Wednesday, November 9, 2011

E-Book Review "The New Death and Others" by James Hutchings


            Imagine, if you will, that Queen Scheherazade, that imperiled narrator of the Tales of the Arabian Nights, had married Hans Christian Anderson and  that their child had grown up listening to a harvest of new stories co-authored by his or her illustrious  parents. Then imagine that the child's tutors had been Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft,…with a few lessons from Stephen King… and Woody Allen as an eccentric uncle.  Finally, allow that this child has a precocious personality and has grown up to be a philosopher as well as a storyteller and poet. Now, if you were to ponder what sort of fiction such a prodigy might weave,  you might have an approximation of the type of delightful smorgasbord to be sampled in James Hutchings e-anthology  The New Death and Others.

                Very near to a hundred pages, New Death is filled with a variety of poetry, flash fiction, and short stories which possess a mingling of eloquence, nerve and depth that will convince you immediately  that these are children whom Hutchings has nurtured over the period of a lifetime, giving them printed life now in prose and poetry that is as well crafted and as stylized as any I have ever read.

                 I'm not a professional editor or reviewer--however, as a lifelong reader and lover of literature, and having had a few writing courses, I know good writing when I see it, and Hutching delivers this. His writing is strong, fluid, and filled with quiet energy and lucid reflection that renders highly palatable reading.

                Quite aside from craft, though, it is the contents of the tales themselves which make The New Death  original and compelling.

                Hutchings' influences will be recognizable by fans of fantasy and horror genres.   Several  of his poems  are direct homage to the works of Lovecraft  and  Howard,   clever and abbreviated retellings of favorite stories delivered  in  measured , rhyming verse. I have not included any sampling of these poems here but at the web link which concludes this review you can read several gems. It's no easy matter to write rhyming poetry that  doesn't  come across as trite or contrived but Hutchings knows his meter and the  value of the well chosen word and the results  are pleasant and absorbing lines which faithfully distill the ingredients of the  original stories. 
                  Yet for each of these tributes, there are numerous other poems, short stories, and flash fiction pieces that showcase Hutching's  individual vision  and originality as a writer,  ranging from loosely connected, fairy tale styled pieces highlighting Telelee, a fantasy city/world of the author's creation, to excerpts of modern horror fiction,  to flash fiction bits containing brief but  wry and insightful commentary on modern cultural trends and their attendant human inconsistencies ,  hypocrisies and absurdities.  Consider this bit , entitled "Compatibility":

Once upon a time there was a man who only desired to make love in the back yard, in a wading pool filled with red wine.
He went on the internet looking for love, but found only rejection, until someone directed him to a site specifically for singles with wading pool/back yard/wine fetishes.
There he met a woman who shared his desires. They chatted online, spoke on the phone, and at last agreed to meet.
The man was very excited. He began telling the woman how he would slowly inflate the wading pool, and then equally slowly fill it with bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon.
"Wait," said the woman. "Isn't Cabernet Sauvignon a red wine?"
"Yeah. So?" said the man.
"Oh. I probably should've said. I only want to make love in someone's back yard in a wading pool filled with white wine."
"Get away from me, pervert," said the man.

Good stuff. Then there is the bit entitled  "A Date With Destiny", which uses the foibles of Internet personals dating to underscore an important life truth:

Once upon a time there was a man who had a date with Destiny. He dressed in his best clothes, made sure to put on deodorant and aftershave, and masturbated beforehand, so that he would not be led into error by lust. At the appointed time and place he presented himself, flowers in hand.
Alas, he had never met her in person, but had arranged the date through And username hotdestinyfate69 was not Destiny at all, but Ambition, who had used Destiny's photo to get more messages. She meant to explain this before meeting him, but always decided to do it later.
So Ambition turned up, presenting herself as Destiny. She agreed with everything the man said, and the man found her delightful. In truth the man liked the idea of going out with Destiny, but probably would have found Destiny herself a bit bossy. Ambition and the man stayed together, and lived happily ever after.

Then there are scatterings of  shorter  pen pricks delivering social or political satire, like "Auto-Pope" :

In the year 20__ the College of Cardinals elected the first robot Pope.
They chose it out of desperation. All the other candidates had something horribly wrong with them. Some were child abusers. Others were members of the Mafia. Still others were women.
Sadly it exploded when someone asked it whether married gay couples should get divorced.

