Review: "Ten Plagues" edited by Ian Donnell Arbuckle and Justin Conwell

Monday, January 28, 2008

'Ten Plagues' edited by Ian Donnell Arbuckle and Justin Conwell (cover)

"Ten Plagues" edited by Ian Donnell Arbuckle and Justin Conwell
Saltboy Bookmakers, 2006
$10.40 trade paper original, 268 pages

This "Collection of Deadly Stories" sets itself the difficult task of having one short story for each of the plagues in Exodus.  The problem is that if it matches the stories and progression too closely, it could seem too derivative or predictable; and if it strays too far, things come off as random, and the inspiration as more of a gimmick.

I found "Ten Plagues" a very mixed bag.  The back cover says that "[the authors] unearth, by way of fictive archaeology, the deeper causes of the plagues [...]", but for the most part I don't see it.  They are inventive with their "fictive archaeology", and in some cases the stories work very well, but I was left wanting any real connection between the stories; and none of the stories seemed to reach for those common ties, let alone any deep-rooted causes--unless one takes the cause to be "they are", or "we invent".  Only a handful of the stories could really even be bent to having a connection wih the source material.

That said, many of the selections were enjoyable reading.  The tone is set with "Peter Pallister's Pool" by J. J. Beazley standing in for the plague of blood.  The writing is reminiscent of Lovecraft's, though less dense.  And it's an interesting tale, if told two steps removed.  But while there is a voluminous amount of blood involved (in the creepy, ancient horror sort of way), nobody really seems plagued by it.  It's a personal tale of a paranormal experience long in the past, and I was left confused as to the narrator's connection to the story.

The next story hops to Calaveras County, changing tone and mood drastically, with an extension of Mark Twain's "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County".  Matthew Johnson's "Jump, Frog!" is an amusing old science tale representing the plague of frogs, and it's given as a letter to "an unnamed correspondent" found in the effects of the late Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain).  It goes on to detail, in a very believable voice, the tale behind the tale: one scientist's quest for eternal life, and his folly and accidental creation of an incredibly vivified frog; and the scientist's subsequent "damnation" to tracking the frog hither and yon, trying to capture it.  Reference is made to the possibility of a plague of unnaturally powerful frogs if this one were allowed to breed.  We have to then assume the scientist was successful, though Samuel Clemens last saw him "headed north, up towards the Bay of Funday; and from thence, for all I know, the North Pole."

We then head back into firmer horror territory with the plague of swarms.  Mark E. Deloy's "Under the Church" is about as straight-forward as it gets, though the characterization is excellent.  The plague is obvious and there's always the chance it will appear somewhere else, despite eager efforts to destroy it.

"Drums and Drums" by Andrew Ferguson riffs on the plague of parasites with a nice blend of voodoo and science.  For the length, I think it would have been better without the POV shift--he could have developed the guide further and given us deeper insights.  As it stands, each character is relatively flat, despite the reader being handed enough information to explain their placement in the story.  Still, it was disturbingly interesting, and the research tangents seem fertile for further exploration.  I also appreciated how the potentially global scope was self-limiting, making it all seem somehow more plausible.  Science Fiction Biology made a related post on October 4, 2006: Parasites That Control Behavior.

The plague of pestilence piece, "Mercy in the Lazaretto" by Mark Yohalem, was one of the stronger ones, with good mood, throughline, characterization, and setting.  It even tied both into earlier plagues and the likelihood of future ones, while examining human nature.  The flashbacks that deepen our understanding of the story are a little weak, but they are just glimpses, and a small part of the actual narrative.

"The Harvester of Sorrow," by M.E. Palmer, is by far the strangest in the collection; and I think it had the most promise, both in idea and in format.  The narrative force in the story is a loosely-sketched character, a man who has the ability to feed on others' sorrow, removing it from them viscerally.  After introducing us to this, the narrative takes us to the realm of the personification of the true Harvester of Sorrow.  Here we are treated to some elegant and imaginative imagery and, as we slip back and forth between the two realms, we begin to see the epic effects of the slight disbalance caused by the use of this ability.  This does at one point weakly hook it into the plague of fever boils.  It's a complex story for the length, and that was its biggest challenge, and where I think it ultimately failed.  I'd love to see this piece redone as a full novel--there's a lot of room to make stronger connections and answer some of the implicit questions.

