Book Review: Space Eldritch (anthology)

Space-EldritchSpace Eldritch
D.J. Butler, Michael R. Collings, Nathan Shumate, David J. West, Carter Reid, Brad R. Torgersen, Robert J. Defendi, and Howard Tayler
Cold Fusion Media
eBook, $5.99; paperback, $13.99
ISBN-13: 978-1481178310
248pp. 2012

I have always thought that H.P. Lovecraft’s nihilistic vision of the universe fits very well with science fiction. Why do Lovecraftian horrors and Things Man Was Not Meant To Know lurk only inside dank basements, dusty tombs, and forbidden tombs? Aren’t the depths of space, alien vistas, and the bleak frontiers of other worlds also fair game for the kinds of horrors imagined by Lovecraft and his many imitators? The authors collected in SPACE ELDRITCH certainly think so. In addition to a Foreword by Larry Correia discussing this unholy mixture of Lovecraft and space opera, SPACE ELDRITCH contains seven novelettes and novellas. The stories are:

“Arise Thou Niarlat From Thy Rest” by D.J. Butler
“Space Opera“ by Michael R. Collings
“The Menace Under Mars” by Nathan Shumate
“Gods in Darkness” by David J. West
“The Shadows of Titan” by Carter Reid and Brad R. Torgersen
“The Fury in the Void” by Robert J. Defendi
“Flight of the Runewright” by Howard Tayler

Some mild plot spoilers follow in my reflections on each of these tales:

D. J. Butler’s “Arise Thou Niarlat From Thy Rest”: Contains a nice mix of existential Lovecraftian threat in the depths of space, along with some two-fisted pulp action, linked by one of Lovecraft’s favorite tropes, that of consciousness projection/possession from the far distant past or future. The story worked well, though presented just a little too vaguely at times.

Michael R. Collings’ “Space Opera“: A classic tale of first contact between alien species, told from the perspective of the alien conqueror rather than a human. A great depiction of a truly alien mindset and physiology, as well as a setting obviously set after Lovecraft’s “stars are right.” Perhaps the most explicitly Lovecraftian of the stories in this collection, as well as the bleakest vision of the future. Well done.

These first two stories, I should note, are really the only pieces in the collection to explicitly reference direct Lovecraftian elements. The rest of the stories still work thematically as Lovecraftian tales, it’s just that in the stories that follow, Lovecraft’s philosophy and common tropes are implicit rather than explicit, but don’t let that turn you off some good stories.

Nathan Shumate’s “The Menace Under Mars”: A genuinely engaging story about a routine exploration mission on Mars gone horribly awry. Humans have begun to settle Mars and terraform it, but, well, they aren’t alone, and their terraforming efforts (nor surprisingly) have unpredictably bad effects. Lots of action and a real page turner.

David J. West’s “Gods in Darkness”: Set during the height of the Space Race, this shows what was really going on in space when American astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts encountered each other and (literally) battled it out in space. Reminds me of Charles Stross’ wonderful novelette “A Colder War” (available here: ) – and could actually be set in that novelette’s universe – though “Gods in Darkness” lacks the creeping, unsettling doom of “A Colder War.” This is a straight-up, high stakes action-adventure story and it’s a good one.

“The Shadows of Titan” by Carter Reid and Brad R. Torgersen: Great adventure and exploration story set on, oddly enough, the moon Titan. The mission takes a dark turn when a structure is discovered there. Very reminiscent of some older adventure pulp science fiction stories, with a clever resolution.

“The Fury in the Void” by Robert J. Defendi: A fascinating tale of future war in space between two rival factions – seemingly descendants of the Greeks and the Russians – who use the remnants of advanced technologies they can no longer build or maintain and for whom religious orthodoxy is of paramount concern. It’s a great setting (and one I’d like to see more of) that was clearly inspired by the wargame settings of Warhammer 40K and Battletech. I’d have liked to be shown more of the villains’ origins and motivations, but enjoyed the story nevertheless.

“Flight of the Runewright” by Howard Tayler: Bleak story about the future use of what we would probably describe as occult means to travel faster-than-light across the depths of space. The story is told from the first-person present perspective featuring, obviously, a somewhat unreliable narrator who learns the truth of his situation along with the reader (I hesitate to say more for fear of ruining the story). I was pleasantly reminded of Stephen King’s story “The Jaunt” in some respects. Lots of fun.

