Writing a Ghost Story During the Dog Days of Summer

Firstly, the big writing news of the month is that I’ve had four new pieces accepted. They’ll be out later in the summer and early fall. They’re short, quirky little stories, although one does contain the blueprint of a character and tone that I may one day expand upon.

 

In other news, it’s hot out.

 

The fans are blowing. There is air conditioning if I chose to use it, but it is hot out. And sunny. Of course it is. It’s summer after all, and it’s only going to get hotter. Naturally, this means it’s the perfect time to write a ghost story.

 

Confession time: I have never actually written a proper ghost story before, and I’m not entirely certain that I’m writing one now. That was the intention, certainly, but stories shift and morph. And, in all honesty, ghost stories have never been part of my wheelhouse. This is an odd statement given that I have read Sheridan Le Fanu, Algernon Blackwood, M. R. James, Henry James, Ambrose Bierce, and even dipped my toes into William Hope Hodgson. Just this month I added Susan Hill to my roster. In short, I have read a good amount of ghost stories, but it’s not a genre I’ve ever attempted myself.

 

But here I am, in the summer, trying to put spooky ghosts and family secrets to paper. I’m on familiar ground with secrets and even claustrophobic houses, but for some reason, the ghosts are just a little outside my comfort zone. It’s an interesting exercise at least, and brings up interesting questions about just what my wheelhouse actually entails, since ghost stories are close but not quite right. Questions for another day. The question of the day is with only three characters, why is it so hard to find something for one of them to do?!

 

Book Review: The Séance by John Harwood

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John Harwood’s The Seance is an elegant and faithful recreation of a good old fashioned gothic ghost story full of spiritualists, occult detectives, family secrets, madness, and mesmerism. Harwood has distilled the essence of 19th century gothic literature and its concerns and fears into a single atmospheric novel.

 

The Séance follows a young woman, Constance Langton, who becomes embroiled in the world of séances and mediums in an effort to help her mother deal with her grief. The result is tragic and sets Constance on a path that leads to an old crumbling estate and a tale of secrets, twisted science, ghosts, and murder. Harwood follows the gothic narrative conventions to the letter and the novel is presented as a series of nesting accounts that cover decades of events and obscure as much as they reveal.

 

Constance is an intelligent and capable gothic heroine, certainly mores than any of the other characters, with a deep and palpable sadness at her core. The plot resolution is perhaps a little rushed and occasionally confusing, and the terrible villain does not make quite as terrible an impression as intended. Nevertheless, The Seance is a delightful and atmospheric ghost story that perfectly captures the atmosphere of its forbearers.

Book Review: The Children Who Time Lost by Marvin Amazon

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Marvin Amazon’s The Children Who Time Lost attempts to combine a number of sci-fi concepts and plots into a coherent whole. In the future the human race has become mysteriously infertile and in response the world governments have instituted a lotto where the chosen few are permitted to time travel and return with children from the future. The novel follows Rachel Harris, the last known woman to give birth. After her daughter died she enters the lottery and discovers the terrible secret at the heart of her world.

 

None of these are particularly revolutionary concepts, nor for that matter is the ultimate revelation, but Amazon makes an effort to combine them in new ways. The result, unfortunately, is incoherent and meandering. The characters were inconsistant and unsympathetic and the plot was full of holes and degenerated from its broad premise into a fairly standard sci-fi runaround. Sadly disappointing.

 

**Received copy from NetGalley for review

Book Review: The Pillars of Sand by Mark T. Barnes

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Mark T. Barnes concludes his Echoes of Empire series as he started it, with dense world building and political machinations. The Pillars of Sand continues from where the previous book left off and brings the power-hungry Corajidin’s plans to fruition and completes the journeys of our heroes, Indris and Mari, in a suitably explosive manner.

Even over this trilogy, Barnes’ development as a writer can be clearly tracked. Perhaps it is simply because I’m three books in, but The Pillars of Sand flowed much better than its predecessors. The deluge of world building, and somewhat flat characterization that hobbled my enjoyment of the first novel is here a thing of the past. Barnes’ Shrīanese Federation is now a familiar and richly historied setting, and the mysteries of Indris’ past and his struggle with his own power finally connected with me as a reader. Corajidin has been a stand out since the very first novel and major revelations coupled with his final descent into madness make him far more sympathetic and three dimensional than one would expect. Of course, I often and invariably sympathize and root for the villain, but it is rare to find one so delightfully brought to life.

