Saturday, July 25, 2015

"A Happy Mother Takes Away Pain" (C.J. Henderson, Lai Wan: Tales of the Dreamwalker, Marietta Press 2007)

The last couple stories in the Cthulhu Mythos megapack I've been reading on my kindle have been utter duds.  A bad-bad-BAD pastiche (ripoff) of "The Music of Erich Zann" with a little of "Pickman's Model" thrown in for good measure, and then a sloppy Innsmouth story set in the modern day.  Yawn.  These duds, coupled with the intense sense of missing the man I got when I pulled one of his books off my shelf the other day when discussing the Hounds of Tindalos, led me into the comforting paperback embrace of C.J. Henderson.

I had the extreme good fortune to meet C.J. back in 2013, when he was the guest of honor at my alma mater's annual gaming convention, with a table overflowing with books to sell.  Truth be told, I'd not been all that interested in attending the convention until I saw that he'd be there, and meeting and speaking with him was the one bright point of that day, as the game I'd signed up to run proved less than fun for me.

C.J. was an encouraging, friendly person, seemingly as eager to meet me, his adoring fan, as I was to meet him.  We went back and forth about which of his works I'd read (I'm still a long way from having read everything of his - the man was prolific), with him also handing forth opinions on TV shows, movies, art, everything under the sun.  Every time I wandered away from his table, I wandered back with another $20 in my hand and a request for a recommendation from him.  He kept telling me the price of the books was whatever I thought they were worth, and then when I handed him what I felt was a fair exchange, that I was overpaying him.

I ended up picking up The Things That Are Not There and The Stench of Fresh Air, the first two novels in the "Teddy London" series, The Kolchak: The Night Stalker Compendium (two anthologies from Moonstone Books combined into one), and the book I started reading today, Lai Wan: Tales of the Dreamwalker, an anthology of short stories by C.J. and friends about Lai Wan, one of the supporting characters in the Teddy London series.  I think at some point he simply stopped accepting money from me, because I'm fairly certain I walked away with all of this for about $60.  He threw in a miscellaneous trading card as a bookmark with each book as well, and each book was signed by him.

But anyways, that's enough back story.

As mentioned, this collection deals with Lai Wan, a supporting character in the Teddy London series.  A woman of Chinese origin, Lai Wan is...complicated.  Her story begins with her dying on an operating table and reviving; she came back from the other side with a whole spate of new abilities, most notably psychometry; she can read the psychic history of a person, knowing their entire life and all their secrets by simply touching them or, in some cases, merely by standing within a few feet of them.  This power comes with an agonizing price; for years Lai Wan had no choice but to live in absolute isolation, carefully learning to control her powers and to build mental shields with which to protect herself from them.

The first story in this collection, "A Happy Mother Takes Away Pain," concerns itself with a young Arabic woman who comes to Lai Wan for assistance.  Her mother, it seems, is dying of a combination of Parkinson's and Alzheimer's; the young woman senses something more than mere illness at play, and comes to Lai Wan seeking a second opinion.  Her instincts prove correct; Lai Wan recognizes that the mother is being possessed by a particularly cunning breed of demon, well-versed in disguising its activities as a disease.  To the young woman's great distress, Lai Wan cannot exorcise the demon for her - she has to do it herself.

There's a certain mythic resonance - absolutely intentional - in arranging the story so that Lai Wan could not battle the demon directly, only offer encouragement to the woman fighting for her mother's life and misdirection to the demon.

I particularly liked the fact that the story was from Lai Wan's perspective, allowing the reader access to her inner thoughts, and presenting her inner conflict between the need to stay aloof and avoid physical contact, and her desire as a fellow woman and a daughter herself to comfort her client, was a highlight of the story to me.  This personal conflict, to me, was more compelling then the conflict Lai Wan had been hired to resolve.

The antagonist of the story, the demon or djinn possessing the mother, was a treat to read as well; C.J. absolutely nailed, in my opinion, a believable reconciliation between modern medicine and the idea of demonic possession, and the demon's motivations and desires, once made clear to the reader, are perfectly in keeping with the notion of an entity of evil and discord, without descending into cartoonish, puppy-kicking "Eeeeeeeevil."

C.J. passed away last year after a battle with cancer, and it's kind of a punch in the gut to know that his body of work has become a finite thing that I will eventually read all of.  He was a good, kind man in his dealings with me, and I carry a lot of what he's said to me at heart when it comes to my own writing.

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