About one hundred years ago or so, give or take a decade, there was a fantasy writer named Lord Dunsany. Some of you may have heard of him. He wrote a couple of novels, but most of his reputation was built on short stories, many of them about a chap named Jorkens who had all sorts of fantastical adventures. Other stories, though, the ones that weren’t about Mr. Jorkens, ah, those were a delight. They were often brief, what would be referred to today short-shorts. Dunsany was known for his irony and wit. And while writers who wrote witty, ironic tales, often about chaps who have fantastical adventures, have continued to this day, none have mastered the short-short the way Dunsany did, certainly none with his bite.
Until now. James Hutchings has taken up that mantle, and he wears it well. The New Death and Others contains 44 short stories and 19 poems. And to quote from the promotional copy, there are no sparkly vampires.
Usually in these reviews, I give a run down of the stories, listing them and perhaps saying a thing or two about them. I won’t do that here. Not with 44 stories, some of them only about a page in length. Instead, I’ll try to give you a feel for the book. For starters, this is the second book I’ve read in the last couple of weeks that made me laugh out loud. (The first was Giant Thief.) The humor is wry, ironic, and at times biting. I loved it.
Oh, and puns. Did I mention puns? There are number of them. One example, in “Sigrun and the Shepherd” unkind shepherds are sent to angora management classes. There are more where that came from; “The Adventure of the Murdered Philanthropist” is a Sherlock Holmes spoof that contains a whole string of them. Now, there are those who say the pun is the lowest form of wit. You need to remember that these people only say that because they aren’t clever enough to think of puns themselves.
Four of the poems are retellings of fantasy stories by famous authors, one each by Lovecraft, Howard, Smith and the aforementioned Dunsany. And they’re good. I haven’t read all the originals, but the Howard poem, based on “The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune“, captures the spirit of the original exceedingly well.
In fact all of the poems, whether short or long, are worth reading. These poems have rhyme and meter, and more than once I found their cadences echoing through my mind after I had finished them.
Many of the stories concern the fiction city of Telelee. (This is a different spelling than the author has on his blog, but I checked the book to make sure.) These are among the most Dunsany-esque tales in the book. Telelee is an imaginary city in a world that never was. Every story (and poem) set there was different, exotic, and fascinating. I want to visit this world many times.
Don’t think, though, that Hutchings has merely recycled old tropes. While his love and respect for the source material he draws on is evident, these are stories for the twenty-first century. Many of the puns and jokes would have been incomprehensible to Dunsany, Howard, or Lovecraft. Computers and modern technology appear frequently, and a number of the stories are set in present day. Huthcings has built on what has come before, paid homage to it, and expanded it. In doing so, he has made this style of writing his own.
One final word regarding the production values of the book. This is one of the most professional ebooks I’ve seen in a long time. Certainly more professional than the last ebook I read from a major publisher. I don’t recall any formatting errors. There is a fully interactive ToC, which worked every time I used it. Hutchings has clearly put the time and effort in to produce a superior book in terms of production values. And the cover fits the book to a “T”. At ninety-nine cents, it’s a bargain at twice the price. (No, James, I’m not sending you more money.)
I’ve somehow found myself with a pretty heavy reviewing slate. Enough to keep me reading for the next six months. I’ve got half a dozen books I’m committed to review, either to individual authors who have requested reviews or to publishers who have been kind enough to send review copies. That’s not a bad situation to be in mot of the time, but if I’m not careful, the commitments can take the fun out of reading and make it seem like homework. The New Death reminded me why I started doing this in the first place. The humor and exotic settings were a breath of fresh air. Many of the stories and poems are, like I mentioned, only about a page in length. This is the perfect book to read when you only have a minute or three. I recommend the book highly and will be following Hutchings’ blog from now on.