Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Yuletide Fantasy, Horror, and Science Fiction: Blaylock, Brom, and Willis

I grew up Baptist, and Christmas was a big deal in my parents' home. I continue to carry on many Christmas traditions even after leaving those Baptist roots behind, while seeking new, less traditional ways to celebrate the season. One of my new traditions has been to seek out Christmas readings that follow in the footsteps of the writer most responsible for the modern revitalization of Holiday spirit, Charles Dickens, in his A Christmas Carol. For that short book encouraged its readers to follow in Scrooge's footsteps to honour the spirit of Christmas by offering four spirits of its own, the very dead Marley and the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future, who for all of their metaphorical significance were very real to their fictional world. In short, Dickens kicked off modern Christmas with a ghost story, a mix of horror and fantasy. So I took up Dickens' torch and began looking for great speculative fiction reads for the Christmas season, and plan to share my finds each year. I begin this tradition with three outstanding books I can heartily recommend: All the Bells on Earth by James Blaylock, Krampus by Brom, and Doomsday Book by Connie Willis.

I first read All the Bells on Earth over Christmas of 2010, while studying steampunk for my PhD; while one might expect steampunk, given its ostensibly Dickensian roots, to be a prolific source of Holiday fantasies, there are markedly few steampunk works that mention Christmas at all, let alone focus their narratives upon it. And while Blaylock is one of the seminal writers of steampunk, All the Bells on Earth is not steampunk. Instead, it is one of Blaylock's many urban fantasies set in modern California, and the first I read of an unofficial series Wikipedia labels "The Christian Trilogy." Blaylock himself denies any overt connection, though he admits the influence of Inkling Charles Williams on those books. But don't make the mistake of thinking that means Blaylock is writing fiction for the modern evangelical ghetto where one finds the likes of Ted Dekker. All the Bells on Earth simply uses Christian concepts to drive the wonder of its fiction because it is set at Christmas.

The Christian conflict of heaven and hell is clearly the business of the characters in All the Bells on Earth, though not a one is a regular churchgoer. Some are more aware of this than others. Three powerful businessmen who sold their souls to the devil are keenly aware, as one by one the infernal price of their success comes due. In an attempt to thwart the Faustian bargain, one of these men buys a literal Bluebird of Happiness, which is delivered wrongly to the house of Walt Stebbins, a very ordinary mail-order businessman. Like so many Blaylock protagonists, Walt's a bit of a loser: he's never succeeded financially, and relies upon his wife's income. He's about as normal a protagonist as one could find, and with the arrival of the Dead Bluebird of Happiness in a Jar, he's thrust into the midst of the conflict between darkness and light, good and evil, hell and heaven.

We've seen that story before. However, instead of setting off on a quest for Mount Doom, or protecting the Virgin who is to be Satan's consort, or finding all Seven Seals and Bowls of God's apocalyptic wrath, Walt Stebbins is faced with a very simple problem. The Bluebird will grant any wish he makes. To thwart evil, he merely needs to throw the damn thing away.

But Walt doesn't throw it away, and while he makes up his mind about what to do with it, the struggle between good and evil goes on in very normal ways, in the inconvenience of family visiting for the holidays: his wife's Uncle Henry and Aunt Gladys, parked in their motorhome on Walt's driveway, evoking shades of Randy Quaid in Christmas Vacation. Gladys puts everyone on a nuts-and-grains diet at the time of the Turkey, and Uncle Henry doggedly tries to rope Walt into a get-rich-quick scheme involving a Pope-on-a-Rope, all the while carrying on adulterous liaisons with a woman who works the counter at a donut shop. Other family show up uninvited and nearly unannounced when Walt's wife brings her sister's kids home: the sister has gone off to find herself, and the father is an abusive alcoholic. While the struggle of All the Bells on Earth is ostensibly cosmic, it is worked out in everyday acts villainy and kindness, not a stand-off with a Balrog over the abyss.

