A Haunting in Germany & Other Stories, by Darren Speegle (PS Publishing 978-1-848639-65-2, $30, 258pp) February 2016
Down and Out in Purgatory, by Tim Powers (Subterranean 978-1-59606-781-3, $30, 120pp) June 2016
Regan’s Planet & Someone to Watch Over Me, by Robert Silverberg, H.L. Gold & Floyd C. Gold(Armchair Fiction 978-1-61287-289-6, $12.95, 232pp) January 2016
PS Publishing and Subterranean Press are two firms that help constitute the gold standard for small independent publishers. They bring forth new titles by top-of-the-line writers, always a core mission for such genre-loving enterprises who are intent on scooping up the treasures that the Big Five houses irrationally disdain. Right behind them and coming up fast in importance is Armchair Fiction, with a backlist of a few hundred volumes of fascinating reprints. Reprinting forgotten material is the second grand imperative of the small presses, equally as valuable as the mission of debuting new books, although maybe not quite so glamorous.
Here, almost chosen at random, so rich are the offerings, we take a gander at one representative new title from each publisher.
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Darren Speegle has accumulated an impressive catalogue of short fiction, dating—according to ISFDB—from 2001’s “Porta Nigra.” Due to his excellent writing, he should be as well-known as other contemporary Weirdists, all those familiar Stoker and Jackson nominees, but I have a sense he is an under-surveyed treasure. Perhaps his new collection, exhibiting a wide variety of tales, will alleviate that condition.
“Vibing for Validity in Vegas” features a contemporary setting where neon and avarice are contrasted with eternal passions. Our protagonist, Gary, in newly wealthy and is sampling a splurge of hedonism before hopefully embarking on a more stable reboot of his life. He meets a beautiful bar girl named Nikki, and what ensues is not any noir havoc or carnal chaos but rather a kind of teasing Socratic dialogue about the nature of freedom and responsibility. The tale is refreshing for its lack of clichéd histrionics.
The next tale, “Fallen Cathedrals,” some fifty pages long, is so different as to induce both psychic whiplash and an admiration for Speegle’s range. Opening mercilessly with no concession to backstory, it reveals a man and his daughter waking up from cryo-sleep on a spaceship. A nonhuman guide informs them they have arrived at their destination: a meeting with God on an alien world. The rest of this tale fills in the context and provides a David-Lindsay-style planetary odyssey that lives up to the terms of such an impossible meeting. The gravitas of the tale is mediated by the homely, intimate details of the parent-child relationship. Think James Tiptree by way of Jeff VanderMeer.
Two tales set in the expertly conjured up ambiance of Alaska follow. “Windows of Alaska,” with its magisterial and meditative opening fugue, shows us the startling encounter on mysterious Raven Island between an older man and a young woman of uncertain reality. “The Symphony of the Normal” starts small, with newcomers arriving at a rental wilderness cabin where the former tenant proves to have been quite an enigmatic fellow. They slowly discover the true astonishing magnitude of his exploits.
The title story opens with a horrible crime in the ancient Roman Empire that reverberates eerily down to the present. And finally we return to the exploits of Gary from Vegas, as he gets implicated in a murder in “Ibizia Fantástico,” and demonstrates that he is not much further along his path to revival.
Speegle’s main theme is the scary burdens of self-knowledge, the desperate measures we take to avoid such terrible revelations. Additionally, he shows us that this failure to confront our own demons poisons our relationships with others, preventing true intimacy. His tales unfold with slow impactfulness and sober language, as he is not given to wild crescendos, but this tactic, along with the vivid, somewhat exotic settings, make such horrors of the soul all the more numbingly explosive.
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Down and Out in Purgatory is Tim Powers’s first true descent, I think, into the bardo, the kind of afterlife fable exemplified by such bold masterpieces as Damon Knight’s Humpty Dumpty: An Oval, and Will Self’s How the Dead Live. Powers has been steadily building up a physics or natural science of ghosts in his many variegated yet resonant books. Now he embarks on an actual cosmology of posthumousness. What Niven & Pournelle aimed for at novel length in Inferno is surpassed here at a fraction of the length.
