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Books To Look For
Worshipping Small Gods, by Richard Parks,
Hereafter, and After, by Richard Parks,
BACK IN a 2002 installment of this column, in a review of Richard Parks's The Ogre's Wife, and Other Fairy Tales for Grown-Ups (Obscura Press), I made mention of how I was unfamiliar with Parks's byline and was therefore a little surprised to realize that I'd already read most of the stories in The Ogre's Wife in their initial magazine publications.
I still have trouble retaining the names of authors in anthologies and magazines, but I remember Parks now—his is now one of the bylines I look for on a contents page—and this time I was expecting to be familiar with the stories collected in Worshipping Small Gods. I look for his stories because, since I've managed to imprint his name on my memory, I also remember that he's one of my favorite short form writers working today. While I never know what to expect when I start a story of his, I do know it will be good. And worth rereading.
That's certainly the case here with eleven old favorites and three new ones, two of which feature his continuing character, the ghost hunter Eli Mothersbaugh. The pair are set in a near-future world where science has perfected a machine (the sensic) that allows one to record ghosts digitally. Eli's job is to differentiate between actual ghosts and simple bioremnant energies (sort of like an energy "recording" that repeats in a loop), and then try to free the souls so that they can move on.
The stories feature the ghosts of an opera diva ("Diva") and a collector of Japanese woodblock prints ("Hanagan's Kiyomatsu, 1923"), but they're not really about ghosts or the science that lets one record them. They're not really about the mysteries that lie at the heart of the hauntings, either—though all of that comes into play. Like the other two stories featuring Eli that appear in this collection, what they're really about are the living people left behind: the haunted.
Because this is where Parks excels. No matter how outlandish the setting of the story, or how other from us his characters appear (in additional stories, he regularly features gods, denizens of fairy tales and legends, and every sort of strange protagonist), Parks always manages to convince us of the humanity that lies at their hearts and has us care for them.
He's also a bit of a jack-of-all-trades when it comes to style, but he writes so credibly, in so many different kinds of stories, that it's a required talent. And whenever I think I prefer one style over another, he nudges me elsewhere.
For instance, I might say that I like his ones that take place in historical or secondary worlds, but I think he really shines when he brings the mythic elements into the contemporary world and then explores how ordinary people deal with the sudden appearance of the impossible in their lives (as he does in the collection's other new story, "The Wizard of Wasted Time.") At least I think they're my favorites until I read something like "Kallisti," the opening salvo in Worshipping Small Gods, and find myself enamored with how effortlessly Parks puts a contemporary spin on the "true story" behind the events that led to the Trojan War. Or one of the Eli Mothersbaugh stories. Or one featuring Japanese fox spirits ("Fox Trails").
I'd say there's something for everyone here, but really, I think everyone will enjoy all of these stories, even if you think you wouldn't. Parks is a perfect example of a multifaceted writer who can't—and shouldn't—be bound by anyone's idea of who he is. Instead, we should appreciate the diversity and skill he brings to the page and just be glad that there still are writers who have so many different things to say, with so many unexpected settings and characters.
There's also a hardcover edition available of Worshipping Small Gods that sells for $29.95.
But now, just to stay with Parks for a moment, I do find myself wondering if he'd still seem so fresh and innovative in a novel, where one needs to pick a style and stick with it at far greater length than a short story.
With PS Publishing's edition of Hereafter, and After, we get a taste. It's in the novelet/novella range, but it's the longest piece I've seen from Parks to date and it certainly whets my appetite for that as-yet unpublished—perhaps unwritten, perhaps not even started—novel.
Here we meet recently deceased Jake Hallman who, after getting hit by a garbage truck, awakes to find himself in the afterlife on something called the Golden Road. An angel comes to escort him to Heaven, but Hallman has questions, which leads him to have an "insight," which makes him that rare being in the afterlife: a dead person who is capable of change. The dead aren't supposed to change after their death; those who do become free souls.
And that leads Hallman on a stranger journey through the afterlifes of all sorts of myths with only the company of an equally bewildered ex-Valkyrie named Freya for company. All of this allows Parks to poke gentle fun and make some serious commentary on our belief systems, and it gives us a terrific read.
Hereafter, and After is a story that would have made Robert Nathan or James Branch Cabell proud—and probably would James Morrow, too, who's still alive and could read it. And it certainly shows that Parks has the chops to work at a longer length.
There's also a more limited hardcover available for $45. Check the publishers' web sites for ordering information on both these books.
Before we go on to the next review, I should mention that PS Publishing appears to put out their books in quartets. The other worthy titles coming out the same time as the Parks book are: The Lees of Laughter's End by Steven Erikson, The Scalding Rooms by Conrad Williams, and The Colorado Kid by Stephen King.
The latter (reviewed in an earlier installment of this column) makes a welcome hardcover of this paperback original, but it appears in three different versions, each with cover art by a different artist, and each in various editions. All of which seems a bit like overkill, but what do I know?
Well, I know that it's a great story and one of my favorites by King.
Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction, by Jeff Prucher,
I'm not a professional etymologist by any means, but I do love words, and I love to trace their origins. So I was particularly pleased to receive a galley of Jeff Prucher's Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction.
Unlike all the other scholarly books on the subject of science fiction, Prucher concentrates on the words and concepts that have become the sf lexicon. It's terrific to browse, full of all sorts of citations of first appearances of words and their subsequent usage, showing how many of the words commonly used today had their origin in our genre—and not hard science as one might sometimes suppose. Shuttle, robot, timeline, extraterrestrial, cyberspace…our language is that much richer for the infusion of sf terms.
I often suggest with this sort of a reference book that you should have a look at it in your local public library—and you might still want to do so, just to get an idea of its breadth, depth, and entertainment value. But then you're going to want a copy of your own. I'm off to pre-order one for myself as soon as I finish this column.
A Fine and Private Place, by Peter S. Beagle,
Synchronicity's a funny thing. There I was in last month's column, mentioning how this is one of my favorite books, and the next thing I know there's a new reprint of it sitting in my post office box.
Now the fear I always have of going back to something I haven't reread in a long time is that it won't measure up to the warm affection I carry for it in my memories. But happily, that wasn't the case here. I didn't even mean to reread it. I simply thought I'd try a few pages to see how it fared and the next thing I knew it was late at night and I was halfway through.
For those of you new to this classic, it tells the story of a druggist who gave up his profession and moved into a mausoleum in the Bronx's Yorkchester Cemetery. Jonathan Rebeck has lived there for nineteen years when the book opens, his only company a talking raven and the ghosts that haunt the cemetery for a few weeks after their burial. The ghosts start to lose their memories over those weeks and eventually they're gone. But until they go, Rebeck can see and speak with them.
Rebeck is more than content to stay hidden away from the outside world, but the arrival of a certain pair of ghosts and a Jewish mourner seem set to change everything, and we have our story.
A Fine and Private Place is just as wonderful as I remembered it to be: beautifully written, the characters warmly drawn, the pages filled with conversations that run the gamut of the human condition. In these days of everything coming in quick sound bites, at a faster and faster pace, Beagle's novel might seem quaint as it takes its time to tell its story. But you know, there's a reason that people still read Dickens and Austen, and there's a reason they'll appreciate this book: quality counts.
This edition is apparently the definitive text, but I have to admit that whatever small changes Beagle might have made, I didn't notice them. What I do know is that it's a great book, in a lovely affordable package. To give you an example of the attention to detail that everyone involved with this new edition took, cover photographer Ann Monn flew to New York to take a photo in the same cemetery that provided Beagle with his inspiration.
And the book's worth it.
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