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Alan’s Picks

Alan’s bookshelves are full of science fiction and fantasy, horror, graphic novels, spy thrillers, ancient and modern history, and… geology textbooks. Which goes a long way towards explaining why they’re no fun at parties.

Mister Magic

Kiersten White
Hardcover/May 28, 2023
Del Rey

I am a sucker for horror stories that play with memory, nostalgia, and the strange phenomena of growing up (whatever that’s supposed to mean). I also love cyclical horror; about a monster, or an event, or a killing, that comes back around and around and around again, and the characters’ efforts to either stop that cycle, or merely survive it.

Stephen King’s It is maybe the easiest example of this kind of horror, but it’s far from the only one, and it seems like the subgenre is only getting more and more popular. Maybe it’s a side-effect of Hollywood’s attempts to harness Gen Xers’ and Millennials’ nostalgia, with varying degrees of success, and those of us in those age cohorts (especially horror fans, who have always been the hardest people for Hollywood to please or placate) trying to reclaim the stories we love from being fed into the churn of endless content. Maybe it’s the feeling of the present constantly accelerating towards chaos, even as any hope for a pleasant or even safe future recedes away, causing us to look to the past and seek out both comfort and terror there, a search for meaning and honesty in what we’ve lived through, when meaning and honestly seem in such short supply in the present.

Mister Magic is a book about a group of former child actors, who worked together on a show that shares the book’s title. Something happened to them on the set of that show, and whatever it was, it shut down production forever. Stranger still, it erased all physical and digital records of the show, so that Mister Magic has become that rarest of things in a world where everything that ever existed is available forever: a source of nostalgia that is impossible to revisit. Viewers remember watching that show, but their memories have done what memories do: fade, mutate, get tangled up with identity and ideology and dreams. What they all agree about is that whatever happened to that show they loved when they were kids… it was terrifying. Or was it amazing? Was it both?

The actors have all grown up, and their own memories of the show are as fallible as the viewers: the main viewpoint character actually has no memories of it at all, until her old friends show up and tell her about a cast reunion, put on by a podcast host with some mysterious patrons (but who are not, one immediately senses, mysterious Patreon supporters, like every other podcast has). They are brought together again, in the house where they all lived while working on the show.

And then… well. It starts happening again.

What is it? Why is it happening? Who, or what, was the show’s star, the mysterious Mister Magic, and was he their protector, their tormentor, or something else?

There are answers in the book, but the joy of reading it — and there is quite a lot of joy in this book, a high note running over a growling bass of dread and uncertainty, the kind of joy that comes from having found, at long last or once again, your people — doesn’t come from the answers. It comes from asking ourselves as we are reading about these characters, what have we forgotten, or misremembered? What parts of your own lives were more magical, or more terrifying, than we want to believe? What shadows are cast by the flickering CRT light of nostalgia? Only Mister Magic knows for sure. For most of us, we must find contentment in the question itself… unless of course, whatever it was we can’t quite remember, happens again.

Because sometimes, it does.


Our Hideous Progeny

C.E. McGill
Hardcover/May 9, 2023

There’s a version of this review that simply reads “What if Dr. Frankenstein made Jurassic Park?”

Such a review would not be… wrong, precisely.  Before we’re even out of the short-but-haunting prologue, we know  two things: the protagonist of this novel is a descendant of Victor Frankenstein (she’s his great-neice, to be exact), and that instead of a man, her Creature is described as a reptilian, primordial beast, brought to life through a mixture of medieval alchemy and Victorian science.

(For those who may be wondering, McGill chose to include the element of life-giving electricity, absent from Mary Shelley’s masterpiece novel but which was made iconic in James Whale’s equally-brilliant 1931 film.)

That was most of what I knew about Our Hideous Progeny, and it was enough to get me to tear into the book as soon as I could get my claws on it. Dr. Frankenstein brings a dinosaur back to life. What else do you need to know, except how soon can you get a copy of your own, right?

Like I said. That’s not an inaccurate description of the book… but it would be an unfair one. Because there is so, so much more going on inside Our Hideous Progeny than you might initially suspect. It is in that way (and many others) that this book is more than just a modern pastiche of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but a true and worthy companion to it. It is a gothic in the original sesne of the word: the narrator’s view of the world is at once romantic and unflinching; beauty and revulsion mix until they are almost indistinguishable, as do passion and obsession; the supernatural is irrefutably present, but it’s far from the most horrid thing the characters must face. In short, it is a far more successful, holistic regeneration of the dead than either book’s protagonists can manage to create.

If anything, Progeny amplifies many of the latent (not to say undead) elements of Mary Shelley’s work. There are numerous queer interpretations of Frankenstein out there, and while most of them make good arguments Our Hideous Progeny takes the subtext and places it in the book’s flickering, ghastly spotlight. The gender-nonbinary author, C.E. McGill, is queer themselves, and they have much to say about the nature of queer existence, particularly how it can both erase a person while at the same time painting a target on their back.

McGill’s description of their book’s Creature—with it’s reptilian skin, it’s snarling jaws and bloated body, it’s rubbery flippers—is a bit of understated genius. Some readers will react to the description with incredulity—that isn’t what Mesozoic animals really looked like!—and they’d be right to, but they’d be missing the point. Jurassic Park gave us Velociraptors that were too big, T-Rexes that hunted like bears instead of tigers, and not a single feather in sight,… all of which was based on paleontological theories and museum depictions of the 1990s. McGill, then, bases their Creature on Victorian artists’ depictions of these ancient animals: sometimes this art looks ridiculous and cartoonish, but sometimes it is high-octane nightmare fuel. McGill captures the look perfectly with their Creature, evoking a ghostly sense of lost history—both the ancient Earth of the dinosaurs, and the gaslit otherworld of the Victorian period—which, for all its lack of “realism,” is all too believable.

I can’t say enough good things about this book. It reads like a classic gothic and a modern thriller. Its romance is full of yearning and need, and its horror would make Guillermo Del Toro proud. It’s a science fiction novel that dares to place itself on a pedastal with the mother of all science fiction novels… and it measures up just fine. In some ways — and I can see the torches being lit and the pitchforks sharpened in the black-and-white village as I type this — it may even be better.

And, oh, also, did I mention this is a book where DR. FRANKENSTEIN BRINGS A DINOSAUR BACK TO LIFE?!

The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity

David Graeber and David Wengrow
Trade Paperback/April 4, 2023

Any good history book will make you occasionally say “huh!” when you learn something new. This book will make you want to run into traffic, press the book against the windshield of the first car that screeches to a halt, and yell at the driver: “Holy crap, did you know about this?!

The Dawn of Everything made me question my assumptions about not just human history, but creativity, emotions, law, and—as corny as it sound—the meaning of life. A generation ago, Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel changed the conversation about human societies forever. The Dawn of Everything is set to pull off that same trick, but with a sense of style, humor, and empathy that Diamond and other dour predictivists often lack. Most impressive and surprising of all, reading this book about our species’ past actually gave me hope for our future. How many history books these days can manage that?