Science Fiction & Fantasy


Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


JEREMIAS GOTTHELF – The Black Spider. New York Review of Books, paperback, 2013. Translated by Susan Bernofsky. First published as in German as “Die schwarze Spinne” in 1842.

JEREMIAS GOTTELF Black Spider

   When I first spotted a new copy of Jeremias Gotthelf’s The Black Spider in the science fiction/fantasy section of my favorite Washington D.C. bookstore, I confess that I wasn’t familiar with either the author or the book.

   My curiosity was piqued, so I decided to purchase the novella. I’m glad I did. I read it over the course of several days, scribbling notes to myself on the margins, and I found myself eager to learn more about the life and times of Albert Bitzius (1797-1854), the Swiss pastor and novelist who, under the pen name of Jeremias Gotthelf, wrote one incredibly vivid and didactic horror tale.

   The Black Spider begins with a serene pastoral Swiss setting. A family and their friends have gathered for a child’s baptism. All seems well in the world. Then one member of the baptismal party notices something odd. There’s a black piece of wood in the old house’s window post that’s noticeably short and out of place. People are curious. What is this piece of wood doing there? As the old advertisement used to say, inquiring minds want to know.

   That’s when the action really takes off. The grandfather (unlike in Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague, we never learn his proper name) uses the piece of black wood as a jumping off point to tell a haunting tale about a castle, a brutal knight named Hans von Stoffeln of Swabia, oppressed peasants, and woman named Christine of Lindau who tries to outsmart the Devil. As if that weren’t enough, there’s also a sinister quasi-sentient demonic arthropod that wreaks all sorts of havoc and mayhem.

   The basics of the story are as follows. Some six hundred years ago, a cruel knight forces his peasants to relocate some beech trees in order to create a shady walk by his castle. They have no idea how they are going to complete such a physically demanding task.

JEREMIAS GOTTELF Black Spider

   Enter a strange character, a huntsman dressed in green, with a red feather in his cap, and a red beard. It’s not too long before the reader learns that this huntsman has the stench of sulfur about him. Soon after, we learn that he’s the Devil. The aforementioned Christine makes an unholy bargain with him, one that would allow the villagers to be freed from the nearly insurmountable burden of planting the trees. The deal is sealed with a kiss on the cheek. But, as with all deals with the Devil, it comes at a steep price. In this case, the Devil wants the villagers to turn over a newborn child before it is baptized.

   Without giving too much of the plot away, suffice it to say that Christine’s choice isn’t the wisest one. Soon, there’s a strange black dot on her face. Sooner still, it morphs into something far more grotesque and spine chilling:

   “But Christine was not lighthearted. The closer the day of the birth approached, the more terrible the burning in her cheek became, and the more the black spot swelled, stretching distinct legs out from its center and sprouting tiny little hairs; shiny points and stripes appeared on its back, the bump became a head, and from it flashed glinting, venomous glances, as if two eyes. Everyone shrieked at the sight of this venomous spider upon Christine’s face, rooted in her face, growing there, and they fled in fear and horror.” (pp. 53-54)

   After that, things get even weirder. The black spider comes to life and brings death. Eventually, a woman captures the spider and plugs it in a hole. There it rests for many years. Then, in an age of impiety and frivolity, the spider gets loose again. Only this time, there’s a man named Christen who, with divine assistance, is able to “thrust the spider into the ancient hole.” (p. 102).

JEREMIAS GOTTELF Black Spider

   Here, the religious message of the work becomes increasingly apparent. Faith and honesty are good; “pride and vainglory” are bad (p. 105). And as far as the aforementioned piece of black wood, it gets incorporated into the frame of a newer house and keeps the black spider imprisoned, where it supposedly remains on the day when the grandfather tells the baptismal party this very creepy story.

   Early nineteenth-century Switzerland doesn’t immediately come to mind when one thinks of either Gothic fiction or what is best described as weird fiction. Lord Dunsany, Clark Ashton Smith, and H.P. Lovecraft were all twentieth-century writers and wrote their works in an increasingly secular world. Jeremias Gotthelf, by contrast, was a more devout man who wrote in an age more steeped in faith than the aforementioned purveyors of cosmic horror. His ultimate villain was the Devil, not some strange creature from beyond space and time.

