Book Review: Moscow Bound by Adrian Churchward

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moscow-bound-coverI enjoy modern-day political thrillers as much as the next guy, but it’s always chancy when you’re dealing with a first-time novelist. I’m happy to say that Adrian Churchward delivers in spades in his new thriller, MOSCOW BOUND.

Some mild plot spoilers follow.

Scott Mitchell is an idealistic British human rights attorney who has already made an enemy of the Russian government through his past defenses of some of Moscow’s Chechen opponents in the European Court of Human Rights. He has a rocky return to Moscow after his latest legal victory – the Russians are happy to put the fear of God (or Putin) into the guy – and is soon contacted by Ekaterina Romanova, a mysterious and beautiful (is there any other kind?) woman who asks for Mitchell’s help in locating her father, a man she’s never met. He was said to have been dragged off to a gulag and murdered decades before, but Ekaterina has new evidence suggesting he’s been alive, somewhere, all these years. Mitchell reluctantly agrees to help, but all of the people who might be able to shed light on the matter have a way of ending up dead before they offer much help. The pair soon run afoul of a general in Russian military intelligence who seems determined to prevent them from locating Ekaterina’s father because their investigation seems to tread dangerously close to a Vietnam War-era operation that has been ongoing for the last four decades. That seems like it should be ancient history, so why are people so willing to kill to prevent the truth from coming out?

I hesitate to reveal the exact nature of the mystery and why people are coming out of the woodwork to prevent the secret from getting at (it really is the core of the book’s plot). Suffice it to say that while MOSCOW BOUND’s plot hangs together just fine as a stand-alone novel, it is labeled as the first volume in the forthcoming “Puppet Meisters” trilogy (will the Germans inexplicably become involved at some point?). I hope to see the central mystery that is revealed at the end of MOSCOW BOUND (I won’t spoil that ending here) expanded, as it came in a bit of a rush. Some elaboration on the implications of the mystery at the core of this novel would help.

Churchward understands what it’s like to live and work in contemporary Russia, and necessarily navigate the complexities of Russian law, bureaucracy, and abuses of state power. While we have all the archetypal characters of this kind of “Ludlum” style political thriller – idealistic crusader; woman with a mysterious past; clever, tough, implacable foe, etc. – Churchward does a good job of bringing his characters to life. At times the pace dragged a bit, and I found myself wanting a dramatis personae to help keep all the names straight at times, but it’s an engaging story.

Recommended for those interested in thrillers set in contemporary Russia. I will be curious to see where Churchward and his characters take the story in the rest of the Puppet Meisters trilogy.

Review copyright © 2014 J. Andrew Byers

Book Review: Vixens, Vamps, & Vipers: Lost Villainesses of Golden Age Comics by Mike Madrid

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193525927X.01.LZZZZZZZAuthor Mike Madrid is no stranger to Golden Age comics, having written two previous books on the subject, THE SUPERGIRLS: FASHION, FEMINISM, FANTASY, AND THE HISTORY OF COMIC BOOK and DIVAS, DAMES & DAREDEVILS: LOST HEROINES OF GOLDEN AGE COMICS. In many ways, Madrid’s latest book, VIXENS, VAMPS, & VIPERS: LOST VILLAINESSES OF GOLDEN AGE COMICS is a companion book of similar format to DIVAS, DAMES & DAREDEVILS. Instead of focusing on the heroines of Golden Age comics, this volume examines the villainesses with some textual analysis along with complete black and white reprints of the comics in which they first appeared.

Kuskin, an equally good if all-too-brief introduction, a conclusion, and introductory text in each of the four major chapters (Vicious Viragos, Beauties & Beasts, A Rainbow of Evil, and Crime Queens). Each of the chapters includes reproductions of the complete Golden Age comic origins of female villains, all from the period 1940-50. If you’re a casual fan of Golden Age comics like me, you’re unlikely to be familiar with many of these characters (and to be clear, most were one-shot villains, either being killed off or imprisoned at the end of their origin stories). The characters included were: Madam Doom, Texa, Idaho, Fräulein Halunke, Red-Haired Kate, Her Highness, Lady Serpent, He-She (very gender-bendy), Nadya Burnett, Beauty, Skull Lady, The Figure, Nang Tu, Queen Tuana, Veda the Cobra Woman, Mava, Madame Butterfly (not the one from Puccini), Belle Guness, Madame Muscles, Winsome Wanda Bailey, Mable Reine, and Shoebox Annie French. As was typical for the era, they are a real mix of just-plain-nasty-but-otherwise-normal people and those with some kind of strange origin that gives them some ability beyond the norm.

