Friday, March 31, 2017

Catskinner's Book: Chapters 21-24

The crowd runs out of the theater. Cobb leads the crowd to safety, while the Blob chases James and Alice. They duck into n Employee Only door, which leads them to an empty kitchen. Godiva's body is on the steel table. James sends Alice outside before he cuts the bonds and plastic wrap from Godiva's body. As the Blob floods the room, James hops on the table and Godiva jerks awake. As Godiva tries to staunch her bleeding and patch her body, she also tries to identify the Blob's weaknesses to kill it. Meanwhile, Catskinner coaches James as he makes a difficult jump to safety.

From their perch, James and Godiva search for things to kill the Blob. While Godiva improvises a pressure bandage, James empties the contents of a liquor cabinet into the Blob puddled below him. A metabolic poison and solvent, the alcohol disturbs the bonds of the Blob, killing it. James then rinses the remaining gray ooze down the drain in the floor. James then tells Godiva that Keith Morgan is dead. She deduces that multiple factions are after James, and it's time to make sure the right one wins.

As Janes and Godiva leave the convention, they run into Alice, Cobb, and a police officer trying to make sense of the crime scene around the convention. Godiva takes charge and blames the chaos on ergot poisoning. The police officer loses his patience, and tells the to leave. Godiva and James drive towards their hotel, until Godiva tells James to drive towards Morgan's shop, to deal with whatever powers flooding into the vacuum made by the man's death.

Inside the shop, Godiva and James find a TV attached to what remains of Morgan's body. The screen turns on, revealing Agony Delapour's face. As the power pulling the strings, she tries to command a deal, but James loses his temper. Tired of everyone assuming that he understands what is going on, he wants answers - or violence. Godiva and Agony fill him in on the machinations behind the events since Victor's death. Adam Chase is so potent a trump card that Outsiders and the humans they ride will conspire to control him. Godiva makes an offer to take over Morgan's job for Agony, a job that would offer information and a sort of protection to James. Catskinner agrees, and a deal is made...

And so Catskinner's Book ends, with a glimpse of even deeper mysteries to come and the revelation that much of the adventure, hurts, and deaths could have been avoided had James and Catskinner not been quite so paranoid and standoffish. But without the adventure and losses, James would have never learned to trust, and Catskinner would have never allowed James to make any binding agreement. Given James's near isolation at the beginning. his growth into a more well-adjusted person only comes through interacting with other people.

At beginning of the month, I said that I typically find New Wave writers to be better essayists than fiction writers. As much as I've utterly enjoyed Catskinner's Book, I am hesitant to say it is better than Misha Burnett's blog. Seriously, give it a read some time. He writes with a clarity and depth of thought that is characteristic of the New Wave when they turn to non-fiction. Much of the criticism and frame of the Pulp Revolution (including my own) comes from his writings, even though Misha Burnett claims New Wave. When he speaks on writing, I listen. Yet, unlike much of Harlan Ellison's stories, Misha's fiction is something that I would reread, not just for enjoyment, but to figure out writing technique as well. With endless podcasts and websites, a certain conventional wisdom about writing and bookselling has gelled, creating a rule set that is more formulaic than even the worst parody of pulp. Starting with the cover to Catskinner's Book, much of that common wisdom is ignored, and it works. The oldest advice on writing that I learned is to first learn the rules, and then learn when to break them. There are few writers breaking rules so thoroughly and successfully as Misha Burnett. And if the considerable brilliance of his fiction does not eclipse his writing on writing, I am happy to read both - and ask for seconds. 

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Catskinner's Book: Chapters 17-20

As they wait for news of Tom or Morgan, Cobb tells James about how he met Tom, as the sole survivors of a raid on an Outsider cult. Catskinner is impressed, not just with the story, but with Cobb himself. Finally, Cobb gets a phone call, telling him which hospital Tom is being treated at.

Cobb and James visit Tom’s hospital bed. His prognosis is stable, but with even odds if he will recover fully or never wake up again. On their way out of the hospital, James finds a flyer for a UFO convention on their car. Written in strange capitalization throughout the flyer is a message, presumably from Morgan: Godiva. They go to the convention, which features a showing of a movie based on Michael Chase’s book. James runs into another Outsider-human hybrid, one with eyes like Catskinner’s.

James, Catskinner, and Cobb go to the convention’s bar and wait for Morgan to communicate again. Instead, a woman named Agony Delapour introduces herself, then displays Morgan’s severed head in an ice bucket. She wants to make a deal with Catskinner, but instead of telling him the terms, Agony wants James to enjoy the convention.

James and Cobb drift into the next room, where a movie alleging proof of aliens is about to start. They catch up with Alice, and then the show starts. It is a detailed dissection of Godiva, presumably post-mortem. James demands that the show stop and immediately goes full Catskinner. In the resulting melee, a lizardman and a blob monster attack. Catskinner kills the lizardman, and, as the blob dissolves the crowd, he breaks through the wall. Alice, Cobb, and Catskinner escape, chased by the Blob.

