Saturday, February 18, 2017

DMI2017, Week 7: "The Triumph of Vice" by W.S. Gilbert

This week the Two of Diamonds is responsible for taking us back into the realm of fantasy, courtesy of Masterpieces of Fantasy and Wonder.


  

"The Triumph of Vice" was another of those stories that I really wanted to like, mainly on the strength of my knowledge of the author. W.S. Gilbert was a British dramatist and poet, perhaps best known for being half of the comic opera powerhouse "Gilbert and Sullivan." To this day nothing makes me laugh harder than a well-mounted production of pretty much any of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas, the Mikado being my favorite I suppose. So it was with high hopes that I came to this story, and although it has its moments where you can plainly see Gilbert's unique brand of humor coming through, it was just a mediocre story in my opinion.

The story takes place in the improbably-named province of Tackelschlosstein, where lives the Baron von Klauffenbach and his daughter Lady Bertha. Although they own a grand castle, they are otherwise penniless and are forced to take in a lodger, which is where the Count von Krappentrapp comes into the story. He falls in love with Bertha, but unforunately he is short and squat, while she is tall and statuesque, and she considers the Count quite beneath her as a suitor. He proposes to her but she rejects him completely based on his appearance.

One day a gnome by the name of "Prince Pooh" presents himself to the Count and asks for his help in wedding Bertha, in exchange for untold riches. There's only one problem: the Prince can transform himself into a tall, handsome man worthy of Bertha's attention, but the spell lasts only a short time before he slowly begins to shrink back into his gnomish form, whenever he washes himself. He had tried getting married twice before, but the engagement in both cases went on too long (as he says, "One is obliged, you know, to wash one's face during courtship") and resulted in the brides-to-be calling everything off when they realized who they were actually marrying. So he needs the Count's help in introducing him to Bertha and paving the way for the most rapid marriage possible.

The marriage occurs, and although the newlyweds are happy, Bertha is quite irritated at the Prince's practice of washing his face only once a week. According to Gilbert, "Bertha was a clean girl for a German," and she's determined that the Prince should raise his level of hygiene as well. So she does things like hiding his umbrella when he goes out, in the hopes that he might get rained on. Things begin to come to a head one day when Bertha realizes, to her horror, that she and the Prince are both shrinking, and it's all over but the shouting one day when the Prince falls in the river and has to stay there for about two hours before he's rescued. When he emerges from the river, he's barely recognizable.

Now humbled, Bertha consults the Count (who is now much taller than she is) and asks his help in getting rid of the Prince. This he does, in a very fairy-tale sort of way, and Bertha and the Count marry and live happily ever after.

This was a decently amusing story in its way, but I was expecting quite a bit more from Mr. Gilbert, so I will give it only three stars.

Deal Me In 2017 is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

DMI2017, Week 6: "Bread and Bombs" by M. Rickert

This week, the King of Diamonds takes us over to the science fiction side of this suit with a story selected from 21st Century Science Fiction, edited by David Hartwell and Patrick Hayden.

  

The story "Bread and Bombs" is one of those that innocently and unassumingly works its way down into your psyche and festers there. Events in this story take place in the unnamed narrator's childhood, but are being described years after, when the narrator is an adult and understands things very differently. This gives the entire story a kind of foreshadowing that feeds directly into its overall unsettling atmosphere.

The setting of the story is post-apocalyptic. Something terrible has happened (we get bits and pieces of details as the story progresses), the country is at war, and everything has changed. I know that is the vaguest sentence possible, but it reflects the way the author unfolds the details of the story. Nothing is told head-on, and the reader learns more by what is not said than by what is said. For example, the narrator's father reminisces about a time when people could travel anywhere they wanted to on airplanes. Airplanes still make appearances in the story, but when they fly overhead, everyone panics, puts on helmets, and runs for cover. So it's clear that the skies are no longer safe. Things like snow are no longer safe as well, due to some kind of biological warfare going on. The narrator learns of a nearby family who got sick and died just because they loved playing in the snow. More humorously, the narrator's father also reminisces about having six different kinds of cereal at one time, "coated in sugar, can you imagine?" And when the cereal got stale, they had the luxury of just throwing it out. Thus we also get the idea that regular food is suspect in this story, as well as just being hard to get.


