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The Unfair Sex

The Agony Column

Commentary by Rick Kleffel

February 28, 2002


It's certainly dangerous to make generalizations about women in any profession, particularly writing. But this seems to be the season when the women writers, in and out genre, are getting their books published and put before the public. There's a lot of interesting work out there, understandably diverse. Thanks to some really over-the-top writers, though, the range is wider than I've ever seen it. And while all the writers covered here are certainly different from one another, women writers do have a distinctly different sensibility than their male counterparts. But don't think this means that they can't be deeply, darkly evil.

Ruth Rendell's 'The Corocodile Bird', an homage to power of reading.

In fact, the writer who best deals with evil is Ruth Rendell. She gets into the minds of the mad like no other writer ever has or ever will. She writes an excellent series of detective novels, but her best books are clearly her 'novels of suspense'. In 'The Crocodile Bird' she offered a paean to the power of reading along with her usual dose of insght into the minds of the evil. Reading is the path to the power that can help women become the equals of men.

This creepy novel of evil by was turned into a sexy thriller. Not what I was hoping for!

Her novel 'Live Flesh', annihilated, from what I understand, in the film version, is surely one of the creepiest pieces of writing ever be held in my hands. It's about a criminal who is serving time for a murder he didn't intend to commit, and about to be released with the help of a wounded policeman and his girlfriend. He didn't mind serving the time that much. He was just glad they never found out about the rapes. Rendell's vision of Jenner's insanity is gripping and subtle. While I've enjoyed every Rendell novel I've ever read, I have always wished that she would direct some of her insight into the supernatural. Her novels are relentlessly, ruthlessly realistic. Until now.

Rendell fulfills a longtime hope that she would work in a bit of supernatural.

'Adam and Eve and Pinch Me' is her latest novel and it's something of a change for Rendell. Three women all know Jock Lewis -- under different names. When he dies, is it his ghost they see? Or just another "name"? I haven't got round to this one yet, but, yes, it's in the ever-growing queue. Rendell's name on a novel -- or that of her alter ego, Barbara Vine -- is a guarantee of suspense fiction of the highest caliber.

A bit of the old ultra-violence from Mo Hayder.

Mo Hayder made something of a splash with her first novel, last year's 'Birdman'. Her prose is quite good, but her plotting in 'Birdman' left something to be desired. On one hand, she creates some excellent characters -- moping cop Jack Caffery, his pushy artist girlfriend Rebecca, and DCI Danni Souness, Caffery's boss. But her serial killer was clearly modeled after Jamie Gumb from Thomas Harriss' 'Silence of the Lambs'. It was a startling bit of unoriginality. Finally, readers and reviewers alike found fault with her relentless and lovingly described gore, violence and sexual violence. For many it was too much, way too much. To me it seemed like fantastic special effects in the service of an inferior script. Still the characters kept me reading, and that's what a writer is supposed to do.

Mo Hayder's latest is a terrifying novel about human monsters.

Her latest novel, 'The Treatment' will have those who found 'Birdman' too much calling for censorship. Really, easily, no question. It exists in an almost quantum state between exploitative trash and a well-wrought tale of terror.

What it does make apparent is that, in spite of the trappings of mystery -- a detective, crimes, lots of New Detectives (forget that fictional imitator!) forensics -- her novels are clearly horror novels. Oh, they're all too realistic, trust me on this one. She bears a lot more in common with horror author Charlee Jacob than Ruth Rendell.

'The Treatment' is about a ring of pedophiles, child pornographers and murders. I can't claim that reading it is a pleasant experience. For a number of readers, it's the kind of book that's likely to induce cross-room volume hurling. It goes farther than you want and farther than you think.

'The Treatment' is also rather well written. The plot is certainly not directly, obviously derivative of anything I've read, though it echoes of some of Andrew Vacchs' work. Hayder doesn't bring Vacchs' searing vision to 'The Treatment'. Instead she creates a section of Brixton as a hodgepodge hellhole of shiny urban towers and dowdy suburban blight. But what she is writing here are essentially monster stories. The monsters are human, but the format and feel is strictly monster. She cranks up the tension past the point of melodrama and leaves it there. Some will find it enthralling; some will find it annoying. And a lot of people will say Mo Hayder goes too far. I'm not sure that's true, but it sounds like an effective marketing tactic.

Lurid melodrama mixes with dark, detailed history in Redfern's 'The Music of the Spheres'.