   But then again, there’s the bizarrely sentient black spider. If one reads the work critically, one sees that the author’s description of the spider at times reads less like something out of a fairy tale or a religious novella than it does out of an early twentieth-century pulp magazine:

   “The crowd flew apart, all eyes drawn to the foot to which the hand of the screaming man was pointing. On this foot sat the spider, black and huge, glowering balefully, maliciously all around. The blood froze in their veins, the breath in their breasts, and the sight in their eyes, while the spider calmly, maliciously peered about, and then the man’s foot turned black, and in his body it felt as if fire were hissingly, furiously doing battle with water; fear burst the bonds of horror, and the crowds scattered.” (p. 72)

   The Black Spider may very well be one of the first works of weird fiction ever written. For this reason, it’s well worth reading. But it’s also a good scary tale to read on an overcast day when it’s windy outside, the rain is hitting your windows, and you have some cabin fever. That’s what I did. And I loved every minute of it.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


THE TWILIGHT ZONE Straczynski

J. MICHAEL STRACZYNSKI – The Twilight Zone, Volume 1 #1: The Way Out. Dynamite Entertainment, comic book, 2014. Illustrated by Guiu Vilanova. Colored by Vinicius Andrade. Lettered by Rob Steen. Main cover by Francesco Franvavilla.

   Carol Kramer Serling, widow of the late Rod Serling, remarked in a 1987 interview that, for the legendary creator of The Twilight Zone, “the ultimate obscenity is not caring, not doing something about what you feel, not feeling! Just drawing back and drawing in; becoming narcissistic.” In many ways, that very spirit of refusing to turn away from perceived social injustice animates the narrative in the brilliantly executed first issue of J. Michael Stracyznski’s The Twilight Zone comic book series (2014).

   The tall, muscular, and blonde-haired Trevor Richman wears a suit and tie, works in New York finance, and cheats on his blonde-haired girlfriend, Natalie Kyle, with the dark-haired Sandra. He is about to be indicted for white-collar criminal offenses. Knowing it’s only amount of time before the FBI catches up with him, Richman seeks the services of the mysterious, gray-bearded Martin Wylde, whose firm developed a nanotechnology pill which, if ingested, transforms so completely that they assume complete new identities, complete with new blood type, eye color, and fingerprints.

   Richman takes the pills and transforms into a new man — literally. Thomas Riley (same initials!) has dark hair — similar to Sandra and unlike Natalie. When Richman/Riley goes in for a cleaning appointment, the dentist tells him that his jaw is changing on its own and that he basically appears to have a new dental profile.

   Riley, unlike his former self as Richman, does not wear a tie; instead, he wears jeans. Although, suffice it to say, he didn’t need to take a pill to do either of those things. Riley, it would seem, still has Richman’s personality and memories, leading the reader to believe that the change, dramatic as it was, was merely physical.

THE TWILIGHT ZONE Straczynski

   Even a casual reader would notice the strong political subtext in “The Way Out.” Cheating Wall Street bankers, like Richman, are villainous. Wylde’s clients, we learn, are tyrants and dictators, war criminals, torturers, and … “a growing number of people from the financial services industry.”

   And one can almost hear echoes of Serling, known for introducing the theme of racial equality into his work, in Richman/Riley’s response to an African-American, a patron of a coffee shop, who wants white collar criminals in jail: “The legal system doesn’t work the same way for people at the top as it does for — well, for everyone else, for the people with power, for the people who matter…there’s always a way out.”

THE TWILIGHT ZONE Straczynski

   Vilanova and Andrade’s visual rendering of the patron’s face, ostensibly reacting to Richman/Riley’s over-the-top statement, is stunning. Still, one wonders whether the characters deliberately refer to the “FEC” and the “Federal Exchange Commission” or whether this was an oversight on the part of the author who should have written “SEC” and “Securities and Exchange Commission” instead. (The FEC is the Federal Election Commission, not really relevant to this story.)

   Unlike far too many comic books appearing on the shelves these days, the first issue of The Twilight Zone is well written, deals with serious subject matter, and contains artwork and coloring that works exceptionally well with the story. There were a couple instances, however, where I had to double check whether I understood correctly which character was which. But those moments were few and far between.

   In conclusion, Stracyznski, who wrote for the 1985 television reboot of The Twilight Zone has written the type of story one could easily imagine appearing the television show bearing its name. A tale, it should be noted, which with a dramatic cliffhanger — one I certainly didn’t see coming. I’m planning on going to the comic book store later this week and purchasing the next few issues in the series. I want to know how it all turns out.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

JACK LONDON – The Scarlet Plague. HiLo Books, US, softcover, 2012. (The Radium Age Science Fiction Series 1.) Introduction by Matthew Battles. Originally published in London Magazine in 1912. This edition follows the text of the hardcover edition published by The Macmillan Company, also 1912.

