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Funnybones, by Paul Kane Book Review | SFReader.com
Funnybones, by Paul Kane Genre: Horror Publisher: Creative Guy Publishing Published: 2005 Review Posted: 9/21/2006 Reviewer Rating:
Reader Rating: Not Rated
Funnybones, by Paul Kane
Book Review by James Michael White
Have you read this book?
Horror writer and humor-horror writer Paul Kane's Funnybones is a collection of a dozen works including flash fiction, short stories, and poems.
Many are played for the joke and at least one is played fairly straight. On the whole, the collection is light, the prose fleet on its feet, exhibiting a kind of narrative amiableness that has a culture-canny sitcom-like feel, resulting in a collection that doesn't reach far or strain too much but proves to be entertaining in ways rather like sitcoms, after all; the works don't set out to trick with clever constructions and defied expectations, but rather to quip about the topical, the familiar, and to tweak particulars.
Most particularly, it is the Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle that receive the most consistent treatment, three such tales appearing in the slim volume. And it is in these stories where Kane's humor appears to work best, twiddling with the conventions of Doyle's iconic works and intermingling with them numerous plays on pop culture. In dime-novel like fashion, we're tossed among cultists, bizarre monstrosities, lycanthropes, and mysterious magic in exotic locales. Extracted from the traditional underpinnings of those dime-novels are elements of horror, vice clashing with virtue (often in numerous double entendres poking fun at the nature of the Holmes/Watson relationship, here respectively mirrored in the personas of Dalton Quayle and Dr. Humphrey Pemberton), and foremost there remains an emphasis upon plot and action. The result: zippy little literary confections.
Funnybones tackles a difficult approach to a genre that succeeds or fails based upon how well it pulls off its most absurd elements. Horror, after all, posits the unexplained or the supernatural to readers existing in a world in which such things don't occur, then asks us to accept their possibility. Whether or not we do so within the fictional milieu determines the relative successes or failures of a work. To then poke fun at what is already absurd might then seem the easiest thing in the world but, as noted in the introduction by Pete Allen, it's not as easy as it looks. Some of the material herein works better than others, but on the whole there are more successes than not, making Funnybones worth an afternoon of entertainment.
Flash fiction is hard to write, and not often does any of it succeed, perhaps because what works best are stories that have something new to say, and in a clever way, about well-known topics; or, if not well-known, then at least ones known to me. Neil Gaiman's "Nicholas was..." succeeds because it explains in lightning-like fashion an alternative view of just what it means to be Santa.
Likewise, Kane tackles only slightly-less popular territory in the story of Oliver Twist, transforming the occasion of the boy's being made a scapegoat into a moment of sweet, tangy revenge. That this works at all relies upon the reader's familiarity with the pre-existing story, and though the occasion of my exposure to Twist is a long time ago and far behind me now, the cultural imprint of the suffering boy seems strong enough to make this one stand out from much of the rest in the world of flash fiction, especially since we get to see suffering revenged.
Master of the White Worms
Dalton Quayle, crackerjack investigator and master of disguise, along with the help of his trusty sidekick, Dr. Humphry Pemberton, find themselves called upon to investigate the mysterious disappearance of one Mr. Meadows, groundskeeper of Willerby Manor.
Spoofing Sherlock Holmes with the former and Dr. Watson with the latter, Kane spins a tale of a missing man, an anguished widow, and the secretive lord of the manor, in which worms figure most mightily. Also figuring are constant jibes at the real nature of the Holmes/Watson relationship, spoofed via double entendres and various suggestive and compromising positions in which Quayle and Pemberton find themselves.
Clues are dropped with declarative appointment to anyone familiar with the H.P. Lovecraft mythos, spoofed here as the unpronounceable Cthuthachuffaluthulu cult, and by such degrees the ending, and the mystery, are not all that surprising -- though the outlandish conclusions drawn from paltry clues may be. Which is all part of the point, after all. What we're being sold is the game, a literary gambol amid Doyle's tropes and types. In this respect the story pays off most to those most steeped in the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, and it's also in this way that the story leaves you wanting it to have played more with the texture of a borrowed world.
