Short Story Review: “Babies From Sand” by M. John Harrison

Like islands in a river, ten micro-vignettes stand apart from each other and yet almost resemble one another and seem loosely collected. Very loosely. It’s best read as a prose poem, as no narrative exists. But even with “poetic license,” the vignettes are irreparably disjointed.

Running through the vignettes are themes of water and biographical splices of British psychic researcher Harry Price. Sometimes the water is artistic depictions of water. At other times, it’s actual water by islands or under bridges.

The thin tidbits about Harry Price barely provide enough to stalk on Wikipedia. However, the sporadic references to him add up to an homage of sorts. [According to Wiki, about a century ago, Harry Price was debunking so-called mediums and challenging claims of haunted establishments. This info does not shed light on this smattering of description and biography.]

This tale appears in the anthology An Unreliable Guide to London by Influx Press, London. I received my copy of this anthology directly from one of the contributing authors through
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Short Story Review: “Mary, Mary” by Kirstyn McDermott

2 of 5 stars.

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley brought life to the monster of Frankenstein raising an early alarm on science crossing boundaries that ought not to be crossed. She also carved a new path as a female writer, holding her own in a male-dominated field and on subjects not deemed appropriate for her fair gender.

This fictionalized biographical tale is about the other Mary Wollstonecraft, mother of her more famous namesake. She, too, is a writer, but her relationships have her at a disadvantage. The earlier men in her life don’t stick around, not even when there is a child, Fanny, in the picture. Later, she does marry and have her more famous second daughter, Mary who was but a baby when her mother died.

The life of the elder Mary flashes through scenes remembered on the woman’s deathbed. Her truest companion is a ghost named The Grey Lady that helps her to see the lessons and truths in her vagabond life. This is all meant to be read as spirit and inspiration for the younger Mary who’ll grow without truly knowing her mother–unless there’s a ghost there to fill in the gaps . . .

This tale appears in The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror: 2016 edited by Paula Guran, which I received directly from Prime Books.




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Short Story Review: “Variations of Lovecraftian Themes” by Veronica Schanoes

3 of 5 stars.

There’s a lot not to admire about Lovecraft, the author, the man. Beyond the horror-filled mythos he created, he also espoused racist and anti-Semitic views. He sympathized with and admired Hitler. And he longed for the gilded age of America–the 18th century, when his beloved Providence, Rhode Island was managing most of the slaving ships and the Triangle Trade for New England rum.

This informative biographic essay, with a creative bent, doesn’t ignore Lovecraft’s less savory beliefs, and goes so far as to flay his familial relations open to find the kernel of his horror-verse. Was it both of his parents ending up in the same asylum? His father’s syphilis-induced delusional paranoia? Perhaps H. P. Lovecraft was the epicenter of a grand confluence of social and culture events.

That said, sarcasm in a biographical essay lessens one’s argument. Providing a “Lovecraftian” read to the advanced stages of a syphilis infection, loses strength with a deliberately skewed interpretation of the biology of the disease and the growth of bacteria–especially when it’s unknown whether H.P. was even aware of his father’s infection. Lastly, juxtaposing anti-Semitic quotes from Lovecraft with facts of real life atrocities of the Holocaust from 8-18 years later falsely implies a connection.

This piece appears in the New Lovecraftian anthology, The Mammoth Book of Cthulhu edited by Paula Guran. I received my copy of the anthology directly from Prime Books.
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Graphic Novel Review: Twisted Dark, Volume 1 by Neil Gibson

Twisted Dark, Volume 1Twisted Dark, Volume 1 by Neil Gibson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Character studies comprise 10 of the 11 stories in Volume 1 of this series which has since branched into interactive and multimedia directions as the Twisted Dark Universe expands. All of the character studies lead to a darker aspect of some humans, or some psychosis. The twisted nature of some characters is apparent from the outset, others hide it beneath the veneer of normalcy. Think: Edward Gorey in narrative form.

Twisted though the tales may be, they’re also realistic with the exception of one speculative tale. A couple pairs of tales also share common characters. Eventually, all of the tales are promised to converge on one world view and an emerging plot not yet hinted in this Volume.

Themes of suicide, child abuse, spousal abuse, and torture all emerge. A couple others show the mind sets of those that like to hurt others and possibly what brought them to that point. Varying levels of madness also arise repeatedly.

