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10-26-13: Egaeus Press Engineers 'The Transfiguration of Mister Punch'

Nightmare in Three Panels

Theme anthologies are a staple of genre fiction, but 'The Transfiguration of Mister Punch' is light years beyond such a mundane appellation. The publisher considers it a Triptych, and that seems so much better, more appropriate for this dark wonder of written depravity and art. The entire volume needs to be considered, as Egaeus has gone to some trouble to offer readers a work that seems torn from another reality, one much less friendly to the humans who will enjoy this work.

The intensity of the book at hand glares out at you from the cover, and it never lets go. The endpapers feature disturbing glimpses of Punch freed from puppetry. The book is dosed with creepy little line drawings, and even a few photographs. If your skin is not crawling before you start reading, consider that you may be looking in a mirror and worry.

Mark Beech, the man behind Egaeus, the publisher and unnamed editor of the book, offers a brief introduction; credit him with the sense to keep it short and the artistry to come up with something in the right vein, with the right atmospheric feel. The three novellas that follow live up to Beech's introduction and to the artistry of the book design.

Charles Schneider's "The Show That Must Never Die" starts with a rather unhinged narrator, apparently overcome by his research into the origins of the Punch and Judy figures. But once he gets to the history, it seems legitimate and creepy. Schneider is a writer capable of great subtlety and over-the-top excess in the same breath. The narrative is really quite a tour-de-force as Schneider explores, explodes and eviscerates both the narrative voice and world around the narrator.

Including lots of photos and illustrations in the story serves to bolster both the creep factor and the believability on two levels. On one hand, we believe that the author Schneider is giving us real Punch and Judy history. On the other hand, we believe that the narrator is giving us an authentic glimpse into reality as he sees it. The upshot is s story that is truly unsettling, even for those who read lots of horror fiction and feel themselves perhaps numbed to violence. There's very little gore or violence in "The Show That Must Never Die," but there's an incredible talent for crafting unease that does not go away.

D. P. Watt takes a perhaps more traditional narrative strategy in "Memorabilia." It's a very traditional frame story, with a collector speaking to a client who buying a collection of Punch and Judy items. There are four stories in the single story, each one wonderful in itself, the sum of them rather more so. In "With Gravity, Grace," a puppet maker is asked to craft his greatest creation. In "Oh Pretty Polly," a young man becomes fixated on a woman. In "The Mechanized Eccentric," art history gets to strut the stage. In "In Comes I," a bad cop reaps as he has sewed. The prose for every story is a lovely, stagey mix of terror and wonder, and Watt's elaborate framing devices form a finely tuned machine. "Memorabilia" truly lives up to the anthology format, offering a theme anthology within the triptych. It's smart, funny and extremely chilling.

The final story, "This Foolish & Harmful Delight" by Cate Gardner manages the unique feat of being by far the most outrageously gory and distressing story in the book from the first paragraph, while, oddly enough, having the most traditional narrative. Mr. Punch is in Hell and he escapes. But what a Hell — and what an escape. And as to what follows, what transpires in hell-on-earth; make no mistake it's as weird and as gory and disturbing as you can possibly imagine. Gardner always seems to know how to go the extra yard. And even though the story is in some senses more traditional than the others, Gardner does a great job of keeping the sense of hellish outsiderness that the other stories have established. This story does have one problem however; the proofreading is not up to the standard of the other two. That said, the writing is superb, a primal scream rent frrom the souls of the innocent.

'The Transfiguration of Mister Punch' is an outstanding triptych, an organic new work that has the feel of the forbidden. Beech, Schneider, Watt and Gardner have pulled together a work that deserves awards, the bigger, the better. This is a breathtaking display of skill and imagination, a fever dream that will haunt your waking and sleeping hours.

10-23-13: Hannah Kent Performs 'Burial Rites'

Isolation and Community

There's a precision in Hannah Kent's 'Burial Rites' that one might be tempted to call icy; the setting is Iceland, the characters isolated and the relationships are chilly at best. But for all the cold of the environments, geographical and human, the precision that Kent brings to her prose and her novel is warm and expansive.

'Burial Rites' is a fictional spin on the true story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last woman executed in Iceland, at the beginning of the 19th century, in 1829. Before she was beheaded for participating, even masterminding the deaths of two men, she was billeted with a family in a remote community. This does not sound like a promising environment for human warmth, and to be sure, Hannah Kent does not romanticize any aspect of the situation. But the clarity she brings to her vision of the characters and the place make sure that the story is intense and engaging. By showing us humans in a simple, unadorned manner, she shows the strength and compassion we might all find, even in the worst of circumstances.

