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.


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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.


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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.


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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.


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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 thriller.


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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.


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Review copyright © 2014 J. Andrew Byers

Book Review: The Forbidden Territory by Dennis Wheatley

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9781448212552The Forbidden Territory
By Dennis Wheatley
Bloomsbury Reader
ISBN: 978-1448213061
2013; $15.00 trade paperback; $7.99 ebook

Dennis Wheatley needs no introduction to fans of horror and suspense literature. Wheatley’s prolific output of adventure novels – many involving elements of the supernatural and Satanism – was immensely popular for decades but has been much less readily available in recent years. This is the first volume in a new set of attractively bound trade paperback reprints by Bloomsbury Reader. Cover designs for the series are minimalist, but striking, and I hope they are effective at drawing in new readers. Because much of Wheatley’s work has been available only in increasingly hard-to-find out of print editions – at least in the U.S., I assume he is more readily available in the U.K. – this is a very welcome addition to the shelves.

Published in 1933, THE FORBIDDEN TERRITORY was Wheatley’s first published novel and unlike some of his later works that delve deeper into occult topics, Satanism, and more lurid themes, it is an unabashed adventure novel. It also introduces four of Wheatley’s recurring protagonists: the elderly but still spry French exile, the Duc de Richleau; the wealthy Jewish banker, Simon Aron; the brash young American adventurer, Rex Van Ryn; and well-connected, upper-crust Brit, Richard Eaton. Though it lacks the supernatural elements of some of the later novels in the series, it does introduce the protagonists who will go on to have more occult adventures, and highlights Wheatley’s skill at penning a darn good adventure story. I should also note that the book became an immediate best-seller in 1933 and Alfred Hitchcock bought the film rights. Though Hitchcock himself doesn’t seem to have been involved in making the film adaptation, a movie based on the novel came out in 1934. I haven’t yet seen that film, but while it seems to have taken some liberties with the plot and characters, is still favorably reviewed and said to be one of the better screen adaptations of Wheatley’s fiction.

The plot of THE FORBIDDEN TERRITORY seems pretty straight-forward: Rex Van Ryn has traveled to the Soviet Union seeking a hidden tsarist treasure and, unsurprisingly, has fallen afoul of the authorities. He has been imprisoned in a Soviet prison in a remote area but eventually manages to get word of his capture to his friends, chief among them the mysterious old exiled nobleman, the Duc de Richleau. The good duke, along with two of Rex’s other friends, make their way into the Soviet Union, managing to shake their Soviet minders, then they have to locate Rex, somehow get him out of a Soviet prison, then escape several thousand miles to the West, all the while evading a massive manhunt. Then things get complicated. I don’t want to spoil all the twists and turns, but we have here all the elements of a great action-adventure novel: a femme fatale; wining, dining, and high society; a relentless, ruthless secret police officer; deposed noblemen and a hidden treasure; military secrets; spies, lies, and betrayal; car chases, shoot-outs, and countless cliffhangers; and an omnipresent sense of danger. Suffice it to say that THE FORBIDDEN TERRITORY provides almost a blueprint for how to compose a thriller.

We tend to think about the Soviet Union and its relationship with the West in terms of the Cold War, but THE FORBIDDEN TERRITORY makes clear that the first Red Scare was alive and well in 1933, with the Soviet Union very much an enigma, albeit a fascinating and frightening one, for the West. This is also an interesting look at Stalin’s Soviet Union before the Second World War, at least as it was imagined (and feared) by some in the U.K. in the early 1930s. This is a staunchly anti-Communist vision of the USSR; unlike at least some of his upper-crust peers, Wheatley was not one of the many British intellectuals who flirted with socialism, or even active supported for the international communist movement in the 1930s.

