Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Flaming Zeppelins

It seems to me there is some adage about books and covers.

The front cover of this book by Joe R. Lansdale shows zeppelins hovering over London Bridge with searchlights flaring up and Martian tripods moving about below. There are cameos of what appear to be Wild Bill Hickock and Buffalo Bill Cody, and it's all bordered by flourishes that evoke art nouveau. The subtitle is also evocative, hanging there as it does "The Adventures of Ned the Seal." It is one of the most lovely book covers I have ever seen, suitable for being made into a poster.

The back cover, dread home of the Blurb, also begs for readers' attention. The reader is made sure to know that those are indeed Hickock and Cody on the cover and that the book also includes such characters as Annie Oakley, Sitting Bull, Frankenstein, and the Tin Man. Oh, and "Ned the prehensile seal." How can anyone resist reading such a delight?

Flaming Zeppelins is actually a collection of two novellas, "Zeppelins West" and "Flaming London" which have a few characters in common. In plot, Flaming Zeppelins is a mix of dime novel and pulp, and is a rollicking adventure set in some odd settings: turn of the century Japan, the Island of Doctor Moreau (whose name in the novel is Dr. Momo, most likely for copyright reasons), Morocco, what appears to be Skull Island from King Kong, and finally a London invaded by Martians. Just listing such eclectic locales stirs the readerly juices of fans of the genres, and the ideas contained within are fabulous.

The problem, as always, is with the execution.

Lansdale is known for his writing style, based on the tall tales of turn of the century America, and there really is no place his stories will not take him. His chosen subject matter in this book is perfect for this style of storytelling and the word "raconteur" comes to mind as you read. The plot rockets along, pinballing from scene to scene quite naturally, dragging the reader with it. But for all the breadth of this book, there is very little depth to speak of.

Let's be clear here: there are scenes and moments here that are a tremendous amount of fun. The description of Cody's Wild West show is perhaps the best descriptive scene in the book. Placing that scene before a Japanese audience who is sometimes uncertain of how to react, especially when Annie Oakley shows off her impressive shooting skills, is brilliant. But nothing much like that ever happens again in the book. The rest really does fall into fairly simplistic storytelling, relying on slapstick humor more than thoughtful and the most coarse of human instincts rather than anything finer. And while that may work for some, for others it may not. I have to admit that I did grow weary of the comparison of the male character's genitalia (including Ned the seal), and really, fart jokes get old after a while.

Sadly, the ideas are here; while the first novella is better constructed, the second introduces the idea of some sort of multiuniversal calamity causing various realities to begin coming together. The characters realize that they don't share the same history: for example, Jules Verne works with Passepartout and his wife has left him for Phileas Fogg. The storytelling potential alone from this idea is tremendous, and Lansdale takes full advantage of the setting and character possibilities that are offered. But for these wonderful bones there is very little meat.

It's also no help that occasionally Lansdale takes some storytelling risks that generally don't pay off. Most notably, as Mark Twain, Jules Verne, and Ned the Seal use their captured Martian tripod to outrun other Martian invaders (how awesome does that sound?), Lansdale changes the structure of the story to mimic an announcer calling a horse race. And while the parallels are obvious, the writing just doesn't match up. I think I know what was being attempted—folks gathered around a storyteller might appreciate the change as it was being spoken to an audience but it doesn't carry over to the written word. Similarly, the second novella alternates between a third-person narrator and narration from Ned the Seal, sometimes switching without very much warning. And while Lansdale pretty much nails the voice of a seal who has been given human-level intelligence, it isn't exactly the voice I would prefer narrating a story. I'm reminded of Dug the Dog from the Pixar movie Up, who given the ability to speak talks about dog things. And Dug is played as cute. Ned spends as much time talking about seal things, especially his desire for fish, as he does actually telling the story. And rather than cute, Ned becomes obnoxious, barely tolerated by his coadventurers.

The result is a mixed bag. I'm sure the book is often described as "rollicking"—it is broad and far-reaching and very coarse. Its language is simplistic and not terribly descriptive. But as a running commentary on outrageous scenarios and events, it's a heck of a lot of fun as well. You just may need to turn off your filters and prepare yourself to be told a yarn.

And seriously—if anyone from the publisher reads this, make a poster.

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