When I began reviewing the Echoes of Empire series, I noted that despite my abiding love for touchstones such as Lord of the Rings and Dune, this was not my favorite genre of fantasy and sci-fi. It would be a gross exaggeration to say that The Pillars of Sand has changed that, but it was certainly a well-written and enjoyable read. I look forward to more from Barnes.

**Received copy from NetGalley for review

Magazine Review: Clarkesworld Issue 93, June 2014

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wHole

Robert Reed’s wHole is an engrossing little thought piece. Initially it is told from the point of view of a car that is lost in the woods beneath unfamiliar stars, and trying to understand its passengers, and more importantly, how many people there are in the back seat. The story slowly opens up into a tale of engineers space travel and the power of thought. A quiet and engrossing story, that like all good science fiction, makes you think. Indeed, I may need to read it a few more times before I fully connect all the concepts introduced.

Pepe

Tang Fei has crafted a lyrical melancholy story about two “story-telling machine kids” with springs and gears, built to only ever tell stories. It unfolds like a twisted fairy tale with windup children. The relationship between the narrator and Pepe is a twisted knot of hate, shared experience, and unspoken love. Fei slowly gives the reader glimpses into the larger world, but maintains a sense of mystery and implied depth. My favorite of the issue.

Communion

Mary Anne Mohanraj’s Communion is a character piece set against the backdrop of an intergalactic war. Chaurin, an alien, has come to reclaim his brother’s body from a human colony. There are only three characters in the story, four counting the deceased who casts a long shadow, but Mohanraj uses them to explore a variety of topics including burial traditions, body image, genetic engineering, and racial purity in a way that never feels forced and stems directly from the characters and their experiences. A very well crafted, thought provoking story.

Lambing Season

Molly Gloss’ Lambing season is a sci-fi western that focuses on one woman, a sheepherder, alone with the sheep, the dogs, the coyotes, and something else. It is full of lived in detail and comfortable solitude. This is an atmospheric, slow building story–quite, thoughtful, and almost real.

Have Not Have

Geoff Ryman’s Have Not Have is a story of fashion, of the city and the town, of the haves and have-nots. Ryman takes the reader into the world of Mae, the village’s fashion expert, and shows the world through her eyes, her struggles. A charming, bittersweet story with bite.

 

 

 

Book Review: Flight of the Golden Harpy by Susan Klaus

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Susan Klaus’s Flight of the Golden Harpy is a curious book. For the most part it is a good old-fashioned fantasy and sci-fi romance. It is the love story of a young woman, Kari, and a harpy. The use of harpies is unusual, but the novel itself is unexpectedly mundane.

Klaus does, however, have a gift for world building. She parcels out information slowly and as needed creating a coherent, lived-in future of space travel, jungle planets, and harpies. The harpies are hunted as game animals, and their wings displayed. After being rescued by one of them as a child, Kari becomes convinced that they are not the mindless creatures most people presume. Not uncoincidentally, she also falls in love with her savior. Klaus keeps the action moving, and weaves a mystery full with twists and turns. There is an environmentalist message here, and a sense of scale. The characterization is less convincing, however, but serviceable and the dialogue is awkward and stilted.

I was looking forward to the Flight of the Golden Harpy. The premise sounded interesting but the execution, however, left a great deal to be desired.

 

**Received copy from NetGalley for review

Book Review: 1862 by Robert Conroy

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Alternate history is a subgenre I approach with caution. When done well by someone who really knows their history, it can be truly excellent. There can be a combined sense of fun where both reader and author get to simply play with history. The problem, of course, is that more often than not it is not done particularly well. This can be excruciating, especially when it’s a period of history you know well, and cards on the table, I am a dyed in the wool Civil War buff. So with 1862, Conroy is immediately on shaky ground.

Conroy approaches a fairly well worn idea—what if the British had entered the American Civil War on the Confederate side. This is a game of “what if” that has interested historians, amateurs, and, for that matter, the Confederates themselves since the War itself. It has been picked over, and examined from all different angles. It is the subject of a number of other alternate history books, some of which are even very good.

Conroy takes the Trent Incident as his divergence point where the seizure of 3 Confederates from a British ship does, in fact lead to war. He has clearly thought through his larger points. His basic argument is that even with British intervention, the Union still had the manpower and resources to win. This is an historical argument I have some sympathy with, its presentation here, however, is unconvincing and unfortunate. The battles are well written and the action moves quickly. Conroy knows his period, but outside the realm of historical knowledge and battles, this is a disappointing, almost amateurish book. There are multiple scenes where two historical characters essentially give voice to Conroy’s historical arguments.

