The Vine That Ate The South by J. D. Wilkes

vine that ate the southThere is a mythical part of western Kentucky knotted by rivers where the supernatural reigns supreme.  Angels and monsters lurk here, time forgets itself, and stories tell of a vicious vine of kudzu that has eaten an older couple in their own house.

Our nameless hero, a man-child in his thirties, is a shy and shamed member of his small town.  Fatherless at an early age, he has existed into adulthood without much of a mark in the world.

His friend Carver Canute is a societal outsider like himself, but stranger and crazier, with an Elvis pompadour and bad teeth.  Together, our fabulous duo travel on an epic bicycle ride to find the legendary vine and do battle with the supernatural critters that populate the Deadening, the forest of mystery in which they journey.  Along the way, they encounter torrential rain, rideable dust devils, gun-toting property owners, snakes, and a haunted Masonic temple.   What they intended as a day lark becomes an odyssey of horrors.

Suspend all belief when reading The Vine That Ate The South.  Instead, just dig in and enjoy this hillbilly hero’s journey to the dark side.  The humor is earthy and profane, the imagery that of old-time religion and the natural world, all slammed together into a ghastly, funny conglomeration.  Oh, and the pictures are interesting too.

To see what the author is about, check out J. D. Wilkes’ website here.  He appears to be about as crazy as his book.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

 

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Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

It is to be expected that a graveyard comes alive with ghosts at night-time.  One wouldlincoln in the bardo imagine they congregate and converse in a social manner, and perhaps gossip about new arrivals.

This book expands on this idea, the setting being Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown in the year 1862.  It is the aftermath of  Abraham Lincoln’s son Willie’s death at the age of eleven.  Obviously, his parents were devastated.  The rumor was that President Lincoln would visit the crypt his son was interred in and actually remove the body from the coffin to mourn over.

The night time residents of Oak Hill take note of their human nocturnal visitor, as well as talk to the ghost of his son, who is bewildered as to why he can’t interact with his father.  And as Willie lingers here, in this purgatorial state or “bardo“, his soul is increasingly in peril, as the ectoplasmic denizens of Oak Hill experience in graphic detail, when they try to help Willie along the next leg of his journey – and find theirs as well.

A cast of dozens tell the tale here in Lincoln in the Bardo, a sad yet playful view of the afterlife.  The book alternates between events of the “real” world (White House parties, the Civil War, Willie’s sickness) and the drama of the spirit world, populated by dandies, preachers, slaves, miscreants, and others.  The narrative is fanciful and occasionally confusing, but let your mind go…well, back to the 1860s, put things in context, and the subject matter will make more sense.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

 

 

Summerlong by Peter S. Beagle

Abe and Joanna have had an arrangement for over twenty years.  He lives with his books summerlongand homebrewed beer on Gardner Island in Washington State, and she lives in a condominium in Seattle.  Togetherness is only a ferry ride away.  They are reasonably content growing old with each other; their main challenge is Joanna’s grown daughter Lily, luckless in love and still growing up.

Disruption of their routine comes in the form of Lioness Lazos, a mysterious young woman who waits tables at their favorite restaurant.  Both Abe and Joanna (and Lily, for a different reason) are immediately taken with Lioness.  Initially homeless, Lioness gladly accepts the offer of Abe’s garage as a residence, and the once moldering building transforms into a real home of sorts.

The island changes as well.  An unheard of stretch of warm weather segues into a lengthy spring and summer.

Other people are beguiled by Lioness, including the neighbor’s children.  Abe and Joanna discover hidden desires of their own.  Lily, at first in love with Lioness, finds a strange and sweet bond with her.  But there are uncanny things that people start noticing, and powers lying beyond the island eventually catch up to Lioness and her idealized corner of the world.

Summerlong brings together classical myth and old love to create a quiet, satisfying fantasy.  In the meeting between the otherworldly and the mundane, all are changed, sometimes unexpectedly.

This one, surprisingly, is my first go at a Peter Beagle book.  He’s been writing novels and short stories, sometimes sporadically, since The Last Unicorn way, way back (OK – 1968).

(William Hicks, Information Services)

 

The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson

Vellitt Boe is a professor at a women’s college in the fictional city of Ulthar.  The suddendream-quest disappearance of one of the school’s prize students throws the college’s future in doubt.  The dean wants Vellitt to find the young lady, and Vellitt, a wanderer in younger days, is game for the journey.

The man who wiled the student away is what they call a waking-world man – someone from a universe that is essentially ours.  Ulthar, by contrast, lies in a world of seething skies and a handful of stars by comparison to ours.  This world is overseen by a clutch of unpredictable gods and inhabited by a host of weird creatures.  Indeed, most people stick to what is known and traveled.

Vellitt, in contrast to others, has traveled much of their known world and some of its unknown parts, so she is perhaps the best choice for the trek, although Vellitt is now in her mid-fifties and considered old in their society.  She is, however, a person of extreme resolve, and as Vellitt makes her way through the dangerous backcountry, she feels again her youthful ambitions.

