You’re All Alone

By Fritz Leiber

Rating: 4 stars

This book contains three stories. The title story, which takes up about half the length and two shorter stories. My favourite was probably the middle story, Four Ghosts in Hamlet, which had only only tenuous fantasy elements, being a first person narrative of an actor in a touring Shakespeare company telling the story of what happened when they let an old, but now alcoholic, actor join the company and play the ghost of Hamlet’s father.

The title story is an odd one. It starts off with shades of Sartre’s Nausea, with the protagonist having feelings of isolation and extreme loneliness before veering into deterministic territory, positing that most of the people in the world are automatons, running without consciousness, and only a few people are truly ‘awake’, and how nasty and unpleasant those people could be. Our protagonist is accidentally awoken by a girl, who is herself, fleeing for her life from one of these gangs. The intriguing concept is worried around the edges, but never really tackled head-on, but I think the story benefited transitioning from a philosophical tract into a romantic thriller.

The last story, The Creature from Cleveland Depths, is set in a future where most inhabitants of the US have retreated underground, seeking safety from Soviet missiles. One of the few who remain above ground has a friendship with the research director of one of the underground companies, Fay. In a fit of pique over a missed TV programme, our protagonist suggests that Fay have his people build a device that can remind people about important events. This story takes that idea to its extreme, quite disturbing, conclusions. This was an enjoyable, creepy story with a oddly amusing denouement.

So all in all, some solid and enjoyable storytelling by Leiber in this volume.

Book details

Publisher: Ace
Year of publication: 1972

B.P.R.D., Vol. 1: Hollow Earth and Other Stories

By Mike Mignola

Rating: 3 stars

B.P.R.D. continues the story of the eponymous Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defence after Hellboy quits. The remaining ‘special’ agents, including old favourites Abe Sapien and Liz Sherman step up to the plate and although they don’t have the magnetic personality of Hellboy, they can still carry the stories. There is one long story that introduces new boy Johann Kraus (a sort of disembodied spirit living in a containment suit) as Abe takes charge of a group that has to go and rescue Liz from horror in the centre of the Earth.

The other stories are more inconsequential, although the last one, Drums of the Dead, does linger in the mind a little, as Abe and another new guy have to deal with terror on an Atlantic shipping route.

I did find myself missing Hellboy and his quips and sarcasm. He had a really strong tone although Abe is fun, I don’t know if can carry the title the way Big Red did. Still, this was a fun volume, read quickly, and totally worth the price I paid in the second hand store.

Book details

ISBN: 9781593072803
Publisher: Dark Horse
Year of publication: 2003

Heart of Darkness & Other Stories

By Joseph Conrad

Rating: 3 stars

Heart of Darkness is the most famous of the three stories in this small volume, all concerned, in some way, with marine transport, whether that be on the sea or along a river.

The first story, Youth follows our narrator, Marlowe, on his first posting as second mate on a ship that’s bound for the far east, and the trials and travails of the attempt to get there. Heart of Darkness again seems Marlowe narrating his captaincy of a riverboat up the Congo river and his growing obsession with a man named Kurtz. The final story, The End of the Tether was, in my opinion, the best of the three, and the one that pulled this volume up from two to three stars. It’s the story of a life-long sea captain at the end of his days and what he does to provide for his only child.

The book doesn’t make easy reading for the modern reader, being full of colonial attitudes to all non-white races, and by ‘colonial’, I mean a sort of sneering superiority, where they’re deigned to be mentioned at all. Getting beyond that, they make for an interesting read describing the sort of world that the 18th and 19th centuries really were, and the sort of attitudes that built and maintained the British Empire.

The End of the Tether was the most personal and ‘human’ of the three, with Captain Whalley being a man that I became invested in, and whom I wanted to succeed, even though his doom was clear from relatively early on.

I don’t really have a huge amount to say about Heart of Darkness itself. It displayed probably the most crude attitudes towards non-white races, from the slaves manning the station that Marlowe starts his journey in to the ‘cannibal tribe’ that appear to worship Kurtz at the end of his journey. This made it difficult to empathise with the man and appreciate the writing.

So an interesting set of stories that are mildly interesting for their cultural history (for example the way that the phrase ‘heart of darkness’ has entered the lexicon) but they really need to be read in their historical context and putting aside all modern notions of equality — and then to be glad that such notions have been hard fought for and won.

Book details

ISBN: 9781853262401
Publisher: Wordsworth Editions Ltd
Year of publication: 1902

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