A Suspicious Mind
Taking as its launching pad the old Elvis song, "Suspicious Minds," this little poem looks past the conciliatory tone of the Presley tune and instead offers a much harsher alternative to what happens to a guy trying to placate a jealous inamorata. Let's just say he doesn't fare as well as the dude in the Elvis tune -- which ends with a line you might expect in a snack-food commercial, "Mmm yeah, yeah" -- but instead ends here with a truncated quatrain affirming the worst in ways that those who have heard the Elvis song one too many million times may appreciate. A bit of a trifle, a bit of a confection, a bit of a prolonged pun, "A Suspicious Mind" has too little to work with, and too few syllables with which to do it, to fly higher than a smirk or chuckle.
The Bones Brothers
I reviewed this one some time ago for another Paul Kane book, Touching the Flame, and wrote of it then:
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.
Having reread "Brothers" in the new collection, I see that I still feel the same way about it, although I wish I hadn't written, "The latter idea proves far more interesting than the bulk of the story." I'd rather have written something like this: Though the bulk of the story proves entertaining, it is this last idea -- the notion that the Bones Brothers can make good their escape from the afterlife if they acquire certain somethings -- that holds the most intrigue. Enough intrigue, in fact, that I wanted to see it explored.
What is this? I confess, I'm lost. At first glance it appears that the very brief story/prose poem, with its alliteration and internal rhymes, might refer in its own way to the word and how a machine might extract meaning from babble. (Perhaps this is in some way like a critic trying to extract meaning from such cryptic brevity.) Despite being lost, however, "Yibble" does present an interesting enough experiment -- or whatever it is -- to make it a piece worth considering ... but not too long.
Dracula in Love
This one, a story about Dracula debilitated by a case of lovesickness for a girl named Cassandra, could easily have rated higher on the "How well did I like it?" scale, but for one matter: it treats an interesting idea without much aspiration and whiffs of an opportunity sorely missed.
Oh, it's okay as a lighthearted story in which Dracula visits a shrink for help dealing with a problem he at first refuses to recognize, and the story sports funny bits about how famished the vampire is and what effect this has on his ability to transform into a bat or fog, and how attempting to travel incognito as a vampire presents its own little problems, and how he's no longer the harsh, even monstrous, soul he used to be; and there's some amusing stuff in it, too, about his origins as the notorious Vlad "the Impaler," and how the doctor who's supposed to help him provides utterly pedestrian advice, but something seems missing amid the easy jokes.
What's missing is this: the best humor has something deeper to say about us as humans, and something in particular to say about its topics.
The Dracula legend and its many iterations are a rich source for commentaries, both social and literary, precisely because it has such a hold on the human psyche, presenting an archetypal myth that refuses to die no matter how many different times we've seen it, and in no matter how many ways. Yet here we get a skimming of those surfaces, picking up the easy jokes (pop-culture references that will disappear in a few years), all the while missing the deeper and more revelatory ones. After all, what is a psychologist's relationship with a patient but an emotionally vampiric one, and how might such relationships correlate to the one between the vampire who controls and the victim whose will becomes subsumed by that of the other?
And, in a story in which the king of vampires seeks out emotional help in dealing with a woman who is named for a Greek character both doomed to know the future and yet have no one believe her, why do we not explore the depths of those legendary wells, ones deeper than mere pop-culture funnies and easy gags? The answer is twofold, of course: writing is hard, humor may itself be all the harder, and meaningful or deeply explorative humor about cherished myths and legends might be the hardest kind of writing of all.
Amusing, but no more, "Dracula in Love" aims without ambition and hits its mark. And that's too bad, especially in a story about life, death, immortality, and -- at least a little -- that undying thing called love.
The Sheepshank Revelation
Another Dalton Quayle tale, this riff off the Sherlock Holmes stories has less to do with Stephen King's "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption" and more to do with "The Silence of the Lambs" meets "Wolfman."
This time intrepid investigator Dalton Quayle finds himself assisting a farmer whose home and family is nightly bedeviled by a monstrous beast. Once again, the connections and clues and solutions are all very clear, this not being the kind of mystery in which we're not supposed to figure it all out until the last second -- for instance, Just who is the neighboring farm boy and what's his mysterious attraction to the farmer's daughter, and why does the farmer's wife knit with silver needles? -- but rather because this is a story in which we're supposed to enjoy the jokes, often at the expense of our humble narrator, Dr. Humphrey Pemberton. Once again, those jokes work, more often than not and, in contrast to the limits of "Dracula in Love," "The Sheepshank Revelation" manages to explore the lycanthropy myth in ways amusing and, at the very least, broadly revealing.