Julian Todd's "Mouthful of Smoke" represents the plague of hail; the setting is a future apocalypse where the few have much and the many are dead or dying.  The setting is very interesting, but the story doesn't seem much more than a quick examination of it.  Then again, the life-or-death chance taken by the protagonist is nothing compared to the scope of the advancement and/or extinction of life as we know it, which could well be the point.

"A Plague on Both Your Houses" by Paul Finch is perhaps the most solid story in the collection.  An action/adventure set in the late 1800s of London, it mixes old-school "dangers best left alone" with the legend of "Spring Heeled Jack".  The characters are, if not deep, at least solid archetypes, and well suited to the story and the mode of telling; and the plot carries you through with interest.  Its relation to the plague of locusts, while not immediately relevant to the story, is explained in a quite acceptable manner.

The plague of darkness is represented by P. Grey's "Baa-Rum-Pa", though the plague is more of a personal affliction--and brought on by rash behaviour and frustration.  Nazeer finds himself in need of a witch doctor, Baa-Rum-Pa, after all other remedies have been exhausted in the treatment of his father's mysterious ailment.  It is the building madness of Nazeer and the random and abusive eccentricity of Baa-Rum-Pa that make this story.

Lastly, then, is the plague of the death of the first born; "China", by Ian Donnell Arbuckle, is again a much more personal item than a plague.  It's a somewhat fantastical modern-day piece told from the point of view of the younger sibling.  There's a lot of complexity in the piece not directly addressed by the story--mentioned offhandedly, hinted at, or just played with--which in some cases works, and others just feels cheap.  Still, there are some clever moments.  For a quick feel of the anthology, you can read "China" at Bewildering Stories Issue 216.

All told, I think the anthology could have done without the Ten Plagues gimmick; and even with the gimmick, it wasn't coherent enough for me to grok them all together.

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posted by kaolin

51 comments; 0 subscribers

Monday, January 28, 2008 / 12:00:48
To win GUD's copy of "Ten Plagues", leave a comment below telling us which of the ten plagues you'd rather suffer through, if you had to pick one.

We'll choose a winner at random from the valid entries received. Contest open to US/Canada shipping addresses, and closes on 28th February (midnight pacific time).
Monday, January 28, 2008 / 22:38:05
flies would be bad but frogs worse. Maybe blood water would be best
Tuesday, January 29, 2008 / 01:32:06
I think the frogs would be allright because they eat flies but no plagues would be the best.
Tuesday, January 29, 2008 / 07:46:07
I could probably live through the frog plague.
Tuesday, January 29, 2008 / 07:49:21
Well, I think I'd prefer the locusts would be the easiest to deal with. And with a plague of frogs you also run the risk of being infested with Tom Cruise a la "Magnolia" ANY of the 10 plagues would be preferable to that. Heh.
Tuesday, January 29, 2008 / 08:07:56
How to choose. I guess the plague of darkness.
Tuesday, January 29, 2008 / 09:23:47
Tuesday, January 29, 2008 / 15:54:11
blood water
Tuesday, January 29, 2008 / 16:50:27
Tuesday, January 29, 2008 / 17:49:06
I think I would have to go with the locusts. If nothing else, fry them up and eat them
Tuesday, January 29, 2008 / 18:26:08
Locusts are ok...I dont mind bugs MUCH
Friday, February 1, 2008 / 21:05:39
Frogs! Ribbit!!
Saturday, February 2, 2008 / 09:22:18
I will take the frogs thanks!!!
Saturday, February 2, 2008 / 18:46:48
everybody loves locusts
Tuesday, February 5, 2008 / 02:49:50
Tuesday, February 5, 2008 / 09:37:52
I would take the frogs
Friday, February 8, 2008 / 17:38:14
I'll go with the frogs as well
Monday, February 11, 2008 / 16:20:10
I'm thinking either darkness, because, hey, I'm from Saskatchewan and there's times where it's like 6 hours of sunlight there. Okay, maybe eight.