As a start to a series with characters spanning the globe, the promise of pulling it all together is intriguing. The art from the various graphic tales is handled by many different artists, but largely the quality of art is even, if not overly safe. The tales feel like drawn case studies and biographies at this point.

I received access to Volumes 1-4 directly from the author after meeting at C2E2 in Chicago. These Volumes can be accessed at Twisted Dark‘s website. Also available is a short multimedia film set in the same world [Twisted Dark Film] which is one of the tales from Volume 6. I’d rate the film as 4 of 5 stars.

No need to fear reading and watching the tales out of order as that is one of the many experiments explored in the Twisted Dark Universe.
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Poetry Review: Straight James / Gay James by James Franco

Straight James/Gay JamesStraight James/Gay James by James Franco
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This collective work falls in line with poetic performance art pieces more than it does a poetry chapbook as James Franco explores many aspects of persona. The poetics by itself is passable but never sublime. However, the teasing and toying of personal versus public persona and the concept of a person as a series of situational masks work together to elevate this collection into something greater than the sum of its parts.

James Franco is famous. He knows it, as does his reader. So rather than shirk the mantle, he embraces it through caricatures of himself, not unlike his self-portrayal in This is the End. His open awareness of putting a collection out there as a celebrity is enough to assign the entire speaker voice to character-public persona. Meanwhile, one must assume that the closest he gets to being away from the celebrity persona is with his own family which makes many appearances throughout the collection.

The second poem in the collection, “Mask,” shows his stance when he describes himself as “White, young, lusty, Sym- / Metrical, dark browed; / This mask is the face / Of Gucci, officially.” This is not the voice of someone convinced of his own importance. And yet it is a role he gladly fills “back to wherever the cameras need me,” he notes in “Custom Hotel.” Aside from the masks of actor, poet and celebrity, James hints at his masks as brother and son. Also present are masks that he ascribes to devils and serial killers. There is a darkness waiting to be understood. In “Black Death”, James considers the persona of LA serial killer Richard Ramirez, preying on James’ chosen town. He also draws connections to his process of exploring masks, with the process employed by poet mentor, Frank Bidart, and other artists he admires, Lana Del Rey and James Dean.

While many poems cite specific moments or jobs in Franco’s life, a cluster of 3 in the middle speak of and to his brothers. Throughout them, one gets the sense that James both sees himself more clearly and loses himself in them. From “Brother One:”

Sometimes two brothers split.
Their looks are so similar

They could be twins,
But inside, one takes the dark

Road, and one takes the light.
Tom followed my father

Yet more confusion and potentially jealousy surface in “Brother Two” about James’ youngest brother, Dave, who followed him into Hollywood. “There are probably myriad little things we both do, handed down through DNA, and from proximity to the love of the same parents. / I try not to look for these things, because I’ll think that they’re mine, and that he has stolen them.”

Inescapable is the blatantly queer title to the collection shared with a fictional interview at the end of the collection in which two personae discuss James’ sexuality. Sexuality is yet another mask for James, but gender is not. An earlier poem, “Hello Woman,” laments:

If I ever got high, it would be to be
The woman. If I ever did porn,
I’d want to be the woman.
I don’t want to be the man in woman

I just want to be woman.
But I will never be woman.
I am man, trapped in man.
I have no escape from this body.

In the interview “Straight James / Gay James” which originally appeared in a magazine, the two characters discuss what it means to knowingly have fame and a public persona. Ironically, Straight James plays more coy, while Gay James plays it more, er, straight:

GJ: But my question is, who is the real James, and who is the mask?

SJ: . . . I like my queer persona. I like that it’s so hard to define me and that people always have to guess about me. . . Not that I do what I do to confuse people, but as long as they are confused, I get to play.

SJ: . . . It’s not like I call the paparazzi on myself or anything like that; I’m just having a conversation with the public. If you don’t want to be part of the convo, check out.

GJ: Is this interview a nonfictional statement about who you are?
SJ: Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that I am as James Franco, but no in the sense that it is a public statement in an entertainment magazine, which means that it is part of my public persona and not my private veridical self.

This collection is no place to look for real personal insight about Franco, but it does master the craft of persona in many little ways. It’s also honest in its dishonesty. And not without humor:

GJ: Okay, let’s kiss in the mirror again.
SJ: You got it, baby.
(They kiss.)

I received my copy of this collection through NetGalley.