There is a subtle 1950s drive-in sci-fi feel to the UFO convention, complete with "alien" dissections, a man in black, lizardmen, and the Blob. Looking closer, the sci-fi feel turns into an homage to a famous scene from The Blob where the titular red goo attacks a movie theater. In the movie, the first victim of the attack is the projectionist, while in Catskinner's Book, the projectionist becomes the blob. In both, a B-grade exploitation flick is interrupted by the attack, and movie goers stream from the theater rooms, chased by a reddish ooze. Finally, chemistry is key in the defeat of both monsters. But the real question now that we're in a 1950s sci-fi movie (as seen through the kaleidoscope of the New Wave), will James get the girl?

Well, that and what other homages might have been missed...

Once again, there's a bait and switch with the antagonists. First Victor, then Doctor Klein, then Keith Morgan, and now Agony Delapour; the man/woman/alien behind the curtain keeps changing. While it builds a sense of being inducted into an ever deepening set of mysteries, by all common consensus of technique, this should not work as a story. But nothing about Catskinner's Book has been by the numbers, and, frankly, it's stronger for it.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Catskinner's Book: Chapters 13-16

Two Federal Agents, Tom White and Cobb Rosswin, confront James and Catskinner. Godiva is spitting mad, literally, and her distraction allows Catskinner to disarm the G-men. As James and Godiva and Tom and Cobb heatedly question each other, it becomes increasingly uncertain which agency the G-men belong to. When James mentions Alice, Tom drops under his patrol car and grabs a hidden shotgun. Fortunately, a quick call to Alice defuses the situation, just in time for a truck to run everyone down...

Catskinner rips the driver out of the truck, only for James to crash it. Immediately, a swarm of minraudim, heated metal centipedes, pour out of truck. Gunfire from the agents thins the swarm out, but the humans are forced to run. As they flee in the agents' car, James runs out of energy. To restore him, Godiva feeds him sugar from inside her like a momma bird her young. After escaping the minraudim, they four of them meet Alice at a bowling alley. Once again, the question turns to how to draw Morgan out for Catskinner to kill him.

The group is interrupted by the arrival of a arrival of a group of otherworldly hot women. Godiva recognizes them as fellow ambimorphs. A bald man follow the Macrobe-human hybrids, demanding that Godiva and James leave the alley with hum. When Catskinner says no, the blue metal man attacks. Heavier than normal, his heavy metal imbued body is a match for Catskinner until James tricks the metal man into punching an electrical panel. During the respite, they discover that Tom is critically injured. As Godiva evacs Tom, the metal man returns. Catskinner immobilizes him just long enough for Cobb to shoot out his eyes.

While trying to find the hospital that Godiva took Tom to, Cobb takes James into a government trailer. As Cobb negotiates to take new wheels and weapons from the storehouse, James pretends to be an agent from Tuscon and Catskinner discovers the joy of knives. Afterwards, they wait for Morgan to make the next step.
Allyl isothiocyanate, besides being spit from angry ambimorphs, is mustard oil, found in mustard, horseradish, and wasabi. It makes for a passable insecticide, and, as Godiva shows, it can serve as a substitute for pepper spray if needed. Does Godiva make compounds like this and her sugar meal on demand? I also fear what will happen if she learns to make more complex chemistry, such as the complex toxins manufactured by some plants and fungi.

Catskinner's continuing humanization is both endearing, and in the case of the knives, somewhat frightening as well. Since meeting Godiva and Alice, the circle of people the alien Macrobe will protect has certainly widened. As this humanization coincides with James's socialization, one has to wonder if James's years of self-imposed isolation only prolonged Catskinner's lack of adaptation to human society. I can't blame James, however, as the traumas experienced by Adam Chase are certainly enough to drive a man into a strange form of hermitage.

Tom and Cobb are a subversion of the Men in Black, the famed suppressors of alien evidence. They certainly don't exude the air of unflappable professionalism and menace that the urban legends have. At this point, they instead resemble grifters. However, we shall soon see that their introduction to the paranormal that rivals any experienced by members of Larry Correia's Monster Hunter International.

Mineral men, plant women, beings of air, water, earth, and fire - while Misha Burnett has been upfront with attributing his ideas to various science fiction writers, it would not surprise me if there was some formal esotericism in those roots.

Next time: "the Great misunderstanding of Our time is the iDea that we are alone In the uniVerse and we Are not!"

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

A Box of Godiva Chocolate - You Never Know...

This is where things get awkward.

In my previous posts we talked about Cobb and Tom, two of the normies swept up into the world of the outsiders.  We talked about poor James, raised by a malicious monster of pure thought, and we talked about that malicious monster.  This time we’re talking about the love interest, Godiva.
Even the name should be corny, a nymph named Godiva.  Come on!  But with four little words, Burnett clams the reader down.  “Yeah, sure, why not.”  Normally, the sly winking asides set off my “Incoming” radar.  Most authors use them as a screen to hide behind.  You get the sense that many authors are embarrassed to admit to the things they like and throw up an ink cloud of irony to assure the reader that they are including something as a bit of campy silliness and that even they don’t take it all that seriously.  Speaking as a reader – screw that – if you can’t admit to enjoying your work, why should I enjoy it?
Burnett throws out that, “Yeah, sure, why not,” as more of a challenge.  It’s a way of telling the reader, you’ve already accepted a young man powered by a supernatural entity shackled to him by a tattoo on his back that can be stopped with a few ancient letters on an index card, you really going to take exception to a name that clearly labels the bearer?  I might have, but that question wasn’t just rhetorical – why not? Indeed.
Of course then it turns out Godiva has a penis and suddenly a name that’s a little “on the nose” doesn’t seem like that big of a leap any more.

