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

Book Review: Crime Seen by Michaelbrent Collings

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cfrimeseenMichaelbrent Collings has built a reputation for himself as an extremely prolific author of mostly fast-paced thrillers steeped in horror. He continues that tradition in CRIME SEEN, a short novel about a police detective pursuing his wife’s murderer. Because it’s a Michaelbrent Collings novel, though, you can be sure that nothing is exactly as it seems.

Evan White and his partner, the hard-nosed Angela Listings, are pursuing leads to the brutal murder of Evan’s wife when they come across the madman who probably did it. There’s a problem though: it appears that the killer can’t be stopped with mere bullets and can disappear or reappear in the blink of an eye. How exactly does a ghost – if that is indeed what he is – kill people, and why is he taunting Evan, daring Evan to catch him? Coming to question his own sanity at times, Evan has no choice but to follow the tantalizing clues the killer leaves. The path leads Evan to Tuyen, a young Vietnamese-American woman who runs a mystical trinket shop and is somehow involved. The deeper Evan gets into his investigation, the more the weirdness begins to mount, especially once all the evidence points to the murderer already being dead, raising the question “How do you kill a man who’s already dead?” That’s all I want to say about the plot and resolution of the novel, as the premise requires a gradual series of revelations about the characters and the nature of the crimes and I don’t want to ruin it for other readers.

CRIME SEEN begins as a straight-forward police procedural hunt for a murderer, but weird elements – things that can only be supernatural – start playing an important role almost immediately. These are genuinely creepy at times and lend a real sense of menace to the proceedings. What initially seems a straight-forward, linear kind of mystery is anything but. While there aren’t a great many characters in the novel, Evan and his partner Angela are aptly drawn, and it’s interesting watching their relationship develop and be revealed. CRIME SEEN is a short novel that is fast-paced and doesn’t take long to finish. You’ll have to allow yourself to go with the flow in CRIME SEEN. Be patient – wait for events and revelations to play out. The pay-off is worth the wait. Recommended, especially if you are looking for a quick read and enjoy supernatural elements mixed in with your police procedurals.

Review copyright © 2014 J. Andrew Byers

Book Review: Sherlock Holmes: The Will of the Dead by George Mann

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Sherlock-Holmes-Will-of-the-Dead-By-George-MannSherlock Holmes: The Will of the Dead
By George Mann
Titan Books
ISBN: 978-1781160015
2013; $12.95 trade paperback; $7.99 ebook

SHERLOCK HOLMES: THE WILL OF THE DEAD continues Titan Books’ series of new Sherlock Holmes pastiches that are notable for their inclusion of steampunk or other science fictional elements. George Mann is no stranger to Holmes: he has edited a collection of Holmes stories (ENCOUNTERS OF SHERLOCK HOLMES, also from Titan Books). Titan will be publishing another of Mann’s Holmes novels (THE SPIRIT BOX) and a second edited collection of stories (FURTHER ENCOUNTERS OF SHERLOCK HOLMES) later in 2014. His pedigree for Victorian mysteries is strengthened by his authorship of the popular Newbury and Hobbes series (five published so far, beginning with THE AFFINITY BRIDGE, plus another couple short story collections) and his editorial direction of two Sexton Blake collections. Given all of that, this should be an exciting new Sherlock Holmes novel, but unfortunately, it’s merely good but not great.

The mystery begins simply enough: a wealthy old man dies in a fall down the stairs leaving a handful of nephews and a niece behind. His will is nowhere to be found. It all seems ordinary enough, but clearly Sherlock Holmes sees more to the story than the reader does because he immediately agrees to investigate the case. Here we come to the crux of the problem: the major weakness of the novel is that it is essentially composed of two separate plots that are seemingly unconnected until the very end. The first plot is what seems to be a simple, run-of-the-mill inheritance dispute after a man dies and his will disappears. The second plot is a rash of brazen home invasions by a group of “iron men” who smash their way into the homes of the wealthy and carry off valuables occurring at the same time as the inheritance dispute. We only know about the iron men at all because Watson periodically reads about the latest home invasion in the newspaper and asks Holmes if maybe he might want to help the police with that case. The reader wonders the same thing. While obviously fantastical, the case of the iron men certainly sounds more interesting than the dull inheritance mystery. So why isn’t the book about the second plot instead of the first? Having read the novel, I just don’t know why Mann chose to virtually ignore the fun and steampunky plot for a very run-of-the-mill one – he has certainly never shied away from the fantastical in his other novels.