Kent's prose is a great starting point. Chunks of the book are direct translations of historical sources. The story is told in a rather daring manner, alternating between third person narration when we are with members of family and the community, and first person passages told by Agnes herself. The third person prose is nicely turned and phrased with words evocative of the specific time and place. Kent uses enough lightly-Anglicized Icelandic terms to draw readers in, but never does so to draw attention to herself. She crafts her characters in the third-person sections with an admirable economy, letting her readers draw conclusions. And in Agnes' narration, she treads a very fine line between a narrator who is engaging and one who might be spinning the story for her own benefit. There's a lot of nuance in the prose, but it never seems deliberately "delicate."

'Burial Rites' has a large cast, but Kent manages to make them all distinct. Having two prose streams and perspectives helps in this matter, but within the bonds of historical record, she's created some intensely memorable characters. Front and center is Agnes, who is part enigma — to those who see her from outside — and a rather different sort of enigma in the first person portions of the narrative. To those around her, she is generally thought to be a monster, though as the family gets to know her, some change their mind, slightly. But from within, Agnes is complicated, beguiling and shifty. She may be unreliable, or she may be telling the truth, or she may be selling the truth. Kent plays everything out in both halves of the narrative in an understated manner. Even the more minor characters are enjoyably memorable.

Plotting might seem to be the greatest challenge here, but again, Kent is up to the challenge. With prose and characterization, she manages to throw her own fidelity to history in doubt. After all, 'Burial Rites' is a novel and she can play fast and loose with the truth. We like Agnes, a lot, and other characters do as well. We hope to see her live and Kent plays out the tension between history and fiction with a superb eye. She also crafts some intense tension in cutting between the first and third person portions of the narrative. As we learn more about Agnes from within, we might get conflicting data from without. Where the truth lies is a matter of turning pages at a rapidly increasing pace. Kent rewards her readers' efforts with a well-wrought finish, but getting there is just as much fun as arriving.

For all the cold weather and cold feelings one will find in 'Burial Rites,' Hannah Kent's writing is warm and smart. Good, evil and even indifference respond to sympathy and empathic understanding. Hannah Kent's compassion for her characters and her genuine affection for them make it possible for readers to care and feel compassion. Upon waking from the reading dream, the feelings linger.

10-21-13: Paul Harding Explores 'Enon'

The Path of Memory

Our world may end in many ways, most of them personal. Following from 'Tinkers,' Paul Harding's 'Enon' begins with an apocalypse then goes out to rebuild the world, sentence by sentence. It's beautiful and terrifying and just different enough from 'Tinkers' to feel right. It might feel easier, but that's an illusion. Life is very difficult but Paul Harding has the courage and skill to capture that in prose. To bring it to life in our minds, in words.

There's no reason to be shy about it. 'Enon' is the town where George Crosby died, and now his grandson, Charlie Crosby tells his own story, in the first person. As with 'Tinkers', the battle is declared in the first sentence. On one side of the lines, we meet Charlie in the first person, and that change makes our reading life seem as if it might be easier. But the sentence that tells us this tells us also that Charlie's daughter Kate has been killed and his wife has left him. This is how the world ends — and the novel begins.

As with 'Tinkers,' Harding moves us through time, memory and lives with incendiary, hallucinatory prose. While the first person telling makes the story more present and the characters more distinct, Harding has not given up his penchant (nor has he lost his talent) for dreamlike and nightmarish visions.

Nor has he lost his love for immersion in the pleasures of this world, of nature, but also, on the negative balance, in drugs and alcohol. Much of this book demands to be read aloud, so find a place to do so, preferably one surrounded by trees. Your emotions are going to be a bit battered, but authentically so. If you must ride the rails to hell, you're well advised to have Paul Harding as your prose tour guide.

Even as 'Enon' tears Charlie apart, Harding carefully builds out the world in which Charlie has lived and still may live, should be choose to experience it again. Harding is a consummate poet of the rural, forested, Northeast, and memories of reading this novel will be quite filled with green. And you will remember this novel. Harding's prose ensures this, and while he offers a bit more dialogue and fewer paragraph-less pages, there are plenty of visions of beauty and terror here.

Harding also goes about building the town of Enon; offering us more residents, touches of dry humor, and fuller, pulled-back portrait of where the Crosby family has lived. With 'Tinkers' and 'Enon,' Harding has crafted a prose memory for his readers. It's not an easy memory to achieve. It requires work on the part of the reader to read Harding's prose, but it pays you back by virtue of being not just creating tension and intensity by remaining just far enough out of reach to keep you grasping for every word. 'Enon' may not seem at first like the vacation you wanted to take. But it is the vacation you will remember.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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