All in all, this is an amazingly successful collection of stories to combine cinematic science fiction – the genre of “space opera” clearly applies in all cases – with Lovecraftian horror. As you know, it’s rare to pick up an anthology and genuinely enjoy each story it contains, but that was certainly the case here. Each of the authors knows their craft well and shows off their writing chops in SPACE ELDRITCH. The writing is uniformly better than most of the science fiction produced in the 1950s and ‘60s, but the stories themselves would not have been out of place in that era. There’s certainly room for additional related stories for most of these, so I am holding out hope for a SPACE ELDRITCH II. I also have to briefly mention that wonderful cover art by Carter Reid as well – isn’t it gorgeous? The cover contains just the right mix of creepiness, tentacles, eldritch runes, and over-the-top cinematic science fiction elements to complement the stories found here.

Unless you are true Lovecraftian purist who things that the Elder Gods should only be encountered by sanity-shaken antiquarians and librarians in the 1920s, I can virtually guarantee that you will enjoy some if not all of the stories collected here. These are all refreshing looks at familiar horror themes viewed through the new lens of space opera and science fiction. Highly recommended for those who like some horror with their science fiction – clearly two tastes that taste great together.

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Review copyright © 2013 J. Andrew Byers

Book Review: Father Gaetano’s Puppet Catechism by Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden

lgcover.9780312644741Father Gaetano’s Puppet Catechism: A Novella
Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden
St. Martin’s Press
Hardcover, $19.99; eBook, $9.99
ISBN-13: 978-0312644741
176pp. 2012

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last decade, it would have been hard to miss all of the appearances of Mike Mignola’s work: from the many Hellboy comics, graphic novel collections, novels, and films, to a growing number of non-Hellboy-related projects, Mignola is a hard guy to avoid. FATHER GAETANO’S PUPPET CATECHISM is Mignola’s latest outing: a stand-alone illustrated novel, and yet another (successful) collaboration between Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden (their previous projects include BALTIMORE and JOE GOLEM AND THE DROWNING CITY).

Some mild plot spoilers follow.

To be clear, this is a much subtler story than those typically told by Mignola; there’s no cinematic action or larger-than-life heroics from a demon-turned-good guy here. This is a much smaller tale set in a Catholic orphanage in Sicily during the Second World War. The protagonists are rather ordinary, to say the least – a priest, a few nuns, some psychologically damaged children who miss their parents – though they are thrust into a genuine encounter with the supernatural. A young parish priest, the eponymous Father Gaetano, has just arrived at the Church of San Domenico in the small Sicilian village of Tringale. There he must find a way to somehow reach the local orphans who have recently lost their parents during the Allied invasion of the island. He eventually decides to use the handcrafted puppet theater and strange set of marionettes left behind by the school’s old caretaker to teach the children their Bible lessons. Not surprisingly, the puppets are, or become, far more than they appear, and despite Father Gaetano’s best efforts, matters soon go awry and get out of control.

Characterization of Gaetano, the nuns, and the orphans is all very well done. As a fairly brief novella, it is tightly plotted, with few wasted words. Many find puppets to be more than a little creepy – there is an entire sub-genre of evil puppet books and films, after all – and the story’s puppets certainly do convey a sense of strangeness, mystery, and eventually, danger throughout. To be clear though, this is obviously more than just a story about strange little puppets. Mignola and Golden wrestle with much deeper philosophical issues, including fundamental questions about the nature of sin and free will, as well as how a loving God can allow such suffering in the world. There really is quite a lot of great material packed into this small book. If there is any weakness here, I’d actually have liked to see a longer epilogue to the novel. The tale wraps up with a quick summary of what happens to the main characters after the events of the novel, but there were surely greater depths to be plumbed here. I wanted more closure than is provided by this terse epilogue.

Also, I should note that though FATHER GAETANO’S PUPPET CATECHISM is billed as an illustrated novel – and that is what this is – it is not a graphic novel by any means; it contains some nicely atmospheric spot illustrations by Mignola, mostly of the puppets, but they are not at all necessary for full enjoyment of the story. If you’re drawn to Mignola’s work solely for his artwork, you might be disappointed here. The illustrations aren’t bad by any means, they just don’t add much. Mignola’s cover, on the other hand, is lovely and conveys a palpable sense of menace that’s entirely appropriate to the story.

FATHER GAETANO’S PUPPET CATECHISM is a quick and engaging read (I read it in a single sitting and didn’t even have to stay up past my bedtime). It’s short but highly entertaining, and perhaps most importantly, thought-provoking. Highly recommended, especially if you are already a fan of Mignola’s work, or only know him through Hellboy.

