Consider Her Ways and Others by John Wyndham

This volume contains two novellas and four short stories. The first novella is the titular “Consider Her Ways,” concerning a woman who accidentally trades minds with another woman who lives in the future, a bizarre future in which there are no more men. The other novella is “Random Quest,” concerning a man who winds up in an alternate universe for a spell, falls in love with a woman from that universe, then later attempts to find the same woman in his own universe. I happened to catch a modern made-for-TV movie of this novella a couple of years ago, which, for me at least, failed to capture the spirit of the original.

The remaining four stories were, for the most part, weaker than the novellas, with the exception of “A Long Spoon,” in which a man editing a film accidentally evokes a demon. Strips of film just happened to be lying on the cutting-room floor in the vague shape of a pentacle, while a piece of film played backwards at a slower pace caused a “word of power” to be uttered from the speakers. This story trumps all others by simply being a lot more fun.

Overall I was disappointed with this volume. The stories were too domestic, dialogue-heavy and drama-scarce, making them somewhat of a chore at times. And the punchlines often failed to reward the monotonous build-up. John Wyndham has much, much better works in print.

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Uncovered! by Paul Jennings

There are quite a number of short story collections in the “Un-” series by Paul Jennings: Unreal!, Unbelievable!, Uncanny!, etc. After reading the first one, I could have picked another at random, but the title of one story in the volume Uncovered! caught my attention. It was called “Pubic Hare.” Recognising Jennings’s brand of slightly risque humour for kids, I plunged ahead.

Imagine my surprise when the first story, “For Ever,” turned out to be a deliberately humourless melancholic drama about a boy who’s terminally ill. I have no problem with being surprised, but the story was too sentimental for my taste. There are a couple more stories (of the ten in total) that are semi-serious. The rest are in keeping with Jenning’s usual brand of wacky comedy, covering such topics as seing ghosts, bed-wetting, growing pubic hair, and even eating a cat-turd!

My favourite was one of the more serious stories: a time-travel tale called “Backward Step.” The majority of the others I found a bit, well, lacking in imagination.

Jennings’s Wikipedia page shows that several of his “Un-” books have picked up multiple awards. I couldn’t help but notice that, in contrast, Uncovered! only picked up one single award. I haven’t read enough of Jennings’s books to make an objective comparison, but my suspicion is that this is one of his weaker efforts.

Unreal! by Paul Jennings

I became interested in Paul Jennings recently as a result of revisiting an old TV series called Round the Twist on DVD. The series is about a family that lives in a lighthouse around which all manner of weird things happen. The episodes are often hilarious, especially when the humour gets a bit, well, filthy. And by that I mean, for example, losing your false teeth down the toilet and having to collect them at the sewage works, then having the clean and wear them. Ugh! This is typical Jennings story material, and it’s a lot of fun.

I believe Unreal! is the author’s first published book. It contains eight stories, five of which I recognise as episode of Round the Twist from seasons one and two, although the television versions have been significantly reworked to revolve around the Twist family. The versions in the book are stand-alone tales. I heard that seasons three and four of Round the Twist weren’t as highly appreciated as the first two, due to Jennings leaving the show. Having just watched season three, I can attest to that. There were a few excellent episodes, but most of them lacked the imagination Jennings brought to the show.

The first story, “Without a Shirt,” is about a boy who can’t help himself adding the words “without a shirt” to the end of every sentence he speaks. Filmed as “Without My Pants” in the TV series.

“The Strap-Box Flyer” is about a travelling con man selling glue that sticks anything … but stops working after four hours.

“Skeleton on the Dunny” is about a boy who uses an outdoor toilet cubicle on which he sometimes finds a ghostly skeleton sitting. Filmed as the pilot episode of the TV series.

“Lucky Lips” is about colourless lipstick that will make any girl kiss you. As you can imagine, it will not be a smooth ride for the wearer. Another one of the TV episodes.

And so on. I enjoyed this book to the degree that it motivated me to attempt writing my own children’s stories. Full of outrageous fun. As an adult, it occasionally made me think, “I can’t believe he just wrote that,” but always with a smirk.

