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05-25-12: Mario Guslandi Reviews 'Bread and Circuses' by Felicity Dowker

"Occasion to Rejoice"

Editor's Note: Mario Guslandi is back with another discovery that is clearly well worth your valuable reading time — and money. Time to check your local independent bookseller, or give Mark Ziesing a ring and have him order it up for you.
Felicity Dowker is considered a rising star in the world of Australian dark fiction, a literary world that unfortunately remains too often "terra incognita" in the rest of the globe. So far I've had just a few opportunities to explore and get acquainted with Aussie horror fiction, and I've never been disappointed.

Felicity Dowker's debut collection is a further occasion to rejoice, because the discovery of an extremely talented new writer is like the birth of a new baby in a family, bringing happiness and hope. Mind you, Dowker is by no means a baby, on the contrary: she's a perfectly well formed writer with a knack for good storytelling, an unusually sharp sensitivity and a remarkable ability to deal with the various shades of dark fantasy.

The collection features fifteen stories, all of them interesting in their own way, with a common ground: quality. But, if all the tales are good, some are either excellent or downright superlative. Among them I'd like to mention those, which in my view of thinking, are the most striking.

The creepy "Jesse's Gift" revolves around the terrifying character of the Ice Cream Man, a not quite human creature endowed with uncanny, frightening powers.

"Us, After the House Came Back" is a story about domestic violence and its unexpected, paranormal solution while "The Bearded Ones" provides an offbeat dark take on the Santa Claus myth, here transformed into a very sinister character.

"To Wish on a Clockwork Heart" is a splendid moral fable mixing a touch of fantasy, a bit of steampunk and a grain of eroticism, while the vivid "Red Delicious" is a vampire story where the undead exhibit quite human vices.

The first of the two outstanding pieces is "The Blind Man," a superb tale of crime and punishment, which, despite its apparent normality, has a very dark, extremely horrific edge.

The other is "After the Jump" an unforgettable, terrific piece where a diver specialized in retrieving the corpses of people committing suicide by jumping from Melbourne West Gate Bridge discovers what lies in the mud of the river bed.

To say that Dowker is an author to watch is an understatement: she's a writer to worship.

05-22-12: Archive Review: John Shirley, '...And the Angel With Television Eyes'

Acting Out Your Hallucinations

Editor's Note: Readers who enjoy the Walter Mosley novel are directed to find this title as well, which contains a great mixture of surreal terror and mundane horror-of-life.
'"I've gone mad," he uttered, "And it's only to be expected."'

John Shirley is not a writer known for pulling his punches. Once a punk, always a punk. He started out as the cyber variety (the 'Song of Youth' trilogy and numerous short stories), graduated to the splatter type ('Wetbones') and now, well, he's just an uber-punk. His latest novel from distinguished publisher Night Shade Books in San Francisco, '...And the Angel With Television Eyes' shows him to be A Man Without A Genre. Pulling from all of his previous gigs in the various punk worlds he ruled, '...And the Angel With Television Eyes' is the best thing to hit the non-hallucinating masses since the Electric Kool Aid parties. It's beautifully horrifying, transcendently weird. If you think that the experience of slowly going insane and sliding into a world of translucent monsters and archetypes sounds like fun (and don't want to kill your brain cells in the process), then this is definitely the book for you.

Max Whitman is a television soap opera actor. He's no Olivier. Trying to build up his acuity before an important audition, he decides to indulge his girlfriend's suggestion that he try a sensory deprivation tank. While inside he disconnects from our reality, and never really dials back in. Soon the visions he experienced in the tank are following him on the street, popping up in on-line computer games and showing him parts of himself and the world that normal humans can barely imagine. Fortunately for the reader, John Shirley is our guide into the Surreal World. As Whitman's normal life rapidly unravels, his journey into a world of barely perceivable ethereal archetypes begins. The race is on, and the pages fly. If Max doesn't either pull all the way out of it — or find a way to go with a flow that is terrifyingly reminiscent of the onset of adult paranoid schizophrenia — he'd going to end up penniless and perceived as mad, or find himself a victim of forces that invisibly shape this world. Both options involve a lot of suffering.

Shirley does the 'normal life unravels' schtick with great elan. Max is not exactly likeable, but he retains some core of honor that renders him interesting. He's like someone you might actually meet, or already know. But lost jobs and girlfriends are the vanguard of something much more interesting. Shirley posits that our world is shared with beings who are composed of energy, archetypes, demons — John Keel's ethereal Merry Pranksters. Some of them are confined in human form before blossoming. Some want to help humans, and others would just as soon use them for sustenance. As Max slides into their world, he has to determine which is which, who is what, and his part in the whole drama. He's good at the drama part — he's an actor.