1862 is a quick read with some nice battles and limited characterization, but is ultimately formulaic and disappointing.

Book Review: The Girl With All the Gifts by M.R. Carey

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M.R. Carey’s The Girl With All the Gifts starts with a mystery and a slow building of tension before, unexpectedly shifting into another kind of novel altogether. Even more so than usual, this is a difficult novel to review without giving away key plot points and reveals. M.R. Carey is approaching a familiar and well-worn genre from a new perspective and part of Carey’s method is to initially obscure and mislead the reader about precisely which genre that is. Eventually that will become common knowledge, and if I’m honest, I had an inkling before I started, but this book is built around this reveal and achieves it quite well, even when the reader knows it is coming.

Melanie is a special little girl, gifted and dangerous in ways that are not initially clear. She is kept a prisoner and taken to and from classes. She dreams about the outside world. Carey draws the reader immediately into Melanie’s world, her perspective and creates a growing sense of unease, of secrets, and unspoken sadness. Once her secrets are revealed the story takes a turn into outright horror and post apocalyptic zombies, and the narrative opens up into other viewpoints.

The Girl With All the Gifts is a tightly crafted novel. The characters feel real and have an unexpected depth. At the heart of the story is Melanie’s relationship with her favorite teacher, Miss Justineau, which is touching. Indeed, the entire novel has moments that are unexpectedly poignant and heartfelt. Likewise, Carey has thought through the world, the science, and even the genre conventions, and if, in the end The Girl With All the Gifts does not quite escape those conventions, Carey succeeds in making them feel fresh. An unexpected gem.

**Received copy from NetGalley for review

Book Review: The Small Hand by Susan Hill

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Susan Hill has been writing gothic novels and ghost stories for almost 50 years, the most famous of which is probably The Woman in Black. Given my interest in gothic literature and literary ghost stories it is odd that I haven’t actually read any of her novels before, and odder still that I have started with The Small Hand, a more recent and comparatively slighter novel, closer to a novella.

This is a remarkably straightforward story following an antiquarian book dealer, Adam Snow, who takes a wrong turn, finds an abandoned garden, and feels the titular small hand take his own. From there events get increasingly darker and more dangerous. Hill builds the tension slowly and deliberately, but the plot is so slight that a number of incidents feel more like padding. On a number of occasions, Snow is distracted by his business or by his brother’s family and forgets about the ghost for months at a time. This has the effect of deflating the tension at periodic intervals. The pacing is, therefore, slightly uneven, but Hill is clearly well practiced in the art of tension and mystery. By the end I was suitably intrigued and desperate to find out what was happening. Not all the mysteries are resolved and outside of Adam Snow, the characters are underdeveloped.

The Small Hand feels like a short story that has been stretched into novella. Susan Hill is an obviously practiced hand who delivers a good old-fashioned ghost story in the tradition of M.R. James, but this is too slender to be one of her better efforts. I am, however, impressed enough to tackle some of her earlier works.

Book Review: The Madonna and the Starship by James Morrow

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Set in the world of 1950s television, The Madonna and the Starship is a loving satire and a spoof of the golden age of television, of 1950s science fiction at its silliest, and of religion and rationalism. It is, in short, exactly the sort of novel I should love. The title, the cover, the very idea of nihilistic, arch-rationalist, anti-religious, extraterrestrial lobsters contacting a TV hack writer and forcing him on pain of death ray to prove that humanity is as rational as they are is exactly the sort of craziness I usually enjoy. Sadly, it never quite lived up to its promise for me.

Kurt Jastrow is a science fiction writer churning out weekly episodes of Brock Barton and His Rocket Rangers when he is contacted by alien lobsters from the planet Qualimosa who have seen his broadcasts and want to give him an award. This is complicated when they become aware of the “televised irrationality” of Not By Bread Alone, a Sunday-morning religious program, and offer to cleanse the world of irrationality. Kurt and Connie, his love interest and coincidentally the writer of Not By Bread Alone, make a frantic effort to rewrite the religious program as a biting satire, and thus save millions of people from lobsters wielding death rays.

To be fair there are a fair number of laughs, and Morrow treats everyone with equal opportunity satire, but it was hard to escape the feeling of missed opportunity. The concept is filled with inspired lunacy and satirical possibility, the end result seems to barely scratch the surface. There are a number of sharp and pertinent observations. The Madonna and the Starship is a well-researched, philosophically grounded novel that never quite lives up to its ambition.

**Received copy from NetGalley for review