Different Kinds of Darkness by David Langford

I first heard of David Langford in my late teens, as a reader of the science fiction magazine Interzone. If there’s one story from that period that sticks in my mind more than any other it’s Langford’s story “BLIT,” which is weird because I don’t think I even properly understood it at the time. I haven’t read a single Langford story since (for no reason other than I don’t buy many mags), but the memory of “BLIT” was potent enough to move me to select this collection of thirty-six stories for review.

The book is divided into four sections: 1. Gadgets and Glitches; 2. The Questing Beast; 3. Irrational Numbers; and 4. Basilisks. Those roughly translate as 1. Sci-fi; 2. Fantasy; 3. Horror; and we’ll talk about 4 in a minute.

The sci-fi section is the most enjoyable. The stories are for the most part short. Langford’s prose is generally non-descriptive, and he wastes no time on characterisation. He’ll start a story with two characters talking, and the reader might be left to guess their appearance, their ages, and even where the conversation is taking place. Believe it or not, this is not a criticism; it’s just how he does things. Langford’s fiction is one hundred percent ideas-driven. I have never before read so much variety of original thought packed into 280 pages. This is partly due to the fact that this volume spans almost thirty years of Langford’s career, but it’s also because the stories are very concisely written. There are no wasted words, and if you’re not concentrating properly you can easily find yourself confused. The main reason why this book took so long for me to review is because I enjoy reading in bed at the close of the evening, and with Different Kinds of Darkness I just couldn’t manage it. You have to be fully alert to read Langford.

The only part of the book I didn’t enjoy very much was the fantasy section. The fantasy genre lends itself to description more than any other, and when Langford just kept skimping on detail, the stories failed for me. More often than not I found myself confused, grappling to understand the strange worlds Langford was painting. A few more brush strokes would have taken away the confusion. Thankfully there are only four fantasy stories in the volume.

The sci-fi section occupies an entire half of the book’s pages, and it’s here that you’ll find the best stories. But be warned, to appreciate Langford you have to like your sci-fi wild and wacky. The author is quite liberal with his manipulation of physics, and if you’re prepared to accept that, you’ll be amazed at the unexpected places some of these stories take you. And quite often there’s a lot of humour thrown in. One of my favourites is called “Leaks,” a story about a man with a minor super-power: the ability to transfer liquid from one container to another by sheer will-power. Nice trick if you want a free refill at the bar, but not much use for fighting crime. If that’s not a wacky idea, what is? But trust me, you’ll never guess where a story like this is taking you, and you’ll be delighted when you get there.

I have nothing much to comment about the horror stories, except that they were above average on the whole. I should say that the categorization of all the stories should be viewed loosely, as sci-fi elements tend to crop into most of Langford’s tales, even his attempt at a Lovecraftian one!

The last section collects together four stories which are linked by a common theme. Here we have “BLIT” and its three sequels. These are stories about visual images affecting the brain; i.e. data enters the brain through the eyes, and some data the brain just can’t handle. A BLIT image is a pictures which can kill you if you look at it. The final story, “Different Kinds of Darkness,” is a tale about extreme measures taken to protect the young from exposure BLIT images in public places. I loved this story, and the whole volume is deservedly named after it (and it won the Hugo in 2001!).

Father to the Man by Adrian Plass

Somehow it feels as if there should be a drum-roll or something to precede this review, as it happens to be the first ever piece of Christian literature I’ve included. Quite odd to have it sandwiched between a load of horror novels, perhaps, but this reviews section was started with a view to reporting on everything I read, so why break the habit?

Father to the Man is a collection of seven stories, most of which feature an aspect of the parent-child relationship in one way or another, whether the child be of primary school age or grown up and coping with a parent’s death.

The first story, “Nothing but the Truth” begins with the enigmatic line Dying was a doddle. And so we have the story of a dead man walking around in spirit form, waiting to see what happens next. Rather than treating us to some elaborate effects-driven What Dreams May Come-type experience, Plass takes the reader to a very ordinary interview situation, where the protagonist is asked to talk about some key moments from his past. As I write this, I realise how boring the concept sounds; but let me tell you it was rivetting. The protagonist reveals his innermost feelings about the death of his father; expressing his heightened fear that death is the end of existence, despite all he believes about God. There is a raw honesty running through this story, and the others, that is a rare find in literature.