She is not alone.  A small black cat from Ulthar has chosen to make the journey with her, and as time passes, proves its worth, particularly when Vellitt meets a former lover.  He is a waking-world man himself, now king in a distant country, who may know the answer to her student’s whereabouts.  Even after their meeting, Vellitt will still endure a horrific trek through an underworld peopled by beings that are carnivorous – and that would be an understatement.

The world of this book is based on a universe H.P. Lovecraft created for a series he wrote called the Dream Cycle.  Think of The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe as a feminist re-imagining of Lovecraft’s universe.

I enjoyed this book.  It’s a quick read, definitely for fantasy fans and people who enjoy a heroine’s journey.  The ending was unexpected and a little abrupt, and I could say, a little bit out of place with the rest of the book, but that might have been the author’s intent.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

 

The Hike by Drew Magary

Ben is supposed to meet his vendor during a business trip at some odd mountain top hotel.the-hike  As Ben arrives first, he’s game to explore the terrain surrounding the inn.  And indeed, there is a defined path that seems tailor-made for a woodsy stroll.

Ben’s hiking bliss does not last.  And in the next few days (years) of his life, it will seem that Ben’s every nightmare and bad memory manifest themselves into things more horrific to be imagined.  He tangles with homicidal dog-faced men, a man-hungry giant (literally), and all other sorts of creatures that seem determined to steal his very being.  Ben also meets help along the way, including a vaguely familiar older woman who gives Ben some valuable seeds, and a talking crab who adds some comic relief along the way.

Ben learns, and often the hard way, that remaining on the path is crucial to his survival, and return to his real life.  It’s tough to adhere to a path that cuts through ocean and terrain alike, but Ben manages, even though he bungles along through most of his travail.

The Hike is a modern-day fairy tale, a hero’s journey of sorts, a Bildungsroman of a grown man who badly needs to let go of the horrors of childhood. The book is by turns horrific and whimsical.  Ben is a believable Everyman, an average Joe that you will cheer on even when he’s being an idiot.

I started this one after plowing through a shorter book that I didn’t like.  The Hike was a much, much better choice.

Pair this one with John Connolly’s The Book of Lost Things, another good book brimming with fantastical, scary, and humorous elements.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

 

Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman

Anansi_BoysFat Charlie Nancy has a solid life – a decent job in London, a devoted fiancée – but a life as boring as drying paint.  Then his father dies, and things change.

His dad passes away happily, as the life of the party at a karaoke bar in Florida.  At the funeral, Fat Charlie learns that he has a brother, and that his father was Anansi, the trickster god.  And when his brother Spider comes calling, Charlie’s routines end.

He goes out partying with his brother and wakes up with a stranger.  After Spider “subs” for Fat Charlie during his hangover, the job situation gets…odd, when his cliché-spouting menace of a boss takes a strong interest in Fat Charlie’s computer and suddenly gives him a bonus and time off.

Spider also takes a fancy to Fat Charlie’s fiancée Rosie and things get very strained between the two siblings, enough for Charlie to wish his charming, otherworldly brother gone.  He enlists the help of a supernatural kind, the kind that makes a flock of birds an unholy menace – and Fat Charlie realizes he’s gone too far.

In Anansi Boys, Gaiman reworks sibling rivalry into a rollicking yarn that flirts with the mythological and primordial.  Gods and nature spirits interact with and (more than occasionally) become humans.  And shy Fat Charlie…becomes a lot more himself in a bumbling and humorous hero’s journey, as he saves the day for many, reconciles with his brother, and gets the girl, although I won’t say who or how.

It’s all in the story and the song – and being sly doesn’t hurt.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

oceanA seven-year old boy learns about fear and friendship in a surreal stretch of his young life.

Our hero, as it were, is a shy child whose adventures lie within the covers of his favorite books.  Reality and strangeness come calling when a boarder at his family’s house runs over the boy’s kitten and then commits suicide in the family car.

The car is found close by to a farmhouse inhabited by Lettie Hempstock, her mother, and grandmother, who provide a refuge for the boy, as one is soon needed.  Apparently the death of the boarder has unleashed something unspeakable and bad.

That something takes over the boy’s family, alienates him from them, and nearly takes his life.  Luckily he has the Hempstocks on his side, and it’s a good thing, because they show themselves to be formidable foes to his adversary.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane has a fairy tale quality that soon switches to outright terror, as only a small child can envision it.  The Hempstock ladies are figures straight out of mythology, with enough English civility to make things homy.  As the rest of the world is in turmoil, the Hempstock farm is a constant, a steady place where the bad things are kept at bay.

And of course, there’s the pond on the farm.

It’s been too long of a hiatus from Neil Gaiman’s books for me.  I think I tend to balk at reading his stuff because of the hype that ensues every time he writes something new.  This one, though, was worth it, even three years after publication.

(William Hicks, Information Services)