What?  Being square doesn't automatically make me mature!
So.  Here’s the thing.  I’m a pretty square guy.  I love my Mom and apple pie and try to watch my language.  I wear a MAGA hat unironically.  I’ve never been to a topless bar.  I teach Sunday school.  (Actually, CCD, Catholics, represent!)  I pretty much married and still love my high school sweetheart.  I mean, I’m so square carpenters have been known to borrow me to make sure their joints are a perfect 90-degree angle.

Normally, when a book drops that kind of missile on me ,* I’m out.

Except that normally, when a book pulls a stunt like that, it feels cheap or preachy.  Having already established that the world of Catskinner includes the aforementioned monsters of thought, hive minds, men with the density of a neutron star, and a host of other strangenesses…Godiva’s reveal just feels like another signpost that Catskinner’s world is nothing like ours.  It’s a natural expression of that weirdness, and it’s really just one more curveball for James (and by extension the reader) to have to learn to accept if they are going to live in this strange new world.

By the time we get Godiva’s really big reveal – that she’s a brain surgeon – we’ve already learned that she’s a half-plant symbiont whose body brews magic potions, has green eyes, and a mouth full of tentacles.  That last bit makes her first interaction with James, when she offered him oral sex in exchange for food, take on a whole new dimension.  Yeee-yikes!
And really, that’s the most interesting thing about Godiva.  It's not the unfortunately placed ovipositor.  It's not the tentacle mouth.  The brain surgeon.  She looks like a bimbo.  She’s clearly a being designed for raw sexuality.  And yet, she’s whip-smart.  James is no slouch, but whenever real brains are called for in the story, Godiva is there to pick up his slack.  She leads the investigation from the first scene they meet.  She usually figures things out well before he does.  She’s also a very vulnerable person, both physically and emotionally, and needs James as much as he needs her.  Those contrasts help to make her a truly well-rounded character.
It’s another case of an author who can write the sort of thing that you don’t like, and make you like it anyway.  Not sure there’s any higher praise I can offer than that.

* Hey, I’m square, but come on.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Catskinner's Book: Chapters 9-12

Alice, Godiva, and James talk inside a bowling alley. Alice recognizes James as Adam Chase, the son of cult leader Michael Chase. Michael tried to work around the damage to the human brain caused by exposure to Macrobes by binding one to an infant. James admits his new identity and goes to leave, but Godiva convinces him to stay. Alice then fills James in on the war between the Macrobes, humanity's role as pawns, and Morgan's role in Victor's death. Catskinner makes an agreement with Alice to listen to her, and later makes another agreement, this time with Godiva, allowing her to get close to James.

Godiva and James talk in his room about Alice, Macrobes, and Catskinner. Godiva convinces Catskinner that James might have needs beyond those of survival, and that it is best for James and Catskinner if the Macrobe does not interfere. The couple fall asleep in each other's arms.

The next day, Catskinner asks if Alice wants Morgan killed. An agreement between the four beings is made. To draw Morgan out, they will attack the Manchester nest. In preparation, they go shopping. James can't help but peek on Godiva while she changes, only to discover that Godiva has male parts. James shrugs off the shock and kisses Godiva.

Catskinner walks into the middle of the Manchester nest, ready to fight. However, the Macrobe possessing the nest instead accedes to Godiva's demand that it stop working with Morgan.  After a bit more pressure, the alien gives up a warehouse where Morgan keeps his money.


Let's deal with the elephant in the room first. Godiva is...complicated. A human-Macrobe binding with alien facial features, female frame and secondary sexual characteristics, and male sexual organs. And, since Jon spilled the beans with our very first post on Catskinner's Book, Godiva is part vegetable matter as well. I'll continue to use the feminine pronouns to remain consistent with James's perception of Godiva. We know that she sought out Dr. Klein to help her, but the services Dr. Klein actually provided came with a price that Godiva was not expecting. I suspect that the human Godiva was possibly a male-to-female transsexual prior to her alien conversion, but the case for that is as flimsy as any crack-shipper's. And speaking of relationships, James is happy for once and Catskinner approves, so I'm not going to provoke the alien Tasmanian Devil. Catskinner's Book takes the approach that you fall in love with the person you love, an approach familiar to me from watching way too much gender bending anime.

That said, it is Godiva's plant-animal duality that interests me more. She likely could not maintain the strange hormonal mix in her body without the plant symbiotes inside of her. Her vegetable side allows synthesis of some chemically complex compounds and provides other benefits that will soon to be useful. Her vegetable side is also important symbolically as well. In certain schools of esoterica, it is thought that the current animal self of man emerged from a vegetable self. And, when we do meet more of Godiva's kin, we do see that she is unique, keeping her higher brain functions where her kin lose them. Additionally, the vegetable self is also tied to restoration. Not only does Godiva heal quickly, her presence is also restoring James to something more closely resembling humanity. Or at least as close to normal as two vessels to matter-rewriting aliens can get. The plant-animal mix is also relatively unique in science fiction. Certainly the inclusion of chlorophyll into animal life is a moldy oldie of the genre, but the mixing of plant and animal symbiotes so thoroughly is something I haven't seen outside of the Orks of Warhammer 40k. (Thankfully, there's no such thing as an Ork female, not that Godiva would ever resemble one of those hypothetical beings.) However, her relatively unchecked sexual drive is characteristic in esoterica of the animal self being unbalanced. As strange as Godiva is, she is just the first in a string of subverted exceptions, for, with her revelation, Catskinner's Book starts to get alien, with even stranger surprises to come.

