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Tag: dan simmons

The Fifth Heart by Dan Simmons

Synopsis: Two men find themselves on the banks of the river Seine one late night in Paris. Both are contemplating suicide, when they cross paths. One, Henry James, is a writer who has often faced depression and whose moderate success in writing has added to his melancholy. The second is an Englishman, who has realised that he may be fictional… Sherlock Holmes.

Neither succeeds in their goal of suicide as a mystery takes the unlikely pair to America – to find the real reason behind the supposed suicide of Clover Adams, the wife of one Henry Adams, historian and a friend of Henry James. This leads them to a maze of secrets and scandals within the high society. From Henry Adams and John Hey to a young Theodore Roosevelt, the narrative is rich with characters plucked out of history’s pages.

Even as James reluctantly allows Holmes to research his group of friends, he discovers that something sinister is brewing inside the mind of Sherlock Holmes – something that makes him question his very existence.
My Thoughts: The book is a bag of tricks. It aims to thrill, please, shock, astonish, but above all… it aims to puzzle. It wants you to scratch your head and wonder… in that sense alone, it is a successful mystery. The puzzle, though, of “How did Clover Adams die?” is the least important bit of the book. As is the case with, “Why is Sherlock Holmes in America?” The biggest mystery of the book that will have you scratching your chins is… “Is Sherlock Holmes fictional?” Wait, did I just say that? Is it possible then that Holmes is real? The book will turn the definition of “real” on its head. If all goes well, you’ll find yourself chuckling at the existential meta-fiction Simmons has spun.
In what is perhaps the best and most self-aware conversation I have read in years, writer Henry James and a certain other literary figure chat about authors “losing” their characters and fiction taking on a life of its own even as it is being written. Simmons makes you understand what makes fiction so compelling and how stories are a blend of events woven together – so that they never start or end but are constantly rewritten from different contexts. He also presents the idea of an author playing god, and suffering the consequences of that self-granted sense of entitlement to play with people’s stories.

“But we’re God to the world and characters we create, James. And we plot against them all the time. We kill them off, maul and scare them, make them lose their hopes and dearest loves. We conspire against our characters daily… Don’t you see, James? You and I are only minor characters in this story about the Great Detective. Our little lives and endings mean nothing to the God-Writer, whoever the sonofabitch might be.”


I’ve not read many Sherlock Holmes spin-offs to compare and contrast; but I appreciate the point of view that is not as stifled as Watson’s. James makes a refreshingly different foil to the detective. He packs more emotional insight into the story than any original Sherlock Holmes narrative. He is also not fond of the Sherlock Holmes stories – this addition compels Simmons to build a wonderful bridge between fantasy and reality.

Holmes tells us his versions of Watson’s writings (the idea being that Watson likes to tidy up the narrative, remove inconsistencies and unpalatable oddities making the stories far more simpler than the original cases solved by them.) It’s the stories of Sherlock Holmes taken a notch darker; delicious, if anything. There is a point in the story when James and Holmes sit crouched in a dark corner of a graveyard, each ruminating in his own way on death and personal loss, that sent chills down my spine.

We go into great depth about what makes America tick and James’s national identity crisis. We look at James’s minor literary successes and major literary plans, and watch through Simmons’s lens as he plans to write The Turn of the Screw, a standout moment for me as that is literally the only novel I have read by James. This book functions as a kind of skewed biography of Henry James; I don’t know how much was real but I do want to know more. The narrator appears often in first person, offering his view on the writing and nature of the book. He is cocky and seems to be having a great time telling the story – I wonder if that is Simmons himself, thoroughly enjoying his writing of the book.

America was a nation that refused to grow up. It was a perpetual baby, a vast, pink, fleshy toddler, now in possession of some terrible weapons it did not know how to hold properly, much less use properly.

A promising mystery, historical drama and a damn well written book… pick it up!
Finally, a review for the R.I.P. Challenge, just in the nick of time. Might even write one more before the end of the month! 

The Terror by Dan Simmons – R.I.P. VII

I wanted to buy a non-fiction book on Mary Celeste (I don’t remember its name) when I came across this one. If there is one thing I have always been scared of, it’s water and oceans and sea life and such and the premise of this book, a lost expedition, seemed fascinating. 

It was snowing during the burial. The wind was blowing
hard, as it always does here on this godforsaken Arctic Waste. Just north of
the burial site rose Sheer Black Cliffs, as inaccessible as the Mountains of
the Moon. The lanterns lit on
Erebus and Terror were only the
dimmest of glows through the blowing snow. Occasionally a fragment of Cold Moon
would appear from between quickly moving clouds, but even this thin, pale
moonlight was quickly lost in the snow and dark. Dear God, this is truly a
Stygian bleakness.

Summary: The Terror by Dan Simmons is a fictionalized account of Captain Sir John Franklin’s Expedition to the Arctic to find the Northwest Passage. As the two ships, Erebus and Terror are stuck in the ice, the crew is stalked by a monster, that is killing them off one by one. Almost all the characters in the book are based on actual members of the expedition, including Franklin, captain of Erebus, Captain Crozier, captain of Terror, Fitzjames and Dr. Goodsir.

My thoughts: This was supposed to be my first read for the R.I.P Challenge. I have to admit, it took me much longer than I had expected to finish reading this book. There were times when I felt absolutely bored, but trudged on, determined to complete the book, and I am very glad I did. The book is massive, but entirely worth it. If I’d written a review halfway through the book: I would have said that I didn’t like the book, which is why this review is going to seem haphazard. I don’t know what else to say, but, all the boring details in the first half of the book are thoroughly redeemed by the immense excitement in the last few hundred pages. 
For those of you who want to read the book to actually find out what happened to the Franklin expedition, here’s a fair warning: it’s historical fiction, you won’t get anything that seems remotely plausible. Then again, when someone is lost in the Arctic and never heard of again, who’s to say, what can be possible. If you read the book for the horror fiction and not for the history lesson, you will love it (Okay, I can’t guarantee love, but I’m sure you’ll at least like it.)
Very few authors can master as many different voices as Simmons has in one book! I especially liked Crozier’s point of view and sometimes, Dr. Goodsir’s. The shifts in the points of view and time took some getting used to, but the book was so long that I did have enough time to get fully accustomed to the writing style. The characters are really wonderful and so is their desperation, you almost experience the dreary atmosphere in the air. The book is tastefully gruesome, if there is such a thing as that, and the writer knows exactly how to shock, scare and amuse you. 
Crozier enjoys his
walk in spite of the creeping cold that has made his face, fingers, legs, and
feet feel like they are on fire. He knows that this is preferable to them being
numb. And he enjoys the walk in spite of the fact that between the slow
moanings and sudden shrieks of the ice moving under and around him in the dark
and the constant moan of the wind, he is certain that he is being stalked.
I’m going to end this clumsy review-rant by saying that, if not anything else, this book is definitely unlike anything I have read before. It is a haunting mixture of the eerie feelings that history and fate bring on, freaky descriptions of ice and being lost at sea, not to mention, we do get a glimpse of Eskimo mythology, again very tastefully managed. Even without the haunted mansions, pale white ghosts or vampires and zombies, it still does scare. So if you have some time on your hands and seem to like horror fiction, spend this Halloween experiencing The Terror!