JACK LONDON The Scarlet Plague

   Although perhaps best known for his 1903 novel, The Call of the Wild and his 1908 version of the short story, “To Build a Fire,” San Francisco native Jack London also wrote proto-science fiction and dystopian literature. London’s 1912 novella The Scarlet Plague, reprinted in paperback in 2012 — the first in HiLo Books’ The Radium Age Science Fiction Series—remains a lesser known, but still culturally significant, work of early science fiction.

   Set in the scenic Bay Area in 2073, The Scarlet Plague is best categorized a work of post-apocalyptic literature. Sixty years prior, a plague of unknown origin wiped out most of the population. Survivors are scant. Civilization has fallen. What’s left of mankind has been reduced to what London depicts as a state of barbarism and savagery.

   There is one man, however, who remembers — with great sadness it should be noted — the era before civilization’s fall. Enter Professor James Howard Smith, a professor of English literature at the University of California-Berkeley. The novella centers around the elderly Smith (known simply as “Granser”) recounting the emergence of the scarlet plague and its destructive impact on humanity. He tells his primitive grandsons what life was like before the plague and how the post-apocalyptic tribal society in which they now live was formed.

   London’s vision of civilization’s decline, illuminated by Granser’s story, is both intriguing and one that has been recast in myriad forms by different authors. Think Stephen King in The Stand. (Also, substitute zombies for the plague and the fundamentals of the story could still work.)

   That isn’t to say that London’s novella is simply an adventure or proto-zombie story. There is a definite philosophical meaning to be found within the work. As Matthew Battles aptly notes in his Introduction, London’s work resounds with echoes of the 18th-century Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico’s cyclical interpretation of History. Toward the end, Granser tells his grandsons that eventually, civilization will be reborn, but that it too shall fall.

   Just as the old civilization passed, so will the new. It may take fifty thousands years to build, but it will pass. All things pass. Only remain cosmic force and matter, ever in flux, ever acting and reacting and realizing the eternal types — the priest, the soldier, and the king. [Page 126]

   Strong stuff. It’s unfortunate, then, that London chose the weak narrative device of a character telling a tale to semi-eager listeners. Also, one wishes London showed why Granser was immune to the plague or at least potentially hinted at an explanation. But perhaps London’s point was that History’s path is an incredibly random one.

   The Scarlet Plague remains a worthwhile, albeit quick, read. That said, it’s difficult to imagine that a publisher would consider publishing such a work today. Nevertheless, the novella provides the contemporary reader with a greater understanding of London’s worldview and how he envisioned the class system in the United States might look in 2013.

   In conclusion, The Scarlet Plague is a chilling reminder that all that mankind has accomplished in the name of technology could one day disappear. A hundred years have elapsed since London’s work was published. Science fiction has not yet tired of contemplating civilization’s fall and asking the question: what then? Maybe it never will.

GEOFFREY CAINE – Curse of the Vampire. Diamond, paperback original; 1st printing, May 1991

   If M*F is a magazine for detective mysteries only, this review certainly has no business being here. Luckily it isn’t, or at least since it’s my magazine, I can read and review what I like. (Can’t I?)

GEOFFREY CAINE

   The book does feature a retired Chicago cop, however, and maybe that’s enough connection to make it legal, but Abraham Stroud’s days of retirement are not likely to be easy ones. This is only the first of many adventures to come.

   This one takes place in Stroud’s home town, but according to page 183, there are “all manner of nasty creatures the world over.” The “family” of vampires in this book are only a taste of what lies ahead. (Next in the series: off to Russia and Wake of the Werewolf.)

   The gimmick is vampire today is apparently to find some sort of pseudo-scientific rationale for their existence, and to create some sort of well-suited setting for this enemy of man, one in which they can find new ways to survive in an otherwise alien world.

   This is all well and good, but it can backfire on them, as it does in this book. This perhaps may require a plot alert warning, but I’ll forgo it and tell you that what Stroud and friends come across is a chemical substance called succinylcholine (S-choline, for short) which is a deadly poison to the creatures.

   Stroud’s demented handyman — yes, there’s one of those, too — is the only one who knows about it, but it works. (Keep the name of the chemical in mind. Who knows? It may come in handy some time.)

   It wouldn’t have been difficult to have come up with a “scientific” explanation for the stuff as well — you know, essence of garlic or something — but unfortunately, the author didn’t take the chance to do so.

   But the book ends with the grandest sort of cemetery shootout, a true pulp style holocaust that inflicts tremendous damage on both sides. In fact, if you are a fan of the pulps, this is as close a descendant to those old magazine stories as I’ve read in a long time. Wild imaginative story-telling is a grand old tradition to be following in, and I’m glad to see it still around today.

