Mar 21, 2012

[Review] The New Death and Others

Disclosure: I received a free pdf copy of this work for review. I read his blog, but don't know him other than that. I contacted him before this review to ask him if he wanted me to publish it, and he said yes.

The New Death and Others is a 94 page self-published pdf by James Hutchings of the Teleleli blog. It's a combination of short stories, most under a page long, and poems. The poems are poetic retellings of a number of famous fantasy short stories by authors such as Robert Howard and HP Lovecraft (with credit given). The stories are pastiches of Neil Gaiman and the 1001 Nights with a lot of recursion and comedy, sort of postmodern fables.

The book has two good stories in it, The Scholar and the Moon and Temptation, three OK stories (The God of the City of Dust, Everlasting Fire, the Name of the Helper), a group that have good concepts and images but need major rewriting (How the Isle of Cats Got Its Name, the Construction Workers of Telelee, Sigrun and the Shepherd) and the rest. The poems are solid.

Most of the stories are intended to be humourous, although some are not, and some don't seem to want to be funny until the halfway point or later. Most have what is presented as a "twist" ending, which works well exactly once in the collection. Too often, they pull one out of the story one is reading just at the point where one has started to suspend disbelief and invest in the situation. This creates an extremely frustrating reading experience, and it took me a couple of weeks to get through the book (which is about 1/20th my normal reading speed) because I kept on giving up and starting to skim after a very brief time.

The two stories that I consider the best are the two that also happen to maintain the most consistent tones, or at least follow the most comprehensible progression of tone. The Scholar and the Moon has an ethereal, fantastical air that is maintained throughout, and the ending doesn't attempt to change our understanding of what has occurred so much as reflect back on what we've seen going on throughout the story. Temptation has a briefly fantastical set-up, before getting into the banter between a demon and the wizard who summoned him. The dialogue helps it maintain a consistently humourous tone that builds hilariously throughout the story and then pays off in the last line.

Otherwise, however, the twists often appear to be a drive for the humourous to avoid more conventional resolutions. I will not speculate on why they do this, but many of them have strong and interesting premises that would have been better served with a serious, or at least semi-serious treatment.

Stylistically, the book is overwritten, fairly common for self-published texts. Clause is piled upon clause, often contradicting or modifying one another until the whole sentence becomes an unreadable mess. This is not improved by the author's tendency to make final clauses comment ironically on the preceding portions of the sentence. His word choice can be abtruse, pretentious and ill-chosen all at once, and there are times where a single word is almost enough to pull one out of the story, especially the frequent references to shit.

There is some genuinely interesting and captivating imagery buried in the individual stories, even some of the fairly poor ones. There is a gargoyle in The Scholar and the Moon who wears a glittering cape, and this detail is well-chosen enough for the character that it sticks in my mind. In The God of the City of Dust, the descriptions of the various idols and gods are excellent and succinct. In How the Isle of Cats Got Its Name, the cat-harp is by far the most memorable and interesting thing in the story. I don't think the author lacks for imagination, but more discipline in writing would serve these excellent images better by putting them in stories that deserve them.