Touching the Flame, by Paul Kane

touching-the-flame-by-paul-kane coverGenre: Horror Anthology
Publisher: Rainfall Books
Published: 2002
Reviewer Rating: three stars
Book Review by James Michael White

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Among the blurbs of praise on the book’s back cover you will find this one by David Langford (quoted from SFX magazine), “Kane is best when taking risks with his bizarre flights of imagination.”

Oh how true that is.

Most of Touching the Flame reads like solid, determinedly B-grade horror/weird fiction with a Twilight Zone desire to pull a trick at the end, and often a not very surprising one. The stories are the kind best taken with a big-o-bucket-o-popcorn and low expectations, kind of like a Roger Corman film. I know, I know, how horrible of me to dash the product of someone’s hard work, but not all is bad here (the collection rates a 6 of 10, after all), and some of it is on par with what the big boy magazines are cranking out these days.

What disappoints among these eighteen stories are not really those B-grade aspirations at all, but a preponderance of amateurisms, noted here for your convenience and amusement, things which you will almost never see in higher-grade work. These things also, by the way, usually crop up among a writer’s earliest works, during which time some of this stuff is being figured out first-hand, and sometimes they crop up simply as the result of writing very fast. In any event, they are:

1. Too many explanatory statements: the prose should convey essential ideas without the author having to convince readers by way of explanation. What this means is if the author has done his work properly, readers will understand the gist of a scene without the essence of that scene being reduced to what is sometimes known as a 2×4 smacking them across the skull. More on this later.

2. Italo Calvino once warned against similes; they become reductive and run the risk of looking really silly if badly done. Do enough of these badly, they become groaningly comic to the point of popping readers right out of a story like Chuck Yeager punching out of an F-15.

3. Hyperbole has its place, but usually not in the prose unless the prose is intended to be comic. Excessive or inappropriate or even gratuitous use of hyperbole, especially in place of the specific, telling detail, simply puts another finger on what may already be a six-fingered hand. It looks weird and out of place and like just the sort of thing an editor’s pen should excise.

4. Unnecessary qualifiers: these are rather like 3 above. Most of the time their presence contributes nothing. For example, if you say “A tangible fear gripped him” (55, “Prey”), haven’t you merely been redundant? After all, if he feels it, it’s tangible, ain’t it? If your point is to point out the sheer oddity of that feeling, wouldn’t it be better amplified in some other, perhaps more descriptive, way?

5. Poor vocabulary choices. This usually has an immediate effect akin to hitting a pothole on the freeway of smooth reading.

6. Repetition/belaboring. This bores the reader who thinks, “Okay, got it already, move on.”

7. Characters behaving unrealistically/unbelievably. This breaks the willing suspension of disbelief and pops readers out of a story.

8. Too much reliance on passive voice.

Some stories in the collection exhibit most of these faults, and some exhibit none at all. The end result is a mixed bag of tried-and-true-isms and experimental failures. Some flash in the pan, some flounder, and some simply never take off.

Oh but there’s more in the form of story notes at the end of the book. We’ll talk about those in a moment. First, the stories.

THE TORTURER
Rating: 7
Can anyone out there say Kafka? What we get here is a guy being horribly tortured by another guy, except the first guy doesn’t know where he’s being held prisoner, doesn’t know why he’s being tortured, and sure doesn’t have any answers to the torturer’s questions. We get a fair sense of the victim’s frustration, and the otherworldly glimpses he achieves during these torture sessions easily misdirected my thoughts of, “I know where this is going.” The ending however, despite its surprise, was oddly a letdown, somehow making the story feel small and unimportant, as if the last revelation reduced what was formerly cosmic to the merely mundane.

ASTRAL
Rating: 7
Paul Kane owes bunches to H.P. Lovecraft, and his “Astral” is a trip in keeping with Howard Phillips’ cosmic weirding. Here, our first person narrator discovers that he can astrally project his spirit not merely about the earth, but through the cosmos as well, discovering that what Ming the Merciless once said is true (loosely quoted from the eighties Flash Gordon movie, and well played by Max Von Sydow), “Foolish humans. If only they knew what awaited them in the void they would flee in terror.”