Sherlockian purists might also be a little annoyed with the injections of some chapters that are accounts of key events told from the perspective of characters other than Watson or Holmes. Mann even feels the need to append an apology to the front of the book for this, so while this didn’t bother me, I wonder why he didn’t choose to restructure the narrative to avoid this practice entirely, as these accounts add very little to the story. Periodic anachronisms of speech are peppered throughout the book, often leading me to think that Mann never did capture the dialogue of Holmes and Watson. It’s a minor quibble, but it was distracting at times.

I wanted to like this book a great deal more than I did. Characterization remained shallow throughout, and the dialogue was sometimes just jarring enough that it proved a distraction. Those weren’t fatal flaws; my only significant criticism was that the book was, for the most part, all too mundane and boring. Throughout, I often asked myself why Holmes wasn’t interested in getting involved in the iron men case. Robots seem to be rampaging through the streets of London, and instead of reading about that, we’re left with a plot that pales in comparison with the events we know are occurring off-stage at the same time. Recommended mainly for those who are big fans of George Mann’s work and those who really crave new pastiches of Sherlock Holmes.

Review copyright © 2014 J. Andrew Byers

Book Review: The Devil Rides Out by Dennis Wheatley

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81yRTT97T3L._SL1500_The Devil Rides Out
By Dennis Wheatley
Bloomsbury Reader
ISBN: 978-1448213009
2013; $15.00 trade paperback; $7.99 ebook

One of Dennis Wheatley’s most famous novels, THE DEVIL RIDES OUT is a supernatural thriller originally published in 1934, and the first of Wheatley’s so-called “Black Magic” novels that explore a series of confrontations between Satanists and those seeking to stop them. It has just been republished as part of a new set of attractively bound trade paperback reprints by Bloomsbury Reader. While Wheatley wrote a large number of very popular thrillers and adventure novels, this was the first of his works to explicitly deal with the occult. It’s a doozy, full of plenty of action and occult menace, though it’s also what I would describe as a “mannerly” thriller, depicting the actions of a clique of genteel aristocrats and upper-crust Brits.

THE DEVIL RIDES OUT picks up shortly where one of Wheatley’s earlier novels, THE FORBIDDEN TERRITORY, leaves off, and the early pages of DEVIL reference the earlier events. I’d say that it isn’t necessary to have read FORBIDDEN before this one, but reading the earlier work certainly would expand the characterization of the protagonists and make them seem much more fully fleshed out. Wheatley’s recurring protagonists include: the elderly but still spry French exile, the Duc de Richleau, who knows a great deal of occult lore and leads the group in opposing the Satanic cult; the wealthy Jewish banker, Simon Aron, who is in way over his head and has inadvertently fallen under the sway of evil; the brash young American adventurer, Rex Van Ryn, who falls in love with a mysterious young woman named Tanith, a psychic of great power and a member of the Satanic cult; and well-connected, upper-crust Brit, Richard Eaton, a skeptic about the occult who has settled down to life with his new wife and infant daughter.

The novel opens simply enough: Richleau and Rex discover that their friend Simon Aron has become involved with a Satanic cult led by the charismatic sorcerer and high priest Mocata. To Simon, his involvement began as just dabbling in the occult, but it’s quickly become apparent that he features prominently in Mocata’s plans, and is destined for a bad end (and by that, I mean, drained of his wealth, mystically mind-controlled to commit unspeakable acts, and eventually sacrificed). The situation is complicated by the fact that Mocata wields true supernatural power – this isn’t just a matter of lunatics playing around with meaningless rituals, but people who are capable of working actual spells, summoning demons, and the like. Wheatley is not coy about how the supernatural – and specifically black magic – is represented here: magic is real, the Devil is real, and he is capable of actively intervening in the world when called upon to do so by his followers. Richleau is the only one of the heroes to have any knowledge of the supernatural, while the rest have to witness the power of black magic before they’re convinced that anything supernatural is going on. I don’t want to spoil the plot’s twists and turns, but I will say that it’s a mix of adventure and occult horror that’s ultimately more thriller than pure horror. There’s a genuine sense of menace throughout though, and very real stakes: innocent lives are at stake, with the penalty for failure by the protagonists being the triumph of truly depraved evil-doers and the ritual murder of a child.

