Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

All reviews copyright 1984-2017 Evelyn C. Leeper.


"'Franz Kafka' by Jorge Luis Borges" by Alvin Greenberg:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 10/19/2012]

"'Franz Kafka' by Jorge Luis Borges" by Alvin Greenberg is a fairly obscure story, reprinted in BEST SF: 1970 edited by Harry Harrison and Brian W. Aldiss (no ISBN), but originally published in "New American Review" (August 1970), not exactly a well-known source of science fiction. Without going into an analysis of the whole story, I want to comment on one sentence in it: "In the modern literature class I teach--used to teach!--my students persist in saying that Gregor Samsa has turned into a grasshopper though Kafka very plainly wjbels him a dung beetle." As far as I can tell, the basic premise of the sentence is false. The first instance of naming what Gregor Samsa has become is "Ungeziefer", a word translated as "vermin". "Dung beetle" is "Mistkafer", which is used only by the cleaning woman in a sort of semi-affectionate direct address to Samsa--"Come here, you old dung beetle!"--which no more makes him a dung beetle than calling your wife "Honey" makes her an insect product.

But you may think I made a typo in that sentence. What did I mean by "wjbels"? You might as well ask what Greenberg meant, because that's what he wrote (unless Harrison and Aldiss are terrible proofreaders). My personal opinion is that Greenberg is having us on, and threw this in to confuse us, or perhaps to show that one can have something at the same time mysterious and yet completely comprehensible. We may have never seen the word before (indeed, it is not a word at all) but we know exactly what it means.

This is exactly the sort of deception that Borges engaged in, of course. Fake encyclopedia entries, fictitious heresies, imaginary countries--all are techniques in Borges's fiction, so it is only fitting they are the tools of his admirers.

To order Best SF: 1970 from amazon.com, click here.


GHOSTS IN BAKER STREET edited by Martin H. Greenberg, Jon Lellenberg, and Daniel Stashower:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 09/28/2007]

GHOSTS IN BAKER STREET edited by Martin Harry Greenberg, Jon Lellenberg, and Daniel Stashower (ISBN-13 978-0-786-71400-1, ISBN-10 0-7867-1400-X) is the third in the "New Tales of Sherlock Holmes" series. The first two are MURDER IN BAKER STREET and MURDER, MY DEAR WATSON; this one is considerably shorter than either of those, containing only ten stories and three essays. The introduction by John H. Watson, M.D. says that of Holmes's cases "a few ... seemed to defy rational explanation." Because of Holmes's insistence that they must have had a rational explanation, however, he says of the notes for these, "I locked them away in my old dispatch box that I kept in the vaults of a bank at Charing Cross." Overlooking that Watson writing this must now be upwards of 150 years old--itself a fairly supernatural situation--I figure that if one tallied up all the notes for all the stories which claim to have been stored for years in this dispatch box, one can only conclude that the dispatch box itself has the supernatural property of being considerably larger on the inside than on the outside (unless there is a scientific explanation, such as that it is a mini-TARDIS). But in any case, the real problem with the introduction is that in fact, almost all the stories in this volume do have a rational explanation at the end of them, with no hint that there is anything more. Only two of the ten are clearly supernatural, and two others have rational explanations with only a hint of possible supernatural elements at the end. I suspect when it came down to it, most of the authors respected Holmes enough to feel it necessary to ground their stories firmly in reality rather than the spirit world. (The SHADOWS OVER BAKER STREET anthology combined Holmes with Lovecraftian themes, but even these are really more science fictional than supernatural.)

(In passing, I have to wonder how theologically sound is the notion that person A can grant or wager person B's soul to the Devil. If the Devil could get souls that way, he would only have to tempt one person in selling him everyone else's souls.)

To order Ghosts in Baker Street from amazon.com, click here.


MORE HOLMES FOR THE HOLIDAYS by Martin Greenberg et al:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/13/2002]

I'm working my way through Martin Greenberg et al's MORE HOLMES FOR THE HOLIDAYS, a so-so collection of Sherlock Holmes stories set during Christmas. One problem is that because there is no controlling hand anymore, all sorts of contradictions arise. For example, one story will say Watson and his wife always spend Christmas alone together, while another will say Watson is on his own because his wife is spending Christmas with an aunt. (Which is also off, because she supposedly had no relatives, but that's a larger complaint.) Still, I'll read just about anything Holmesian unless it's truly wretched. (Mark read this and noted, "You imply a controlling hand would keep things consistent. How come even with a 'controlling hand' the bullet moved around in Watson's body?" Well, yes, but still . . . .)

To order More Holmes for the Holidays from amazon.com, click here.


MURDER, MY DEAR WATSON edited by Martin H. Greenburg:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/19/2004]

MURDER, MY DEAR WATSON, edited by Martin H. Greenburg (ISBN 0-7867-1081-0), is yet another anthology of new Sherlock Holmes stories. I am beginning to feel that these themed anthologies have run their course--the stories in this are rather pale and anemic for Sherlockian tales. This is not to say that no one is writing good Sherlockian stories--last year's Neil Gaiman's "A Study in Emerald" was great--but Greenberg does not seem to be managing to collect or commission them. I am glad I checked this one out of the library instead of buying it.

To order Murder, My Dear Watson from amazon.com, click here.