I have to admit that I was surprised at how violent or dark some of the stories were (nothing particularly graphic by twenty-first century standards, of course). Most are pretty hokey; that’s probably to be expected from the 1940s, but some actually hold up fairly well. The individual stories’ art also varies considerably, with a few being on the crude side, with most actually pretty darn good. All the stories are interesting as historical artifacts in any case.

I read an advance uncorrected copy for this review, but I’d just like to briefly note that the scans of some of the comics need to be cleaned up for the final version as they are a bit muddy or indistinct in places. The quality is not so bad that it makes it impossible to read and enjoy the comics, but it does detract. It’s understandable that undoubtedly many of the comics surviving this period are in relatively rough shape, but there is always the possibility for post-scanning clean-up, so I hope the publisher makes an effort to do that.

Recommended if you’re interested in early depictions of female antagonists in comics or a big fan of Golden Age comics in general.

Review copyright © 2014 J. Andrew Byers

Book Review: Horror without Victims, edited by D. F. Lewis

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horror-without-victimsHorror without Victims
Edited by D.F. Lewis
Megazanthus Press
ISBN: 978-1291451436
2013; $15.00 trade paperback

This is a no-frills collection from Megazanthus Press, edited by D. F. Lewis (I’d have liked a brief introduction by the editor on the theme of the collection and some info about the authors). It plunges straight in to the twenty-five stories included. I must confess to being a little nonplussed regarding the collection’s theme before I began reading. After all, how can there be horror if there are no victims? I’ll be blunt: some of the authors cheated and don’t really adhere to the collection’s theme, which was a little annoying, but there are some enjoyable stories mixed in here that really do genuinely adhere to the idea of a horror story that doesn’t contain victims. It’s an intriguing concept for a themed collection, and clearly an interesting design challenge/constraint for the authors. So how did they do?

Here were a few of the stories that stood out to me (mild plot spoilers follow):

Eric Ian Steele, “Clouds”: A man notices that his city is changing in significant ways every night – buildings are disappearing out of existence – and he’s the only one to notice. Reminded me (thematically at least) of Stephen King’s “The Langoliers.”

Alistair Rennie, “The Carpet Seller’s Recommendation”: A Victorian British businessman living in Turkey takes a “pleasure cruise” on the Bosphorus that we won’t soon forget. Dare I say that his life will never be the same after that voyage?

Mark Patrick Lynch, “Point and Stick”: Ever wonder what goes on inside your neighbors’ homes? The narrator gets a peek inside his downstairs neighbor’s apartment and sees some mysterious goings-on. No spoilers, but it’s an amusing little tale.

All in all, the collection was a decidedly mixed bag. I liked a number of the stories in the collection and appreciated the ones in which the authors found ways to genuinely abide by the theme of “horror without victims.” Other stories meandered or were simply unclear. Without a “victim,” many of the stories simply presented a strange situation that they mostly left unresolved. A lukewarm recommendation; if the collection’s theme intrigues you, then by all means check it out, as it does include some stories well worth reading. I think it really is possible to craft a story that contains plenty of horror without a true victim, though that certainly presents a significant challenge for the author.

Review copyright © 2014 J. Andrew Byers

Book Review: The Slayer of Souls / The Maker of Moons by Robert W. Chambers

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slayerofsoulsThe Slayer of Souls / The Maker of Moons
By Robert W. Chambers (Introduction by Gregory Shepherd)
Stark House
ISBN: 978- 1933586489
2014; $19.95 trade paperback

Robert W. Chambers is probably best known for his creation of the extremely influential story “The King in Yellow,” which, borrowing concepts from Ambrose Bierce, introduced the dread being Hastur, the doomed city Carcosa, and the eponymous madness-inducing play. Indeed, Chambers’ work has enjoyed recent prominence in the first season of HBO’s “True Detective” series. Most contemporary readers of Chambers, myself included, probably don’t understand just how prolific Chambers was, or the full breadth of his work. From the perspective of Chambers’ modern fans who may be more interested in his weird fiction output, it is a shame – but entirely understandable – that Chambers eventually abandoned the weird tale for much more lucrative romances and adventure stories and novels to ultimately become one of the best-selling popular authors of his day. Nevertheless, there are still a great many of Chambers’ lesser-known stories of interest to horror fans. Stark House Press has released an omnibus edition of one of Chambers’ novels (THE SLAYER OF SOULS) and most of a collection of short stories (THE MAKER OF MOONS) that contain supernatural or weird elements.

