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Frenzetta
      Lord Soho
      "Zarzuela"
Richard Calder
      Richard Calder
      Richard Calder
Four Walls Eight Windows, 192 pages
      Earthlight, 378 pages
      Interzone, April 2002

Frenzetta
Lord Soho, and Zarzuela
Richard Calder
Richard Calder grew up in northeast London. He started writing fiction at around age 14 and got more serious about it at age 18. In the mid-70s, he went to university in Brighton. His influences include Marcel Proust, Angela Carter, Michael Moorcock and Mervyn Peake. For some time, he lived in Thailand, running a little general store.

Richard Calder Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Malignos
SF Site Review: Dead Girls, Dead Boys, Dead Things and Cythera
Calder Bibliography

Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Soyka

"For all Richard Calder's works share one thing in common -- they could not have been written by anyone else."
Interview by Charles Rudkin, Interzone, August 2001
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Unfortunately, for those of us here in the colonies, these distinctive works have been unavailable for a number of years. Although currently published by Earthlight, a British imprint of Simon and Schuster, Richard Calder's distinctive voice has lacked on American outlet since St. Martin's Press put out Cytheria way back in 1998. For those who haven't wanted to pay the costs of international shipping, Four Walls, Eight Windows has stepped in to fill the void by picking up at least the next two in the sequence of Calder novels, Frenzetta (originally published in 1998) and The Twist (originally published in the UK in 1998, scheduled for 2003 U.S. release).

I don't know that you would call Frenzetta a "sequel" to Cytheria (which itself was roughly a sequel to the Dead Girls, Dead Boys, Dead Things trilogy), but it is an extension of the Calderian obsession with the disturbing connections between sex and violence, love and death. Whereas Cytheria posits three "realities" that begin to bleed into one another, Frenzetta takes place at a time in which the connections between these realities has been severed. The bizarre results are twofold: much of humanity has mutated into "the perverse" -- beings whose DNA have become entwined with other animal forms -- and much of human technology has been rendered useless and a sort of retro-18th century ethos prevails.

Frenzetta (short for Princess Frenzetta von Thurn and Taxis-Hohenlohe) is a 17-year-old "Rat Girl," a voluptuous beauty equipped with tail, sharp teeth, and claws; the genetic destiny of her half-rat, half-human ilk is to die upon achieving orgasm (though if impregnated, they are capable of delivering post-mortem). Duane Duarte is a "revenant," a human whose "soul" was reconstituted into various stitched together body parts of dead soldiers in an obvious allusion to the Frankenstein monster. Two side effects -- in order to avoid putrefaction, on about a weekly basis Duane must eat chilled humanoid brains (cheerfully supplied by Frenzetta who procures her victims by posing as a prostitute) and he is impotent (actually a benefit to Frenzetta, considering her own sexual problem of her first climax making it her last).

The two are also lovers in their own strange way. Strange is an unavoidable adjective when discussing Calder.

The plot involves a series of botched plans this dynamic duo embark upon to gain money and somehow obtain passage to a better life -- and perhaps escape their doomed physical limitations -- in rumored sanctuary on the Moon (which, since space travel is no longer technologically feasible, involves some sort of untested teleportation conveyance system). Some critics have complained that these two narcissistic characters, who at one point complement themselves on what "complete bastards" they are, are so totally unlikable they make the novel a disagreeable read. Maybe this reflects poorly on me, but I kind of like them, the same way you might be fond of cartoon characters that continually try -- and fail miserably -- to trap the rabbit or stop the roadrunner. These are caricatures involved in high-concept slapstick, and if you find yourself laughing out loud, maybe that means you've got a sick, twisted sense of humor.

In which case, Calder is your man.

While Frenzetta is outright funnier than what preceded it, and somewhat more accessible in terms of prose and plotline, Calder's most recent work is more complex and baroque, though still not nearly as convoluted as the Dead trilogy and Cytheria. The humor remains, albeit not as prominently thrust in the foreground. Lord Soho (and, sorry, currently only available in the UK) is subtitled a "Time Opera," referring both to the multi-generational saga of the descendants of Richard Pike -- the protagonist of Malignos, a novel also only available in the UK -- and the chain of events that finally end the time of humans altogether in favor of the perverse. In addition to the operatic melodrama and "larger-than-life" characterization, at times the characters break out in song:

Gentle Jane was as good of gold,
She always did as she was told;
She never spoke when her mouth was full,
Or caught bluebottles their legs to pull,
Or split plum jam on her nice new frock,
Or put white mice in the eight-day clock,
Or fostered a passion for alcohol,
Or vivisected her new doll
The various stories that make up Lord Soho were originally published in Interzone (another British pub not seen much on these shores). I definitely recommend reading them all in sequence; I didn't quite understand what was going on when I originally read some of these stories out of context and out of order. While the whole is the sum of its parts, the book edition does suffer somewhat in that there is a certain amount of repetition in explaining what happened in a previous episode that, while necessary for serial magazine publication, I think should have been edited out.

While Lord Soho is linked to a previous novel and in some ways can extend its "world-view" back to Frenzetta and perhaps even the first Dead Girls novel, Calder's latest effort seems to take him out of time opera and into the realm of space opera. The short story "Zarzuela" (the similarity to Barbarella is probably intentional) is again in Interzone (April 2002) -- a strong issue by the way, particularly work by Daniel Kaysen, Claude Lalumière, Tony Ballantyne and Darrel Schweitzer. Interzone has served as a springboard for much of Calder's longer work, and presumably this is the first installment of a novel-in-progress. The story's tagline heralds this as a "new departure" for Calder, though it is so only in the sense that it takes place in outer space. Zarzuela is the AI of a rogue ship that has seemingly fallen in love with the captain -- and sole passenger -- De Cruz, who, in turn, is obsessed with the human incarnation of an alien life-form from an alternate universe. De Cruz's failed attempt to rescue his love -- and escape his creditors -- doesn't result in complete disaster thanks to the intervention of the smitten ship's computer. Though the setting is space, and some things remind you of a bit of Alastair Reynolds highly inventive space operas, the Calderian themes remain -- human alienation symbolized by "personalities" that aren't biologically human, a nihilistic protagonist who sacrifices others without conscience, send-ups of pop culture (in this case both the detective and SF pulp genres), sexual obsessions and slapstick situations.

The only question now is why the British should have such exclusive access to Calder. Four Wall, Eight Windows is closing the gap on the novel side. Now if only Interzone could get better U.S. distribution, readers on this side of the Atlantic could better appreciate one of the field's more unusual voices.

Copyright © 2002 David Soyka

David Soyka is a former journalist and college teacher who writes the occasional short story and freelance article. He makes a living writing corporate marketing communications, which is a kind of fiction without the art.


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