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James P. Blaylock
All The Bells On Earth
Penguin Putnam / Ace Science Fiction
US Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 0-441-00247-1
Publication Date: 11-01-1995
376 pages ; $21.95
Date Reviewed:02-02-2001
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2001

Index:  Fantasy  Horror  General Fiction

Horror novels nearly always portray the battle of good versus evil on an epic scale — sooner or later the evils described by the author and encountered by the characters threaten to overrun the entire world. In 'All the Bells on Earth', James P. Blaylock offers up a much smaller-scaled, more personal apocalypse. His characters have to work, to eat, and to take care of the kids; there's not much room for world-saving in their lives. When they do confront a supernatural evil, it comes in the mail, in a package delivered to the wrong address; ultimately, it comes from their hearts, from the small decisions they make, and is defeated in the same fashion. Better still, it comes with a sense of humor and characters who are charmingly flawed.

'All the Bells on Earth' starts when a costumed figure tries to sabotage the bells of Saint Anthony's Church, in the heart of suburban Orange County, California. Soon afterward, a man spontaneously combusts in an alley near the ultra-modern Plaza, and Walt Stebbins receives a package of goods he didn't order. Walt is an insecure, neurotic man who is scared to have kids, and is trying to get a mail-order catalogue business off the ground. His wife, Ivy, is the bread winning real-estate agent in their family, and her parents, Henry and Jinx have brought their Executive motor home across the country to the Stebbins' driveway for an extended visit. When Walt opens his unasked-for package, he finds jars with bits of human skin or fingernails in them, and a small tin box, containing a jar that holds a bluebird preserved in gin. There's a small slip of paper inside the box that reads 'Best thing come to you. Speak any wish.'

What follows is in the best tradition of 'The Twilight Zone', crossed with wacky characters, humor and moments of real love stunningly portrayed. The tin box's intended recipient is Argyle, an old nemesis of Walt's who screwed him in an early business deal, and has since gone on to great success in Ponzi schemes and shady trades. Argyle wants it back and is willing to go to extremes to get it. Practical jokes and supernatural events are contrasted with the more realistic and heart-rending problems encountered by Ivy's sister, who leaves her kids with Walt and Ivy while her husband goes on an extended drunk and she tries to find herself. The children, ages four and nine, are among the most realistic kids ever to walk across the printed page, and the battle for their custody is every bit as compelling as the supernatural battle between good and evil.

But Blaylock doesn't give his supernatural events the short shrift. His low-key descriptions ring true and are quite chilling, much more so than the buckets of gore we're used to finding in horror novels. But then, 'All the Bells on Earth' is quite a bit more than a horror novel, or a simple confrontation between good and evil. It's an effective evocation of love and greed, played out in the small events of everyday lives, where common virtues save personal worlds and simple sacrifices redeem suburban families.

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