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Review copyright © 2013 J. Andrew Byers

Book Review: Servant of the Jackal God: The Tales of Kamose, Archpriest of Anubis by Keith Taylor

1617207292Servant of the Jackal God: The Tales of Kamose, Archpriest of Anubis
Keith Taylor
Fantastic Books
Paperback, $14.99
ISBN-13: 978-1617207297
206pp. 2012

From 1999-2006, noted historical fantasist Keith Taylor wrote a series of nine short stories for Weird Tales magazine about the adventures of Kamose, high priest of Anubis, set in ancient Egypt. Taylor has described himself as being heavily influenced by pulp notables like Robert E. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith, with those influences in clear evidence here. I would describe the Kamose stories as a blend of horror and dark fantasy; the setting of ancient Egypt, its culture, religious practices, and magic are all so foreign to the modern reader that I found them reminiscent of the dark fantasy and exotic settings of authors like Tanith Lee. Taylor plays it straight when it comes to the magic and religion of ancient Egypt. The Egyptians believed that their gods were active in human affairs, monsters prowled the wastelands, and magic could be wielded by devoted practitioners, usually in service to the gods. We see all those things in evidence here. Kamose is a powerful sorcerer who stole the god Thoth’s magical secrets to become the preeminent magician in Egypt. This knowledge cost Kamose the undying enmity of the god, along with Kamose’s unfortunate wife and children. For all this, he is still a loyal servant of the pharaoh, and works as a kind of mystical troubleshooter and investigator of plots and schemes that threaten Egypt’s interests.

Some mild plot spoilers follow.

SERVANT OF THE JACKAL GOD reprints all nine of the original Kamose tales, adding two entirely new stories. They are each stand-alone stories, but collectively build a larger narrative. Indeed, several encompass Kamose’s efforts to discover who has stolen an emerald scarab from inside the chest of the recently deceased pharaoh during his mummification rites. This collection includes (original publication dates parenthetically noted below):

“Daggers and a Serpent” (1999)
“Emissaries of Doom” (1999)
“Haunted Shadows” (2000)
“The Emerald Scarab” (2001)
“Lamia” (2001)
“What Are You When the Moon Shall Rise?” (2002)
“The Company of Gods” (2002)
“The Archpriest’s Potion” (2003)
“Corpse’s Wrath” (2006)
“Return of Ganesh” (2012, only found in this anthology)
“The Shabti Assassin” (2012, only found in this anthology)

The stories contained in SERVANT OF THE JACKAL GOD are full of traditional Egyptian mythology, magic, monsters, and folklore, with schemes by rival priesthoods, assassins, and the gods themselves commonplace. Vengeance, greed, and lust for power are common themes, with Kamose often acting as a stern dispenser of justice. Throughout, Kamose is a fascinating character: he is at once a powerful, nigh-immortal sorcerer, but he is by no means omniscient or omnipotent. Kamose’s mystic powers have limits, but his clever use of magic usually allows him to stay one step ahead of his many enemies. Secondary characters, including his enemies, servants, and two paramours (a lamia and a she-sphinx, though the latter is only referred to in passing), all add to the layered setting. A few of the stories are told from other perspectives, including “Lamia,” told from the perspective of Kamose’s monstrous and barely controlled lover; and “The Archpriest’s Potion” and “Corpse’s Wrath,” following the adventures of Si-hotep, a thief and agent of Kamose. I appreciate that in some stories Kamose appears only in another guise (e.g., as the elderly gem merchant Ganesh) who interacts with his agents similarly to the pulp avenger the Shadow.

The only aspect that could have improved this collection would have been a final tale (or two) that wrapped up the mystery of who had sought to steal the dead pharaoh’s emerald scarab. This is a long-standing mystery in the series, and while Kamose has made some progress in his investigation of the plot, by the end of SERVANT OF THE JACKAL GOD, he still has no idea who the real malefactor is. Let’s hope that Taylor is hard at work writing that wrap-up story.

SERVANT OF THE JACKAL GOD is a refreshing collection of dark fantasy stories set in a world with which most readers are likely to be unfamiliar. That unfamiliarity and, dare I say it, alienness of the setting and magic add a great deal to these stories; these are by no means the all too common tired rehashes of western European folklore from the Middle Ages that populate much of the fantasy genre. Highly recommended.

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Review copyright © 2013 J. Andrew Byers

Book News Round-up, February 4, 2013

Some book-related news I’ve come across since last week’s update:

barnes-and-noble-logoB&N — THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING BOOKSTORE: We all know about the tragic demise of Borders in 2011. Readers just aren’t buying as many books from brick-and-mortar stores as they used to, Borders failed to capitalize on the growing eBook trend until it was far too late, and by all accounts, it was mismanaged. Borders’ failure obviously took a little pressure off its competitors like Barnes & Noble and Books-A-Million (BAM!). But fast-forward eighteen months, and it’s clear that at least Barnes & Noble isn’t doing so hot either. According to this recent news article, in 2008 B&N had 726 stores. It now has 689. In ten years, it plans to have only 450-500 stores. That’s a huge shrinkage, and frankly, I’ll be surprised if there are still 450 B&N stores around the country. (Just as an aside, BAM! has about 250 stores currently; no idea if they plan a similar downsizing.)