Before getting to the stories at hand, on the off-chance that you’re not already familiar with Chambers, Lovecraft has this to say about him in “Supernatural Horror in Literature”:

Very genuine, though not without the typical mannered extravagance of the eighteen-nineties, is the strain of horror in the early work of Robert W. Chambers….THE KING IN YELLOW, a series of vaguely connected short stories having as a background a monstrous and suppressed book whose perusal brings fright, madness, and spectral tragedy, really achieves notable heights of cosmic fear in spite of uneven interest and a somewhat trivial and affected cultivation of the Gallic studio atmosphere made popular by Du Maurier’s TRILBY. The most powerful of its tales, perhaps, is “The Yellow Sign”, in which is introduced a silent and terrible churchyard watchman with a face like a puffy grave-worm’s. A boy, describing a tussle he has had with this creature, shivers and sickens as he relates a certain detail. ‘Well, sir, it’s Gawd’s truth that when I ’it ’im ’e grabbed me wrists, sir, and when I twisted ’is soft, mushy fist one of ’is fingers come off in me ’and.’ An artist, who after seeing him has shared with another a strange dream of a nocturnal hearse, is shocked by the voice with which the watchman accosts him. The fellow emits a muttering sound that fills the head like thick oily smoke from a fat-rendering vat or an odour of noisome decay. What he mumbles is merely this: ‘Have you found the Yellow Sign?’

The first half of this collection is the novel THE SLAYER OF SOULS. It’s a tale straight out of the pulp fiction of the era: Tressa Norne, a young American woman was raised and trained by the Yezidee, a cult of Asiatic black magicians and psychic assassins with plans to take over the world. The young woman, and the Secret Service agent assigned to protect her and with whom she falls in love, are all that stand in the way of their nefarious plot. The action is rapid and brutal, with liberal use of psychic and occult forces as well as more mundane means of dispensing death.

The book’s second half is comprised of short stories drawn from Chambers’ THE MAKER OF MOONS collection. The eponymous story “The Maker of Moons” kicks things off with a story drawn from Chinese mythology (this story is linked with the next two: “The Silent Land” and “Black Water”). The narrator meets and falls in love with a mysterious woman named Ysonde, who he initially thinks may be a phantom or product of his imagination. She hails from Yian, a place that lies far away and can, perhaps, be accessed from a gateway that lies in the heart of China. The narrator also encounters Ysonde’s stepfather Yue Lao, the “old man under the moon,” and god of marriage and love in traditional Chinese folklore. Here, Yue Lao is the leader of the Kuen-Yuin, a band of Chinese sorcerers, and has corrupted the Xin (spirits, also from Chinese mythology), transforming them into monsters. Chambers’ prose is poetic and enchanting, producing dream-like tableaus.

I enjoyed this collection of Chambers’ work, and mostly recommend it, but with a few caveats: the stories are very much products of their time, and come off more than a little dated. They reward slow, careful reading by a patient reader who is content to allow Chambers the leisure to lead him or her along on a meandering path at times. That slowness of pace meant that my mind tended to drift at times and I had to force myself back to concentrate on the story at hand. I should also note that, with regard to the occasionally dated themes, both THE SLAYER OF SOULS and the eponymous tale “The Maker of Moons” are part of the Yellow Peril genre (think Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu if you haven’t read any Yellow Peril literature yet), so they are very much products of their time and a particular kind of paranoia about Asian dominance of the world. If that’s not your thing, than give this omnibus a pass.

