08-18-12:Archive Review: James P. Blaylock Rings 'All the Bells on Earth'
Editor's Note: I have a few more Blaylock reviews update and unearth. Here's one from his Orange County novels; in our interview, he told me that he was trying to describe as exactly as possible his neighborhood, including the ghosts.
Horror novels nearly always portray the battle of good versus evil on an epic scale — sooner or later the evils described by the author and encountered by the characters threaten to overrun the entire world. In 'All the Bells on Earth', James P. Blaylock offers up a much smaller-scaled, more personal apocalypse. His characters have to work, to eat, and to take care of the kids; there's not much room for world-saving in their lives. When they do confront a supernatural evil, it comes in the mail, in a package delivered to the wrong address; ultimately, it comes from their hearts, from the small decisions they make, and is defeated in the same fashion. Better still, it comes with a sense of humor and characters who are charmingly flawed.
'All the Bells on Earth' starts when a costumed figure tries to sabotage the bells of Saint Anthony's Church, in the heart of suburban Orange County, California. Soon afterward, a man spontaneously combusts in an alley near the ultra-modern Plaza, and Walt Stebbins receives a package of goods he didn't order. Walt is an insecure, neurotic man who is scared to have kids, and is trying to get a mail-order catalogue business off the ground. His wife, Ivy, is the bread winning real-estate agent in their family, and her parents, Henry and Jinx have brought their Executive motor home across the country to the Stebbins' driveway for an extended visit. When Walt opens his unasked-for package, he finds jars with bits of human skin or fingernails in them, and a small tin box, containing a jar that holds a bluebird preserved in gin. There's a small slip of paper inside the box that reads 'Best thing come to you. Speak any wish.'
What follows is in the best tradition of 'The Twilight Zone', crossed with wacky characters, humor and moments of real love stunningly portrayed. The tin box's intended recipient is Argyle, an old nemesis of Walt's who screwed him in an early business deal, and has since gone on to great success in Ponzi schemes and shady trades. Argyle wants it back and is willing to go to extremes to get it. Practical jokes and supernatural events are contrasted with the more realistic and heart-rending problems encountered by Ivy's sister, who leaves her kids with Walt and Ivy while her husband goes on an extended drunk and she tries to find herself. The children, ages four and nine, are among the most realistic kids ever to walk across the printed page, and the battle for their custody is every bit as compelling as the supernatural battle between good and evil.
But Blaylock doesn't give his supernatural events the short shrift. His low-key descriptions ring true and are quite chilling, much more so than the buckets of gore we're used to finding in horror novels. But then, 'All the Bells on Earth' is quite a bit more than a horror novel, or a simple confrontation between good and evil. It's an effective evocation of love and greed, played out in the small events of everyday lives, where common virtues save personal worlds and simple sacrifices redeem suburban families.
08-13-12:James P. Blaylock Captures 'Zeuglodon'
The Novel Worth 1,000 Photographs
There is still room for wonder in this world. No matter how much we think we know, no matter how much we think we have mapped, photographed and documented the planet there is now, and always will be some place we have not seen — simply because even the places we've seen before we can see again through someone else's eyes. With 'Zeuglodon' James P. Blaylock gives readers the greatest gift possible — the world viewed anew, through the perspective of 12-year old Katherine Perkins. It helps, a lot, that she intends to become a cryptozoologist, that her uncle and caretaker, John Toliver Hedgepeth, is a member of the Order of St. George, and that the earth is actually hollow. In case you were wondering.
Blaylock's latest novel may be an utterly appropriate book to hand off to the 11-year old cryptozoologist in your life, but even if that happens to be you, plan on being pleased. That's because Blaylock has a way of evoking charm and chills in equal measure, with a striking and entertainingly told story that partakes of the steampunk mindset without having to engage any of the usual paraphernalia. 'Zeuglodon' is engagingly fun and wonderfully inventive while it hearkens back to the classics, from Mark Twain to Ray Bradbury to Edgar Rice Burroughs. Backstopped by a smart concept at the heart of the novel, buoyed up with a marvelous storytelling voice, entertainingly plotted, 'Zeuglodon' is a nice spot of well-spent summer no matter how gray the days may grow.
The novel starts with Katherine and her two cousins imperiled by Lord Wheyface the Creeper on a cold day on the coast of Northern California. Katherine tells the story in the slightly officious tone of a smart pre-teen girl; she's assiduously observant, a bit funny, and reveals more than she knows. She's fun to read as her world grows ever weirder with the welcome influences of Charles Fort. Readers who know and enjoy Fort's work will find this book especially fun, and those who do not are likely to want to look him up.
Blaylock's small-town characters are charming even when they are seemingly ill-intentioned, and his Victorian villains are nicely larger than life but still fit perfectly into this well-loved universe. It's clear that Blaylock loves his whole cast, and readers will respond accordingly. Kate's perceptions serve both her own young adult audience but reveal enough of the adults' world to have some real emotional resonance.
'Zeuglodon' mixes layers of plot with equal aplomb. You'll find charming and exciting adventures taking place in carefully constructed metaphysical realities that reward the thought they provoke without calling attention to themselves. Kate's transparent prose (via Blaylock) reveals the surreal concepts that power the plot with a truly charming innocence. Awe and wonder do not admit to the artifice of age, and Blaylock has the chops to evoke both with a gentle sense of humor. 'Zeuglodon' takes readers to the center of the earth and to the center of being eleven years old — equally fantastic voyages.
05-04-13: Commentary : Reasons Not to Leave the House, Reality Check : The Truth Hurts Edition: 'Down the Up Escalator' by Barbara Garson, 'The Wolf and the Watchman' by Scott C. Johnson,'The Book of Woe' by Gary Greenberg, 'Confessions of a Sociopath' by M. E. Thomas