Eight little quatrains tell the story of a monster from its humble origins to its more publicly frightening forays to its eventual capture and diminishment by an angry mob. Once again, the extremely brief form presents formidable problems for how to keep things captivating and evocative. Unfortunately, very spare language, using utterly commonplace words, renders just as spare and commonplace a poetic retelling of the epic monster monomyth cycle (apologies to Joseph Campbell).
The Last Temptation of Alice Crump
Alas, another mediocre retelling of the incorruptible soul who's corruption is the mission of a demon dispatched from Hell. Things start well enough as we see Mike, a bored office-worker type idly tossing crumples of paper at the waste basket, then we quickly realize where he is and who his boss is and what the boss wants of him. Okay so far. But once Mike the demon meets Alice Crump, incorruptible soul, and pulls all the usual stunts in an attempt to sway her to the dark side, we very quickly get a feeling of seen-that-before, done-that-before, seen-that-done-before, followed by a very brief respite of invention -- involving a sauna and a glass of cold water -- only to then find ourselves dumped back into a fairly pedestrian iteration of a tired tale. This is of course one of the chief reasons to avoid tackling clichTd kinds of stories -- they are very difficult to tackle anew -- but Kane manages to pull off a refreshed seeming ending when the recalcitrant Crump finally gets the demon to promise her anything if only she'll give in to evil. You can probably figure it out on your own what that is, but then you'll also see that it commits a logical fallacy that kind of punctures its own seeming effectiveness.
All the Rage
In a story playing the horror straight (or darkly humorous, if you're so inclined) instead of broadly guffaw-inducing, Kane presents to us a revenge tale in which Damien Dupont is the world's foremost fashion designer, a man so given to avant-garde haute couture that his new show is greeted with stupendous anticipation by the interested masses, including supermodels willing to wear whatever he makes, sight unseen, because wearing his name will float their careers upon higher waves.
And what has he made? What is the statement of his fashion code? Ah. There things get interesting in ways Roland Barthes never thought of in his 1967 SystFme De La Mode (The Fashion System). You see, Dupont has created not just clothing, but statements. And it is here where the story acquires both its horror and its own smallness. The Dupont attire is shocking, once its true nature is discovered, but instead of this revelation generating any strong feelings among those viewing the show (or even the reader), we get tepid disgust, alarm, and quick acquiesces that diminish all sense of revulsion.
But that's still not the high point, no. This is a revenge story, after all, and a tale of comeuppance for the high and mighty Dupont who suffers his very own statements of fashion intent.
No doubt that's mighty cryptic, but to say more would be giving things away. "All the Rage" could have made at least a couple of powerful statements of its own, not the least of which concerns the sometimes slavish pursuit of fashion -- particularly the outrT, among the Damine Duponts of the world and their admirers -- and another of which has to do with how far we might turn our heads to look the other way in light of horrors before our very, and sometimes very fashion-addicted, eyes.
"All the Rage" doesn't quite connect, then, on those points, and makes itself harder to care for because -- despite its compelling premise -- there are no compelling characters among its victims.
Dalton Quayle and the Temple of Deadly Danger
If the title reminds you of "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom," it should, and a familiar whip-cracking fellow named Harrison even makes an appearance, along with his pet worm Reggie, in this Dalton Quayle, Dr. Humphrey Pemberton, tale.
This time the intrepid knockoff of Sherlock Holmes, wallowing in despair at having no worthy adversary against which to pit his formidable investigative skills, becomes embroiled in a case of theft from a local museum. What has been stolen: three stones. But not just any three. They are three of a set of five -- the stones of Bukardi Brueaza -- each of which possess distinct magical properties that, when combined, will open a door to another dimension. Horrible things lurk in that other dimension, of course, and it's up to Quayle and Pemberton to stop whoever has stolen the stones from opening that cosmic door.
Working loosely off the "Temple of Doom" structure, the story also manages to spoof "Apocalypse Now" and the ever-influential Sherlock Holmes seed, the latter providing much of the villainous underpinning of the plot. The advantage here is that this story, the longest of the three Quayle ones, has more room to build, and benefits for it, coming off seeming not so rushed and more roundly developed.
A tiny gem of a poem, Kane's five lines are an exercise in economy and evocation about what happens to someone who calls a certain kind of someone else a name, even if that name, unbeknownst to the would-be insulter, happens to be right and fitting. It's all about magic, after all, and the power of words.
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