What the narrator discovers in the cosmos is a strange world where strange beings pull cause-and-effect strings tied to earth, said beings presided over by something rather neat I won’t mention (spoil). The strength of the story is that it creates a sense of newness and discovery. The weakness is that nothing comes of the discovery, so that all that we’ve seen amounts to little more than a tour.

THE FACE OF DEATH
Rating: 6
Young medical student Jonathan Prichard is fascinated by death, obsessed with discovering what the dying see in their last moments. By the way, he has a pal who works in the local morgue and lets him fiddle with the bodies there.

Yeah, this kind of theme has been tackled lots of times before, and Kane gives it intensely B-grade treatment so hard and clear you’ll not only see the resolution before it arrives (loosely, anyway), but you’ll also probably think you’ve seen this on TV sometime before, maybe in an old Twilight Zone rerun.

On a more specifically critical note, at least one of the above-mentioned missteps occurs in the prose, number 4, also known as the unnecessary qualifier. I’ll mention two instance here to illustrate what I’m talking about when I draw a distinction between slickly professional prose and everything else (and I’m sure I’ll sound like a “who’s this feller think he is?” bombast, but here goes).

We are told that Jonathan’s interest in death “had become a VIRTUAL obsession.” Now ask yourself, really, how much does “virtual” help matters here? Same sort of thing happens later when Jonathan recalls his pop’s dying words:

“I-I see it…” his father stammered, so quietly IT MIGHT HAVE BEEN JONATHAN’S EARS PLAYING TRICKS.

Does the story benefit from Jonathan thinking his ears might be playing tricks on him? Does that heighten the tension? Increase the drama? No. Not really. So why is it there? Hmm.

Too much of this stuff bulks up the prose and makes it flabby, and Hemingway warned us all to cut out the fat, after all, because if a tale is to run and jump, it ought to be lean.

This one comes close, but it also exhibits another problem, which is the unrealistic reaction of a character obsessed with death when, apparently, the dead come back to life. He’s afraid of them. That doesn’t seem to jibe with his doctoral curiosity, his “virtual” obsession, but it sure offers an easy way out of the story.

Well, there are more of these blips and joggles sprinkled throughout the rest of the stories, so we’ll move on…

SHADOW WRITER
Rating: 6
A routine imitation of H.P. Lovecraft, yet kind of a clever one near the end, it goes like this: A journalist named Mr. Regis is obsessed with a reclusive horror author and he finally gets a chance to meet the man on his mist-shrouded island. Later, he gets a chance to become just like him.

Trouble in this literary paradise is the muted sense of horror the story tries to generate. Oh all the props are in place, the isolated Gothic mansion, the decrepit weird-old-man author, strange voices in the night, but what’s missing is the sense of grandeur or greater purpose to the stories our narrator becomes doomed to write, the very kinds of stories his literary idol has been making a living selling for some five years. I’m not saying I want a 2×4 explanation laid across my skull explicating the significance of those stories or how they come to be, but I would like at least a hint of the great and dark purpose behind scribing those terror tales. It isn’t here, and putting it here would be an improvement. It would also answer the question raised by a good line very close to the end: “I am being used as a tool for evil.”

PREY
Rating: 3
A kid, Kelvin, and his chums mistreat a cat given to him as a gift. Years later, the spectral feline returns to do a Rambo on the grown up lads.

The bulk of this story is bad in a way that says, well, this must have been Kane’s first story, replete with amateurisms like excessive and inappropriate hyperbole, similes, and explanatory statements, but the publishing history shows this one was published in 2001, proving that even an otherwise competent author can still turn out, and sell, a stinker.

Once again, it’s not really the plot that bothers me as much as that so little more than the merely logistical was accomplished, as if the story aspired to only a small expression of a small idea, and here I’m foremost considering what Harlan Ellison once said, loosely paraphrased as: there are authors and there are writers; the former merely impart events, the other impart ideas. I suppose that says I want meaning and I get popcorn. Such is the nature of the trinket.

But to beat my drum once more about prose weakness, here are a few items lifted from the text. Consider the following, which occurs just after said cat has attacked and dragged somebody bloodily into the night:

Kelvin watched as the prone rag doll was whisked off into the distance. Gone. Just like Tony. He shook Sam by the shoulders in a desperate attempt to prise some sense out of him; to figure out what had happened.

