I love Hal Duncan. He’s a very specific writer, and I understand why he’s not to everyone’s taste, but I love him. I read The Book of All Hours at a very formative age, and it fucked me up really good. I didn’t realize that books could be like that before, so epic, so dense with language and references, so queer and anarchic. I loved it, and it’s shaped what I’m looking for from the world in unquantifiable ways.
This collection of short stories is something of a mixed bag, with Duncan’s strengths and weaknesses both on full display. He likes to build stories out of references, and sometimes this works better than other. What you get out of a given story can depend on what allusions you’re picking up. I can only speak to how well a given story works for me, knowing that it could be a very different experience for someone with a different cultural background.
He’s stronger when he gets away from his usual sandbox to build something that really stands on its own. He has a set of characters/archetypes/myths that he loves using — the whole of The Book of All Hours is assembled playing with versions of these boys, and while I love these characters, it can be muddled.
There’s one story set at a poker game, and I recognized most of the figures around the table, but then was confused trying to place the figure of Hall. I spent a moment trying to dig through what I remembered from Henry V before reading the author had taken a seat in his own story. That audacity and absurdity is what I love so much about Duncan. Why shouldn’t he be playing cards and telling stories with the other voices in his head?
I’m not in love with the whole Scruffians concept. The front half of the volume has a lot of stories about these lost children, and does build an interesting world. It just never really coheres. It’s fun, but the other stories, many which appeared in print before, are better and more interesting.
There’s a really great story about werewolves hunting vampires. It’s so cool to see one of your favorite writers take on a familiar premise. Werewolves and vampires are the sort of mythology that every speculative fiction writer should have to attempt at some point. If you want a taste of the book, you can read this story online, which I highly recommend you do. It’s the perfect mix of bloody and sexy. His take on the traditions of both vampires and werewolves are really fresh and compelling. The worldbuilding suggests a lot that we don’t get to see, creating a very rich atmosphere. The relationship between the werewolf and his handler is so charged and fascinating.
There’s one story about superheroes, which was incredible. He plays with the comic book ideas of cannon, and retcon, and how there’s this history that’s forever getting rewritten and adapted. I think continuity is one of the most fascinating parts of comic books, and he plays with it marvelously. I wonder how wonderful it is to someone who isn’t familiar with the same set of references that I am. I know the backstories of all the Robins, I know the story about the readers deciding Jason Todd’s death, I smiled at the homage of what he named the writer responsible for the latest world restarting crisis. It’s a twisty story, and I can’t wait to reread it.
Over the course of the book you get a very clear sense of Duncan’s interests. He loves biblical allusions, and mythology. Everything is VERY GAY and I love that. There aren’t a lot of women, but I’m used to that from his writing, and decided ages ago not to be bothered about it. He does so many other things I care about. It’s an uneven collection, but the best stories are incredible, and his very best work. Sometimes I try to explain why I love Hal Duncan, and try to encourage other people to read him. Going forward I will start people with the highlights of this collection, instead of the thousand page journey of The Book of All Hours. I feel like that will be much more successful in making new converts.
(But really, read The Book of All Hours. Please. I will love you. You can be my best friend.)