Thursday, June 28, 2012

The New Death (and others), a review

Start with some Ray Bradbury. You'd better have some H.P. Lovecraft on hand, and a heady dose of Robert E. Howard to compliment it. Of course, there's a place for some Essence of Vance in this recipe, and you'd do well to use a lot of it. Mix them just right, add in some extra cynicism and a healthy helping of Groucho Marx, and you'll be approaching the composition of James Hutchings' 2011 book of short stories, poetry, and flash fiction: The New Death, and others.

This collection is a truly enviable concoction, switching with ease and grace between tried and true Sword and Sorcery and postmodern humor, sometimes within the same story (such as the Jeweled City). Hutchings has a talent for writing in a classically fantastic manner, evoking the ancient Hyperborean worlds of Howard; yet he also captures satire and modern settings with the aplomb of Bradbury.

While it may be said he owes much to other authors that came before him, the new constellation of meanings is completely original. Witty, sometimes bitter, and knit together with a constant theme of sarcastic scorn, there are nevertheless truly heartfelt sections of the New Death. His reinterpretations of Lovecraft, Howard, Ashton Smith and even Dunsany, echo with an attention to poetic concerns that has been, in my mind, hitherto ignored amongst modern poets. Syncopation, rhythm, structure, and rhyme have been carefully arranged in a way that defies the modern-day fascination with blank verse.

The collection opens with a meditation on the theme: the Gods of the Poor, which introduces us to a host of anthropomorphized characters who will return again and again throughout the writing. If there was one thing I would change about this collection, it is that these gods and anthropomorphic concepts don't always seem to be the same people: in some shorts, Death is a woman. In others, a man; as these interstices seem to present the binding motif throughout, it would have been nice if, in addition to being standalones, they had also articulated a wider understanding of the characters.

That having been said, the collection in no means suffers by this lack. Each individual story, whether sharply political (the Enemy Within, the Face in the Hill, Rumplestiltskin) or simply wondrous strange (How the Isle of Cats Got Its Name, The Moon Sailed Sadly Through the Sky, The Bird and the Two Trees) is extremely evocative. Some of the satire may be a little light in comparison with the droughts of fantasy to be imbibed, but they offer a refreshing change of pace.

Indeed, if Master Hutchings can be said to excel at one thing above all others, it is the skilled way in which he mingles the classically fantastical and the hopelessly mundane. Elizabethan speech patterns share stories, sometimes share paragraphs, with the flaccidity of modern speech and both are improved by the relationship.

So, if you're looking for a satirical collection of fantastic tales, or a serious one that has some less serious elements, or even if you buy it solely for those stories that are all brooding and no jokes, the New Death is eminently worth it. Indeed, its meager price of 99 cents may be an insult to the matter within, as it is worth much more than that. So I urge you, if any of the people that went into the New Death's style interest you in the least, go out and take a look at it. Check out the sample at smashwords. Buy it! But whatever you do, don't let it pass you by.

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