As Misha Burnett commented in an earlier post, C. S. Lewis is a significant influence on the cosmology of Catskinner's Book. Whether called by Macrobe, eldil, or a specific Hebraic name befitting their position in the choir of aliens, the extraterrestrial entities echo those seen in Lewis's Space Trilogy. But while the populace of the world of Catskinner's Book bear Lewis's stamp, they are arranged in a more Lovecraftian cosmology. Gone is the Scala Natura, or the well-ordered hierarchies of nature that work together for order and good. While ecologies of Macrobes are referenced, it is clear that humanity has no place in it except as disposable pawns of little more value than plastic green army men toys. The universe is uncaring, and there is no safety or purpose in  hierarchy. The choirs of the Macrobes might as well be Old Ones.

Next time: "Federal Agent! Keep your hands where I can see them."

Sunday, March 19, 2017

catskinner's book 1: My Analysis

You know it's bad to judge a book by its cover, although we do it all the time. So here's an experiment: Quick, look the cover art on the right and tell me (well, you know what I mean) your first thoughts. Be as prejudiced and superficial as you want.

If you had to guess its genre, style, or typology, what would it be? Emo poetry? A gothic novel pastiche? The autobiography of a gardener gone mad? Well, whatever it was, I'm sure it wasn't "a thriller starring a paranormal symbiote -a human with a predatorial daemon inside his head- and parasitic alien entities, with spirit-driven genetic engineering and X-files levels of cover-ups."

I don't know why Misha Burnett chose that cover style or what hidden symbolism lies behind them or their titles, but if he ever wants to change the vibe, he could try to imitate one of those Shudder Pulp covers, with an almost naked damsel chained to an operation table, ready to be dissected by a demented doctor while the hero struggles with the mad doctor's mutated underlings. And it would be somewhat close to a real scene from the book.

I mention this in case a random person with no knowledge of the book is reading this. Sure, the short Amazon synopsis for this book will dispell any possible genre confusion or mislabel, but you'd be surprised how many people don't even read that. Having said all that, let's jump into the meat of our business.

James Ozwryck (pronounce Awesig -not his real surname, by the way-) is a young introvert who works at a run-down hardware store and occasionally dreams of living a more fulfilling life someday. That would be common stuff for a tale about the woes and anxieties of a blue-collar worker, if it weren't for the fact that the store is a front, James is a professional hitman with abnormal strength, and, oddly enough, he has never killed anybody. At least he likes to think so. 

It's actually the demonic-like entity living inside and alongside him, called catskinner (lower case, it's important) who takes control of his (their?) body when someone needs to die or some unnatural feat of speed and strength is required. Also, his boss, Victor, who provides him with the targets, doesn't sleep, is ugly as hell, lives in a giant fridge which doubles as an office, and is probably undead. 

I must note that that weirdness isn't the plot or the events that trigger the story. That's the introduction, -his normal life- which theoretically could have gone on like that forever if it had not been for Victor's (and almost his own too) murder. This story is therefore not your average "normal man's life is upturned and thrown into disarray by unknown forces;" it already starts weird, and then it gets even weirder. The fantastic elements in his life, which James had taken for granted as personal idiosyncrasies, are revealed as being part of a bigger whole (although it is quickly stated that very little of its true nature is really known.) In other words, he is not the only freak in town.

You could say that the story is also about James changing and maturing, and leaving his mind-numbing apathy behind, something that is triggered by two events: Victor's murder (who had been his guardian as well as his exploiter,) and meeting Godiva. The first incident forces him to go beyond the brutal (but predictable and comfortable) realities of his life as someone else's tool, and the second gives him someone beyond himself to care about.

Godiva, who is also not entirely human, many not be your standard romantic partner, and it's probably not what James would have chosen (even though it superficially *looks* like your typical male fantasy,) but from a storytelling point of view, it works like one. She humanizes James, gives him someone to care about and a reason to live beyond simple survival (that's catskinner existential imperative/function, anyway.) They may be a pair of freak weirdos, but they make a lovely couple nonetheless. I'm not sure I want to see them naked, though.

"Disappointed" would be too big a word, but it was a bit of a letdown that the story didn't follow some threads it had hinted at the beginning, not necessarily because the new direction it took was the wrong one, but because I think the other would have been superior. The story started a bit like a mystery drama, with a few touches of hardboiled urban survival thrown in the mix. There were three specific mysteries to solve: (1) Victor's murder, (2) whatever was stolen from Victor's safe, and (3) how was James/catskinner incapacitated with an apparently magical sigil. That final one may not be very important since it is probably just a plot device to avoid a fight so soon, but it still has important worldbuilding implications concerning what powers some people (and entities) seem to possess there. The description of the consequences of that sigil is also one of the best scenes of the book, so there's that too.