“Stanley Morgan’s Minor Misdemeanour”, the third tale in the volume, is another favourite. It concerns a Christian man who, although married with kids, has never quite come to terms with his own sexuality. A brief encounter with a pornographic magazine when he was sixteen has haunted him ever since. The “quiet compatibility” he has with his wife has never seemed to satisfy the hunger for some kind paradise glimpsed elsewhere. Without wanting to spoil the rest of the story, I’ll just say that it’s essentially about seeing through illusions. And if you read between the lines, you might think differently about the use of sex in the media today; through TV adverts and pop videos, etc., we’re all being encouraged to take fantasy a little too seriously, and I reckon it’s anything but healthy for the human mind.

Unfortunately I found many of the endings to these stories a little confusing or disappointing. Sometimes it’s as if Plass is dancing around the edge of something really meaningful, and just when I think I’m about to be enlightened, I end up scratching my head instead. So, whilst that does somewhat spoil things, this book still scores well above average for its brutal honesty and in-depth look at human life and relationships. And it’s pretty funny to boot.

The Lurking Fear and Other Stories by H.P. Lovecraft

Lovecraft was very prolific in the short-story department. In this 180-page volume we have eleven of them, plus a novella. Some I found tiresome reading, others predictable, and a few quite enjoyable.

The stories usually revolve around rational men being confronted by hideous and terrifying sights that should exist only in nightmares. Lovecraft’s grasp of the grotesque is certainly very vivid, but I found his writing lacking on an inter-personal level. Also, the horror in Lovecraft’s fiction is somewhat narrow – usually restricted to the monster-in-the-closet variety. I can see how this might appeal to children or those of a superstitious bent, but it doesn’t do much for me personally.

My favourite story in the volume was, “The Temple” – a tale about a German U-boat captain losing control of his submarine and floating off into uncharted deep sea. Both the atmosphere and the state of mind of the captain were vividly described, and it was a fascinating journey into the unknown.

The inclusion of “The Shadow over Innsmouth” is also notable. One of Lovecraft’s larger works, it occupies over a third of the book’s length, and tells the story of a man passing through a grimy, dilapidated town called Innsmouth, pausing a while to investigate some of the strange legends about the town. Although this novella takes an absolute age to get past first gear, it has a pretty hair-raising climax that is worth the wait.

Here’s the table of contents: “The Lurking Fear,” “Dagon,” “Beyond the Wall of Sleep,” “The White Ship,” “Arthur Jermyn,” “From Beyond,” “The Temple,” “The Moon-Bog,” “The Hound,” “The Unnamable,” “The Outsider,” “The Shadow over Innsmouth.”

New Traditions in Terror by various authors (edited by Bill Purcell)

The Traditions of the title refers to the scares of yesteryear: the vampires, werewolves, demons, psychopaths and other bad guys from the history of horror. And the New is a reaction against those who would claim that these monsters have said all they can possibly say, that their tales have been re-invented, imitated and expanded upon throughout the years to the degree that nothing more of interest can be said. Well, I’m still a sucker for those old B-movies, so I’m with Bill, the editor.

I dove in with great enthusiasm, and now that I’ve come out the other end, was it worth the trip? The answer is a somewhat hesitant yes. For whilst there are many good stories in here, there are many clunkers too. Here are the ones that stood out for me.

“Afraid of the Water” by Robynn Clairday. A story about a woman who is afraid of water finally reaching out and putting her trust in someone to teach her to swim.

“Cry of the Red Wolf” by Ken Goldman. Expecting werewolves? Think again. The horror in this story comes from a most unexpected angle.

“Cargo” by Sean Logan. Call me sentimental, but I just love a good zombie story.

“Hooked” by Mike Oakwood. On the surface, this is a simple tale about what it’s like to be inside a werewolf’s head. On a deeper level, it’s a story about temptation and selfishness and appetite and guilt – things which we’re all very familiar with. Hot story!

“Bottom Feeders” by Scott H. Urban. A dirty, gritty snapshot from the lives of a couple of vampires. Reads like an excerpt from a larger work. Left me wanting more.

There are no big names in this volume, which I kind of liked. It must be tempting for an editor to turn down a rubbish story by a top author, because the author’s name itself is a huge selling point. That said, we can be sure that all the stories in here made it on merit alone. But for my taste, so many of them just lacked any real punch. With seventeen tales in the volume, I had hoped for a bit more excitement per square inch.