the hunt.  They do this for three days, but Gawain is pious and just, and does not give in to the king’s wife, giving the king just kisses upon his cheek.  The challenge certainly opens up an opportunity for some interesting interactions between Gawain and the king should Gawain have not been so just, but such was not the case.  The last part of the story is of Gawain leaving the castle, finding the Green Knight and accepting the challenge visited on him a year ago.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, again much like Beowulf, has now been translated in this clear and alliterative version, making it accessible to any reader.  Apart from being an entertaining tale, it asks many questions about what it is to be just and true to your king, how easy it is to be tempted.  With a solid introduction from Armitage on the history of the poem, the book sets the scene well, letting the reader imagine what life was like in the fifteenth century, and more importantly, what the people were like back then.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on September 8th 2007 ©Alex C. Telander.

“Now and Forever: Somewhere a Band is Playing & Leviathan ’99” by Ray Bradbury (William Morrow, 2007)

Now and Foreverstarstarstarstar

Now and Forever, the latest book from one of the best writers of our time, Ray Bradbury, brings together two novellas that have never been published in book form before.  While the two have little in common, they show two sides to Bradbury’s incredible imagination, giving you a taste of his greatness as a writer and story teller.

The first novella, Somewhere a Band is Playing, opens with the main character, James Cardiff, getting off a train that barely stops at a tiny station in the middle of nowhere.  But there is something special about Summerton, Arizona that makes Cardiff immediately fall in love with it.  As he enters the town and meets the first person, in the background is the quiet sound of a band playing.  In Summerton Cardiff discovers a quiet, peaceful place where one could settle down and feel very much at ease.  But the longer he spends there, the more mysterious it becomes.  He soon discovers that there are no children here, no one under twenty for that matter, that everyone is an adult, many of them old.  Cardiff then notices that there are no schools; that it seems like there have never been any children here.  Also that there are no hospitals or apparently any doctors, that people simply don’t get sick here.  He finally finds the cemetery but discovers that it is little more than a prop, serving no purpose except to reassure visitors that it exists.  Cardiff finally forces a confession out of the beautiful woman he has befriended who tells him what is going on and what is the true meaning behind Summerton, Arizona.  It is a story that defies belief, and yet makes so much sense.

While the first novella is a masterpiece in its own way, the second, Leviathan ’99, is one also, but in a totally different manner.  It is the year 2099 and the story is Moby-Dick, except characters names are different – of course, not Ishmael – and the ship does not travel across the ocean in search of a white whale, but across the darkness of space in search of the white meteor that has been plowing through galaxies.  The characters of Captain Ahab and Queequeg exist here with different names and are also alien beings.  Bradbury outdoes himself by not only distilling the story of Moby-Dick into a hundred-page novella, but by perfectly imitating the pacing, language and feel of Moby-Dick in his story with the characters’ thoughts and actions.

Now and Forever is a collection of two incredible stories that serve as a perfect introduction to the greatness of Ray Bradbury, not just one of the greatest science fiction writers of our time, but one of the greatest story tellers.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on September 8th 2007 ©Alex C. Telander.

“Weaveworld” by Clive Barker (Poseidon Press, 1987)

Weaveworldstarstarstar

A relatively early book in Clive Barker’s career when he was still living in England, it is set within his hometown of Liverpool.  Starting out seemingly normal with normal people, it immediately jumps to the mundane and insane.  Weaveworld is a book that will delight, appall, horrify, and leave you thinking about the meaning of place and belonging somewhere.

The main character, Cal Mooney, is a person going nowhere fast in a dead-end job, until he comes into contact with this large rolled up carpet that is being moved from a house.  Gazing into its intricate patterns, he sees more at work here, and discovers paradise for the first time.  As the book develops and more characters are added, he discovers that the magically collected designs within the carpet is what is known as The Fugue: an ancient civilization and people who have lived since the beginning of existence but over time, after cohabiting with humanity, have lost numbers and suffered destruction.  Over a hundred years ago The Fugue, using magic, picked the best pieces of their world and their people and wrapped themselves into the design of the carpet, safe and protected, until they will have a safer place to live in the future.  Guardians were appointed over time to protect The Fugue, but now they are all gone.  The Fugue’s greatest enemy, The Scourge, was a menace while they were living in the world, but now lies dormant while they are in the carpet.  That is until they are freed and begin to change the world around them; old enemies come out of the woodwork, and Mooney, along with the daughter of one of the guardians, Suzanna Parish, must work to protect and save The Fugue before it is too late.  While not every question is fully answered, or every problem resolved, the book is still an incredible journey.

If you haven’t read Clive Barker before, Weaveworld is the perfect introductory novel to his language, his incredible imagination, and horrors you never thought possible.

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Originally written on October 4th 2007 ©Alex C. Telander.