So naturally, it's into this new and paranoid world that outsiders come. A refugee family with two little girls moves into an abandoned house just up the street from the narrator. The first reaction is fear and distrust, as the narrator's mother says things like, "I don't want you going to their house," (understandable and normal, perhaps) and "Don't eat anything they offer you" (maybe not so normal). Most of the neighborhood children are fascinated by the two girls, because of course they look and are dressed differently than anyone else, they don't go to school, the younger of the two girls cries all the time ("because of the war and all the suffering," her older sister says), and because the two girls ride up and down the street in a cart pulled by a goat. At one point the narrator tries to make a friendly overture to the girls by offering them a loaf of bread, but they recoil from it in horror -- it turns out that, in their country, warfare was conducted using bombs disguised as loaves of bread (hence the title of the story). But in spite of the fascination, the neighborhood children generally keep their distance from the girls -- all except for the narrator's friend, Bobby, who plays with the girls, rides in their cart, and gets pretty close to them, all to the consternation of the entire neighborhood, adults included. Some of the adults are accused of being prejudiced, and in fact the refugee family is widely distrusted simply because they came from the country that "started it," in the words of the narrator's mother.

The adults call town meetings to discuss what should be done with the refugee family. The children have their own kind of meeting about the outsiders as well, but theirs turns dark very quickly, with talk of matches, stick piles, and locked doors. The climax of the story comes in the most disturbing way possible, with almost everything left to the imagination of the reader.

I thought this was an excellent story, interesting in its own right, but made even more interesting by the skillful way the author understated even the more horrific details of the story. It definitely deserves five stars.

Deal Me In 2017 is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

DMI2017, Week 5: "Morality" by Stephen King

The story this week is brought to you by the Queen of Spades, from Stephen King's recent collection The Bazaar of Bad Dreams. This story was originally published in Esquire magazine.

   

I came to this story with high hopes based on its premise: morality is a slippery slope, and the simplest, seemingly non-consequential act can lead to things that are not so simple and non-consequential. Maybe I misunderstood its premise, or maybe this was the wrong story at the wrong time, or maybe it's just a not-so-good story -- but whatever the reason, I wasn't feeling this story this week.

The plot, however, is simple. Chad and Nora, a young married couple, have money issues. Chad is a substitute school teacher but has dreams of writing a book, and he's halfway there with an offer from a real agent, if he can only free up enough time to get the writing done. Nora works as a private home health nurse for a retired minister by the name of George Winston. Her job is all that's keeping them afloat, but things may get better soon: the Reverend Winston has proposed an arrangement that will put them solidly in the black for a long time, long enough certainly to allow Chad to finish his book and get it published.

But here's where the story goes off the rails for me. Reverend Wilson is fabulously wealthy, through a combination of old family money and plain living, and he proposes a deal with Nora. He has never really sinned in his life, he says -- at least, nothing major. But here at the end of his life, he's curious and now wants to see what it's like. The only problem is, he's bedridden and housebound, so he has to do his sinning vicariously through someone else, and that's where Nora comes in. He offers her $200,000 to commit a sin of his choosing and produce verification of the same on video. The story does get very interesting at this point, because the creepy, manipulative way in which Winston entices Nora into the deal shows that he's much more acquainted with sin than he might think. Either that, or he's completely clueless about it, despite his position as a well-respected minister.

King keeps the reader in suspense for as long as possible about what sin Nora is going to have to commit. I won't give the story away by telling what it is, but hopefully it's not spoiling the story too much to say that, while shocking and violent, the sin turns out to be not so awful. But maybe that's the point. The effect of the sin on Nora, Chad, and their relationship turns out to be much more consequential. Nora becomes more violent in her dealings with others, and Chad's writing loses the spark that made it appealing in the first place. And their marriage generally just falls apart. In fact, nothing ends well in this story.

So while this was a good story and well worth the time, I was not as enamored of it as some of King's other stories. Maybe I was just expecting a good horror story and got a philosophical drama instead. Still, it ranks four stars with me.

Deal Me In 2017 is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

DMI2017, Week 4: "Lila the Werewolf" by Peter S. Beagle

The story this week is brought to you by the Five of Diamonds, from the collection Masterpieces of Fantasy and Wonder.

  

As it happens, "Lila the Werewolf" is a story I remember reading as a teenager, from a book of Peter Beagle's collected works, but I didn't remember any of the details of the story. I have never been that crazy about the idea of werewolves, so that is probably why. To me, there are far more interesting (and scary) monsters than werewolves. In spite of that, however, I found this to be a well-written, interesting story made more interesting by Beagle's creative use of language.

The story is relatively simple. The protagonist, a guy named Farrell, hooks up with a girl named Lila Braun, who soon after moves in with him. One night he finds a note from Lila, saying that she's having dinner with her mother and probably spending the night as well. He thinks nothing of this, but later that night Farrell is awakened by a wolf that suddenly comes into his bedroom through the open window. He keeps his eyes closed as the wolf moves closer and closer to him, even standing over him, until the moment when sunlight finally enters the room. He opens his eyes then, and finds Lila sitting on the side of the bed. She says she just came home, and indeed she did.