                The poetry  and flash fiction in New Death is a great bonus to the price of admission, but  for me the  feature attraction is Hutchings' collection of short stories,  tightly written narratives containing unique characters, evocative settings, and imagery certain to haunt you long after reading.  The Telelee stories are whimsical flights of fancy delivered in the moralistic  flavor of the Tales of the Arabian nights and the Sinbad stories but also evincing something of Lord Dunsany's  Gods of Pegana.  My favorite of these is "How the Isle of Cats Got Its Name", a narrative about an overly ambitious sorceress named Abi-Simti who, aside from sacrificing one of her feet for a cloven hoof in order to gain magical knowledge, is willing to make a compact with the infernal spirits of the underworld themselves in exchange for such arcane lore. Part of her terrible plan involves nefarious designs upon the Cats of the mystical city of Telelee, which seems to lie in the land of the same name.

                Here is a sample of Hutchings narrative from the tale's opening:

                "Death stalked the cats of Telelee.
                Throughout the city there was much hiding under couches, and a yowling fear of shadows who came in the night. These shadows gathered squint-eyed kittens and cats trembling with age. Starving alley cats like leather bags filled with bones and pampered house-cats more spherical than cat-shaped, alike were taken. The shadows asked not whether a cat was tom or queen. White cats and black, tabby and orange, grey and tortoiseshell, cats that looked like their owners and cats that looked like nothing but cats, the shadows hungered for all."

                 Abi-Simti is quite a character, and she establishes her ruthlessness by essentially kidnapping the Cats of Telelee and imprisoning them on an isle within the parts of a giant mechanical harp which makes its "music" by pricking or pinching variously pitched cats like keys in a ghoulish piano:

                "First she brought forth creatures of a far star, who looked like shadows, but had substance, and who obeyed her commands, though not willingly. She bade these creatures to go forth, and gather the cats of Telelee. This they did, with silent and terrifying efficiency.
                Having dismissed the shadows, Abi-simti then found with her arts an island that had no name, and no-one living there. She summoned a djinn of the air to carry her there, along with her feline captives. There she bound spirits of the water as her slaves. They worked day and night for many months. Nigh every tree on the island was felled, the rocks in the streams were cut and shaped, and even the sand on the beach was fused into glass. At the end of this time, there stood a huge harp. It was higher than three elephants standing one atop the other, and had hundreds of strings. There were metal fingers to pluck the strings, hundreds of fingers for hundreds of strings, so that the harp seemed to be caressed by a centipede of prodigious size.
But the strangest part of this harp was the music it made. For the strings brought forth no sound. Instead, when the mechanism was operated correctly, the metal fingers would pluck a string. This plucking would cause cogs to turn wheels and wheels to turn cogs, and at last a lever would fall. At the end of this lever was a nail, and at the end of the nail was a cat, which would yowl in pain. Abi-simti had arranged the cats so that the cry of each one was the exact pitch that the corresponding string should have made."

                As an aside, I should mention that cats and insights about the nature of cats are sprinkled throughout the anthology, and for the life of me I cannot surmise from them whether Hutchings likes or dislikes them but lest cat lovers be  needlessly offended, I should say (without spoiling) that Abi-Simti is opposed in her plans by Artimesia, a clever white moggy cat with a black patch over one eye, and all does not end as one might fear. The ironic ending of "Isle of Cats" highlights that ambition without moral restraint can be not only unrewarding but downright dangerous.

                Some of the Telelee yarns could be read out loud to children. I plan on reading "How The Isle of Cats Got Its Name"  to my young nephew and I feel it would make a good illustrated children's book in its own right. But like the Arabian tales or the stories of Hans Christian Anderson, even the tales which children would enjoy are wrought with themes  substantive and enjoyable to adults as well.  Like Aesop's fables, they have a "moral of the story" but instead of spelling this out Hutchings lets the tale itself deliver the moral to the thoughftul reader . Forget the morals though…the Telelee myths are filled with imaginative scenery and chimeras that evoke  wonder… one story features a woman who is carried each day by white apes up a perilous stair to a scriptorium high in a tower where she copies ancient manuscripts and then parachutes down, falling in love one day with a shepherd she spies from the escarpments.

