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Issue #131 - July 2006

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Oceans of Sadness

By Cheryl Morgan

While most of the books reviewed in Emerald City these days are supplied to us by publishers, there are still the odd few that I buy. Subterranean, for example, produce high quality, limited edition collectables. It isnít surprising that they donít send review copies to the likes of me. But one of their latest books is by William Browning Spencer, an author whose previous works I very much enjoyed. So I bought a copy, and Iím glad I did, even if it isnít very comfortable reading at times.

The book is a collection titled The Ocean and All Its Devices, after the opening story which very much sets the scene for what follows. If you are looking for something more like Resume with Monsters than Iím afraid you have come to the wrong book. You wonít find any Great Old Ones lurking behind the photocopiers here. What you will find instead is sadness, lots of it.

The title story is about a gloomy family with a sickly daughter who visit the same run-down seaside town at the end of the season every year. The hotel owner canít understand why they come, unless they have some sort of mysterious assignation with the ocean. This is followed by "The Oddskeeperís Daughter", in which a young couple discover that their good fortune cannot last, and by "The Death of the Novel", in which a college professor comes to regret a casual affair with a pretty student.

And so it goes on. The stories are beautifully crafted, but you get the impression that life is cruel and fickle, and that it will catch up with us in the end. "Your Faithful Servant" speaks of one such end, in which Masters and Butlers are finally united in death. "The Foster Child" tells of a young girl who suffered brain damage when she almost drowned and can now communicate only by reciting poetry. She apparently knows all of the classics by heart, but has never read any of them.

Hope, however, is not entirely absent. In "The Halfway House at the Heart of Darkness" an addict cures herself by finding pleasure in helping others. In "The Lights of Armageddon" the characters almost save the world. Almost. And then, finally, we have "The Essayist in the Wilderness", a story that is both silly and horrific at the same time, a combination that Spencer manages so well.

The hero is a retired literature professor who has bought a house in the country where he plans to write his masterpiece. After much indecision he decides to work on essays about nature, despite the fact that, as his wife points out, he has scarcely gone outside all his life, save to drive from home to work or shops, and can barely name three types of tree. He becomes fascinated with a small colony of creatures that he takes to be crayfish, but which anyone with the slightest knowledge of such creatures will soon identify as something much more sinister. They are, of course, aliens bent on taking over our world, and we get to watch while our hero slowly finds this out for himself. It is classic Spencer, and well worth the wait.

I donít know if whoever put together this collection (Spencer or his editor at Subterranean) deliberately organized the stories to be in decreasing order of despair, but if they did so then they made a pretty good job of it. So not only do you get to read some really good, if rather depressing, tales, you come out feeling good at the end. And you feel this way despite the fact that in the final story mankind is clearly doomed. We are, it seems, ridiculous creatures, and perhaps being doomed is an entirely appropriate fate.

The Ocean and All Its Devices - William Browning Spencer - Subterranean - hardcover

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Emerald City - copyright Cheryl Morgan - cheryl@emcit.com
Masthead Art copyright Steven Stahlberg (left) and Gerhard Hoeberth (right)
Additional artwork by Frank Wu & Sue Mason
Designed by Tony Geer
Copyright of individual articles remains with their authors
Editorial assistants: Anne K.G. Murphy & Kevin Standlee