Review copyright © 2014 J. Andrew Byers

Book Review: The Empty House / The Listener by Algernon Blackwood

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blackwood_emptyhouseThe Empty House / The Listener
By Algernon Blackwood (Introduction by Storm Constantine)
Stark House
ISBN: 978- 1933586458
2014; $19.95 trade paperback

Algernon Blackwood (what a great name for a writer of weird fiction!) is one of those authors whose work I’ve wanted to read for a very long time but not yet had the opportunity until now. Stark House Press is re-releasing a great deal of Blackwood’s work in trade paperback editions. This collection includes the full text of Blackwood’s first two short story collections (originally published in 1906 and 1907), including several of his best known stories, along with a new introduction by Storm Constantine.

H.P. Lovecraft included Blackwood as one of the “Modern Masters” in his vaunted “Supernatural Horror in Literature” (all following quotations taken from Chapter 10 of “Supernatural Horror in Literature”), describing him as “inspired” and arguing that Blackwood had written “some of the finest spectral literature of this or any age.” High praise indeed! Lovecraft went on to say this about Blackwood’s body of work:

Of the quality of Mr. Blackwood’s genius there can be no dispute; for no one has even approached the skill, seriousness, and minute fidelity with which he records the overtones of strangeness in ordinary things and experiences, or the preternatural insight with which he builds up detail by detail the complete sensations and perceptions leading from reality into supernormal life or vision. Without notable command of the poetic witchery of mere words, he is the one absolute and unquestioned master of weird atmosphere; and can evoke what amounts almost to a story from a simple fragment of humourless psychological description. Above all others he understands how fully some sensitive minds dwell forever on the borderland of dream, and how relatively slight is the distinction betwixt those images formed from actual objects and those excited by the play of the imagination.

Lovecraft, unsurprisingly, complained of Blackwood’s “ethical didacticism” (Blackwood was a Catholic, and this informs at least some of his work, which would not have appealed to Lovecraft in the slightest), as well as Blackwood’s “too free use of the trade jargon of modern ‘occultism’” (Blackwood was deeply interested in the occult, joining several occult societies at the height of Britain’s interest in esotericism, and this too comes forth clearly in Blackwood’s fiction).

Lovecraft also commented on some of the stories included in this volume:

Foremost of all must be reckoned “The Willows,” in which the nameless presences on a desolate Danube island are horribly felt and recognised by a pair of idle voyagers. Here art and restraint in narrative reach their very highest development, and an impression of lasting poignancy is produced without a single strained passage or a single false note. […] In “An Episode in a Lodging House” we behold frightful presences summoned out of black space by a sorcerer, and “The Listener” tells of the awful psychic residuum creeping about an old house where a leper died.

Enough about Lovecraft’s views – what did this reviewer think of the collection? In short, it’s outstanding, and there are far more hits than misses. The three stories that Lovecraft mentioned – “The Willows,” “Smith: An Episode in a Lodging House,” and “The Listener” – were all as good as Lovecraft promised. “The Willows” is often anthologized and now I can see why. For me, the second story in the collection, “A Haunted Island,” was absolutely chilling in its ambience: a man is roughing it on what becomes an extraordinarily creepy island in a cabin when he witnesses a reenactment of a historical murder. “The Strange Adventures of a Private Secretary in New York” about a clerk sent to retrieve blackmail material from the home of a lunatic was a fun thrill ride that could have come straight out of the pages of any pulp fiction magazine. “Max Hensig – Bacteriologist and Murderer,” concerning what happens to a journalist when the man whose murder trial he is covering manages to escape justice, was another great thriller.

Several of the stories also provide a fascinating look at urban life at the turn of the century, mostly for recent immigrants, just as Blackwood himself did, struggling to survive and make their way in an entirely new world where they had to sink or swim, and where starvation was a very real possibility. All in all, it’s a great mix of thrillers and supernatural horror stories, and unlike a lot of fiction from the early decades of the twentieth century, Blackwood’s prose does not come across as stilted or overly antiquated; it still sounds polished to a modern reader. Many of these stories were genuinely creepy and I’m pretty jaded when it comes to horror and weird fiction. I will certainly be seeking out more of Blackwood’s writing based solely on the strength of this collection.

This collection of Blackwood’s stories is highly recommended. There are some genuinely terrifying ghost stories here.

