Review: The New Death and Others

Disclaimer: This review was requested by the author of the book, and written and published in exchange for a pdf copy thereof (see end of review).

If there’s one thing I learned in creative writing, it’s that writing short stories—getting the pacing and the characterization and the plot all to fit together in only a few pages—is very, very difficult. Moreso when the stories in question regularly alternate styles. The New Death and Others (see also Amazon), a collection of short stories and the odd poem by James Hutchings, does both. It combines pseudo-myths, retellings in poetry of sword and sorcery novels, pseudo-Lovecraftian tales, social commentary, parody, folktale deconstruction and very bad puns (fortunately, each story tends not to have more than three of the above elements). I am told there was also something in there somewhere inspired by AD&D elves, but I’m too later-gen a gamer to find it; perhaps another reader might have more luck.

The overall effect, unfortunately, is to give the entire collection the literary equivalent of Multiple Attribute Disorder. Most of the stories, to be sure, show potential. Ideas that, if executed well, could be glorious, or incisive humor, or… something worth respecting. A tone that very clearly indicates a concerted effort to emulate Lovecraft (extra points from me—I loved the imagery in some of the Dreamlands stories). The ability to use “thee” and “thou” in a sentence, properly conjugating the verbs and everything—that’s a rare and valuable skill, even if I do somewhat disagree with some of his choices of when to use it.

But then something falls flat. Social commentary so thinly veiled that the jagged edges of society rip right through and leave nothing to the imagination (and you all know what I think of message fiction). Stories that left their conflict at the door when they came inside, or cast it quickly out of the way for the sake of a joke. Ideas that have been done a dozen times before, or that parody something that’s been done so many times that the ending is only inevitable, not surprising. Stories that have already been told in the book in somewhat different forms (the titular tale is one such, and I’d rather not discuss the plot of said story, it and its counterpart both make me ranty). Female characters who manage between them to touch off every stereotype button I have. Lovecraft impressions that keep the dramatic language, ease up a bit on the “paid by the obscure word” vocabulary—but manage to lose the sense of imagery that made Lovecraft interesting, and create unknowable things just a touch too knowable to be convincing. One story, a sort of Lovecraft meets Holmes meets anachronism played for humor pastiche, introduces a mess of well-known personages by obviously modified names, takes the single jokes of their characterization and beats them into the ground.

This, I think is, where the greatest danger of anthologizing multi-style lies. When people write one style of thing, either you decide that you’re sick of it and throw it across the room, or it becomes a part of the writer’s quirk and slowly grows on you. When the style shifts every other story—sometimes in the middle of the page, as there are no page breaks between stories, if you don’t like something, you know there will be something different—but if that something different bothers you as well, it turns into a flight from one annoyance to another to another and back to the first.

Hutchings tries, particularly given the disadvantage this particular combination of factors gives him. And given more time, and a bit more polish, he might succeed. I just don’t think he’s there yet.

(From top: Had a review not been requested, I would not have given a negative review to this book—I try to focus on panning things I loathe, and I don’t hate it enough to give it negative publicity on my own initiative. Having been given such a request, once I read the book, I offered to give Hutchings my critique in private rather than publishing, telling him I was unlikely to be able to write a positive review. He told me to publish anyway. Given some of the authors—even professionally published ones—I’ve seen with egos so fragile they’d try to tear apart a reviewer for a somewhat dubious review, I have to admire that kind of intestinal fortitude. He is braver by far than I.)

7 comments

  1. scottsz says:

    I take issue with this review.

    You should have passed on reviewing something that you knew you definitely wouldn’t like. In fact, it was a mistake for the author to even send you a copy.

    The New Death is not for dry theorists. I’m very disappointed that you found nothing inspirational in any of the pieces within it.

  2. Ravyn says:

    *waves back any friends that might take issue at the issue-taking*

    Scott–let me tell you a story.

    Six or seven years ago, I frequented a conlangers’ and worldbuilders’ forum. I’ll admit, I wasn’t the most active of the community members, at least not in the primary subject; but I could talk books, every now and then my science background came in handy, and… well, I managed.

    One day, one of the regulars posted a couple chapters of a story he wrote, asking for critique. I saw the potential in the story, but there was a lot between that and what it was at the time–so I went to town on it. Ways to tighten up the pacing, bits of expospeak that could be removed or reframed so as not to mess with the story, that sort of thing.

    To one of the other board regulars, it seemed like a vicious attack, and he launched straight into “quoting” with lorem ipsum and chewing me out for mangling the poor man’s story. The next person to respond was the writer, who basically summed his position up as “Of course she was supposed to do it, how am I going to get any better if I’m not corrected?”

    I’ve been his good friend and editor ever since.

    We’re authors, Scott. We put our words out there. Sometimes they’re good, and we bask in the adoration of our newly devoted fans. Sometimes they need tweaking, and someone points this out to us, so we know for next time. Without having people out there to tell us “You know, that Hatecraft gag is a little longer than it needs to be” or “Is it just me, or is the one with the campfire stories all denouement?”, how are we ever going to recognize our faults?

