May 16th, 2008


Straubathon: Houses Without Doors

And now, the triumphant return of the Straubathon after nearly a year! Ah, how I have missed it. It's not that the books I read in the meantime were bad. Far from it. It's just that, well, there's nothing like reading a Peter Straub book. It's like exercise for the brain, and it can remind you how genre and subject matter do not have to dictate prose style. The next time someone tells you horror has to be written in short, punchy, styleless sentences because that's what readers like, you just point them to Straub's gorgeous prose and slip the phrase "New York Times bestsellers list" into the conversation.

I have a bit of history with the next book in the Straubathon, Houses Without Doors. It was the very first Straub book I ever purchased. I mail-ordered it as a trade paperback from the Quality Paperback Book Club (remember them?) when the book first came out back in 1990. QPBC basically sold hardcover books with the hardcovers removed and replaced with paperback facsimiles, and so my edition of Houses has the classic hardcover art on it: a green meadow with a free-standing door extending up into the cloudy blue sky, and that door is open to reveal a house beyond it with no door of its own. I remember buying it because I thought I'd give his stories a try before deciding whether to read his novels. Somehow, I never got around to it, and it languished on my shelf until now.

The first story, "Blue Rose", is exceptional, a sort of alternate-universe take on childhood events in the life of Harry Beevers, a character in Straub's 1988 novel Koko. It's a powerful, grotesque and affecting study of a developing borderline psychopath trying out hypnotism on his little brother, with devastating results that follow Harry all the way to Vietnam. The final section of the story, a letter from Harry in Vietnam to his girlfriend back home, is chilling. "The Juniper Tree", which also has a connection to Koko, though a vaguer one, is an equally powerful tale of a boy repeatedly molested by a drifter in a movie house. He continues to meet the man there, only vaguely aware that something wrong is happening, until finally he grows up to become an author, and only then can he tell the tale of what happened to him. Hints of a deeper mystery pepper the story but remain frustratingly unanswered at the end.

"A Short Guide to the City" is a short-short written in the style of an tourist pamphlet but mixed with the mystery of "the viaduct killer," a predator who prowls their streets. It's well done, but is somewhat forgettable due to its short length and lack of a protagonist through whose eyes we can experience the story. I felt the same way about the collection's other short-short, "Something About a Death, Something About a Fire." It's wonderfully surreal -- I love the idea of a strange clown driving a magical taxi that frightens and bewilders circus audiences -- but I found it lacked a lasted impact for the same reasons "Guide" does.

"The Buffalo Hunter" is straight up ingenious fiction. Bob Bunting is lost, alone, and more than a little crazy. Preferring the world of fiction to the real one, where he is unable to relate to the people around him without resorting to lying about himself, he drinks vodka from baby bottles and glues even more baby bottles to the walls of his apartment, their rubber nipples facing toward him like an enormous tapestry of bosoms. When he reads, he becomes so engrossed in the story that he leaves his body and inhabits those of the characters he's reading about, traveling through their world and forgetting about his own. It's amazing stuff, brilliantly written, but to me the ending, with its hint of supernatural forces at work, felt wrong somehow.

The short novel "Mrs. God" is, I believe, the strongest piece in the collection. A surreal, gothic, creepy semi-ghost story, it follows a scholar on sabbatical, William Standish, to the great library of Esswood House in England to write a book about an ancestor of his, the poet Isobel Standish, who wrote her best work in that same house. Standish discovers there's a dark secret to Esswood, of course, and in trying to solve it actually winds up replaying history. In my opinion, "Mrs. God" can easily stand beside any of Straub's full-length novels. I thought it absolutely brilliant.

The book also features a series of "Interludes" between the stories that all seem connected as a single tale but also sometimes connected to the individual stories. While they were as amazingly written as anything else in the collection, I have to admit I felt they didn't add much to the overall experience. I believe the book would have exactly the same impact without them. Still, Houses Without Doors is an exceptional fiction collection, and not a bad place to start if you want to give Straub a try.