Okay right up until “shoulders.” Everything after that could have been cut because readers should adequately get the idea that something horrible has happened — fearsome kitty rips guy to shreds — so if Sam is stupefied, we sure as shootin’ get the idea that Kelvin is shaking him for all the right, and needlessly explained, reasons. Yet the words occur, and they are redundant.

Later Kelvin feels Sam’s grip on his arm and we are told, “Sam was gripping the limb as if he wanted to burst the muscle.” That muscle-bursting bit comes across as excessive, especially since we are earlier told the grip is painful, never mind the be-verb deflation “was” causes.

Next, the grown up lads run from fearsome kitty and we are told, “Like a pair of convicts shackled together, they fled the scene.” The simile here just looks silly by creating an image and a sense of the characters that doesn’t rightly resonate with the scene.

Another bad simile crops up when “Kelvin was elbowed to the floor by a force so strong it was like colliding with a speeding juggernaut.” Dude, you’re overdoing it.

Ah, well, there’s more in a lot of other small ways, and the result of their accumulation is dead weight.

The back story we eventually get about Kelvin’s past and that kitty is, however, good. It’s just not good enough to make up for missing desiderata or the gangrene in the prose.

STAR POOL
Rating: 7
This is a much better take on the classic weird tale than earlier attempts, but since it does travel the same dusty road so well trod before, it comes off as merely competent rather than as an update to the form. Hey, it even has the appearance of being set in the same kind of 19th century world as an H.P. Lovecraftian one.

So what’s afoot here?

Well, there’s this special pool see, and its waters will repair any ill for whosoever drinks of it or bathes in it.

Sir William Tobias set out to find this mysterious water so that he might cure his wife’s ails, but he went missing. Intrepid son Gerald sets out to find pop and the pool and bring back the cure, but things don’t work out as expected.

Told with a framing narrative fore and aft, the middle portion of the story serves up the primary action as a long flashback, yet each of the parts plays well together and by the end we discover in true-to-form fashion that the water cures all right, but at unexpected cost.

Despite wanting a few touches more of description, the story cracks right along with almost flawless prose and ends on a good last line.

VISITING HOUR
Rating: 8
The late author Mike McQuay once said that writers sell emotion. You might add that good writer sell emotion, because no matter how cool the characters are or even the things they do, what really sticks are what you feel when you read. To paraphrase Stephen King, the ability to move readers is the goal.

Paul Kane’s “Visiting Hour” moves.

It’s a ghost story in which Chloe Jameson visits her elderly mother in a nursing home in an attempt to reconcile with her for her hellion past, the details of which, though sparing, seem genuine, effectively chosen, and effectively distilled. The story wants to play a trick at its end and you’ll see it coming, but the strength of the work is the simple, real, feeling it generates for Chloe and her plight. The most striking bit occurs up front and puts us immediately in Chloe’s very human fix:

This place sent a shiver down her spine … It had more to do with the nagging fear that she might end up here, or somewhere just like it, herself. That was what made her feel so uncomfortable: spin on forty years or so and this could be her life. Would her own child have such reservations about coming to see her?

Now, since I’ve been browbeating the prose lately, I’ll mention it again here: most of the prose in “Visiting Hour” works, but there are still a number of small places you’ll be tempted to get out the editing pen and scratch through something, and a couple even appear in the text quoted above (edited here for space considerations).

FACADES
Rating: 7
Bang on competent in a TV sort of way, like a modern Twilight Zone or Outer Limits, you know from the moment the unhappily married narrator sees the screaming statues of the new sex-magnet female sculptress showing at his wife’s gallery that, a) unhappily married narrator and sex-magnet sculptress will end up in the sack, and, b) how those screaming statues are made.

Oh but it’s kind of fun even though you may groan about the ending in the same way a bad pun makes you groan.

So how is the prose? Pretty straight stuff, except for lines like, “My eyes traveled over her body like an explorer charting unknown territory,” and, “I could feel the energy between us, building up until I feared it would blow us apart.”

Minor bobbles in an otherwise good read.