The third one can be dismissed then, but I find it odd that the first seems to disappear so quickly from James' mind (or so it seemed to me) and that the second becomes almost a footnote, especially since the contents of the safe are mentioned (The Book of Thoth), and they seemed important enough. After that point, James loses a bit of its agency as the main character/investigator, and he is carried along by what happens (and crashes) around him and the people he finds along the way, usually after a fight, when allies, new or old, appear or disappear. And since he is not the only main character (there's also catskinner there,) this downplays him even more. That is, by the way, something James hints at the end of the book:

"What's been happening to me lately has not been conversations. What's been happening is that people make bizarre enigmatic little comments in my general direction, and weird crap comes out of nowhere and tries to kill me. And then when I say, hey, how come weird crap keeps coming out of nowhere and trying to kill me? everybody tells me I don't understand what's going on."
Even the emotionally-stunted psychopath inside his head seems to know much more about what is going on (and, oddly enough, it apparently chooses not to disclose it,) than him.

After that, an explanation is given, although I think it would have worked better if it happened earlier (there is no big revelation anyway,) especially since the end is somewhat abrupt (although not unfulfilling) and a few pages more to build a good hook for the next book (e.g. hints of a future problem) would have helped.

It is in the sense of investigation and discovery, and in the dialogues that shine a light on the nature of this supernatural world, where I believe the book excels. In fact, my favorite moments were the dialogues with those at the edge of that supernatural world (e.g. with Russwind, about his past.)

In any event, the crux of the story is the James/catskinner duo, and not surprisingly the series is named after the second since it is the mystery surrounding that strange entity what moves the whole plot and, to a considerable degree, the reader's interest. The interactions between the two of them are also some of the most amusing moments, especially because they are embedded as part of the narration itself. This book is written from a first-person narrative, but the trick is that there are actually two entities watching, and they both share the same point of view (James' eyes.) catskinner's comments and thought processes (although not all of them, probably) are part of the narration itself and they are written in italics*. This means that sometimes the narrator himself speaks directly to another character (catskinner,) engaging in a conversation that appears as part of the narration and only they (and us) see.

*And with an uncommon punctuation. It never uses upper-case letters, not even when using the pronoun I. i once met a person who wrote like that on-line, and he was edgy in extreme, quite unhinged and seemed possessed, so I guess bad grammar and a bizarre punctuation sometimes may be a sign of daemonic influence! It may explain a few things about Twitter, at the very least.
[*extra: I just realized the whole cover of the book is written using catskinner's style]

I thought that was a neat literary experiment, and I would not have minded (in fact, I would have enjoyed it,) if Burnett had decided to be even more experimental while playing with the limits of traditional narratives. And speaking of which, I was pleased that the story avoided the usual pitfalls of many postmodern stories: the temptation of self-referentialism and going excessively meta all the way down. Since this is a story that could have gone from zero to Philip K. Dick in 2.5 seconds, I was pleased to see that there was little of that nonsense. Although the "entities" that are behind the whole mess clearly dance and play with the limits of madness and reality, those nonetheless exist. James may be confused because he doesn't understand what is going on, but he knows perfectly well that what is going on is real and that there is something to understand.

And even if the mystery isn't yet explained, and the names (if they have any) and goals of the hidden forces are not yet revealed, the intrigue is strong enough to compel me to read the next books.

Saturday, March 18, 2017


If James is the hero of Catskinner's Book, Catskinner is the anti-hero.

He starts out a monster, and by the end...he's still a blood-thirsty monster.  The only real change is that James has increased his mastery and control over Catskinner.  In the initial explanation of the strange relationship between man and monster, James tells us that Catskinner called all the shots during his childhood. 

It's worth mentioning that I'm not sure if Catskinner's early days pinned to in James' back by a magic tattoo count as a childhood, given the implication that Catskinner is old as we reckon things, and a creature for whom time his meaningless as he reckons things.  His early behavior, unchecked and impulsive, is a childhood of a sort.  It's not until James becomes old enough to threaten Catskinner with punishment that Catskinner reins in his murderous ways.

The 'character building' that Catskinner goes through in Catskinner's Book amounts to little more than surrendering control to James on a more regular basis, and doing a much better job of keeping James as healthy from a mental standpoint as from a physical one.  Does surrendering control to somebody who exercises more and more control over your behavior counts as growth?

Perhaps, if you're talking about a manchild who settles down and sacrifices more and more for his family.  If you're talking about a selfish Scrooge who learns to use his wealth and power to care for others.  And maybe it even counts for demonic beings of pure thought and malice from another universe who learn to kill only those who deserve death, and who learn to allow their host critter to experience a little hanky-panky once in a while.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

April's Puppy: Souldancer, by Brian Niemeier

When we last left Mithgar back in September, at the end of the roller coaster ride through hell that is Nethereal, a goddess had been reborn and fire fell from the skies, scorching Mithgar and the rest of the known universe. Ending on this cliffhanger left us wondering what would happen next to the dying universe of the Soul Cycle.