6a00d8341c562c53ef0168e498a893970c-800wiSTEPHEN KING INTERVIEW ON HIS NEW BOOK: By now, you’ve probably already heard that King plans to release a sequel to one of his best-known and most beloved books, THE SHINING. I never thought this would happen, and am just the teensiest bit skeptical of the project — THE SHINING is one of my favorite horror novels and one of the very few books I’ve ever read that genuinely scared me — but I’m looking forward to the sequel, DOCTOR SLEEP. Here is a nice long interview that focuses on the question of why King has decided to write this sequel now, 36 years after the original.

Book Review: The Thing in the Mist: Selected Stories by John S. Glasby

perf5.500x8.500.inddThe Thing in the Mist: Selected Stories by John S. Glasby
John S. Glasby
Redrum Horror
eBook, $4.99; paperback, $13.99
ISBN-13: 978-0984751976
380pp. 2012

Prior to reading THE THING IN THE MIST, I must confess that I was not familiar with the work of the late John S. Glasby, but what I learned of him intrigued me. Glasby, aside from being a research chemist and an astronomer, also wrote a number of what are often billed as “Lovecraftian” horror tales during the 1950s and 1960s. While we are inundated with Lovecraftian pastiches from the 1980s to the present, I hadn’t previously come across any of his fiction, nor much horror fiction of the Lovecraftian mold from this era. THE THING IN THE MIST is a collection of eleven of Glasby’s horror stories originally published in the British pulp magazine Supernatural Stories, along with a foreword by Edmund Glasby, one of his sons, and an afterword by Philip Harbottle, one of Glasby’s colleagues. Badger Books, a British publishing house specializing in pulp fiction, published 108 issues of the magazine Supernatural Stories between 1954 and 1967. While much of Supernatural Stories was the product of ultra-prolific pulp author Lionel Fanthorpe (under various literary guises), John S. Glasby also wrote prolifically for the magazine, ultimately writing over 300 (!) short stories and novels.

The stories contained in this collection, along with original dates of publication, are:

“The Black Mirror” (1967)
“The Sea Thing” (1954)
“The Haunting of Charles Quintain” (1967)
“The Thing in the Mist” (1967)
“The Dark Time” (1967)
“The Night-Comer” (1967)
“The Golden Scarab” (1955)
“The Pipes of Pan” (1959)
“Older Than Death” (1967)
“The Crystal Fear” (1955)
“The Creature in the Depths” (1959)

Some of the stories in THE THING IN THE MIST contain obvious Lovecraftian connections (notably “The Black Mirror,” concerning a journalist who ventures inside a newly discovered cities long-buried under the sands of North Africa). Most of the other stories in this collection are more standard horror stories in the vein of the old EC Comics from the 1950s if you remember those (e.g., “The Haunting of Charles Quintain” and the eponymous “The Thing in the Mist”). Most of Glasby’s stories, rather than containing new adventures of Lovecraft’s Elder Gods, involve voodoo, strange things crawling out of the sea, traditional demons/devils, ancient family curses, and the like. That doesn’t make these stories any less enjoyable, but I wouldn’t describe most as being particularly “Lovecraftian.” These are generally interesting, entertaining horror short stories from an era with which many of us may not be familiar. In some of these stories, their pulp roots show forth fairly clearly, so readers should be aware that they are likely not stories for those seeking detailed psychological explorations and subtleties. Having said that, Glasby’s stories are well written and no less enjoyable for their occasional lack of subtlety.

Horror tales from the pulp era are a bit of an acquired taste; if you are looking for the explicit, gruesome violence that we often see in modern horror fiction, you won’t find it here. You also won’t find, for the most part, deeply psychological or brooding tales of atmospheric horror. Glasby uses a variety of the iconic tropes of horror fiction to good effect, though, and he’s an engaging writer who crafts stories that fly right by. Personally, I enjoyed this collection of Glasby’s fiction and am curious about the remainder of his prolific output that was not collected here. Perhaps we will see a second collection of his horror fiction? Recommended, especially for those who wish to sample the classic horror tales from the pulps of the 1950s and 1960s.

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Review copyright © 2013 J. Andrew Byers