AT THE HEART OF THE MAZE
Rating: 4
Deep-water wading to get through the front of this story eventually brings you to the end, and the end is: every bizarre thing you have just read is the product of a lunatic mind. Sounds suspiciously close to “it was all a dream,” except there’s a point being made here about the mind of a killer and how it works. Trouble is, the surreal trip just doesn’t work on my brain, and the sense-making end doesn’t justify all that wading. If this were, however, say, a music video, we wouldn’t care whether it made sense or not. What seems to be lacking is the stitching between events that might hold things together and tie them more clearly to the resolution. Not a wasted failure, just an interesting one.

THE BONES BROTHERS
Rating: 8
A famous editor once said, “Your work is both good and original. Unfortunately, that which is good is not original, and that which is original is not good.”

Here we have a story that is not at its heart originally Paul Kane’s, but it is good, and it’s based on The Blues Brothers, the old Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi flick, only this time Jake and Elwood turn out to be Bony M and Bony B, recent skeletal escapees from the afterlife who have a scheme to raise money for no penguin, but a man who can help make their escape permanent.

The latter idea proves far more interesting than the bulk of the story, yet that takeoff of The Blues Brothers is amusing enough in its own right to both hold interest and show that Kane handles humor well enough to make you want to look for more of his funny stuff.

NIGHTLIFE
Rating: 6
Neil works in a library and dreams of a night out with his chums. Pages and pages are expended on Neil dreaming of his night out. Neil thinks his night out will be swell. He thinks of how times have changed and people are freer to enjoy themselves, and gee, won’t it be keen to have a lovely night out. A night out would be just spiffy. He’s really looking forward to his night out.

Get it?

Most of the story belabors that one point. Sure, it dabbles in bits and pieces relating to the final gotcha, which is that our mild mannered librarian looking forward to his night out isn’t quite what he seems, but you get the idea the story is simply and unnaturally drawn out.

THE HYPNOTIST’S GAZE
Rating: 7
Another story using the framing device of present time fore and aft, the big middle part operating as a flashback, this one starts with revolver-toting Gareth Poole sneaking up on the mansion of Emel’ian Krossov to avenge his wife Faye. Turns out Krossov is a stage hypnotist and, during a disturbing performance, Faye was one of his volunteers. She was also never the same after the act.

Competently told, there are moments that will nonetheless threaten to snap your willing suspension of disbelief. For instance, when Gareth and wife attend the show and she volunteers, he seems afraid for her though we’re given no reason to believe that he should be. Later during the show, Gareth worries that Krossov is a madman but no one else see it. The statement seems to have inadequate proof, coming off more as an overstatement than a believable one.

Can’t say the ending is a surprise, but it works.

GRANDPA’S CHAIR
Rating: 8
A story in search of an ending, this one is excellent until it goes too far. It’s about a boy named Max who loves his grandpa who loves his purple chair. Grandpa dies in that chair and Max’s buddy tells him now the chair will be forever haunted by the old man and, by the way, his ghost can be baited with sweets and sherry.

What makes the story work is the believable narrator whose emotions ring genuine and appropriate to a little fellow coming to terms with the death of a beloved grandparent. Things go wobbly when the kid expresses fears about a ghost and haunted furniture because, hey, the little fellow loved grandpa, so why on earth would his ghost seem scary to him? But this attitude is quickly pulled out of the fire in a series of benevolent ghostly events in which grandpa’s activities may be taken more as implied than actual.

Then things tip overboard in a way that’s like monster movies suddenly showing the monstrosity to an equally suddenly disappointed audience. Things tend to work better when all is not shown. Though grandpa is no monster, you’ll probably be left wondering what’s really so bad about being dead if he can maintain such presence as the kid alone seems to enjoy.

Which, of course, leads to that uncertain ending: from front to almost back, the story is told as a series of diary entries, the last one ending with Max looking forward to Christmas. Things could end here, except you — and no doubt Paul Kane did as well — get the idea that things haven’t been precisely nailed.

What follows is a tacked-on feeling few paragraphs in which the kid’s mother reads his diary, a scene offering little more than a chance for her to dismiss the possibility of a ghost, only to hear a wee creak from the purple chair. Since all the rest of the story was about Max and his experiences, the scene with the mother seems too far removed to bear striking relevance to the main story.

