One of the benefits of the recent upsurge in novellas being published is the opportunity for big names to play in smaller sandboxes. Works that are perhaps too experimental or too insubstantial for full novel-length projects can get play now, providing readers with more of their favorite authors. Meanwhile, the authors themselves get a chance to stretch outside marketing departments’ comfort zones, which is why this column touches on, among other things, a story about Tarzan literally drank himself out of Hollywood.
The Ape Man’s Brother, by Joe Lansdale, fits neatly into the steampunky pastiche section of his work, along with the assorted adventures of Ned the Seal. Told from the point of view of Cheetah (who in this retelling is not a chimp but rather a member of a different “human” species”), it relates the rise and fall of Tarzan in the big city without ever explicitly mentioning the so-called “Big Guy” by name. Now aging and broke, Cheetah tells the reader how he and Tarzan were picked up, brought to “civilization”, and how the intersection of their old lives and their new ones made them celebrities – until it destroyed them. Written with the usual Lansdale panache and sly humor – not to mention earthiness (a key plot point revolves around The Big Guy exhibiting a particular dominance behavior whilst filming a movie, and you can let your imagination run from there.) But as always with Lansdale, there’s deeper feeling here, a thoughtful examination of the was society lionizes and then destroys the outsider.
Ditching the familiar and humorous, Clive Barker’s Chiliad: A Meditation lives up to its reputation as one of the darkest things he’s ever written. Considering Barker’s body of work. that’s saying something, but the work speaks for itself. Collecting two previously published stories – “Men and Sin” and “A Moment At the River’s Heart” into one interconnected work, the novella abandons the grand supernatural constructions of Imajica or The Great and Secret Show, and instead focuses on the very personal causes and effects of acts of violence. Not random acts – each story, in its own way, shows the inevitable logic that leads relentlessly to brutal death – but rather moments, each explicable in its own painful context, which of course was created by still earlier acts. And so the great chain of suffering continues across the thousand years that separate the two sub-narratives in gut-wrenching fashion. There are hints of Holdstock here, with the malleable flow of both time and the river at the center of the piece suggesting Ryhope’s more formalized mythology, but only a hint here. The voice here is Barker’s own, magnificently focused on the dark heart that beats in even his most grandiose works.
And then there’s The Last Full Measure by Lost Fleet series author Jack Campbell (a pen name for retired naval officer John G. Hemry). An alternate history imagining a pre-Civil War United States where Abraham Lincoln is a political prisoner charged with sedition and the government is an unholy totalitarian alliance of southern aristocracy, northern industrialists, and the military. A daring escape brings Lincoln and Professor Joshua Chamberlain (a hero of Gettysburg in our world) together, driving the riven nation inevitably toward war and those two men towards key roles in this alternate America’s destiny. Campbell has some fun shaking up the chessboard, rearranging which historical figures are on which side of the fight this time, but anyone who’s read Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels is going to find the conclusion extremely familiar. Less an epic alternate history and more a mash note to Joshua Chamberlain (whom, to be fair, deserves a great many accolades), the novella starts in a very different place but drives inevitably to the known and expected.
Not every experiment works, of course, and not every pet project survives the harsh scrutiny of a paying audience. That being, the fact that these three novellas – so widely different from each other and from what we might expect from their authors – all saw publication is good news for readers. And if one didn’t quite work, well, that’s how experimentation goes.