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BOOK REVIEWS: JULY 1999
By Paula Guran

MR. X
Peter Straub
Random House/ $25.95/ 512 p.
(Also now available in mass market paperback)

book cover Using an updated doppelgänger theme, Peter Straub erases the boundaries of ordinary reality in Mr. X to again prove how constantly fresh and vigorous the gothic can be when written by one of its finest, most imaginative practitioners. He disturbs with core psychological fears involving the loss of self and confusion of identity; disconcerts with revelations of hidden truth and the manipulation of reality itself. Amusing and intelligent, Mr. X also occasionally scares the wits out of you with straight-out in-your-face ghastly horror.

The week before his 35th birthday, Ned Dunstan somehow knows his mother, the free-spirited jazz singer Star, is dying. Raised by caring foster parents, Ned has always realized that Star loves him, although she could not raise him herself. He returns to his home town to find Star already hospitalized. Before she dies, she tells Ned two names -- that of his previously unknown father and another name, "Robert." With these two clues, Ned, who has always felt as if he had lost something extraordinary he never really had, begins unraveling the secrets of his own past as well as those of his amazing clan. The Dunstans, he discovers, are far from the average American family. They are what "leaked from the cannon's mouth and the crack in the golden bowl" -- often paranormally talented or spectacularly alien. But the story is not Ned's alone, for the mysterious Mr. X is also narrating his version of the tale. X has taken H. P. Lovecraft as his prophet and is convinced that the author's fictional tales of the Cthulhu Mythos are Holy Writ; that the Elder Gods have placed him on earth to prepare for its apocalyptic destruction and the return of the Star-Flung Entities. Capable of reducing his victims to little more than splashes of gore, Mr. X is determined to do away with Star Dunstan's son -- who he sees as an impediment to his Sacred Purpose. Meanwhile, in his search for answers to his own questions as well as a series of unusual events, Ned becomes something of a hard-boiled, if amateur, detective dealing with corrupt millionaires, street scum toughs, and cops both good and bad, while being assisted and comforted by a couple of beautiful and intelligent women. And there is someone -- or something -- else as determined to resolve it all as Ned: a shadow named Robert.

Multi-leveled, even meta-fictional, the novel is written with an assured and distinctly powerful style that, along with its suspenseful complex plot and intriguing characters, enthralls the reader. Mr. X is a modern masterpiece of the macabre from a vital and significant American author.

SUBTERRANEAN GALLERY
Richard Chizmar and William Schafer, editors
Subterranean Press/ $50 (signed/limited)/ 360 p.
ISBN: 1892284146

book cover One meaning of "subterranean" is "hidden, secret." Although most of the top notch writers who contributed to this anthology of suspense, horror, crime, and noir stories are known to devotees of dark fiction, they are not household names. Since prevailing major publishing wisdom is that anthologies don't sell well enough to bother with unless certain magic names can appear on the cover, much of the finest short fiction being written today is "hidden" from the masses and available only in limited editions from the specialty press like this one. Subterranean Gallery is one sweet secret and its twenty tales are both varied and memorable. There is no way to single out just a handful as examples -- Jack Ketchum deals with child predators in "Megan's Law"; David J. Schow's "Saturnalia" shocks, entertains, and effects as it looks at the responsibilities of talent and professionalism in a highly sexual context; George Clayton Johnson evokes the monsters of childhood in "The Monstering Kind"; Peter Crowther unleashes truly "Dark Times" on the world; art becomes horrific and personal to a three-timing lout in "Horrorgraph" by Graham Joyce; the Internet turns as monstrous as we all fear it may be in Ray Garton's "Website"; family devotion goes as chillingly far as it can in David B. Silva's "The Last Full Measure of Devotion"; Joe R. Lansdale's Hap and Leonard solve a mystery in "Death by Chili;" "The Stunted House" by Terry Lamsley is an eerie eldritch location of dread and death; a new kind of drug in Christa Faust's "Head" heralds a new and deadly dark age; William Browning Spencer's "Your Faithful Servant" features a highly civilized and sympathetic symbiotic monster; Ed Gorman deals with the monstrosity that a family can be in "Such a Good Girl"; Bob Morrish takes us inside the Big House in "Simple As A Two Car Funeral" and considers guilt and innocence; "Burning Leaves" by Jerry Sykes deals with loss and familial love with both starkness and poignancy; in Douglas Clegg's "Becoming Men" boys become exactly and viciously what their environment makes them; Richard Laymon opts for urban legend in "Choppie"; "I'll Play the Blues for You" by Gary Braunbeck tells the story of a battle for the very soul of Music; shelter in a world pain and fear where the suns never rises until you are ready for it is offered in Chaz Brenchley's "Where It Roots, How It Fruits"; Arson and Claire are a Bonnie-and-Clyde pair -- and Claire redefines "tough" as a woman who whose scars give her life in "Red Right Hand" by Norman Partridge; Tia V. Travis ends the volume with her indelible "The Kiss" -- a haunting and exquisite exploration of the workings of the human heart. Editors Chizmar and Schafer have assembled modern story art in Subterranean Gallery that deserves far wider exhibition and recognition than a limited edition will garner.

THE ORACLE LIPS
Storm Constantine
Stark House/$45 (limited/signed)/ 398 p.
ISBN: 0966784804

book cover Michael Moorcock's superb introduction to Storm Constantine's first collection includes the reminder: "It's conventional to say that a writer writes across a spectrum from 'dark fantasy to comic horror' or whatever, as if somehow that writer is a master of a thousand guises. It's worth remembering, sometimes, that writers came before literary genres and that good writers will draw on any technique, form or language to tell the story they want to tell." Although Constantine's stories are not easily classifiable into any marketing niche, they are consistently dark and will appeal to anyone with an appreciation for vivid imagery and lush prose. In "Sweet Bruising Skin" Constantine retells the fairy tale of the princess and the pea from the decidedly different viewpoint of a queen whose manipulative ambitions go awry. A young woman collects the dreams of computers, or claims to, in "Immaculate," certainly one of the more personal and evocative of cyber-based sf stories so far written. Constantine can manage a story about ancient blood-lust and a beautiful dancing boy who murmurs phrased like: "Cadaver beetles could fall from my lips into your body..." in "The Feet, They Dance" and come off as sensually exotic rather than patently absurd. There are incomprehensible angels and fantastic shapeshifters, magic and ancient gods, the grounding of the real and the reach of the ethereal in The Oracle Lips. Although flawed by it's totality -- the 23 stories and single poem seem to be more a "complete works" when, perhaps, a "best of" would have better suited as an introduction to this unique writer's imaginative work -- better too much of a good thing than too little.


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