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Review: Peter Orlovsky, A Life in Words: Intimate Chronicles of a Beat Writer by Peter Orlovsky edited by Bill Morgan

Peter Orlovsky, a Life in Words: Intimate Chronicles of a Beat WriterPeter Orlovsky, a Life in Words: Intimate Chronicles of a Beat Writer by Peter Orlovsky
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This collection of poems, letters and journals entries with a few random photos thrown in was not what I expected it to be. That leaves me disappointed, but the fault is mine. Bill Morgan is an archivist and this is nothing if not an archive. It’s just not much more than that.

Peter Orlovsky, as Allen Ginsberg’s companion and lover for over 40 years, was in the thick of the Beat Movement and chronicling his experiences in his journal for much of it. Through his eyes and voice, the travels and musings of many key figures in the movement are witnessed extensively: Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Gregory Corso, Gary Snyder, and Neal Cassady. As Ann Charters notes in the Foreward, “For literary historians, Peter’s account of his daily life with Ginsberg, Corso, Kerouac, and Burroughs is probably the most detailed we will ever have.” Also seen are a lot of drugs, sex and jazz/rock-n-roll/punk. These are the key figures and key subjects that the movement is known for. In a more conservative time, the beats pushed the envelope and were open and experimental with their drugs and their sexuality both in words and action:

[excerpt from a Nov. 03, 1958 letter from Peter Orlovsky to Gregory Corso] ” . . . Jack [Kerouac] has been banging us [Orlovsky and Ginsberg] for being queers–especially when he’s drunk–so I, when Jack comes on like this, go after Jack with outpouring of love and raping him with words. . . . A few days ago . . . [Bach] was playing and such beautiful music that we all danced to it and it was so beautiful I started to blow Allen and Jack [was] sitting there–Allen was so scared and shy in front of Jack that he wanted to go into the other room, but I wanted to blow Allen while he danced to beautiful music, so angel magical it sounded–I’m tired of being afraid of Jack and shying my words up . . . “

Undoubtedly, for those interested in the lives of the Beats, this scrap book of letters and journals will satisfy. It also gives almost equal time to Peter’s letters and journals to and about his family which proved to be illuminating. The book starts with Peter at 21, months before meeting Allen. He’s been discharged from the army as psychologically unfit citing “schizophrenia, paranoid.” His parents have split while each spending time in psychiatric hospitals. Eventually, Peter and all four siblings of his will spend time in psychiatric hospitals. Terms such as frontal lobotomy and electroshock therapy get thrown around. Needless to say, Peter is not exactly stable before he starts to experiment with, use and abuse drugs.

I was disappointed, however, because I wanted to see the letters and poetry contextualized. I did not want this book to be a companion. We see the letters that Peter wrote, but none of the replies, nothing written to him. I don’t want to have to look up the letters to Peter to fill in the conversations. This was especially true of the poetry. I wanted to see the poetics at work. The Beats changed the game with poetry; they broke and re-wrote the rules. Peter was there when Allen wrote and read Howl for the first time. Peter also later lectured on poetry. But, no copies of a single lecture are included. What he had to say on the subject of poetics is conspicuously missing. Charters wrote that Peter inspired Beat writers with his “emotionally naked, loopy, and occasionally luminescent poetry,” while Morgan wrote that Peter “failed to realize that each of those writers had been influenced by knowing Peter and witnessing his free-spirited way of approaching life.” Not one example of another writer citing Orlovsky’s poetry or stylings is included. Morgan also tells the reader that Orlovsky’s handwriting was atrocious and spelling horrendous, leading to much re-editing [and guessing] on his part to create readable text. I think a single image of an Orlovsky original would make that point. But none are included. Finally, in a note on a journal entry deemed a prose-poem, Morgan says that the entry was later turned into verse and then back into a prose-poem. I would have appreciated the inclusion of those later iterations, but they too are not included.

This book does exactly what it sets out to do: be a scrapbook for Orlovsky’s journals and letters. It does not do what I had hoped, but I may not be the target audience. My Master’s is in Creative Writing Poetry, so I am interested in the poetics, the philosophy, the lectures and the process. In particular, my undergraduate thesis was on the “transformations of American poetics” coming out of WWII. Allen Ginsberg’s Howl was my main case study. I was not interested in drug-fueled three-ways . . . but that is what this book has to offer. I received an uncorrected first proof of this book and a nice letter from Paradigm Publishers through Goodreads. Hopefully, that did not taint my view.
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