Let's find out.
Twenty years after the old world ended in fire, Xander Sykes travels the deserts of a drastically changed Mithgar. His fascination with the world he never knew—along with his strange abilities—divides him from his clan. But otherworldly forces interrupt his exile. 
Pursued by enemies from above and beneath the world, Xander bands together with an ambassador from hell, his heavenly bodyguard, and a reformed guildsman seeking to right his order’s wrongs. 
The search for answers leads to a vast, decaying city haunted by a presence as tormented as it is deadly. Xander finds a survivor who may give purpose to his nameless longing—if he can help her escape the terror that stalks them both.
April's Puppy of the Month is Souldancer, by Brian Niemeier. Winner of the Dragon Award for Best Horror Novel, it is the sequel to September 2016's Puppy of the Month Nethereal.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Catskinner's Book: Chapters 5-8

James and Catskinner scare the living hell out of Doctor Klein, who rattles on about blue metal boys, nova crew nests, and her contact Keith Morgan at The Good Earth store. She says that she killed Victor for the Book of Thoth, but before James and Catskinner can extract every bit of information from her, the police arrive. James escapes out the back and hides. Doctor Klein reassures the police until they leave, not to help James, but to keep the police from finding the backyard pool filled with algae and bodies.

James sneaks away from Doctor Klein's house, jumping into Godiva's van while it's still moving. As they head towards The Good Earth, James wants Godiva, but tries to do the noble thing and distance himself from her. She wants none of that, insisting on staying close.

Inside The Good Earth, James and Catskinner meet Keith Morgan, who boasts of his knowledge and influence. Keith clues James into the nature of outsiders like Catskinner, who he calls Macrobes. There is an ecology of Macrobe information beings on Earth, with several of the species in conflict. Keith is a middleman between factions, and tries to recruit Catskinner, "the child of the morning star.". The deal sounds good to James, but Catskinner refuses. Keith unleashes a water monster on James and Catskinner.

Catskinner tries to fight the water construct, but cannot cut away enough mass to kill it. As Catskinner runs away from a mass of watery tendrils that cut like monofilament wires, Godiva burst in and dispels the construct with dish soap. They escape, only to run into the leasing agent that led him to The Land of Tan. She reintroduces herself as Alice Mann, part of the anti-Macrobe resistance.


A more benign information being
than the Macrobes
I'm enjoying the ambiguity of what the Macrobes are. They are described as information beings by Keith Morgan, yet Catskinner himself describes the conflict between Macrobe factions in terms of Christian angelic choirs and alchemical sacred geometry. Their "coin" for payment is information, as befitting their scientific explanation, yet the Seal of Solomon is enough to kill most  Macrobe-possessed humans. Catskinner's Book offers physical and demonic explanations for the Macrobes' nature. Either explanation could be true, or both, or none, as not only are Macrobes known liars, most of them can communicate to humans in abstract symbols. Misunderstandings are common, and potentially convenient to the Macrobes. Catskinner, however, appears to be more direct and truthful...

I missed the significance of "Debbie Sawyer" when she first appeared. Having read further, she is part of a whole set of Chekov's Guns peppered throughout Catskinner's Book. Of all the authors covered so far by the Puppy of the Month Club, Misha Burnett hides his clues and foreshadowing with the most subtlety, as mundane details often are later revealed to be significant. He avoids the current fashion of repeating foreshadowing and Chekovs three times, yet makes the revelation grounded and logical. Not once have I wondered where a particular twist or revelation came from.

Normally, I space out my Puppy reading throughout the month. When sitting down for this post, not only did I have to continue reading past the planned stop point, I had to finish Catskinner's Book in one setting. This is high praise for a book that is admittedly not my usual fare. The beginning third might start with a slow and determined pace, but strap in as the pace and the strangeness are about to pick up speed.

Next time: "She is telling as much of the truth as she understands."

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Truth, Justice, and the Lovecraftian Way

Let’s be honest.  James is a superhero.

Okay, so he’s powered by an alien sentience.  It’s not like Marvel isn’t littered with those.
Okay, so he starts out as a murderous weapon for hire.  It’s not like Marvel isn’t littered with those.

Think about it.  He meets all the criteria.  Lightning fast reflexes?  Check.  Super-strength?  Check.  Alter-go?  Check.  Gal pal?  Check.  He even has his own sort of Commissioner Gordon in the form of the Cobb and Tom show.  Orphan?  Check and check.  The only thing he’s missing is brightly colored tights and a cape, and I have high hopes those will show up in the sequel.
Where James departs from the mold is that his story arc mirrors that of the typical Stan Lee/Jack Kirby character.  Instead of a goony loner given superpowers and learning to use them responsibly in a world where he can act like a god, you have a goony loner with god-like superpowers thrust into a world where he’s just another player and learning to use his powers responsibly.

All right, so it’s not a total inversion, but you get the idea.
Misha Burnett’s timing with James was note perfect.  He doesn’t come off well in the earliest parts of the story, and it’s only the sudden threat posed by Dr. Madeline Klein combined with Madeline’s actions that lend him any sympathy.  Victor was obviously the evil brains of the outfit, and Klein suffering James to live while snuffing out Victor provides enough uncertainty and hope in the reader to follow along with James for another chapter at least.  Then he turns down Godiva’s first advance – and oh thank God for that, had this book gone the tentacle mouth porn route I’d’ve aborted faster than NASA on a cloudy day – and we are reminded of his humanity.