Our protagonist, Holbrook, is an obsessed man. For many years he has been tracking down an ex-college-classmate named Atwater, who married, then murdered, their mutual coed sweetheart, Shasta. (Have I ever mentioned in any review yet how allied to the works of Thomas Pynchon the stories of Powers are?) He finds Atwater at last—already dead of natural causes in a relatively pleasant yet undeserved demise. Holbrook’s next step could be to shrug and move one. But such is the man’s mania that he resolves otherwise. Learning that Purgatory is real, and that Atwater’s soul resides there, he will kill himself and track down his enemy in the afterlife, there to expunge his incorporeal essence from the universe entirely.
And this all in the book’s first quarter. The rest of the odyssey indeed finds Holbrook on a bizarre, surreal quest in the afterlife, which Powers conjures up with insane visionary inspiration. Despite being the tale of dead souls, Holbrook’s emotionally powerful quest reveals more about the nature of love and duty among the living than many a mimetic novel. There are plot twists galore, and incidental characters you will never forget, including Hubcap Pete, whose peregrinations keep Purgatory spinning. By the time you get to the scene where the chambers of a revolver are loaded with jellybeans—“four of them with tiny firing pin dents”—your mind will be well and truly blown.
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As is famously known, the career of Robert Silverberg divides into at least two phases. The massive outpouring of journeyman work, always competent and entertaining, but not necessarily inspired; and then the masterful genius phase, with one classic after another pouring forth. Regan’s Planet (1964) dates from the first part of that career, but at the transitional interface or border. It shows many of the later-period themes and approaches with exciting flashes of the mature Silverberg. Moreover, it remains cannily prophetic and is a helluva read on the level of pure entertainment.
In the year 1990, hopeful monster Claude Regan, ruthless millionaire businessman, is tasked by the government with launching the 1992 World’s Fair, highly vital to commercial and diplomatic interests as a token of how great the country is doing, five hundred years after Columbus’s voyage. Regan shoulders the job and in an orgy of Machiavellianism blows away all obstacles and foes. His initial conception—to build a giant pleasure satellite as the venue—shapes the whole narrative. But the key issue here is the spiritual and physical payment that Regan’s ambition takes from him. At the end of the book he has experienced one of those classic Silverberg epiphanies—think of something like Downward to the Earth—and is a reformed soul—maybe!
Regan’s resemblance to assorted egomaniacal dotcom titans is part of the prophetical element, as is much of the realpolitik stuff. China as frenemy? Sure, it’s all here. As Silverberg tells us in his illuminating new introduction, “I did get some things right, and told a pretty lively story, besides.” What more could you ask?
The conceit of Armchair Fiction is that they are making modern Ace Doubles, and so this book comes with two covers (though not printed dos-a-dos) and another story, Someone to Watch Over Me. The second offering is a collaboration between famed Galaxy editor H. L. Gold and his brother Floyd, and is a rarity that has hardly ever been reprinted. (Armchair gives us the original illos as well.) It is a gonzo tale, part Robert Sheckley, part Leigh Brackett, part Harry Stephen Keeler, which shows us how the field has changed—in my estimation, for the worse, as the ratio of this type of bonkers SF to the earnest, boring, moralizing kind has altered. Our hero, an accidental murderer obsessed with a whore he only slept with once, has violated all interstellar laws to consort with the aliens who live in hyperspace and appear there as horrid monsters, as do the humans when in that realm. Growing rich from the illicit trade, he returns to marry his commercial inamorata. But his marriage hits a bump when the abominable queen of hyperspace reveals other plans.
About the only folks working anything like this enjoyably wacked-out vein today are Philip Palmer, Rudy Rucker, Tom Holt, and Richard Kadrey. So many others seem more intent on virtue-signalling. But I maintain that the almost Jungian interplay of surreal elements in the Gold story will do more to enlighten the reader about human dimensions of the soul and mind and heart than all the weepy self-flagellation out there.
Thanks to Armchair for unearthing such treasures.