Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Book reviews: Strange Worlds + The Devil's Auction

STRANGE WORLDS by Paul Clayton is a fine collection of SF/fantasy stories. Damn fine!

When you load up your Kindle with freebies from unknown authors, you get a mixed bag. You wind up reading a lot of enjoyable but shallow page-turners whose authors you forget immediately. But every now and then, you experience the thrill of discovery. A real writer!

Paul Clayton is that thrill, a writer with chops and depth. In STRANGE WORLDS he spins yarns of future worlds just a heartbeat away from our own. Funny yarns. Thoughtful yarns. Disturbing ones. In this eclectic collection you will find cautionary tales of a future sprung organically from our own technologically rich, spiritually impoverished 21st century.

The cover art for STRANGE WORLDS mimics a classic SF magazine from the 1950. These stories are popular, not esoteric. Like the best classic SF, they speculate about science and culture. This is not an exercise in nostalgia. Let me run through them. The stories vary in length, in tone, in person. There is something for everyone , adding up to a very satisfying experience that you will want to repeat. These stories bear rereading.

"Triumph" is a classic monster tale, but it gets the book off to a slow start. An amorphous Thing has trapped a small town's population in the high school gym and is siphoning off their life's blood. A Catholic schoolgirl and an observant Jewish scientist are the only townspeople left free. What will it take for them to fight It?

"Dog Man" - In life, you've got your dog people and your cat people. Vietnam vet Steven "Cap" Crowley is a dog man. There's just something devious about cats... A nifty creeper folded into the story of a good man trying to be his brother's keeper in one little corner of the world.

"The Thing in the Box" - The UPS man delivers a package to six year old Danny's house. An unforgettable slice of family life that takes place the day after tomorrow. I can't get this one out of my mind.

Day, or Two, of The Dead - a wry take on the zombie tale.

About Our Cats - short and pithy; reminiscent of those Twilight Zone episodes wherein the universe metes out karmic justice.

Remembering Mandy - What is it like to be old and wrinkled in a world where no one ages, with a coveted memory trove from a more leisurely time?

Jimmy Jon and the Avengers - a children's zombie tale.

A Working Man - In a world of casual terrorism and easy sex, what's a girl gotta do to find a boyfriend she can tolerate?

Amything - Cybernetically Assisted Persons (CAPS) represent a technological alternative to the deterioration and death of the physical body. But at what cost? One couple in love find out. A disturbing story about choice and relationship.

The Great Leap Forward - A time travel story about jealousy and gender in the academic world.

The Last Raft - Apocalypse now. Who is the enemy when most of the world is gone?

Christland - Come visit Christland, entertainment park of the future! See the legends and rituals of Christ worshippers!Thrill to the weird rites of now-defunct Christianity reenacted in all their primitive splendor!

Gentle One - a poignant story of function and gender in a tribal world. This one reminded me of a futuristic one-act play from my own Catholic schoolgirl days, when our all-girls school had to choose plays with mostly female roles.

2038: San Francisco Sojourn; The Wrath of God - What if God WASN'T one of us? But something a little more Old Testament-y? Broad and goofy satire of our PC society.

The Devil's Auction by Robert Weinberg

The Devil's Auction is a fast-moving horror tale of the occult arts and the modern sorcerers and sorceresses who use them. It will appeal especially to horror fans who like true historical lore mixed in with contemporary greed and lust. Published in 1988, it was the first novel of author and editor Robert Weinberg, first brought to my attention when he edited what is arguably the best collection of vampire tales ever, Rivals of Dracula. I read The Devil's Auction awhile back and meant to review it, but never got to it. I re-read it recently, enjoyed it all over again, and thought better late than never.

A mysterious Invitation shows up in the mail of a handful of the world's most astute practitioners of the occult arts. Jake Lancaster is one such invitée. Those who do not receive this Invitation, like the seductive Countess Marie Lamont and her savage servant Hannah, will stop at nothing to obtain it. Why? The possession of this Invitation admits the holder to the private auction of an unknown occult item of unimaginable power, bid for and paid in kind with magical objects rare and powerful. Held once every generation by a mysterious sorcerer said to be centuries old, this is The Devil's Auction. The rumors surrounding it are all secondhand. For every participant of previous auctions has subsequently disappeared off the face of the earth.

When Jake Lancaster receives his Invitation to The Devil's Auction, a horrific presentiment of death accompanies it. Soon his good friend, Vietnam vet Alex Warner, is drawn into the intrigue. Two beautiful women seek to enter Alex's sphere of influence: hi-powered fashion model Valerie Lancaster -- Jake's daughter -- and the Countess Lamont. Both exude a dangerous sensuality. What do they want with Alex, a staid professor of history at a Midwest university?

If nobody has returned from The Devil's Auction, why would anyone want to attend? The motives are mixed. Revenge, curiosity, lust for power, and a drive for dominance in the field of sorcery -- all of these play their part. Above all there is the promise that winning the auction will give access to an obscure occult treasure hidden from the time of the Christ-- possibly the secret of immortality itself!

Weinberg takes you on quite the enjoyable ride. The plot is fast moving, the characterizations light but memorable. We follow the action from the points of view of a bunch of different characters, lending poignancy to the fates of even the obvious villains. At several points you want to shout out to the characters, "No! What are you doing? You are courting death!" Luckily, these fictional folks aren't scaredy cats and pay you no heed.

A very satisfying read.