Before I get started on this week’s book review for Atoms of Empire by C.J. Cutcliffe Hyne (Science Fiction? Fantasy? Horror? Old? 279 pages), I’m going to paint a picture of scenery and style.
A few months back, I was travelling around Alaska and found myself with a few hours to spare in Juneau. It was colder than the island upon which I currently dwell and a light drizzle penetrated the overcast sky. Having grown up in a colder, damper climate than my island, I found myself missing the rain, forests, rivers, and general green atmosphere. Wanting desperately to feel freedom from a constant sense of cramped humanity, I wandered a bit away from the beaten track and came upon http://www.observatorybooks.com/, my version of a classic bookstore.
Stacked floor to ceiling with shelves of books, new and old, maps, and at least two glass cases for the more delicate items, the store only lacked a cushy chair tucked up in a hidden corner to make it a perfect example of the library I someday aspire to own when my travels are complete. While I have nothing against modern eBooks and eReaders, there’s just something powerful and moving about the feel, weight, and even the smell of books, particularly old ones. The floorboards creaked under my sneakers as I carefully navigated through stacks of books, lined up on shelves on across the floor, searching for something special as a mark of both my travels and my search for original horror stories.
I asked the clerk at the desk, who wore a warm, puffy jacket, if she knew of any old horror stories buried somewhere in the store. She performed a quick search through the database and came up with a first edition of Atoms of Empire from 1904. Neither the title nor the author rang any bells for me, but the book was in good condition with gold engraving on a loam green background. What can I say? On that somewhat dreary day, I liked the feel of the book. I liked its design and its weight and the book itself is a reminder of a very spectacular trip.
The book sat on my shelf for several months while my “real life” raged around me and swamped my time with work and obligations. After last week’s tedium, I pulled this book off the shelf, full of hope for a story of chilling terror from a time when people could go missing for months without anyone knowing. A time without modern medicine or common comforts, where the shadows in the night stole the souls of young children or creatures in the forest lured innocent maidens away with promises of sacrifice.
As I finally began my journey through this book, I suppose it was my own expectations that formed an image in my mind about what I wanted from the book. I wanted a story that would make me uncomfortable to live by myself or to fear walking into a deep cavern with unknown potential.
And that expectation got me about halfway through the book before I realized and honestly admitted to myself that not only was I completely oblivious as to what was going on in the story, but I also had absolutely no idea who the characters were. The book doesn’t seem to stick to any specific location or characters, or even time for that matter. Each chapter seemed completely independent of the ones previous to it, almost like a short story feel. I kept reading because I was desperately hoping for those carefully placed tidbits that would let me figure out how everything was connected so I could experience that marvelous “Ah-HA!” moment when everything in the story clicks and I figure out what’s going on before the main character does.
That moment never came. And there was never a main character to have that prominent moment of enlightenment. So as I put down this book after finishing it, I think I maybe MIGHT have an idea as to what happened and how it’s all connected, but I’m not really sure. I think I’d have to take some pretty copious notes to figure out who was where and what they were doing and why it affected everything else. I suspect I might take on that endeavor in the future, but not until I have at least a little bit of free time on my hands.
Overall, the book definitely had some rather gruesome and unfortunate parts. I finally did get my classic horror tale, and I think in the future I shall refer to it all by itself (or at least until I can diagram everything and see if I really know what I think I might know). Chapter VI: the Lizard can stand all by itself as a prime example why you shouldn’t go destroying things in unexplored caves. The rest of the book had death and destruction aplenty, usually in the form of plague, slavery, and fire, all of which are terrible and horrifying things, especially back in those days. I’m glad I purchased the book, but I’m not sure I would read it again for enjoyment.