Shirley builds effectively tension with his "who is wearing what face" mystery plot line. He also gives the whole proceeding a rather nice 'vibe' that can only be classed as psychedelic, in the best sense of the 1960's definition of that word. His visionary writing is excellent, and the pictures he paints with his words will hang in the reader's mind like a screen saver for their mental computer. And although some fairly horrific stuff happens, there's no cruelty or selfishness to give the book a 'bad vibe'. On the other hand, Shirley also manages the neat trick of staying completely clear of namby-pamby new age sentiment even when he's excavating buried archetypes and Angels With Television Eyes. It's a delicate balancing act, and the author manages to pull it off.

'...And The Angel With Television Eyes' is more than just excellent writing — it's also a nice package, a quality volume with a decent size font for those are pondering going from bifocals to trifocals. Night Shade Press is consistently offering up some quality printings. But even if it were scrawled on the inside of a discarded paper bag, or uttered in your ear by a foul-smelling man in a shabby suit waiting in the bus station, '...And the Angel With Television Eyes' would certainly be just about the best mind-altering substance you could read.

05-21-12: Walter Mosley Offers 'The Gift of Fire'

Destroy the World

Walter Mosley is best known for his Easy Rawlins mysteries, but he's a versatile talent who also writes mainstream literary novels, science fiction, even non-fiction — whatever form best suits the story he intends to tell. His latest book is 'The Gift of Fire and On the Head of a Pin,' two short novels packaged in a hardcover version of the old Ace double paperback format; Mosley calls them "flip books." When you finish one short novel, you can flip the book over and read the other, which is printed upside-down and backwards to the first.

That slightly disorienting format is not a bad indication of what you're going to find when you start reading. With these two stories, subtitled "Two Short Novels from Crosstown to Oblivion," Mosley uses elements of fantasy, science fiction and even supernatural horror to undermine reality, as we know it. Tight, taut, exciting and superbly well written, "The Gift of Fire" and "On the Head of a Pin," are tellingly dedicated to Philip K. Dick. Mosley keys into Dick's and other mystics' visions of a world beneath, beyond, or just outside of our frame of vision. He brings these worlds to life in two ripping yarns with lean, poetic prose.

My take is that "The Gift of Fire," the story with the colophon page attached, is the one to be read first; it's also slightly longer than "On the Head of a Pin," but don't let the size of either of these "flip books" fool you. When you read these stories, you'll likely do so in one sitting, but you'll feel like you've read a rocking 300 plus page novel. These are not YA fiction; they offer some insights into relationships that one is not likely to find in that genre. They're stories of the imagination for adults.

As far as mystics go, you'll need to back a bit farther than PKD to find the inspiration for "The Gift of Fire," in this case, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the French philosopher and Jesuit priest who spent much of his life trying to reconcile Catholicism and evolution. From Teilhard's "The Evolution of Chastity," we get this: "The day will come when, after harnessing space, the winds, the tides, and gravitation, we shall harness for God the energies of love. And on that day, for the second time in the history of the world, we shall have discovered fire."

Mosley's novel is a sequel to the Greek myth of Prometheus. After three thousand years, the bringer of fire manages to escape, intent on giving his second gift of fire. He's incarnated in South Central Los Angeles, and quickly tossed in jail. He finds friends and allies on the ground, and a means of spreading his message. The remaining gods aren't happy about all this, and neither are the authorities in charge. Both want Prometheus and his message stopped.

Mosley works well in the urban fantasy genre, leading readers from pure fantasy set in the world of Greek myth to the modern setting, and ultimately to a rather science fictional finale that partakes of another of Teilhard's ideas. It's an exciting and even inspiring story with strong echoes of the Occupy movement, though it was written long before.

"On the Head of a Pin" introduces us to Joshua Winterland, who is not having a happy life. His girlfriend jilts him as his Silicon Valley job goes up in flame. He finds himself underemployed, documenting the work in a startup dedicated to VR renderings of real people indistinguishable from film. The project succeeds, but what the display shows is virtual surreality, glimpses from worlds that don't exist, or from the minds of those who made the device — with no input attached. Before you can say H. P. Lovecraft, that window becomes a portal, and the beings that emerge are not friendly to human kind.

This story keys around racism in a manner that is admirably direct without being heavy-handed. The theme is threaded through the story in a variety of manners. Mosley never forgets that he's writing pulp fiction, and keeps the revelations coming. The prose is superb, the characters have depth and the ideas are excitingly handled.

'The Gift of Fire and On the Head of a Pin' flip book offers readers the feel of two full novels for the price of one. It honors the work of Philip K. Dick, but is not derivative; Mosley makes this material and these ideas his own. There are unaccredited illustrations in the stories that offer just the right level of pulp feel to the narrative and presentation.