PAST IMPERFECT edited by Martin H. Greenberg & Larry Segriff:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/24/2003]

I read the short fiction in the anthology PAST IMPERFECT (edited by Martin H. Greenberg--of course--and Larry Segriff). It's yet another argument against themed anthologies with a lot of just average stories about time travel, with the only memorable story being "The Gift of a Dream" by Dean Wesley Smith--and it seemed to include time travel merely as an afterthought, something needed to place it in this anthology. It would have been every bit as good without it, or indeed without any fantastical element whatsoever.

To order Past Imperfect from amazon.com, click here.


SLIPSTREAMS edited by Martin H. Greenberg & John Helfers:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 10/13/2006]

SLIPSTREAMS edited by Martin H. Greenberg and John Helfers (ISBN 0-7564-0357-X) is a collection of original "slipstream" stories. However, since "slipstream" is such a vague term, this is really just a general original anthology, with the one limitation that you probably would not find a story that was strictly within a sub-genre (e.g., military science fiction) in it. For example, "Biding Time" by Robert J. Sawyer is a straight-forward mystery set on Mars, "Venting" by Alan Dean Foster and "From Gehenna" by Isaac Szpindel are fantasies, and so on. There are some that I would call meta-fiction, which may be a subset of slipstream (e.g., "Critical Analysis" by Tanya Huff and "Psycho Physics" by Donald J. Bingle). It's a mixed bag, but has the advantage of giving the reader a variety of stories, rather than the repetition one finds in a theme anthology.

To order Slipstreams from amazon.com, click here.


WHITE HOUSE HORRORS edited by Martin H. Greenberg (DAW, ISBN 0-88677-659-7, 1996, 316pp, mass market paperback):

Four years ago, during the 1992 Presidential campaign, I saw Mike Resnick's Alternate Presidents in a window display along with the books by and about the various candidates. So I fully expect to see this in a similar display. Certainly the picture of the "President" on the cover, with a grinning half-face, half-skull, fits in with the image people are starting to have of politicians.

Unlike Alternate Presidents (of which this seems to be, if not the child, then perhaps the niece), many of the Presidents here are future Presidents rather than (real or imaginary ) past ones. Perhaps it's that my tastes don't normally run to horror that makes me say that this collection is not as good overall. There are, however, some very good stories here. "Healing the Body Politic" by Brian Hodge is a strong lead-off, Gary A. Braunbeck's "And Somewhere I Shall Wake" is a memorable idea well-executed, and "The Cabinet of William Henry Harrison" by Barbara Collins and Max Allan Collins also makes an impression. "The Ghost and Mr. Truman" by Bill Crider, while perhaps not as historically accurate (I don't think the Truman renovations of the White House gutted it quite that much) does have some very strong images.

But many stories are sabotaged by anachronisms. For example, were doughnuts really purchased in bags 150 years ago, rather than just being wrapped with paper and string? Minor, perhaps, but I am of the opinion that a story set in 1860 should feel like 1860, unless there is some conscious stylistic reason to do otherwise. Some stories were a bit too predictable from the very beginning. And some stories which I think were supposed to be humorous just didn't tickle my funny bone. (One didn't even seem to have anything to do with the White House.)

Do I recommend this book? Well, if you like horror stories in general you may like this more than I did. And there were four good stories that even I liked. Still, when one considers some of the Presidential candidates we've had in my lifetime, one can't help but think that the authors could have come up with more convincing horror stories than these.

[Not surprisingly, assassinated Presidents Lincoln and Kennedy show up either as characters or references fairly often. Even Garfield gets a story. But poor William McKinley seems to be completely ignored. People interested in pursuing the assassination theme should seek out Stephen Sondheim's musical, Assassins.]

To order White House Horrors from amazon.com, click here.


CIVIL WAR GHOSTS edited by Martin Harry Greenberg, Frank McSherry, and Charles G. Waugh:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/03/2017]

What should I read?

It sounds like a simple question, and forty years ago it would have been less problematic. But calculating (as Robert Silverberg once did) how many more books I can reasonably expect to read, it becomes clear that I need to become more selective.

This in part is why I "abandon" a lot more books than I used to. In 2016, I "dropped" 68 books (I read 178). However, I also try to be selective in what I start--why spend even a small amount of time reading books that are not promising?

Given that, I imagine (assuming you are still reading this) that you are wondering why I spend time reading some of the books I do read. All I can say is that not every book I read has to be a classic; it just has to hold my interest.

One such book this week is CIVIL WAR GHOSTS edited by Martin Harry Greenberg, Frank McSherry, and Charles G. Waugh (ISBN 978-0-87483-172-3). There are three sorts of theme anthologies. One is the original anthology which has open submissions on a specific topic. Another is the original anthology where the editor has commissioned stories on a specific topic. The third is the reprint anthology which takes the best of previously published stories on a topic (subject to copyright permissions). Not surprisingly, the third is almost always the highest quality. After all, it has decades (in this case, over a century) to scour. And because Civil War ghost stories have been around since before 1922, there is no difficulty about rights to such classics as "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" and "The Drummer Ghost".

But the problem with the stories here is the problem with all ghost stories: because anything can happen, nothing is really startling. The author can work on atmosphere, but when it comes to actual plot, there is little that can be either obvious or surprising. If suddenly someone who seems to be human walks through a wall, well, okay, they're a spirit. If they vanish without a trace, well, okay, they're a spirit. If they vanish but leave their bouquet of fresh flowers behind, only now the flowers are dead, well, that's not surprising either.

To order Civil War Ghosts from amazon.com, click here.


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