Some critics have complained that Wheatley occasionally uses too much exposition (coming from the mouths of his protagonists) to convey the fruits of his research on magic, occult lore, esoteric practices, and the like. Those passages are present here, and occasionally slow down the plot a bit, but I think they only serve to enrich the story and add a touch of verisimilitude to the proceedings, even if the delivery may come off a little forced at times.

I should also note that the book was the loose inspiration for the eponymous – and notorious – Hammer Horror film from 1968 (screenplay by the late, great Richard Matheson), starring Christopher Lee in a fine performance as the Duc de Richleau. If you’re a fan of Hammer films, you probably owe it to yourself to read the original novel, even though its plot only bears a superficial resemblance to the film.

Certainly recommended, if only so you can see what all the fuss is about when it comes to the iconic Black Magic novels of Dennis Wheatley. This is a good entry point to Wheatley’s fiction. It’s fast paced, and while it’s not a gorefest, it holds up very well against other pulp adventures, especially if you’re looking for an occult.

Review copyright © 2014 J. Andrew Byers

Book Review: Sherlock Holmes: The Stuff of Nightmares by James Lovegrove

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Stuff of Nightmares_final_3Sherlock Holmes: The Stuff of Nightmares
By James Lovegrove
Titan Books
ISBN: 978-1781165416
2013; $14.95 trade paperback; $9.99 ebook

I’ve been a Sherlockian for a very long time. Of course the canonical works are great, but I also enjoy the wealth of pastiches that are available. Some authors have genuinely refreshing takes on the classic characters and tropes (Nicholas Meyer and Laurie King come to mind) while some fall well short of the mark, often by ether rehashing old ground pointlessly or diverging too far from the canonical stories until Watson and Holmes are almost unrecognizable. Titan Books is publishing (and in some cases, republishing) a line of Holmes novels that include some fantastical elements, this one among them. I wasn’t sure how I’d like James Lovegrove penning a new Sherlock Holmes tale. I have nothing against Lovegrove at all – he’s an accomplished and prolific writer – but I know him as a writer of science fiction. Would he diverge too far from the canon to present an entertaining and recognizable Holmes? The answer is a resounding no: James Lovegroves’ SHERLOCK HOLMES: THE STUFF OF NIGHTMARES is a very well done and enjoyable read while introducing some delightful SF elements that don’t get in the way of a good story.

The opening premise is a very solid one: London is beset by a series of terrorist bombings that kill dozens of innocents. Watson himself is nearly killed when Waterloo Station is blown up. Holmes believes that his old foe Professor Moriarty may be involved in some way, but there’s clearly a wide-reaching nefarious plot at work that threatens the very foundations of the British Empire (and Queen Victoria herself). Meanwhile, a vigilante calling himself Baron Cauchemar (“Nightmare,” en français), clad in armor and wielding strange weapons, is likewise terrorizing criminals in London’s seedy underworld. Are the bombings and this new crimefighter related? Holmes certainly thinks so. He and Watson are brought in to see what they can do, ultimately running afoul of a truly despicable villain (whose identity I won’t spoil, though you won’t have any trouble figuring it out).

I should note that this is a very cinematic, over-the-top steampunk action thriller, particularly in the finale. Again, I don’t want to spoil key plot points, but while this begins with a more or less standard kind of Holmes mystery, it very quickly becomes a mash-up with some of the wildest imaginings of Jules Verne mixed in liberally. If you’re looking for a staid piece of detective work, you won’t find that here. While I enjoyed all the science fictional elements included, I should reiterate that because they are truly over-the-top they might not suit all readers.

In the second half of the novel some of the diction doesn’t sit quite right with me – at times, Holmes doesn’t really sound like Holmes – but in general, I think that Lovegrove has done an admirable job of capturing the spirit and flavor of Sherlock Holmes. Indeed, at several points Lovegrove goes out of his way to provide nods to several of the iconic characters and offer his take on several of the inconsistencies that readers have identified in the original Holmes canon.

Lovegrove is a darn good writer who demonstrates his skills here. This is a quick read and a fast-paced, engaging story. I heartily recommend THE STUFF OF NIGHTMARES to fans of steampunk – you won’t be disappointed – as well as fans of Sherlock Holmes who don’t mind mixing a heavy dose of Vernian steam-powered craziness in with their detective work.

Review copyright © 2014 J. Andrew Byers

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