The only drawback is that the covers don't follow suit. These books need to look garish and frightening, with gods, monsters, scantily-clad women and men wearing torn t-shirts in battle, painted crudely in bright colors. They need taglines like, "WHEN GODS WALK THE EARTH, MAN WALKS IN FEAR!!!" That doesn't really affect the reading experience though. 'The Gift of Fire and On the Head of a Pin' is Walter Mosley's gift to the science fiction genre, and the genre should, one hopes, recognize just how lucky it is.

New to the Agony Column

09-18-15: Commentary : William T. Vollman Amidst 'The Dying Grass' : An Epic Exploration of Simultaneity

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with William T. Vollman : "...a lot of long words that in our language are sentences..."

09-05-15: Commentary : Susan Casey Listens to 'Voices in the Ocean' : Science, Empathy and Self

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Susan Casey : "...the reporting for this book was emotionally difficult at times..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 213: Susan Casey : Voices in the Ocean: A Journey into the Wild and Haunting World of Dolphins

08-24-15: Commentary : Felicia Day Knows 'You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)' : Transformative Technology

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Felicia Day : "I think you have to be attention curators for audience in every way."

08-22-15: Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 212: Felicia Day : You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)

08-21-15: Agony Column Podcast News Report : Senator Claire McCaskill is 'Plenty Ladylike' : Internalizing Determination to Overcome Sexism [Incudes Time to Read EP 211: Claire McCaskill, Plenty Ladylike, plus A 2015 Interview with Senator Claire McCaskill]

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Emily Schultz Unleashes 'The Blondes' : A Cure by Color [Incudes Time to Read EP 210: Emily Schultz, The Blondes, plus A 2015 Interview with Emily Schultz]

08-10-15:Agony Column Podcast News Report : In Memory of Alan Cheuse : Thank you Alan, and Your Family, for Everything

07-11-15: Commentary : Robert Repino Morphs 'Mort(e)' : Housecat to Harbinger of the Apocalypse

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Robert Repino : " even bigger threat. which is us, the humans..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 208: Robert Repino : Mort(e)

07-05-15: Commentary : Dr. Michael Gazzaniga Tells Tales from Both Sides of the Brain : A Life in Neuroscience Reveals the Life of Science

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Michael Gazzaniga : "We made the first observation and BAM there was the disconnection effect..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 208: Michael Gazzaniga : Tales from Both Sides of the Brain: A Life in Neuroscience

06-26-15: Commentary : Neal Stephenson Crafts an Eden for 'Seveneves' : Blow It Up and Start All Over Again

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Neal Stephenson : "...and know that you're never going to se a tree again..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 207: Neal Stephenson : Seveneves

06-03-15: Commentary : Dan Simmons Opens 'The Fifth Heart' : Having it Every Way

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Dan Simmons : "...yes, they really did bring those bombs..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 206: Dan Simmons : The Fifth Heart

05-23-15: Commentary : John Waters Gets 'Carsick' : Going His Way

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with John Waters : " change how you would be in real life...”

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 205: John Waters : Carsick

05-09-15: Commentary : Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD and 'Shrinks' : A Most Fashionable Take on the Human Mind

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD : "..its influence to be as hegemonic as it was..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 204: Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD : Shrinks: The Untold Story of Psychiatry

04-29-15: Commentary : Barney Frank is 'Frank' : Interpersonally Ours

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Barney Frank : "...while you're trying to change it, don't ignore it..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 203: Barney Frank : Frank: A Life in Politics from the Great Society to Same-Sex Marriage

04-21-15: Commentary : Kazuo Ishiguro Unearths 'The Buried Giant' : The Mist of Myth and Memory

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Kazuo Ishiguro : ".... by the time I was writing this novel, the lines between what was fantasy and what was real had blurred for me..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 202: Kazuo Ishiguro : The Buried Giant

04-17-15: Commentary : Erik Larson Follows a 'Dead Wake' : Countdown to Destiny

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Erik Larson : "...said to have been found in the arms of a dead German sailor..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 201: Erik Larson : Dead Wake

04-15-15: Commentary : Peter Bell Reflects 'A Certain Slant of Light' : Strange Stories of Modern Scholars

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Peter Bell : "...I looked up some of the old books..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 200: Peter Bell : Strange Epiphanies and A Certain Slant of Light

03-14-15: Commentary : Marc Goodman Foresees 'Future Crimes' : Exponential Potential

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Marc Goodman : "...every physical object around us is being transformed, one way or another, into an information technology..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 199: Marc Goodman : Future Crimes: Everything Is Connected, Everyone Is Vulnerable and What We Can Do About It

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