But as Beagle puts it,

Farrell's gift was for acceptance. He was perfectly willing to believe that he had dreamed the wolf; to believe Lila's story of boiled chicken and bitter arguments and sleeplessness on Tremont Avenue; and to forget that her first caress had been to bite him on the shoulder; hard enough so that blood crusting there as he got up and made breakfast might very well be his own.

It's not his blood, of course -- the blood is from a dog that Lila killed during the night, while she was a werewolf. He's rattled, naturally, but Farrell does indeed have a gift for acceptance, and he decides to live with this new knowledge about his girlfriend, in spite of advice to the contrary from his friend Ben.

Time wears on, and Farrell doesn't ever bring it up directly, but Lila knows that he knows her secret, so much so that she eventually has no qualms about transforming right in front of him. Farrell sometimes closes his eyes during these transformations, however, not willing to completely grasp what is happening with her.

The plot thickens when the building's superintendent sees Lila one day and somehow instantly knows that she's a werewolf. From that point on, he looks for any opportunity to get proof of this and then do something about it -- that something obviously involving a silver bullet. Beagle mixes in Lila's over-protective and slightly bitchy mother, who obviously knows all about Lila's "problem" and is used to sheltering her daughter, for some comic relief. The story comes to a dramatic, if slightly humorous, climax one night with a full moon, when Lila suddenly goes into heat, attracting all the dogs in the neighborhood to their certain death.

While this was a good story, I find that I still don't care that much about werewolves, so it's getting 4 stars from me.

Deal Me In 2017 is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

DMI2017, Week 3: "A Proper Santa Claus" by Anne McCaffrey

The story this week is brought to you by the Six of Diamonds, from the collection Masterpieces of Fantasy and Wonder.

To my knowledge, I have never read anything else by Anne McCaffrey. I knew of her, however, because she was famous for her Dragonriders of Pern series. She was a notable author in both the science fiction and fantasy realms, winning awards in both. Based on this story, "A Proper Santa Claus," I believe I would enjoy reading more of her work.

The story opens with Jeremy North, a six-year-old boy, fingerpainting in his room. He's painting a cookie on his art paper, and when he gets it just like he wants it, he picks the cookie out of the paper and eats it. The cookie makes him thirsty, so he also paints a glass of Coke and then drinks it. It's flat, however, because he couldn't figure out how to properly paint the bubbles.

The reader quickly realizes that Jeremy is not just pretending here. He has the ability to paint things and have them exist in the real world. These objects come to life because Jeremy "sees" them as "proper." If he doesn't "see" them, or if other people can't see them in the same way he does, then they remain lifeless. On one occasion Jeremy paints a car for his father. It's one that he says he wants, so Jeremy is excited at the prospect of giving his father this car. But on the way to show his father the car, the paint gets smudged, and his father can't tell that it's a painting of his car. So that painting remains lifeless, much to Jeremy's disappointment.


The story follows Jeremy's budding artistry as he experiments with pastels and other artist's mediums. He finally graduates to three-dimensional art, experimenting with butter and mud (neither of which pleases his mother). He tries Play-Doh but his creations get frozen in place as the compound hardens in the air. Finally, his teacher introduces him to plasticine, and as it's close to Christmas when this happens, Jeremy decides to create a "proper" Santa Claus complete with sleigh and reindeer. This Santa also has a bag filled with pictures of presents clipped from all manner of mail-order catalogs. Jeremy's idea is that this "proper" Santa Claus will come to life and bring him all the presents he would ever want. His teacher has other ideas about what makes a proper Santa Claus, however, which leads to the conclusion of the story.

This is a wonderful, if somewhat bittersweet, story about a young boy's active imagination and its death at the hands of grownups who long ago forgot how to make things "proper." Children have an ability to see past an item's flaws and imperfections, and bestow upon it qualities of being real. Upon reflection, this story reminded me of the story of the Velveteen Rabbit and its journey to "real." Like that story, it leaves the reader a little sad at the end, but it's definitely worth 5 stars.

Deal Me In 2017 is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Monday, January 30, 2017

DMI2017, Week 2: "Prince Bull" by Charles Dickens

The Ace of Diamonds takes us into our first foray into the science fiction/fantasy category with a story by an author one would not expect to find here: Charles Dickens. The editor of the anthology points out that A Christmas Carol counts essentially as a fantasy story, however, so I suppose it's not beyond the realm of possibility to see Dickens in such a collection.