THE DISEASE
Rating: 7
A bit like Harlan Ellison’s, “I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream,” in which the hero turns into a blob, combined with H.P. Lovecraft’s, “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” in which a populace turns into loathsome sea-dwellers, a fellow named Gus Harper finds himself afflicted with a horrible and inexplicable disease in this tale that also echoes a bit of T.C. Boyle’s environmental consciousness.

Gus dreams of blue while his body undergoes terrible transformation that doctors cannot stop and his girlfriend can only watch. He eventually flees and finds himself near the ocean, a solitary solace broken by the radio news that he is not the only one afflicted.

With such literary influences as H.P. at work, you already know where Gus is going. But for a few dinky bobbles with the prose, good, solid, straightforward storytelling.

BLACKOUT
Rating: 4
She’s afraid of the dark. She’s always been afraid of the dark. Creepy things creep her out in the dark. Her name is Kelly and one night her husband’s away at a conference and there’s a power outage and something creepy tries to get her in the dark and she fights it off and then the lights come back on and guess — oh just guess! — who it is!

You probably know because the plot is a cliche.

The prose even has a few cliches in it.

Yeah, it’s mostly well done in a sort of Raymond Carver meets Stephen King way, but there’s a good reason it gives you that feeling of deja vu.

ST. AUGUST’S FLAME
Rating: 5
The mystical flame of St. August allows visions of the future, and in this story the narrator has searched seven years for it, though for reasons that are never explained, which turns out be a fatal — to the story anyway — flaw.

The narrator stumbles into a monastery one night to seek shelter from a storm and therein finds a portrait of Saint August, then sneaks out of his cell to follow chanting monks. What he finds meets and exceeds his expectations in ways bad enough to make you realize why this is a horror story, after all.

Smashing idea, with lots of potential, but Kane’s too-spare style does no justice to what turns out to be a pretty ordinary take on demonic conquest, which is its own kind of problem separate from the lack-of-compelling-motivation one, the latter quickly sidestepped by an ending that renders it moot.

THE PERSISTCE OF DALI
Rating: 8
Once again Paul Kane tackles stylistic territory in a manner similar to that tried in “At The Heart of The Maze,” except here it works almost wonderfully well in a story about a man who becomes Salvador Dali. Excellent idea, excellent presentation in prose largely stumble-free, you’ll nonetheless wish the stitching was a clearer between each bizarre and surreal image so that you might see, or at least intuit, how each leads inexorably to the next, each in sum leading to the bang-up conclusion. This may be a case of what boxers mean when they say someone has fought to the level of a better opponent when all other past performances have been dull.

EYE OF THE BEHOLDER
Rating: 9
We’ve seen the Beholder before, back in “Astral,” yet here the overseeing eye is given mysterious center-stage treatment as the strings that affect a human life are pulled by its minions, that life belonging to Lucy, that center-stage treatment mysterious because, though we are constantly reminded of the Beholder, the majority of the story has to do with the trials and travails of the life of Lucy from start to finish.

The effectiveness arises from the intertwining of impassive observation of the manipulated life and the obliviousness of “hanging on in quiet desperation” of the one who lives that life. Every aggrievement and injustice is answered in cosmic fashion, and without ultimate explanations, all to the good of the story.

A NOTE ABOUT THE STORY NOTES
At the end of Touching The Flame follows a section titled “Melted Wax: Story Notes By Paul Kane.” Sure enough, each story has its own accompanying note offering a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the writing life from producing the stories to attempts to get them published to public reaction to them.

If you’ve ever been curious about that famous old question, “Where d’ya get your ideas?” these notes may provide answers.

Likewise, if you’ve ever wondered how deeply you should consider authorial intention when you look at a story, these notes might show you that the “intentional fallacy” is equal parts hogwash and truth.

Most interesting among the notes, however, is the one pertaining to “The Hypnotist’s Gaze,” explaining how the story is based on “a spate of real-life stories in the UK press about stage hypnosis causing psychological problems in volunteers.” That sounds like a story in itself, albeit a nonfiction one, I’d like to read.

So ultimately do these notes contribute anything to the understanding of the stories? Yeah, a little. But they’re also affirmations that so often the best stories are those that are the least difficult to write.

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