September 25, 2014
(++++) DECIDEDLY NOT FOR KIDS
The Getaway God: A Sandman Slim Novel. By Richard Kadrey. Harper Voyager. $24.99.
The Witch and Other Tales Re-Told. By Jean Thompson. Blue Rider Press. $25.95.
Ah, fairy tales and myths. They continue to grip us, as they probably have since the beginning of oral history, so long before the beginning of written history. Seeking explanations of un-understandable things, trying to arrange and make patterns of a world that is inherently without any human-imposed arrangement or pattern, these stories of things beyond the mundane draw upon and comment on our innermost concerns, worries, fears and hopes. Jungian, yes, and religious (or proto-religious), also yes; but they are above all stories, by their very nature having a beginning, middle and end in a way that everyday life, in which things tend to go on pretty much the same way from day to day, does not. And so they endure, they charm, they captivate and worry and grab and concern us still, these tales of the outré, of things seen or glimpsed beyond what passes for the world we live in, lending that world an aura of wonder that it does not, perhaps, deserve. Plumb the core of fairy tale and myth and you come out in some mighty dark places, which you can then use for entertainment, thoughtfulness, or some combination of the two. Richard Kadrey opts decidedly for the “entertainment” approach in his Sandman Slim novels, of which The Getaway God is the sixth – after Sandman Slim, Kill the Dead, Aloha from Hell, Devil Said Bang, and Kill City Blues. Sandman Slim, also known as James Stark, is one of those traditional fairy-tale characters, half human and half something else, in his case half angel – but he is no angel, not in any classic sense, and the angels themselves are no angels in these books. Kadrey’s world and characters are dark, dark, dark, and not only because The Getaway God is set in a Los Angeles on the verge of Armageddon, where it rains unceasingly and the skies remain so dully depressing in their overcast appearance that the relatively few residents who have not fled in unending traffic jams are all suffering from a massive case of seasonal affective disorder. They are living through a bad case of mass murder and hallucinatory, existential angst, too, both of those helped along by a serial killer called Saint Nick – yes, this is a Christmas story – whose mutilation of dozens upon dozens of bodies is done for the purpose of reassembling the body parts into chapels and vessels suitable to expedite the return of the Old Gods, known as the Angra Om Ya, the current God of this world having splintered into parts (one of which is dead). “But here’s the scary question: which God is worse? The Angra, who might be competent, but want to wipe us out, or our God, who isn’t good at his job, but if not benign, is at least indifferent to us? Parental neglect is starting to look pretty good right now, isn’t it?” Actually, nothing looks particularly good in The Getaway God, not Stark and not his lover Candy (herself a supernatural Jade), not Wells of the Golden Vigil (fundamentalists who pursue law enforcement, or at least organized preparation for the Rapture), not the long-dead and mummified Shonin with whom Wells insists Stark work on the Saint Nick case – not anyone or anything in Kadrey’s crazy world of Hollywood extremes, Blade Runner weather, Lovecraftian tropes, imagined creation of movies that never existed, and dead/undead characters for whom there is little distinction between the two states. Kadrey here creates (and not for the first time) a black-humor-permeated roller-coaster of a novel in which there is not a shred of believability or the slightest concern for character development, but which is so avowedly unstylish and action-driven that it addictively sweeps readers along, into and through a world that, thank some God new or old, is way, way beyond belief. Kadrey’s prose is about as bare-knuckled as it is possible to be, but the fact that The Getaway God and the Sandman Slim series are utterly unpretentious is a big part of what makes them so compulsively readable. There is nothing here but ridiculousness – serious ridiculousness, a closed circle of bizarre adventures, world without end (Armageddon and Ragnarok notwithstanding).
In contrast with the sweeping malapropisms of Kadrey’s mythic world are the eight small, character-focused, emotionally trenchant, fairy-tale-based Jean Thompson stories in The Witch and Other Tales Re-Told. There are modern, updated, rethought and reimagined fairy tales aplenty out there, including versions exploring the old stories’ psychological elements, looking at the tales from a feminist viewpoint, interpreting the events through this lens or that and producing the results as short stories, novels, even operas (Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre, Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle). The many dour modern versions stand side by side with the equally modern, sanitized ones known from Disney animated movies (which themselves have become somewhat more “adult” in recent years, if scarcely hard-edged). Thompson’s contribution to the field does not so much rewrite fairy tales as rethink them into a contemporary milieu. This means a lot of focus on the sorts of people who increasingly inhabit contemporary fiction. “Inamorata,” for example, turns the Cinderella story into a one-shoe-left-behind tale involving a one-night stand between a man with a traumatic brain injury and a deaf woman. “The Witch” is a Hansel-and-Gretel rethinking featuring a shattered family, foster parenting and an open-ended conclusion. “Three” uses that significant fairy-tale number for a story in which three boys, the second three years younger than the first and the third three years younger than the second, search with their father for a steadier life and their own self-actualization after their mother abandons the family. And so on, through tales called “Candy,” “Faith,” “The Curse,” “Your Secret’s Safe with Me,” and “Prince,” the last of these about a mentally fragile woman, with what she herself considers “a flawed mind and soul,” who magically connects with a stray dog and worries that “if I have another bad spell of crazy, they can put me in the nuthouse again.” Thompson’s preoccupation with mental illness, or at least mental instability, runs through these stories in a destabilizing way, making it harder than it needs to be for readers to connect with and truly empathize with the characters – a flaw only because Thompson is striving so hard for just that sort of connection. Nevertheless, the reworkings of fairy-tale elements, their use in a deeply foundational rather than surface-plot-related way, are attractive: Thompson has absorbed some of what the old stories are about and used that something to construct entirely new narrative edifices that are, as often as not, examples of what fairy tales might be in our mundane and magic-challenged modern world. Thompson’s style is, however, too weighty and self-important for the old stories, both in narration and in dialogue: “It did not occur to Richard that everyone else might also have their own secret and fraudulent self.” “‘So you’re the nonverbal type. Strong and silent and solvent.’” “She had the kind of mobile, sharp-featured face that did almost too good a job of showing disdain.” “Anyway, you could kind of like being all alone and tragic in the storm, like somebody in a song.” It is because of this sort of pretentiousness that the book becomes a fairly mediocre execution of a very interesting idea, although it gets a (+++) rating for its positive elements. Readers who can get past the self-consciously “literary” approach of The Witch and Other Tales Re-Told (“She was balanced between two different lives, two different stories, and the whole world waiting for her to choose”) will find here some snippets of genuine thoughtfulness, some interesting attempts not merely to plaster fairy-tale notions onto modern settings but genuinely to plumb the stories’ underlying reasons for being – and, having done that, to figure out ways in which those same foundational elements, molded like verbal clay and spread like rebar-strengthened concrete beneath stories of contemporary characters and events, can grow into edifices that lack the charm of the old tales but that, like modest modern office buildings, hold within them many of the thoughts, hopes and dreams of our workaday world.