"Prince Bull" is more of an allegory, although Dickens subtitles it as "a fairy tale," and the story does indeed begin with the words "Once upon a time...." The title refers to the main character of the story, a figure who represents John Bull, himself a type of allegorical, or at least metaphorical, character. Just as we Americans have our "Uncle Sam," the British have their "John Bull," a personification of Great Britain who dates back to the 1700s.


In this story Prince Bull is beset on all sides by an evil fairy godmother named Tape. She's colored red, so she is a relatively heavy-handed personification of the concept of "red tape" and bureaucracy. Her magical power is that she can stop any kind of idea or innovation by simply laying her hand on it and saying, "Tape." This has the effect of either squelching the idea or sending it off to some other country, which then profits from it, all to the detriment of Prince Bull and his kingdom. Tape even interferes with the Prince's preparations for war.

This was such a strange little story that there's honestly not much to say about it. It was Dickens, of course, whose style is unmistakeable and always a pleasure to read, but the story left me cold. I have an idea that it would have had way more impact when it was written than it does now, although we still live very much with the fact and the consequences of red tape. And maybe that's the point, since at the end of the story the prince remains firmly in the clutches of Tape and has no prospect of getting out.

I'm afraid this story gets only 3 stars from me, and if it were written by anyone other than Dickens, it would probably get only 1 star. I can't really recommend it. Still, it might be worth looking up if only for the historical angle and oddity of the story.

Deal Me In 2017 is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

DMI2017, Week 1: "The Little Green God of Agony" by Stephen King

This story, chosen for me by the Jack of spades, appears in the recent collection of Stephen King's stories entitled The Bazaar of Bad Dreams. And let me tell you, it is classic Stephen King. It's a testament to the fact that, no matter what his literary ups and downs may have been over the years, he very much still has "it." In fact, while I was reading this story I noticed that my heart had started racing and my breathing had sped up -- it was that suspenseful and so effortlessly had sucked me in.


The story opens as Katherine MacDonald, a private nurse, is tending to her patient, Andrew Newsome, who just happens to be the sixth-richest man in the world. He also happens to be a bed-ridden invalid recovering from a plane crash and who is never going to get any better despite the daily physical therapy Katherine ("Kat" for short) tries to give him. I say "tries" because Newsome is, in Kat's eyes, a big baby who can't tolerate the slightest bit of pain, and certainly not the monumental amounts of pain that such physical therapy requires to make any kind of progress back to normal functioning of muscles and legs and such. (In the introduction to this story, King notes that he was inspired by his own painful recuperation after the 1999 accident in which he was almost killed by a motorist.)

Even though Kat thinks Newsome is the ultimate wimp, she dares not say anything along these lines to her rich and powerful employer, because she's sure he would fire her on the spot. So she keeps her mouth shut as Newsome relates the details of his accident and then worldwide (yet fruitless) search for someone to help him relieve the pain he is in, and finally get better. He's telling all this to a visitor, a faith healer by the name of Rideout. Kat has seen his kind before, she thinks, and he's just another con artist to her. As the story turns out, of course, she is very much mistaken.

Rideout patiently and silently listens to Newsome's tale, and then pronounces his diagnosis and remedy. In his expert opinion, Newsome is possessed by a demon, a "little green god of agony" who has infested his body and is happily feeding on, and amplifying, his pain. He offers to expel the demon in return for just enough money to rebuild his church, which has recently been destroyed in a fire. This surprises Newsome, who is rich (and desperate) enough to give Rideout any amount of money he asks for if he succeeds, but he happily agrees to the request and consents to the exorcism.

NOT the "little green god of agony"

And this is where Kat completely loses it. She gets in Newsome's face and finally tells him off, in no uncertain terms. She tells him exactly what she thinks about this situation, and tells him he is never going to get any better unless he starts biting the bullet in terms of his therapy. Newsome fires her immediately, of course, but Rideout intervenes, saying that if Kat goes, then he goes as well. He welcomes her unbelief, as it turns out, and is eager to show her how wrong she is. He confronts her as a burned-out caregiver who no longer has the empathy necessary to care for her patients and appreciate their pain, and he's ready to give her a lesson in "humility," as he puts it.

Without giving away any more of the story, suffice it to say that, since this is a Stephen King story, Rideout is  right -- there IS a "little green god of agony" inside Newsome and Kat does get her lesson in humility, as well as a lesson in terror. The story has a nice, Stephen King-like ending as well, if you know what I mean.

I would give this story 5 stars (I think I'll try a rating system this time around) and I recommend it highly as a fast, fun read. It was a great start to my Deal Me In journey this year.

Deal Me In 2017 is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.