Each passing revelation, even those that lead to further mysteries, reassures the reader that James really is the good guy here.  He neutralizes Tom and Cobb without killing them, for instance.  He grew up on the streets with only Catskinner to guide him.  All of this, combined with his tentative steps to achieve a greater intimacy, work to draw the reader into his world, and to root for him to make it through the book better, stronger, and somehow more human than when the book began.
He may not be the hero you’re used to, but that doesn’t make him any less super.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Catskinner's Book: Chapters 1-4

James Ozryck works in a hardware store that's a front for his actual job: contract killer. His alternate personality, or whatever the brutal Catskinner in his mind actually is, gives him special talents and urges that railroad James into killing. It's not much of a life, but it offers some control over Catskinner's excesses. Soon after his boss gives him a new contract, a woman dressed like a Berkeley professor burst into the store, and asks who James is...and who else he might be. James ushers her out of the store before Catskinner can express his displeasure through more visceral means. Later that night, Catskinner is unleashed on the subject of James' contract.

The next day, the academic returns with friends, and orders James to look at an index card. The image, four Hebrew letters in a diamond, fixes him to the spot, even as he hears the intruders kill his boss behind him. Finally tearing himself free of the enchantment, James despairs, contemplated suicide by cop, but Catskinner has other plans: murder and revenge.

As James moves his stuff out of the soon to be torched storefront, he starts collecting clues. These lead his to another store that is a front, the tanning salon Land of Tan. James breaks into the store and finds a woman tanning. Catskinner warns that she is not entirely human - or female.

The girl's name is Godiva, and her strange eyes and lack of teeth drive home Catskinner's warning. She takes a liking to James and a revulsion to Catskinner. Abandoned by whoever was keeping her in the Land of Tan, she gives James a name and an address for the woman who killed James' boss, Dr. Klein. Godiva asks if James will kill Dr. Klein, and wants to help.


In his Castalia House interview, Misha Burnett said, "I feel that the medium has to be prosaic, even pedestrian, in order to deliver a fantastic message. If I describe a man, I can use flowery language and quirky grammar, but if I describe a man with wings I have to use language that is concrete and down to Earth." We get a taste in of this from the beginning, where James's store is described in rather mundane terms before revealing the true reason for its existence. Burnett's technique is another application of contrast. But where C. L. Moore would use it in characterization, he uses it in description.

While Jon spoiled what Catskinner is in our first post of the month, the misdirection in these first chapters is well thought out. Originally thought of as an alternate personality, what Catskinner is shifts to something more demonic as the Seal of Solomon - those strange Hebrew letters - has an effect on him. Solomon and his seal have long been featured in alchemical and demonology works. This esoterica also shades what Godiva might be, as her openness about sex and physical strangeness bring to mind a succubus. (Or perhaps I've been watching too much /x/ Files (really NSFW).) However, as the truth is already out there, I look forward to seeing how the truth will develop.

I typically find New Wave writers to be better essayists than fiction writers. This is no shame to their science fiction, as these essays by Harlan Ellison and Michael Moorcock are outstanding, especially on the nature of writing and storytelling. Misha is already an excellent essayist, as his Five Pillars of Pulp Revival is a founding document of the ongoing Pulp Revolution. His work on other genres is just as insightful. So the big question is, will Catskinner's Book buck the trend? Right now, Catskinner's Book reminds me of Ellison's Mephisto in Onyx, which is promising.


Next time: "Hi there. My imaginary friend wants to skin you alive."

Saturday, March 4, 2017

The Cobb and Tom Show

For those of you poor, benighted role-players who have not had the pleasure, it's my honor to introduce you to the best iteration of modern day Call of Cthulhu that's ever been written.  Take your standard Lovecraft fare, turn the dial to the Current Year, slather on an obscuring layer of X-Files weirdness, recruit a handful of state and federal agents to mix it up in fine mind-shattering fashion, and you my friend are off to the RPG races and you get a tight little game called Delta Green.

Delta Green's central conceit is that the U.S. Government's attack on Innsmouth (as mentioned in the story written by Lovecraft) went off without a hitch, and the Naval Department responsible trundled along for a few years until getting shut down by the mythos compromised men of Majestic-12.  So the members formed their own humanocentric conspiracy within the government known as Delta Green.

Wait.  What?  Why are we talking about Delta Green?  Because Catskinner's Book is hands down the single best reference book I've ever read for a Delta Green campaign.  If you've ever played modern day Call of Cthulhu you've had to deal with the conceit of multiple layers of reality all burbling around each other, and you've had to solve the problem of heavily armed players blowing up monsters all the time and somehow avoiding lengthy prison sentences at the hands of the uninitiated that they are trying to save.  Delta Green solves that conundrum by making the players Federal Agents.

Just like Corbitt, "Cobb" Russwin and Tom White, State Department security men and professional campers.  These two guys could have walked straight out of the pages of Delta Green, complete with contacts, "on loan" excuses for operating "outside their jurisdiction", and so on.  Burnett hand waves away a lot of paperwork with the same freewheeling glee he hand waves away patrol cops not stopping a superhuman fighting a water-blob monster in a convenience mart parking lot that is only stopped when a tentacle mouthed vegetable-girl applies a judicious amount of dishsoap to the amorphous blob.

Oh man, I love that last sentence.

Anyway, the Tom and Cobb show is hands down my favorite part of this book.  In a novel filled with sympathetic characters, Tom and Cobb stand out because they are the most relatable.  I can't really wrap my gray matter around what it must be like to live with a sentient energy killer bound to my soul by a tattoo on my back.  I really can't wrap my gray matter around what it must be like to be a sentient half-vegetable, non-binary gendered, pleasure-drone. 

