Recently, I was approached and asked if I would write a review of a book on my blog. In exchange, I would receive a free copy of said book. Knowing that the author had stumbled upon my greatest weakness–an inability to refuse free stuff–I said yes.
“The New Death (and others)” is a collection of short stories by James Hutchings. It took me a while to realize what “New Death” reminded me of; this is a book of parables. It feels very much like the Aesop’s Fables that I read as a kid. Except darker and pulpier, with the best stories having obvious influences from Lovecraft, Vance and Howard. The book is full of recognizable plots and fairy tales that have been taken apart and put back together again in grand Frankensteinian tradition–Rapunzel retold through the lens of postapocolyptic witchcraft and mutation, for example. If you want a quick summary of this review so you can go off and do other things, here you go: Good writing, some stories annoyed me with their corniness and obvious authorial messages, but the moments of sheer brilliance are worth picking through the rest of it. For those of you with a desperate need for elaboration, read on.
First off: most of the stories are modern Aesops. They have implicit messages that they are trying to convey, and though they use the trappings of fantasy they are very modern in their thinking and jokes (for example, the various deity characters who act as personifications of concepts such as Death and Love throughout the stories all use modern slang and cell phones). Most of the stories in the book are meaning-heavy parables of this nature, delivering various thoughts on the human condition. While well-written, these sections annoyed me at times because the obvious presence of the authorial intent and the bad puns distracted me from the actual story. Fortunately, most of them are short, and if you can get past the incongruous slang and the in-your-face messages they are trying to convey they can be enjoyable. I would not, however, recommended this book for them alone.
The works of actual fantasy in “New Death” are another matter entirely. They are, to a fault, clever and original and goddamn fantastic. It is these stories–unfortunately far and few between in the book’s collection of parables–that make “New Death” worth reading, for me at least. Again, if you happen to enjoy Aesop’s Fables, then you will enjoy the rest of the book more than I did. The few stories that make no pretension of being anything other than a story, though…those stories are solid gold. They range the gamut from “The Scholar and the Moon,” which contains a fantastically weird city that would not look out of place in any D&D game or pulp Conan tale, to “Todd,” which tells a modern-day tragedy steeped in Faust and ’80s demon-fear. I would have liked to have seen more stories of this nature–stories told for the sake of telling stories, deep horrors from down in the earth or summoned from the stars–but the ones that are in the book are certainly enough to satisfy. Good, pulpy stuff, very reminiscent of Lovecraft, where gods walk the earth and the stars are demons summoned by malicious sorcerers. It was worth reading through the rest of the book to find these stories.
This is to say nothing of the poems, which are (with the exception of a few that I feel fall under the same category of the parables) universally good. Here “New Death’s” insistence on passing along a message serves it well, as it keeps the poems grounded in something readily understandable. These are not arty poems that can be interpreted a thousand different ways: these are poems meant to be telling a story, or communicating one solid idea, and they do it well. The poems are split about half and half between ones retelling famous works of pulp fiction (“The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune” by Robert E. Howard, “Under the Pyramids” by H.P. Lovecraft, etc) and ones based on original ideas by the author. Of the latter, I think “The Sailor” deserves special mention, simply because it stuck in my head. Specifically, this stanza.
The land may be bitter and barren and stark
but none who pass over it leave it unmarked.
The sea has no trails and her depths are all dark
and no one remembers the sailor.
-James Hutchings, “The New Death (and others),” reprinted under Creative Commons license.
I mean, look at that. Read it. Drink it in. I love these lines, and I really don’t know why. I’m not a sailor, I don’t even live near the ocean. It’s just good writing. That, at the end of the day, is what “The New Death” comes down to. It’s good writing. You might not like some of the stories in it–hell, I certainly didn’t–but I know enough to recognize quality when I see it, even when I don’t care for a particular chapter. You can pick up the ebook at Amazon for $0.99, which is a damn bargain. At that price, I’d say it’s definitely worth a read.