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Saturday 9 February 2002

Claremont Tales II, by Richard A. Lupoff
(Golden Gryphon Press, February 2002)

Reviewed by Nick Gevers

Like the first Claremont Tales (published in 2001), this new collection is a testament to its author’s diligent versatility. Richard Lupoff is a master pasticheur (Claremont Tales II contains stories that are word-perfect parody, however additionally serious their concerns), but a probing earnest moral voice of Lupoff’s own speaks through even when the stylistic mask is resolutely left undoffed. And so the veteran pro, equally comfortable in the SF, Horror, Fantasy, and mystery forms, expresses the same calm, considered, rational and humane vision whatever the current stage of his genre shuffle; and as this is probably the best of his major collections, it is an appropriate time to pay heed…

Last year’s volume opened with “Black Mist”, an inventive but unexceptional tale of criminal activities on a Martian moon; Claremont Tales II duly begins with a sequel, “Green Ice”, newly written. But those expecting a routine echo of Mr. Ino’s first adventure will be shocked out of their serial complacency; after plenty of gestures in the direction of its predecessor — lunar settings, much Japanese cultural allusion, rigid corporate decorum — “Green Ice” turns into a quite savage reversal of detective conventions, invoking an actual cult, the Aum Shinrikyo, in place of the usual crew of fictitious or fictionalized religious hoodlums, and thereby rendering the plot highly significant in real-world terms. No detective-story escapism here. The mentality of karmic nihilists is fascinatingly explored; Mr. Ino must perforce come to terms with the same suffocating logic that Shoko Asahara inflicted on commuters on the Tokyo Underground railway; and the denouement on Europa is shattering. “Green Ice” is one of the boldest literary strokes in recent SF history, and one of the major novellas of 2002.

The pace of the SF content of Claremont Tales II relaxes only moderately from there. Another recent story, “31.12.99”, is a sober corrective to Larry Niven’s “All the Myriad Ways”: instead of seeing the many-worlds hypothesis and its efflorescence of causal paths as an incitement to existential despair (why concern yourself with individual responsibility when your worst actions will occur anyway in some or other timeline?), Lupoff weighs the fraught consequences of the most trivial action. In one version of millennial Earth, a man has lost his wife; in another, that same wife has bade farewell to her husband; by ramifying an affecting scenario of age and grief across the quantum spectrum, Lupoff gives alternate history an unusually immediate spin. His Vietnam Era allegory, “A Freeway For Draculas”, is despite its jarring title an effective examination of the simultaneous necessity and trauma of political conscience; “Stream of Consciousness” is a bizarre surreal reverie, dryly amusing, on the connections between micturition and the deaths of stars; and “The Heyworth Fragment” is an intensely interesting account of the contents of a film from the future, a sequence of images that tells all yet discloses nothing. Careful ambiguity, crafty nuance: “Jubilee” seems a headlong, even crass uchronia of undying Roman supremacy, but there is a lot more to this conspiracy-adventure tale than meets the eye. Consistently, Lupoff enriches and complicates genre SF; the offspring of his observant compassion and his parodic mischief unfailingly surprises and diverts.

But his parody is at its most admirable pitch in his horror stories. “The Devil’s Hop Yard” is immaculate pseudo-Lovecraft: in one of at least two sequels Lupoff has written to “The Dunwich Horror”, inbreeding, maniacal reclusiveness, marital shenanigans, and Satanic cavortings add yet more dole to the existences of Lovecraft’s Massachusetts backwoodsmen; it’s all diabolically hilarious, a sly send-up of its sociopathic source material. More ambitious is “The Turret”, a long tribute to Ramsey Campbell as well as to HPL; although not as brilliant as the equivalent story in Claremont Tales I (“Discovery of the Ghooric Zone”), this small epic of visionary contemplation among degenerate English townsfolk is an amusing transposition of Arkhamite idiocy to the Old Country Lovecraft so admired, and offers a survey of Cthuhluesque natural history quite as tooth-chatteringly memorable as that in “The Shadow Out Of Time”. The humor of horror, its implosive creepy silliness, is elegantly validated by Lupoff.

And there are the mystery stories. “News from New Providence” is a short, rather off-key implication of the risible ex-King Edward the Eighth and his spouse Mrs. Simpson in fell dealings in the wartime Bahamas; but the quality improves from there. “You Don’t Know Me, Charlie” is a fine hard-boiled morality tale, in which an ex-convict wanted by the Mob goes grievously astray in New Orleans; the ending in particular is superbly handled. “The Adventures of the Boulevard Assassin” can only be described as a cunning confection: investigating a preposterously mundane and a farcically lethal case at the same time, Dr. Watson and the great Sherlock Holmes revel respectively in the obvious and the arcanely convoluted, all in the style of Jack Kerouac. A marvelous, if conceivably pointless, jape. “Whatever Happened to Nick Neptune?” returns to SF in a fashion, as a murder plot unfolds among pulp magazine collectors and certain jaundiced observers of their obsessive behavior; a former fan himself, Lupoff knows well how far certain rivalries can proceed.... And some personal experience also is reflected in “Old Folks at Home”, a sample of the long-running Lindsey and Plum mystery series, lent a dark credibility by its musings on Nazism. Even in this relatively constricting genre, Lupoff’s rare multiplicity of styles and keen grasp of narrative mechanics keep his stories compelling; once an SF writer, always an SF writer, and ingenuity always (well, almost always) shows through.

As does that likeable liberal humanism, a Lupoff trademark. Claremont Tales II is an ideal showcase for an underrated talent, an author of high integrity and skill; and “Green Ice” may become a subversive classic.

Nick Gevers is a freelance literary critic and interviewer, whose work appears regularly in Interzone, Infinity Plus (of which he is Associate Editor), SF Site, Nova Express, and Redsine. A resident of Cape Town, South Africa, he has an extensive background in the academic study of SF, and recently was appointed an Acquisitions Editor at Cosmos Books, an imprint of Wildside Press. The anthology Infinity Plus One, co-edited by Gevers and Keith Brooke, appears soon from PS Publishing in the UK.

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