                There are far more than the Telelee stories though. Another jewel is a story about a scholar from the fabled and fantastic city of Mayajat who goes on a quest to break a lunar spell which holds him bound, finding himself passing through a strange horror called the Ziggurat and winding up at a convocation of monsters. Then there is the one about a demoness who is charged with inventing  punishments in hell and, against her darker nature  and the infernal laws, ends up falling in love with an incubus assistant, the affair ending up, as so many love trysts do, complicated and filled with bitter irony. Yet another tale, one of my favorites and one which I believe would make a good basis for a horror film short,  is Todd, a terrifying yarn about a little boy who descends into the darkness of the city's drain tunnels to hold court with what might be an infernal supernatural presence or only the demented projections of the tale's narrator, Todd's friend, who follows him into the tunnels and watches him from afar. Todd is what you might get if you blended the movies Stand by Me  with The River's Edge and a dash of It…yet the story is uniquely Hutchings'. I can't write this review without including a sample from it:

One big city feature we had was a world-class system of storm-water drains. We weren't supposed to go down there. Rain could come without warning, and you'd be drowned. It totally happened to a kid who used to go to our school. Just like a kid at our school had sex with the art teacher after the prom, and a kid got caught pulling himself in the bathroom. Maybe it was all the same kid. A kid who went to every school, leaving each time he had sex with the art teacher and got caught pulling himself in the bathroom thinking about it, finally drowning himself in despair after running out of schools. A tragic hero of our times.
At the time we did believe in this drowned kid. But we went down there anyway, to explore, and smoke, and talk about the things that being in a tunnel under the ground made boys think of in those days. A lot of the time that was either nuclear war or Dungeons & Dragons (for those of you under about thirty-five, Dungeons & Dragons is like World of Warcraft played with pen and paper and dice instead of a computer). We talked about girls too, but that wasn't because of the storm water drains. We talked about girls everywhere, and I don't think anything we said was true.
Todd really took to the drains. He did something no one else did, which is go down by himself. a troll in one of our games of Dungeons & Dragons, Todd went down there all the time. I don't think I could have gone in by myself. Not that anyone said he was brave. It just proved he was a freak.

Our narrator decides to follow Todd into the storm tunnels, following his torch light into terrain both spooky and vividly real to anyone who haunted such places as a youngster. A familiar modern urban setting takes on a macabre aspect as the narrator beholds strange and disturbing rites...

                The tale for which the anthology is named, The New Death, is a an ironic and amusing tale about the Grim Reaper and his alien counterpart--a very clever vehicle for contrasting two views of death and dying. You will enjoy this one. And if you came of age in the late seventies or early eighties, the whole collection will contain some very welcome scents of nostalgia as well as a lucid reminder that we don't live in that world anymore.

                It's very evident that years of hours of loving care went into crafting some of these tales. M.A.R. Barker, creator of the fantasy setting of the world of Tekumel,  wrote somewhere  that the Empire of the Petal Throne stories began to be written in his high school days but that Tekumel became more fully focused and developed much later in his life.  You get the sense in reading this anthology that these stories have been with Hutchings for a very long time, polished and smoothed over a period of years before he actually put them in print. Not one of his actual stories seems to have been a night's hacking at the keyboard but old wine in a new vessel.  I imagine that Telelee, even if it wasn't named such, is a place dreamt of by a much younger Hutchings when he was open to the spell that fairy tales and myths can weave upon people lucky enough to believe in them or at least wish they could be true.

                I  highly recommend that you obtain Hutching's e-book. It's a worthy purchase in the electronic age, since its cost is minimal and it can be bookmarked on your desktop for morning chuckles with coffee in hand or before bed time horror reading. It is loaded with hours of enjoyable reading and you will  revisit several tales.  It is available in ten different formats, including as a Kindle download. I'm only sorry there isn't a print copy available, but there is always Kinko's.

               I also recommend New Death as an example  of how e-books and online communities offer talented and creative people a relatively simple and inexpensive way to get their writing or artwork before an appreciative audience. The anthology is sure to offer ideas and inspiration to other hopeful authors and lead them to take the initiative and do the same thing Mr. Hutchings has done. I only hope they do it as well as he.

               The New Death  and Others can be obtained at Smashwords:

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