    I posted this review because when I offered to keep my opinions private, knowing the effect a negative review can have on a book–and because I didn’t want to rip it apart in front of my readers but I’d agreed, a review for a PDF, and I keep my word–James told me, “No worries, post it anyway.” Knowing how to take criticism is, I think, the greatest quality someone who wants to be a writer can possess. He’s clearly got it–certainly more than I do. I can’t disrespect that. Neither should you.

  3. Shinali says:

    Just a little comment on critique itself.

    I was in a general writing seminar, and we all brought in excerpts of our work to have critiqued. Now, if you’ve ever presented genre fiction to general fiction and non-fiction writers/readers, you’ll know that there are many genre conventions that don’t translate well.

    I was given two specific pieces of advice on that piece that I clearly remember some 5 years later: 1) “These names are confusing” (two people and a place starting with da or de) and 2) “Does it have to be in a fantasy setting? Couldn’t it be set in the real world?”

    I changed one name to starting with a T and split another into two words. I also rewrote a paragraph as if it were set at Mt. Rainier not a fictional volcano. The first change ended up working out very well, but the second just ended up weird and was scrapped.

    I took both suggestions to heart, regardless of being attached to the names and the setting, and tested them to see if they held water.

    Reviewers aren’t always right, whether positive or negative reviews. Even from people I really trust the opinion of, I always take things with a grain of salt, and test it both ways. Usually I end up somewhere in the middle.

  4. scottsz says:

    For the record: I don’t take issue with the fact that you didn’t like the work – I can understand someone hating The New Death. I take issue with your review dumping the work and not addressing at least some of the specific pieces or the inspirational flavor of some of them. Maybe the work didn’t deserve better, but I did: I followed a link claiming a review was here and hoped for some analysis (technical or otherwise). This was really a smack in the face and came across as unprincipled as Hutchings’ sad strategy of trying to get everyone under the sun to review his anthology.

    You really have to ‘wave your friends back’, like some kind of tribe? Don’t bother. I will not visit or comment here again. There are more of you than there are of me.

  5. Thanks for the review, but I was hoping you’d link to the book’s pages (Amazon and Smashwords).

  6. Ravyn says:

    Hey, easy. That first was mostly to tell them “Back off, I’ve got it.” I wanted to keep this a reasoned discussion rather than a flamewar, and I wanted to make sure that nobody I’ve a personal connection with was getting any ideas about shooting the messenger.

    The reason why I didn’t address any of the pieces specifically was because it’s a short story anthology that worked in a dozen different styles, and I worried that if I chose one or two to be approached more closely someone would get on my case for spending too much time castigating the poor author (it’s happened before, though I’ll admit I deserved the rebuke the last time–then again, so did the author I was dissecting). That, and I try to keep my posts short.

    You’ll notice, though, I did rather liberally sprinkle the post with things I liked. His ability to use Middle English without mangling it horribly (sadly rare in this day and age); the fact that for the most part he took the Lovecraftian style and improved on certain aspects (the problem being that he slipped a bit on the part of the style I find the most important, which probably doesn’t matter as much to anyone who isn’t specifically a Dreamlands junkie); with the Lovecraft/Holmes/etc pastiche, whose title I unfortunately have forgotten and am on the wrong computer to check, I did address my specific problem with it in short form (the long version is that the characters, particular our dear friend Mr. Hatecraft, were given one piece of ‘humorous’ characterization and had it pounded into the ground–I think the character could better have been approached by, instead of explicitly yelling to [insert member of group against which he is biased], muttering about these [members of group] and their [oblique reference to story in which the original Lovecraft shown his disdain for them], something along the lines of “…next thing you know they’re slipping you the mickey in a ruby bottle…” Retains the racism-for-parody, isn’t quite as prone to rubbing one’s nose in it, and provides some nice in-jokes for the author’s fans).

    I have mentioned this in my review, I mentioned it in my first comment, but I didn’t hate it. You want hatred, look for my riffs on Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs or Silk and Steel (it took me three days to put the latter out of its misery, and what I had to go on was two chapters of ultraviolet prose. I’ve been trying to avoid repeats of that incident). This is more closely comparable to the kind of “I can see how good this can be, why’d it have to drop at the last minute” that occasioned my Tomato in Sparta riff a year or two ago. If he hadn’t asked me specifically for a review, you’d never even know I read it.

    In fact, tell you what. If you’re still willing to engage, pick me–anywhere between three and four of the stories, the ones that cover most of a page at least–and I’ll spend a posting week giving them a closer look. Fair?

  7. Ravyn says:

    Sorry I missed your comment, Mr. Hutchins–the Smashwords is in fact linked in the main article, through a hyperlink on the book’s title. Updating for Amazon now.

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