But a guy caught up in a situation far more complicated than it should be?  Been there.  A guy trying to save people oblivious to the dangers that surround them?  Done that.  Just a regular guy trying make his way in a world where he knows he is outclassed by those around him?  Yeah - that was called Math 403: Linear Algebra for me. 

These guys were my spirit animals in this book, and White taking a high and inside pitch right on the temple elevated the stakes for me.  After countless media examples of "the partners" and "the Feds" being shown as bumbling idiots, Burnett's careful handling of these two was a refreshing change of pace.  We spend more time with James, Godiva, and even Alice, but for my money including a couple of regular guys who have taken up the mantle of Mythos Investigators and treating them as competent, but vulnerable supporting characters was a stroke of genius.  Had they been bumbling, then White's near killing would not have carried as much narrative weight.  Had they been arrogant rather than hyper aware of their own weaknesses, it might almost have been satisfying to see them eaten by the maw of the supernatural.

Out of a whole cast of likable characters, Cobb and Tom stand out as not jut likable, but relatable.

And they'd make damn fine models for a Delta Green NPCs, too.  You Cthulhu Now players could do a lot worse than reading Chapter Fourteen of this book to get an idea of how your agents can slide around inside the vast bureaucracy of the Federal Government and attract enough notice to have some back-up, but not so much that they can't lob pipe-bombs at a cultist meeting before the shoggoths show up.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Catskinner's Book - An Overview

We were warned.

A writer I respect recommended this book with the strong warning that, “For my pisanos that like to keep things pg-13, you might want to skip this. Everyone else needs to give it a go.” I’m not going to name him, because despite all evidence to the contrary, he doesn’t think his literary criticism will produce anything useful. Well, I’m one of those pisanos who likes to keep things PG-13, but selected this book based largely on the strength of that glowing review. I’m a big boy – I can stomach a few quirky scenes, and I’m glad I did, because this book was fantastic.

My one sentence review goes like this:
This is the story that Neil Gaiman would write if he could ditch the po-mo tedium and write without sounding like a pretentious ass for once in his life
Here we are on day one, and I’m going to blow the ending of this story. If you want to dive into this book knowing nothing about it save what’s on the cover – and if my experience is anything to go by, you do! – stop checking out this blog until you’ve read the book, because there’s a lot to spoil, and I’m going to spoil it all right here on March first.  (See also: Our spoiler policy.)

This book features a young man whose cultist parents fused him to a murderous entity of pure thought exploring a strange world-behind-the-world with a transgender plant man-woman…thing?  When his little corner of this world blows up, James/Adam is forced to learn more and we follow him as he investigates both this strange world and his own history, and tries to solve the murder of his boss.  In the end, he signs up with one faction within this dark earth and agrees to run a storefront that serves as a sort of Sam’s Place/Casablanca for the supernatural.

Catskinner’s Book is a now-classic story of the modern world overlying a hidden underworld populated by all sorts of supernatural critters that somehow manage to escape the notice of the bulk of the normie population. That whole world also escape the notice of our hero, Adam/James, even though he serves as a sort of host for one of the more powerful supernatural entities around. It’s a fine line to walk, and rare is the author who manages to tread it as well as Burnette does here. He does make use of the standard, “normies only see what they want to see” trope, but he also keeps most of the really obvious brutality in-house. That is to say, that most of the really crazy super-natural fights occur between supernatural factions in out of the way places where they go largely un-noticed. So it works, and is more believable than usual.

Part of the reason that the actions of these weird monsters is so believable might be that they all have a common origin. Part of the reason might be that none of them are simple new takes on old creatures. There are no vampires or werewolves or vampiric werewolves or werewolves, but they have a different name like lycan or caninemen or siriusians or what have you. None of that. Just a bunch of weird and original things with their own strengths, weaknesses, and personalities. It’s a refreshing change from the ordinary.

The setting is great, the creatures fresh, and the action fast and furious. Where the book really shines is the characters. They all behave in believable ways – a neat feat given that one of the protagonists is a relentless and powerful parasite/demon of pure thought. You instinctively dislike the bad ones and feel enough sympathy to root for those caught up in a fight not of their own choosing. And so, my focus this month is going to be on the characters. One at a time, I’m going to look at them, what they do, and why they work so well. 

One more warning - some of these conversations need to be handled with a certain level of maturity and sympathy and for that I'm really, REALLY not your Huckleberry.  If you can't handle a man using inappropriate and over the top humor as an armor to discuss serious might want to give my posts this month a miss.  I'm a conservative guy who doesn't handle sensitive topics of victimology well, and some of the ways that I've justified (to myself) an appreciation for this book won't earn me any friends on the Oscar stage, if you know what I mean.

If you want to read a few words from the author himself, the Castalia House Blog stole a little bit of our thunder* by posting an interview with Misha earlier this week.  It's a great read - find it here.

There’s a chance for an interesting conversation here about the New Wave stylings of Mr. Burnette, and how they jive with the Pulp Revolution, but I’m going to leave that conversation to others. To be frank, I just don’t have enough grounding in New Wave sci-fi to be able to speak about without sounding like Neil Gaiman, and we all know what he sounds like!

*And good for them, Misha deserves more press than he gets.  That's part of why I chose his book as the March Puppy.