Review copyright © 2014 J. Andrew Byers

Book Review: Shock Totem 8, edited by K. Allen Wood

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Shock_Totem_8_-_Curious_Tales_of_the_Macabre_and_Twisted_(Cover)Shock Totem #8
Edited by K. Allen Wood
Shock Totem Publications
ISBN: 978- 0988272378
2014; $7.99 trade paperback; $2.99 ebook

The good folks at SHOCK TOTEM magazine are up to their old tricks: K. Allen Wood – ST’s publisher and editor – and his team have produced another outstanding issue. I honestly don’t know how they do it. The fiction published in ST by authors old and new is consistently top-notch. As with all issues of ST I’ve come across, #8 is filled with a mix of short horror fiction (eight stories and a poem by my count), interviews with authors, a couple of short non-fiction pieces, and some reviews, along with one of my particular favorite additions, authors’ notes on their stories.

Some highlights of the issue:

John C. Foster’s “Highballing through Gehenna”: A family is traveling across country by train, but this is a world that has been fundamentally transformed and the family is soon in a fight for their lives. Amazing imagery in this story; I’d love to see Foster pen a novel in this setting.

Carlie St. George’s “We Share the Dark”: A woman who can see and communicate with ghosts struggles with what this does to her relationships with the living. Mournful and melancholic, but feels very, very real.

Cody Goodfellow’s “The Barham Offramp Playhouse”: I’m an East Coast kind of guy, but I loved reading about the frankly horrifying lives of actors struggling to hit it big in Hollywood.

David Barber’s “Death and the Maiden”: A really chilling postscript to Frankenstein that gets you the more you think about it.

Harry Baker’s “Fat Betty”: Begins as a British heist story – those are always fun – but then horror seeps in. Don’t steal from Fat Betty, kids.

John Skipp’s “Depresso the Clown”: I know it’s fashionable to pretend to be scared of clowns but I’ve always liked them. That’s why I found Depresso’s fate that much more depressing. Very dark tale of body horror.

There’s lots more in the issue, but those were the stand-out pieces for me. Yet another great issue of SHOCK TOTEM. Every fan of contemporary horror should be reading it. Strongly recommended.

Review copyright © 2014 J. Andrew Byers

Book Review: Further Encounters of Sherlock Holmes, edited by George Mann

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Further-Encounters of Sherlock HolmesFurther Encounters of Sherlock Holmes
Edited by George Mann
Titan Books
ISBN: 978-1-781160046
2014; $14.95 trade paperback; $9.95 ebook

There has long been a cottage industry in writing the further adventures of the ever-popular Sherlock Holmes. Any fan of Holmes has undoubtedly discovered some truly amazing examples (some rivaling or even better than Doyle’s work) as well as some truly horrendous pastiches that fail to capture the characters, voice, or setting of the Sherlock Holmes canon. George Mann has written some Holmes pastiches himself, and he’s already edited another collection of such short fiction, so he has the experience to select some enjoyable works for publication. How did he do in this latest collection of a dozen new short stories containing the further adventures of Sherlock Holmes?

Brief comments on each story, though no major spoilers, follow (I promise not to ruin any of the stories for you):

Philip Purser-Hallard, “The Adventure of the Professor’s Bequest”: A few months after Holmes’ return from the dead, he is asked by Moriarty’s family to retrieve some of the professor’s stolen papers, which Moriarty had sensationally described as being capable of bringing about the collapse of civilization. As it turns out, that may not have been an exaggeration. There are wheels within wheels here, with a chilling and moody tone to the affair. A very strong opening to the collection.

Andrew Lane, “The Curious Case of the Compromised Card-Index”: Babbage engines enter into this story, lending a bit of a steampunk air to the proceedings, as Holmes has decided to transcribe all of his case notes onto machine-readable index cards. Sounds like a wise idea until someone decides to copy and/or alter the cards. We see Holmes’ nasty streak come out in this story. Like Purser-Hallard’s tale, Lane offers a pensive and melancholic resolution. Very satisfying. I would seek out fiction from both of the first two authors in the collection.

Mark A. Latham, “Sherlock Holmes and the Popish Relic”: After being warned by a medium of upcoming danger, Watson finds himself in a position where he must decide to either follow Holmes’ rationality (and likely die) or take a non-intuitive chance (and live). Mundane mystery with hints of the supernatural. Perfectly fine story, but a bit forgettable.