Or locusts, because (apparently) those little bastards can be good eating. I assume I would have cooking spices during the time of the plague? Or even dipping chocolate? Surely the Lord isn't so much of a jerk as to deprive everyone of that?

Diseases on cattle is a distant third choice, as I'm not a farmer anyway and could survive as a vegetarian for a few years.
Monday, February 11, 2008 / 18:04:46
Yeah, I'd have to go with darkness. I think I could sleep for a while and it would be interesting to see what it'd be like to be blind for a while. And you could tell stories and have an excuse not to go to work. Hey, maybe that shouldn't be a plague after all...
Thursday, February 14, 2008 / 18:45:18
Darkness, by far. It's more or less a vacation.
Saturday, February 16, 2008 / 07:59:57
I like the darkness.
Saturday, February 16, 2008 / 11:02:08
I'd have to choose the frogs.
Saturday, February 16, 2008 / 20:22:05
Blood water
Friday, February 22, 2008 / 11:41:11
Friday, February 22, 2008 / 18:43:48
I'd have to say Darkness also
Saturday, February 23, 2008 / 19:55:58
I would go with the frogs. At least they can be friendly!
Sunday, February 24, 2008 / 17:41:16
Sunday, February 24, 2008 / 21:14:27
I would hate all of them, but a plague of complete and utter darkness, which lasted for three days is probably the least offensive. Thanks for giving us the chance to win.
Monday, February 25, 2008 / 19:36:41
The only one I think I could live with is the darkness. I'd take a few sleeping pills then keep them by my be in case I woke up and the plague was still there.
Tuesday, February 26, 2008 / 08:45:50
Probably darkness
Tuesday, February 26, 2008 / 21:09:22
Tuesday, February 26, 2008 / 22:35:30
The frogs and the locusts would drive me crazy with their sounds so darkness would be the one for me!
Wednesday, February 27, 2008 / 06:54:56
I would probably choose darkness. Anything else would undoubtedly cause me to eventually go insane.
Wednesday, February 27, 2008 / 11:01:49
I would pick frogs.
Wednesday, February 27, 2008 / 14:13:11
Wednesday, February 27, 2008 / 16:56:06
I would have to say Livestock Diseased. I would just eat lot's of veggies. :)
Wednesday, February 27, 2008 / 19:34:46
Gross, gross, gross! I'm going with locusts. I'd wear bee-keeper stuff to make sure none of them could actually crawl on me. Oh, I'm getting grossed out here.
Wednesday, February 27, 2008 / 21:55:13
with such a cloudy winter, i could handle darkness easily enough.
Wednesday, February 27, 2008 / 22:23:52
I would totally go for darkness because I'm nocturnal and not crazy about daylight.

Although frogs would be cool too if I was married to a French chef who could prepare the legs for me.
Wednesday, February 27, 2008 / 22:34:58
I prefer the frog plague. My entire family is fond of eating frog legs, which is better than a chicken in every pot!
Wednesday, February 27, 2008 / 22:54:41
Since the blood plague is described as a plague no one is particularly plagued by, I choose that plague.
Wednesday, February 27, 2008 / 23:54:27
Thursday, February 28, 2008 / 03:11:24
i think i'd be ok with the darkness if it's only for 3 days it would be cool cuz we would still have beautiful electricity!
Thursday, February 28, 2008 / 09:52:25
Thursday, February 28, 2008 / 10:41:52
i don't think i'd mind the frogs, except PETA would get on ur back if u accidentally ran over one with your car :{, but it's not my fault, they're EVERYWHERE!
Thursday, February 28, 2008 / 10:52:22
I'll go with darkness
Thursday, February 28, 2008 / 11:45:28
Darkness for me.
Thursday, February 28, 2008 / 13:35:32
Frogs for sure.
Thursday, February 28, 2008 / 16:16:36
Hail.I think i could endure that
Thursday, February 28, 2008 / 19:41:20
Probably darkness for me too.
Sunday, March 2, 2008 / 14:12:41
Thank you for all the great entries! Our random number generator selected cpom as our winner, so that will be going out next week.

We've often got a number of these contests going on, so check out our other reviews to see what's up!

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