It is seldom that anyone acknowledges I have a blog, let alone ask me to review their book on my blog. So, when a correspondent named James Hutchings offered me a review copy of The New Death and others, I could not turn it down.
James cites Lovecraft, Howard, Ashton Smith, and Dunsany as influences on his contents pages (there are two pages of contents, a whopping 63 short short stories and poems for me to review!). It is an impressive collection of names. The biggest influence on the early stories is, appropriately, the earliest of those authors, particularly Dunsany’s own collected works like Gods of Pegana. Indeed, quite a few stories deal with fictional gods and fictional worlds (such as all four authors used) and with an archaic voice of storytelling that sounds very much like Dunsany (more than the others, to my ear), yet with a modern, wry, yet ultimately depreciative twist. Before his first Dunsany-like tale, “The Gods of the Poor”, ends with the fate of the impoverished decided by process of elimination between uncaring gods, James has inserted the jarring anachronism of Fame and Fortune saying, “Darling, I don’t think so.” It is a wink and a nod to the reader, saying, “See? I can do Dunsany and be funny.”
Yet even in this example it is too soon to label the story as trite, for there is interesting depth hidden behind the brevity. When Sky-Father says someone must be the God of the Poor because, “Those with no gods will grow restless and cunning, and in time will cast us down, and we shall be gods no more,” it hints tantalizingly at an entire cosmology in one sentence.
“How the Isle of Cats Got Its Name” is about eight times as long as the first story and at least twice as complex. It deals with a powerful witch, talking cats, gods and their cults, and introduces them all in a curious order that obscures, until the very end, which one of them is the real main point of the story. Along the way, it engages in the same clever, yet tongue-in-cheek word-building that was hidden behind the scenes in the shorter work preceding it, but plays it out to less satisfying effect. The details that work best are the more thought-provoking ones, like the nature of spirits and how their powers function differently by geography, while too much attention is spent on one long, cruel joke about a cat-torturing harp.
“The Enemy Within” is the first story to cast off fantasy elements. It is the first story intentionally hard to place, lacking a defined setting. No doubt it is intended to show the timelessness of bigotry, yet it is to the story’s loss that James engages here in none of his clever world-building, giving us a not-particularly nuanced character sketch instead.
“The End” is a particularly clever one-page satire of slipstream fiction and the preponderance of the supernatural in mainstream media today. Here, the world-building is behind the scenes again, but kept there until the end so as not to spoil the surprise.
“A Date with Destiny” returns us to the style of winking nods to Dunsany’s Pegana, this time making the winking nod the whole joke of the story by updating a Pegana-like goddess to the age of meeting people in online chatrooms.
“Everlasting Fire” is a delightfully clever and often humorous three-pager (complete with puns in endnotes) about how both sinners and devils alike in the afterlife are trapped in an all-too Earth-like bureaucracy. Some of the finer touches are interoffice memos that end in maniacal laughter and adding the act of saying “lol” out loud to the list of deadly sins. Some of the humor, though, is unnecessarily cruel (Oprah as a devil?) and the joke about fanfiction should strike uncomfortably close to home for someone selling self-published short fiction anthologies online, as it does for certain reviewers who also write fanfiction…
“Under the Pyramids” is the first poem in the collection, a 5-page ballad inspired by a Lovecraft story of the same name. It might help to know the original story and I have never read it, so I won’t comment on the content. Indeed, the only reason I mention it is to point out how the ballad is technically proficient, and thank goodness. I personally find free verse to seldom be more than lazy writing and cringe at the sight of it, so you can understand my relief that James knows how to write a proper ballad.
By the time we get to “The Face in the Hill” we have moved on again in style, returning thematically to the terrain of “The Enemy Within”, but with a lighter tone that reminds me of 1950s Marvel Comics (particularly with its O. Henry-esque twist ending). The theme, about people who only hear what they want to hear, is much subtler and hence, for me, more enjoyable than “The Enemy Within”.
“The Prince of the Howling Forest” is a trickier poem to label. That meter is not for a ballad. Twelve syllable lines? Is this a canzone? The form is too obscure for me – perhaps appropriate for the murkiness of the subject matter.
It seems to me that James accomplishes much more in brevity than he ever does in longer pieces, and perhaps there is no better example than “The Uncharted Isle”. In seven sentences we have a wonderful fantasy setting (more behind-the-scenes world-building), charmingly evocative language (I love the “wine-faced sea”), and a clever ending. That the whole story is just one joke hardly matters when done this well.
The antithesis occurs a few stories later, “The Scholar and the Moon”, again proving my point. In over five pages, James stuffs what could have been another fine, seven sentence story with metaphor, explained world-building, asides to the reader, and verbose characters -- though Conwy’s exchange with the gargoyle is well worth the read (I hope to steal the encounter for a D&D game someday).
There are so many more examples left untouched (indeed, I’ve barely covered more than one-sixth of the stories), but I think I have given enough examples to demonstrate the strengths and weaknesses of the collection. James is a master world-builder and an economist of words who is most brilliant in brevity. He is witty and literate. But he tries hard, perhaps too hard, to impress the reader. By demonstrating his range, he ranges all over, like a writer suffering from attention deficit disorder.
That said, there is much worth reading here and should please any intelligent fantasy fiction reader with tastes running from Lord Dunsany to 1950s Marvel Comics.