Nick Campbell, “The Adventure of the Decadent Headmaster”: The narrative frame was clunky: an author has been asked to write a Holmes pastiche for a collection so consults with a mysterious source for details on a hitherto unpublished case to write about. The story produced involves Holmes and Watson’s visit to a boarding school where a student has disappeared and one of the teachers has died under mysterious circumstances. They uncover a much larger scheme than anticipated – I don’t want to spoil it – but the whole thing mostly comes off as far-fetched and a bit too over-the-top to not break one’s suspension of disbelief.

James Goss, “The Case of the Devil’s Door”: A revolutionary from a fictional Central American nation comes to Holmes with a story of almost being devoured by what seems like a demonic house during his efforts to clandestinely return home in order to oppose a despotic regime. A fun little story that relies on a gimmick, but it was entertaining nevertheless.

William Patrick Maynard and Alexandra Martukovich, “The Adventure of the Coin of the Realm”: Holmes and Watson find themselves having to solve a couple of murders onboard a ship crossing the Atlantic traveling from the United States to Britain. Most of the passengers are coin collectors returning from a rare coin convention, and Holmes must interview them. The identity of the murderer is so obvious that I suspect most readers would immediately spot it (how can Watson not?!), but the motive for the crime is completely over-the-top and comes out of nowhere. Maynard has written two authorized Fu Manchu novels, and frankly, this mystery would fit in much better in a Fu Manchu novel than a Holmes story. I wanted to like this one much more than I actually did.

Roy Gill, “The Strange Case of the Displaced Detective”: I don’t think I’m spoilering much if I describe this as a quick little time travel story. A fun premise, though it’s wrapped up a bit too quickly without much conflict.

Scott Handcock, “The Girl Who Paid for Silence”: A dark tale with clear supernatural themes that focuses on Watson rather than Holmes. A little girl has been brutally murdered, and her playmate is seemingly the only witness to the crime. Satisfying wrap-up.

Guy Adams, “An Adventure in Three Courses”: What a fun story! Holmes takes Watson out to eat at a restaurant with terrible food, service, and ambience, which sounds like a silly premise for a story, but it sets up a very nice, satisfying mystery that Holmes solves without ever getting up from the table. Great ending that demonstrates that Holmes can be, as we all know, utterly ruthless. Definitely one of the most entertaining stories in the collection.

Lou Anders, “The Sleep of Reason”: I suspect that a reader would either love or hate this story, since it seems to diverge so far from the canon, but would probably be most appealing to readers who enjoy planetary romances of the early twentieth century, particularly Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars series. A story of the famed New York detective S. Quentin Carmichael, his friend Dr. Avery F. Wilson, Mars, psychedelic drugs, and green carnations, among other elements one wouldn’t expect to see in a Sherlock Holmes story. I still can’t decide if I liked the story or not, but I’m glad I read it.

Justin Richards, “The Snowtorn Terror”: A man is found dead in the snow on the side of a mountain, with his throat cut and no footprints other than the man’s own anywhere to be seen. Despite this apparent enigma, Holmes prefers to try to solve the case of a missing pile of gold bullion that was stolen from a train that had derailed nearby the previous year. The explanation seemed a bit far-fetched, but it wasn’t a bad story.

Philip Marsh, “A Betrayal of Doubt”: A very, very old Holmes possibly becoming a bit senile is called out of retirement when Scotland Yard is once again baffled. Watson’s son, also a doctor, assists, and is not quite sure what to make of his father’s old friend. Melancholic piece that illustrates the indignities of old age.

The fact that this collection was “unthemed” is both a strength and weakness. There are few commonalities among the stories in the collection, with Holmes confronting all manner of mysteries. None of the authors were forced to include, say, steampunk or supernatural elements in their stories, so they truly run the gamut of the types of mysteries that Doyle himself wrote about Holmes. In general though, this was a very strong collection of Holmes pastiches. As long as you’re willing to tolerate occasional hints of the supernatural or science fictional elements in a few of the stories, this is a very appealing collection. Highly recommended.

