The Child of the Holy Grail
By Rosalind Miles
Three Rivers (2002), $9.95
Miles completes her Guenevere trilogy with The Child of the Holy Grail, an interdimensional soap opera based on the King Arthur legend that includes love, betrayal, deception, revenge, and colossal misunderstanding. Feuds erupt between lovers, siblings, fathers and sons, spirits, comrades in arms, ancient rivals, and religions. Although some characters and plotlines are undoubtedly Miles' invention, the author doesn't take artistically detrimental liberties with the legend. Rather, she creates a gripping and often gruesome tale. Child, however, is not without its curiosities and faults. Although the reader can read Guenevere's thoughts in italics, the queen is not the narrator, and her character is often unlikable. At times she comes across as an overly jealous, controlling brat, holding Lancelot (her true love who is forever off-limits) to impossibly high standards. Lancelot, conversely, is the most likable character: he always tries to do the right thing but gets tricked and wronged on a mind-boggling scale. (Arthur, meanwhile, comes across as a big dummy and little else.) Though her past works have proven Miles a gender-conscious author, she perpetuates stereotypes here. Men's sex drives are called their "manhood," a terminology the author probably wouldn't tolerate if it were applied to women by a male author. And Guenevere is often weak-willed and passive. Miles shows chutzpah, however, in her depiction of early Christians as intolerant, power-hungry bureaucrats who rape the environment as they "settle" the island of Avalon and try to kill its goddess-based religion.
-- Keith Bowers
The Colour Out of Space: Tales of Cosmic Horror New York Review Books
The cosmic horror of this collection is not so much the horror of external demons and malignant supernatural forces as it is our own psychological terror. With a dozen short stories by almost as many authors (Ambrose Bierce is represented by three stories), this anthology focuses on tales from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the big names being Bierce, Edgar Allan Poe, Bram Stoker, and Henry James. There's also H.P. Lovecraft, who penned the piece that gives the book its title. It would have been nice if even the most rudimentary information had been given about when and where these stories first appeared. But it's a respectable, if erratic, gathering of storytelling in which the unfathomable eats away at confidence in the predictable and the scientific. Some of the lesser-known authors are more effective than the star scribes, particularly in the case of Algernon Blackwood's "The Willows," with its two travelers trapped on an island by unknown, unseen, and inhuman hunters looking for prey. The Poe and Bierce tales don't rate among those authors' most notable output, but Poe's "Ms. Found in a Bottle" is a worthy vortex of lost-at-sea madness, and Bierce's "Moxon's Master" depicts a chilling fatal chess match. Otherwise the text often tends toward the overdrawn and histrionic, with hands-to-head rumination and overlong paragraphs aplenty, though many horror aficionados would find those traits assets rather than drawbacks.
-- Richie Unterberger
Mirror, Mirror on the Wall Edited by Kate Bernheimer
Anchor (2002), $14
Long before a certain Viennese doctor unlocked the dirty secrets of the human psyche, storytellers were tapping into the mysterious fears and longings of children. Often, these yarn-spinners were uneducated women who used this powerful oral form to tell stories too dark and terrible to commit to the page. These days, children digest the sugar-capsule Disney versions of these same stories. In this volume, subtitled "Women Writers Explore Their Favorite Fairy Tales," novelist Bernheimer invites noted authors to reclaim the tradition by unlocking what they feel are the true meanings of fairy tales for contemporary girls. They touch on some familiar terrain (fairy tales teach girls to be pretty and passive) but move on to meatier things. Julia Alvarez finds a role model in Scheherazade, bell hooks revels in the justice that brings resolution to fairy-tale sufferings, and Lydia Millet imagines a modern-day Bluebeard. A few essays miss the mark, but these prove the exceptions. The collection also introduces tales that some readers might have missed -- is there anyone else out there who never heard of "The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf?" As Joyce Carol Oates writes in these pages, fairy tales "contain an incalculably rich storehouse of ... images, a vast Sargasso Sea of the imagination." Some readers will be hard-pressed to finish this valuable anthology before rushing out to reread the old stories themselves.
-- Summer Block
Pharmako/Dynamis: stimulating Plants, Potions, and Herbcraft
By Dale Pendell
Mercury House (2002), $21.95
This sequel to Pendell's award-winning 1999 work, Pharmako/Poeia, explores the herbs and potions capable of altering the emotional state. In detailing the relationship between drugs, power, healing, magic, mood, and poetry, Pendell seamlessly cleaves science to lore, history to poesy to personal experience. The book is divided into two parts, "Excitantia" and "Empathogenica." The first section, which is far longer, deals with stimulants, which Pendell declares "the perfect drugs for capitalism." Part of the kick of his writing is how his style varies depending on the substance he's covering (and, presumably, ingesting); so these chapters on coffee, tea, chocolate, betel, ma huang, et al. all clip along at variously frenetic paces. The second section concerns itself with "Empathogenica," those consumables that heighten empathy. (Psychedelics and hallucinogens were covered in Pendell's first book.) Nutmeg, mace, MDMA, Ecstasy, and GHB are all treated with the same mix of wonder and science, albeit in a far more leisurely, sensual vein than the potions/poisons of the book's first half. Pendell meanders through theories of creation, dosage instructions, hard science, a timeline of rave culture, crime stats, and tales of tribal rapture and polygamy. In his preface, he explains that the book's "structure is holographic and three-dimensional," and therefore not necessarily meant to be read straight through. Indeed, any place a shaky or slack finger could point is a good place to start. The cohesiveness is sometimes only tenuous, but most times it's a delicious ride, and Pendell maintains an impish sense of humor throughout, even in the nearly forty-page reference section.
-- Stefanie Kalem
By Ciaran Carson
Granta (2002), $12.95
This is a novel of many stories. It is the story of Ludwig Wittgenstein, 20th-century gardener and sometime philosopher, and his love of cinema. It is the story of 15th-century Flemish painter Jan van Eyck and a certain troublesome painting that may or may not depict a wedding. Above all, it is the story of the titular tea, a psychotropic mixture of herbs that allows its users to experience the interconnectedness of all reality. As engaging as these threads are on their own, it's unfortunate that none of them are particularly related to one another. The main action takes place in Ireland in the late 1960s, narrated by a young boy who happens to be called Carson and who is exceptionally well-versed in hagiography; every day is the feast day of a different saint, and the events of that saint's life always relate to events in Carson's. This idea could have been used to good effect, but the problem is that the reader doesn't begin to care about what happens to the boy until the novel is halfway finished. Eventually, Carson becomes embroiled in a plot to reunite Northern and mainland Ireland by dosing the inhabitants of Belfast with shamrock tea, but even this plot dwindles into inconsequentiality, leaving the reader with intriguing ideas but little framework to hang them on. Ultimately the book, though entertaining, forgets to be about anything, so while it is a decent enough read, it's hardly a satisfying one.
-- Dustin Long
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