— Reprinted from Mystery*File 31,
       May 1991 (revised).


Bibliographic Notes:   Geoffrey Caine was the pseudonym of Robert W. Walker, who has made a good career of writing novels in the horror/psychological suspense/thriller vein, mostly under his own name. There were only three books in this series. I don’t remember reading either of the other two, but it’s possible that I did. (Note that I no longer see the need for making excuses for posting material on this blog which is not purely detective fiction.)

       The Abraham Stroud series

Curse of the Vampire. Diamond, 1991.
Wake of the Werewolf. Diamond, 1991.

GEOFFREY CAINE

Legion of the Dead. Diamond, 1992.

   Vampires, werewolves and zombies. You can’t go into a bookstore today and avoid them. Caine was obviously a man ahead of his time.

PATRICK LEE – Deep Sky. Harper, paperback original, January 2012.

   Even though everyone makes up their own, there are certain rules that readers of fiction must live by, and #4 in the spiral notebook that I always carry with me (figuratively speaking) goes something like this:

PATRICK LEE The Breach Triliogy

   Never read the third book in a trilogy without reading the first two first.

   The proof of a rule always comes in disregarding it, as I did this time, and it will be a long time before I do so again.

   Preceding Deep Sky in the author’s “Breach” trilogy are The Breach (December 2009) and Ghost Country (December 2010), and what we have in this, the third book has a a wind-up whizz-bang opening – the roof comes off the top of an ordinary home in the suburbs, a Sparrowhawk missile is fired, destroying the White House and most of its occupants, including the President – followed by an only slightly less dramatic bunker-busting bomb taking out half of the heavily guarded structure containing The Breach, a la Marvel comics – and an ending that veers so far off into sci-fi La-La Land that even the most fervent enthusiast’s eyes will glaze over.

PATRICK LEE The Breach Triliogy

   I know. Mine did.

   The Breach, as long as you are asking, is some sort of super-secret connection between our world – a wormhole, perhaps – and another, located somewhere else in the galaxy or beyond at some point in time in the future, perhaps. No one knows. All they know is that mysterious artifacts keep slipping through, some useful, others having no discernible purpose.

   Whoever ordered the destruction of the White House and the killing of the President is unknown, but the Vice President, hastily sworn in, is definitely on the side of the bad guys. On the other are Travis Chase, head of Tangent, and his lover, Paige Campbell, whose father was one of the founders of Tangent. Both survive the bunker-bomb blast, and with the use of the devices spewed out by the Breach, begin a book-long investigation into the tragedies and who’s behind them, an investigation conducted on the run, with all of the forces of the US Government acting against them, knowingly or not.

PATRICK LEE The Breach Triliogy

   The first half of the book is a lot of fun, even though the standalone reader (me) has to assume a lot about the events that have previously taken place. But when events in the previous books are suddenly needed (pulled out of the air) to make sense of this one, the fun ceases and the rest of the book (with 150 pages to go) is a mish-mash of techno-babble, super-sized futuristic technology and carloads of information dumped on the reader with no room to yell out for help. The air is sucked out of the book.

   That the leading characters are stick figures goes with saying. (Perhaps we were to have learned all we needed to know about them in the first two books.) This is a techno-thriller, after all, not Moby Dick. The author has a a grand imagination. It’s too bad he couldn’t pull it off, not even in the 150 pages that were left to pull it off in.

   This is a Big Scale book — there’s no doubt about that — but when a Big Scale book isn’t given enough space to answer all the questions, nor to fill in the holes in the plot, then it’s no better than a Small Scale book without any questions. (I’m thinking of halves of Ace Doubles from the 1950s and 60s here.)

PostScript:   I classified this as Science Fiction, correctly, I believe, but you’re much more likely to find this book in the section where your local store keeps the Tom Clancy thrillers.

BARBARA HAMBLY – Those Who Hunt the Night. Ballantine/Del Rey, hardcover, December 1988; reprint paperback, 1990.

   Most assuredly a tour de force, if there ever was one. If you don’t know the story, hang on to your Bunsen burner. Under considerable duress, James Asher, one-time foreign agent for the British government is hired by Don Simon Ysidro to find out who is killing the vampires of London.

BARBARA HAMBLY James Asher

   The year is 1907, and the fact is that Ysidro himself became a vampire in 1555. Held over Asher’s head is the life of his wife Lydia, who is herself a scientist of some ability, and who knows something of the pathology of blood.