Review copyright © 2014 J. Andrew Byers

Facsimile Edition of the Voynich Manuscript Now Available

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DSC_0663Who hasn’t wanted to own their own copy of a genuine, mysterious occult tome? I’ve previously posted here and here about the mostly still unknown Voynich Manuscript housed at Yale that’s been puzzling scholars and occultists for a long time. It’s clearly a beautiful physical artifact as much as it is a source of knowledge. Ambush Printing is a publishing house that specializes in hand-made reproductions of historical documents and they have decided to produce copies of the Voynich Manuscript for purchase. They have a complete copy of the Manuscript available for $200, printed on vellum and bound in leather, just like the original, as well as an 18″ by 24″ print of one of the illustrations also on vellum that is normally $25 but appears to be on sale for $10 currently. Check them out here.

1006231Please note: I have no affiliation with Ambush Printing and have not yet had an opportunity to do business with them, I just thought these looked cool and wanted to share.

Book Review: To the Devil, A Daughter by Dennis Wheatley

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9781448213030To the Devil, A Daughter
By Dennis Wheatley
Bloomsbury Reader
ISBN: 978-1448212620
2014; $15.00 trade paperback; $7.99 ebook

Long before William Peter Blatty’s THE EXORCIST ushered in a new-found fascination with the Devil, Satanism, and all things occult in the 1970s, Dennis Wheatley was penning occult thrillers that attracted readers by titillating them with tales of Satanic cults committing unspeakable acts in service of the Devil. TO THE DEVIL, A DAUGHTER is one of Wheatley’s “Black Magic” novels (one of eleven out of his 60+ novels) recently reprinted by Bloomsbury. Though it doesn’t involve any of the protagonists of his earlier Black Magic novel (THE DEVIL RIDES OUT), TO THE DEVIL, A DAUGHTER is explicitly set in the same setting, with some of the events of RIDES OUT briefly alluded to in DAUGHTER.

Some minor plot spoilers follow.

The story opens simply enough with Molly Fountain, a mystery novelist who had served as a secretary in British intelligence circles during the war, wondering who her mysterious new neighbor is. Fountain is renting a house in the French Riviera while she writes her latest manuscript when a young woman moves in next door. The young woman lives alone, never receives visitors, and wanders around outside at night, which seems innocent enough, but this attracts Fountain’s interest. After introducing herself to the young woman, Fountain learns that the young woman is far more mysterious than she initially appears: she is living under an assumed name and has been sent to France by her distant father and ordered to remain in hiding there until after her upcoming birthday. Fountain is an inveterate meddler who can’t leave well enough alone, so she arranges for her university student son John and an old friend who still works for British intelligence, Colonel Verney, to come for a visit and help her get to the bottom of the mystery. As it turns out, Fountain needs all the help she can get when it becomes apparent that the young woman is being sought by a Satanic cult with whom her father had formerly been involved and is at the center of a truly disturbing plot (which I don’t want to spoil). What follows is a desperate race across France and England to protect the girl and then retrieve her once she falls into the hands of the villains before she can be sacrificed.

Wheatley was known to have done a good bit of research on the occult and magical practitioners in the course of his writing career, and it’s known that he carried on correspondence with Aleister Crowley, among others. Not to spoil anything, but Crowley and some of his past enter the story here through some lengthy expository passages. As with previous Black Magic novels, Wheatley makes no bones about it: magic and the Devil are real, and those who serve dark forces can freely call upon them for tangible aid. Wheatley has received criticism over the years for inflicting his research on his readers, but I think including these passages on magic and the workings of its practitioners only adds to the story and the sense of verisimilitude that Wheatley tries to create in what might otherwise be a run-of-the-mill pulpish thriller.

Hammer Horror adapted this novel – very loosely – for film in a 1976 version starring Richard Widmark, Christopher Lee, Honor Blackman, and Natassja Kinski. The plot of the film bears only the most superficial resemblance to the novel, and was excoriated by Wheatley, who deemed it obscene. If you’re a fan of Hammer, or Christopher Lee, it’s worth watching nevertheless, it just doesn’t have much to do with the book, outside of dealing with roughly similar themes.

Recommended as a good entry point to Wheatley’s fiction (especially his Black Magic novels) and an entertaining read in its own right. What could have been a stereotypical adventure novel from the early 1950s is, in Wheatley’s hands, a slow reveal of the plot pervaded by a genuine sense of menace. The stakes are very real, the villains truly monstrous, and the heroes unafraid to use extreme measures to put an end to the scheme.