(One note: Unlike most fiction collections, Houses Without Doors does not include information on where and when each of the stories first appeared. That annoyed the obsessive-compulsive in me who really, really wants to know that kind of thing for some reason.)

Up next in the Straubathon will be 1993's The Throat, believed by many to be Straub's second masterpiece after Ghost Story. Unfortunately, it's going to be a couple of months before I can get to it, but I'm very much looking forward to it.

Doctor Who: "The Sontaran Stratagem"

Sontarans! Those potato-headed cloned soldiers locked in a millennia-long war with their mortal enemies the Rutans, and whose names always start with S (except for one, Linx, the very first Sontaran the Doctor met)! This was not a very good episode, despite the appearance of an old enemy from the classic series. I have a hard time believing this militaristic race with an unlimited amount of soldiers would bother with sneaky GPS car devices -- something even the Doctor remarks on. And unlike how they've done past resurrections of the Doctor's enemies, the rebooted Sontarans actually look more ridiculous than they did before, not less. So far, I'm unimpressed with season 4, though I'll admit Donna is growing on me.

Also, I thought I recognized General Staal's voice, but with all that makeup over his face I couldn't place it until I saw the credits. It's Christopher Ryan -- none other than Mike from The Young Ones!

And now for some of that Doctor Who neepery you know you love:

The Sontarans were always a second-tier recurring enemy, nowhere near as cool as the Daleks, the Cybermen or the Master, which is probably why they only showed up four times in the twenty-six years of the classic series: 1973's "The Time Warrior" (also Sarah Jane Smith's first appearance, with the aforementioned Linx), 1975's "The Sontaran Experiment", 1978's "The Invasion of Time" (an all-time classic where the Sontarans invade Gallifrey and the Doctor becomes Gallifrey's president), and 1985's absolutely miserable "The Two Doctors" (which would go down as one of the worst serials ever were it not for the refreshing presence of Patrick Troughton, reprising his role as the second Doctor, and Frazer Hines reprising his role as Jamie McCrimmon, one of the best companions ever).

The Sontarans' enemies the Rutans, however, only appeared once, in 1977's exceptional, gothic serial "The Horror of Fang Rock". If you want to see two of the best of the Tom Baker era, "Fang Rock" and "The Invasion of Time" are where it's at!

It's nice to see UNIT in action again too, though it's weird to hear that the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce is now the Unified Intelligence Taskforce (which I suppose would make it UIT, not UNIT, but now I'm just being an uber-nerd), apparently due to a request from the real-life United Nations when the series returned in 2005. But seeing UNIT makes me miss Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart. The Brigadier was such a wonderful recurring character, and such a great comedic foil for the Doctor, that I hope Nicholas Courtney chooses to return to the role sometime in the future. And Sergeant Benton and Captain Yates...ah, those were the days!

The Doctor's reference to working for UNIT "back in the '70s, or was it the '80s" is actually a sly commentary on the muddled chronology for the UNIT stories. Though they were mostly broadcast in the early to mid-1970s, the UNIT stories were supposed to be set slightly in the future, and Sarah Jane Smith -- not a member of UNIT, though she worked with them a lot at the Doctor's side -- always claimed to be from 1980. But in the 1983 serial "Mawdryn Undead", it is revealed that Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart finally retired from UNIT in 1977. So to this day, nobody is quite sure when the UNIT stories were supposed to have taken place, the 1970s or the 1980s. This has resulted in quite a bit of heated fan debate, with some going so far as to suggest that when Sarah Jane said she was from 1980, she was referring to her street address!

Lastly, Christopher Ryan is not the only cast member from The Young Ones with a Doctor Who connection. In the painfully ridiculous 1985 serial "Revelation of the Daleks", Alexei Sayle, whom I could never stand and whose so-called "comedy" bits on The Young Ones I routinely fast-forward through, played an annoying rock-and-roll radio DJ. I've never cheered so loudly to see anyone blasted by a Dalek before!

Anyway, reading this blog entry over, I think it scores a perfect 10 on the nerd scale. Time for me to slink away in shame.