For those who like their grim fiction from the distance of history, Elizabeth Redfern's 'The Music of the Spheres' is certainly a good choice. Set in London in 1795, when things were arguably worse than they are now (though after reading 'The Treatment', just about anyplace or time seems better than now), it follows the decline and disgrace of a spy catcher whose life falls apart as he tries to find his daughter's killer. Redfern writes an effective historical serial killer novel, with a dark, dank, dingy and detailed enough environment to keep the reader depressed for the entire course of the novel. There's more than a bit of lurid melodrama, but at least there's no compensating sweetness and light.

Robson's debut won a lot of Gibson comparisons, but it's really not much like Gibson at all.

Back in the safe and sane world of science fiction, I've been enjoying Justina Robson since last year's peculiar 'Silver Screen'. 'Silver Screen' manages to use all the tropes of cyberpunk without actually reading anything like cyberpunk. Instead, it feels like you're reading an, uh English mystery. It has a nice density and sort of slow pace that helps create a very detailed, very near-future world.

'Mappa Mundi' goes for a fast-paced near-future thriller schtick.

Her latest novel, 'Mappa Mundi', goes for the fast-paced thriller feel, but retains the density and detail of 'Silver Screen'. In 'Mappa Mundi', Robson begins by exploring her main characters' beginnings in the present and near past. When next we see them, it's the near future, and technology is making mind control a viable option. Two disparate characters, Jude Westhorpe, an American FBI agent, and Natalie Armstrong, a British researcher find themselves brought together across the Atlantic. Jude is working on the case of a chameleonic importer of illegal technology, while Natalie is working on technology to help cure mental illness. Robson manages to pack a lot of interesting plotting and speculation into her second novel. Americans need not bother to try to find either in US bookstores; both volumes are UK only.

Muriel Gray's latest and best novel won't be published in the US. Better get the UK version!

Readers also need not bother to look in US bookstores for Muriel Gray's latest novel, 'The Ancient'. Her first novel 'Trickster' brought her some good reviews and some King comparisons, probably because it deals with American horror. Her second novel, 'Furnace', was an enjoyable piece of high-velocity trucker horror. It came out in hardcover and paperback in the USA. Why then haven't we seen 'The Ancient'? According to Muriel herself on her message board, there's no US release planned for this novel, originally titled 'Trash'. I actually enjoyed more than her first two books. It's strangely atmospheric and has a nice dense feeling for the 'monster on a boat' genre.

There's a lot of pink on the cover of this book.

Lest it seem as if I've let the Brits take over the world, the American Woman is represented in my 'Unfair Sex' pile as well. I haven't read either of these books yet, but they look positively delicious, both similar and different. Lisa Lerner gets the big publisher treatment with 'Just Like Beauty', a slab of near future SF that has more than a whiff of Philip K. Dick about it. It chronicles the journey of a fourteen year old girl across a bizarre American landscape featuring mutant grasshoppers, suicide cults, the Electric Polyrubber Man competition, and a genius bunny for the Sacrificial Rabbit event. It sounds really quirky and Farrar, Straus and Giroux should be commended for taking the chance.

The present playing the future. We already live in a Corpocracy!

On the other hand, in 'Scorch', A. D. Naumann offers up a dystopian future where there is no ominous federal authority. There's not much government at all, and Americans are controlled by the marketplace. Now this sounds familiar! It actually sounds like what the current administration is aiming for. To the author, this is not such a good thing, however, thus the 'dystopian' description. Soft Skull Press (check out the great website) calls itself a publisher of "fearless, progressive, punk-rock/hip-hop literature." The novel looks to be leavened with just enough humor and satire to keep its distance from the great Dour. And, with it being a woman's adventures in the near future, look forward to a compare and contrast easy-to-write column somewhere down the line.

When you bring them all together, these women writers are more than the sum of each of them, more than all over the map. They're a map unto themselves. From quantum horror to quantum physics, they are willing to tell readers much more than they want to know. Select your poison wisely. I've found in my long life of reading that it is not possible to unread a book.

I'll conclude today's piece with a mention of immense importance -- the story of the baby that only a father could love -- 'Eraserhead' -- is due to be released on a cleaned and pristine DVD by no less than David Lynch himself. I don't think that the importance of this film can be underestimated, and I'm so relieved to have it on DVD. Now, if only they can get out another set of 'Twin Peaks' episodes, we'll all be set.




Rick Kleffel