Like so many Blaylock books, it's an entertaining blend of dark and light, humour and horror, whimsy and wonder. Just the other night I was introduced to Canadian storyteller Stuart McLean by some friends, and as I listened to the tale of "Dave Cooks the Turkey," I kept thinking, "This is a Blaylock story without fantasy elements." Think The 'Burbs crossed with The Devil's Advocate, and you'll be in the right ballpark. I've read it twice since I first read it over Christmas of 2010, and every year I consider reading it again. Once you've read it, I encourage you to read my deeper analysis of it at Steampunk Scholar.
My second recommendation is for the horror fans. Brom's Krampus is another book I consider reading each Christmas, and that's amazing given that it's about a creature hell-bent for revenge on Santa Claus. I'm a huge fan of Santa, but in Brom's fictional universe, he's the enemy. And don't confuse Brom's Krampus with the horror flick coming out this Christmas season - but it is the story I was hoping someone had adapted for screen when I heard about that movie. Krampus is reminiscent of Neil Gaiman's American Gods or Charles de Lint's urban fantasy, if either of those writers had a much darker inclination. Insofar as it is horror, to use Stephen King's breakdown of approaches to horror in Danse Macabre, it's not really terrifying. But there are certainly moments of horror and definitely a few gross-outs.

It's the story of a Jesse Walker, a wannabe country singer who, estranged from his wife and daughter on Christmas Eve, is ready to end it all. Suddenly, a man dressed as Santa runs by, fleeing strangely dressed pursuers intent on doing him harm. He finally evades them in his sleigh, but not before his sack falls out of the sky and through the roof of Jesse's trailer. Like the Bluebird of Happiness in All the Bells on Earth, Santa's sack seems poised to give Jesse whatever he needs, though initially all he can get out it are toys. What Brom does with the sack later in the novel ranges from bloody carnage to genuine Yuletide fun, once Krampus enters the story proper.

Krampus is mostly known for being a satyr-like sidekick to Santa who punishes children on Christmas, but Brom's Krampus promises from the start of the novel to set us straight on the true story of what happened between him and Kris Kringle, to tell us Father Christmas' true name and expose his lies, and to end Sinterklaas's life: "I Krampus, Lord of Yule, son of Hel, bloodline of the great Loki, swear to cut your lying tongue from your mouth, your thieving hands from your wrists, and your jolly head from your neck." He's much more than a Christmas bogeyman in Brom's hands. He's a lesser Norse deity who hopes to restore Yuletide in place of the debased Christmas his enemy has promulgated.

But neither Krampus or Santa prove to be the real monsters in Krampus. That diabolical honour goes to the humans of Boone County, West Virginia, particularly the local sheriff, who is so despicable you'll be hoping someone does something awful to him the first time he steps onto the page. And speaking of pages, there are a number filled with Brom's gorgeous artwork of the main characters, which is good reason to get the physical book or Kindle version, even if you only listen to the text via the excellent audiobook narrated by Kirby Heyborne. Heyborne does a great job with the range of voices, especially Krampus and the evil sheriff.
Finally, for those who need some seasonal Science Fiction, I recommend Connie Willis' Doomsday Book. Really, on any given day, I'll recommend a Connie Willis book to you, but for Christmas, you need to read Doomsday Book. Unlike the two aforementioned books, I can't give much in the way of plot details, because Doomsday is all about its secrets and surprises. Let it suffice to say that it is a brilliant mashup of time travel SF, medieval historical fiction, and medical thriller. Oh, and it takes place at Christmas, both in the past and the future. Willis does an amazing job of blending her page-turning fiction with references to Christmas traditions religious and secular through very convincing character voices. Since it's a medical thriller, it should be no surprise to learn that some of those character voices will go silent (with a title like Doomsday Book, what else would you expect?), and when they do, it's heartbreaking. It's one of my best reads of 2015.

So there you go, just in time for Christmas! I hope you can find copies of these at your local new or used bookstore. And remember - the twelve days of Christmas end on January 6, not Christmas day, so you've got a few weeks to get through at least one of these Yuletide Speculations. Merry Christmas to those who celebrate it, and happy holidays to the rest! See you all in 2016 for my "Best of 2015" list! (And please give me some recommendations in the comments for more yuletide horror, fantasy, and science fiction for 2016!)