   Several of Ysidro’s companions are dead, with stakes in their hearts and their coffins opened to the light of day. What Ysidro cannot understand is how a human could be doing these deeds any vampire’s knowing, and thus he turns to what would otherwise be unthinkable: he is asking the assistance of a human. (Worse than that, of course, is actually allowing a human to know of the vampires’ existence.)

   Nominally a detective story, there are a few flaws along that line, mostly those of conjectures that somehow become facts within minutes of their being stated, and small jumps of logic that on occasion stumped me badly. (And sometimes they are wrong, leading to long wild goose hunts that circle back upon themselves, and only then are they crucial to the story.)

   What this may sound like is a horror story, but it really is not, although with vampires involved, how could there not be any chills? What it is, when it comes down to it, is a science fiction novel. There is a reason the story takes place when it does, and that’s because in 1907 there was just enough known about blood and bacteria and related matters to provide a solid “scientific” basis for the existence of vampires, and not yet enough to know that they are not possible.

   And always overshadowing Asher’s investigation is the question of how it’s going to work out when it’s over. Ysidro is a creature who has killed thousands of humans in his “lifetime,” and yet he and Asher become strange allies in their hunt for the killer of the vampires, and each in their own way begin to stand taller in the opinion of the other.

   While there may not be a definitive answer to this not-so-subtle problem, Hambly does offer the reader a resolution to it. She also supplies a solution to the mystery itself, and of the two (resolution and solution), it is the solution to the mystery that is stronger.

   All in all, this is a fascinating book, one I didn’t think I was going to read — it’s not my usual bill of fare — but as it turned out, I’m glad I did.

— Reprinted from Mystery*File 28,
       February 1991 (slightly revised).


[UPDATE] 05-20-12.   Unknown to me until now, this was the first of a series of vampire novels that Barbara Hambly wrote about Jim Asher. I’ll list those below.

   Hambly is one of the few authors I can think of who has written as many mysteries as she has in the SF/Fantasy field. Most notable among the former are her eleven novels (through 2011) featuring “free man of color” Benjamin January, a Creole physician and music teacher whose first adventure takes place in New Orleans in 1833.

      The James Asher series —

1. Those Who Hunt the Night (1988)
2. Traveling with the Dead (1995)

BARBARA HAMBLY James Asher

3. Blood Maidens (2010)
4. The Magistrates of Hell (forthcoming: July 2012)

IT’S ABOUT CRIME, by Marvin Lachman

STANLEY SHAPIRO A Time to Remember

STANLEY SHAPIRO – A Time to Remember. Random House, hardcover, 1986. Signet, paperback, 1988. Made-for-TV Movie: Filmed as Running Against Time (USA Network, 1990), with Robert Hays, Catherine Hicks, Sam Wanamaker.

   Coming across a [paperback] copy of Stanley Shapiro’s A Time to Remember exactly 25 years after the murder of John F. Kennedy in Dallas was too much of a coincidence to resist, and so I read another volume in the growing library on that event.

STANLEY SHAPIRO A Time to Remember

   This is a science-fiction mystery in which, using time travel, a man goes back to 1963 to try to prevent Lee Harvey Oswald from shooting the President. (Shapiro does not refer to any conspiracy theories.) The science portion is not very believable, nor is the fiction much better. There are some dizzying jumps between 1963 and 1985, and much of the suspense is the result of the author causing incidents with a rather heavy hand.

   Still, there are times when Shapiro writes very well, and a chase scene is described as suspensefully as the master, Cornell Woolrich, might have told it:

STANLEY SHAPIRO A Time to Remember

    “I am filled with one overpowering, all-consuming emotion — not to get caught. Escape is what life is about. How and where is not important — only to avoid capture, to find a place to rest and think and to live on. Lungs and heart are called upon for performance levels beyond what they were created for. I know the stark terror an animal feels as it flees the advancing hunters. But that animal has trees and mountains and burrows and caves to hide in. I have only the stairs and the street below.”

   The brief confrontation between a naive scientist and a Dallas prostitute on page 44 is almost, by itself, worth the price of the book. Most important, there is the endless fascination of the single most traumatic event of our time.

– Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier,
Vol. 11, No. 1, Winter 1989.


Editorial Comments:   This is the author’s only entry in the Revised Crime Fiction IV, by Allen J. Hubin. Stanley Shapiro was far more well known as a Hollywood screenwriter: he was nominated four times for an Oscar, winning once, for Pillow Talk (1959). For a full list of his credits on IMBD, go here.

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