Review copyright © 2014 J. Andrew Byers

Book Review: Dog Eat Dog by David J. Rodger

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product_thumbnailDavid J. Rodger is a world-builder with a compelling vision. He has crafted a setting he calls “Yellow Dawn,” and has already published several supporting novels – DOG EAT DOG among them – plus a role-playing game and several short stories. In the mid-twenty-first century world of Yellow Dawn, civilization as we know it ended ten years ago. A pathogen (the eponymous “Yellow Dawn”) infected 70% of the world’s population, killing many and essentially turning the rest into fast-moving, aggressive zombies (a few more have been transformed into “orcs,” mutated humans who are forced to live in savage conditions in the wilderness). Most of the world’s cities had to be abandoned, though a few urban enclaves – like Manhattan – remain as heavily fortified strongholds dominated by corporate overlords and plutocrats. Because the plague struck at some point in the near future, Earth’s orbital colonies also remain uninfected and periodically intervene, covertly, in terrestrial affairs. Outside of the few cities still inhabited by living humans lie the Dead Cities and Dead Zones, areas abandoned to the zombie hordes that offer dangerous opportunities for scavenging. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the Yellow Dawn infection is at least ostensibly connected with Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, specifically Hastur, the King in Yellow, originally created by Robert W. Chambers. So DOG EAT DOG certainly has an interesting background.

The story of DOG EAT DOG is told through the eyes of two survivors of the Yellow Dawn, Mikhail Drobná and Carlos Revira, who quickly become embroiled in conflicts and politics much bigger than themselves. Drobná is a thug and bodyguard for a crime lord in New York City and Revira is a kind of freelance intelligence operative, but their paths soon cross as both men engage in a variety of complicated skullduggery for their respective masters. In the course of all of this, they both become isolated and more or less on their own as they engage in double-crosses and are themselves betrayed. I don’t want to give away too much of the details of all of this as, (1) the twists, turns, and reversals of fortune are an important part of the plot; (2) it’s all fairly complex, with lots of unfamiliar names of people and organizations engaging in secret agent and criminal cat-and-mouse games that would require more wordcount than I care to devote to it; and (3) I am reluctantly forced to admit that large chunks of the plot were not all that interesting or memorable.

I enjoyed DOG EAT DOG for the most part, but I have some criticisms of it. First, most prominently, the yellow dawn infection, its aftermath, and the existence of tens of millions of zombies infesting the wilderness areas outside the few small urban enclaves of uninfected humans mostly serves as backdrop. It’s a phenomenal origin story for a futuristic post-apocalyptic setting, but Rodger doesn’t do much with it. Most of the plot doesn’t actually involve the zombies at all; much of it is mostly a story of near-future corporate intrigue that could take place in a setting that doesn’t have any of the horror/zombie-infested, post-collapse elements. I wanted the infection and the zombies to be much more fore-grounded and a driver of the plot rather than mere backdrop. The action that happens in the less civilized areas involving zombies is very well done – I just wanted a great deal more of it. Second, the world of DOG EAT DOG is one in which traditional nation-states and all the familiar institutions of modern society have gone away. There are no more countries, or organizations like the CIA and KGB, or anything else with which the reader is familiar. Instead, we’re reading a story about E-FIB and UTOC and MOCID. It’s much harder for the reader to care about anything of those things, especially when one has to keep reminding oneself what those things even mean, and then guess what their interests and goals might be. It serves to distance the reader from the action on the page; that was a common problem of much of the cyberpunk of the 1980s and it still bedevils DOG EAT DOG. And third, while I know that there are Lovecraftian elements to the setting, they mostly aren’t depicted here. I love Lovecraft and Chambers’ work and would have liked to see it explicitly come into play in DOG EAT DOG. There are some really intriguing hints of sinister goings-on in the last third or so of the book, but they remain unexplored hints.

I really wanted to like DOG EAT DOG a great deal more than I did. The setting is great, and could provide a tremendous platform for any number of exciting stories. But the bulk of the story that Rodger chose to tell here is not really all that exciting. It certainly goes on far too long, and too many boring parts were never streamlined or excised by a draconian editor. I’d like to see more from David J. Rodger, because I think his Yellow Dawn setting has real potential, but I hope that the sequel to DOG EAT DOG does a better job of capturing my interest.

Review copyright © 2014 J. Andrew Byers

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