THE FORBIDDEN TERRITORY is definitely recommended as a rip-roaring action/adventure thriller from the early 1930s that is decidedly better written than most adventure pulps from the same period. It’s also a great introduction to some of Dennis Wheatley’s most iconic characters. My only caveat would be that if you’re expecting explicitly supernatural elements – as found in some of Wheatley’s “black magic” works – you might be disappointed that those elements aren’t present here. But as a straight historical thriller, this one is hard to beat.


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Review copyright © 2014 J. Andrew Byers

Book Review: The Colony: Genesis by Michaelbrent Collings

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colony-genesis-michaelbrent-collings-paperback-cover-artThe Colony: Genesis
Michaelbrent Collings
ISBN: 978-0-9838071-3-1
2013; $8.79 trade paperback; $0.99 ebook

I’m a little bored with stories about zombies. Don’t get me wrong, I like them plenty, it’s just that I’ve read a lot of them and most of them tend to be pretty similar. So I wasn’t quite sure how I’d like Michaelbrent Collings’ first novel in his new zombie series, THE COLONY: GENESIS. I need not have worried – it’s really fast-paced, it’s engagingly written, and yes, it does have something new to say about zombies. It’s also the start of a new series.

Mild plot spoilers follow.

Ken Strickland is a pretty ordinary guy: he’s a high school teacher living in Boise, Idaho, with his wife and three young children. The day begins ordinarily enough – Ken is giving a test to his students – when they witness a plane falling out of the sky. Then another. Then all hell truly breaks loose when half of Ken’s students begin savagely attacking the other half, tearing them to shreds and shrugging off horrific injuries. Those bitten also quickly turn into brutal, unthinking killers. Ken survives the initial onslaught, but knows that his family is downtown, so he begins a desperate quest to (1) simply survive and (2) try to save his family, eventually joining a small number of other survivors of the catastrophe. This isn’t an ordinary zombie novel, and to be clear, it’s not even truly a “zombie” novel in the sense that it involves the dead coming back to life to consume the living; the seemingly mindless killers are still alive, but are driven to kill in the same way that the infected of the film 28 Days Later or Steven King’s CELL are. It quickly becomes apparent that there is some weirdness (beyond the obvious) going on here. For one, why did roughly half the population suddenly become mindless, savage, and enraged, while the other half were unaffected? For another, why do the killers periodically stop what they’re doing, in unison, and pause before resuming their killing rages, and why are these pauses growing shorter and shorter? And what’s going on with the insect populations, which also seem to be behaving strangely?

There is one element of GENESIS that I should note because I think it could matter to some readers: the book ends on a cliffhanger. We’ve been following Ken as he and his companions make their way through the zombie-infested ruins of Boise to the last known location of Ken’s wife and children throughout the book and, well, we don’t yet know what their fate is at the end of the book. We also don’t yet come to understand why or how any of this happened. We just have questions, and few answers by the end of the novel. I didn’t find it unsatisfying, as two sequels are already available, but some readers might be annoyed by the fact that this isn’t truly a “stand-alone” kind of novel. Frankly, I am genuinely curious about the circumstances surrounding all this.

THE COLONY: GENESIS is a quick read: the action is very fast-paced and tends toward the cinematic. Characterization is not deep (but then again, this is a story about people just trying to stay alive and facing almost impossible odds, so there isn’t that much opportunity for deep reflection and motivation). If you’re looking for a quick read of survival horror, and an interesting take on zombies, then I would highly recommend THE COLONY: GENESIS.


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Review copyright © 2014 J. Andrew Byers

Book Review: Beyond Rue Morgue Anthology: Further Tales of Edgar Allan Poe’s 1st Detective, Paul Kane and Charles V. Prepolec, editors

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BeyondRueMorgue_RoughCoverBeyond Rue Morgue Anthology: Further Tales of Edgar Allan Poe’s 1st Detective
Paul Kane and Charles V. Prepolec, editors
Titan Books
ISBN: 978-1781161753
2013; $14.95 trade paperback; $9.99 ebook

Either you’re already familiar with Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” or you’re not. If not, that’s easily rectified, as it has long been in the public domain and a copy is included in this volume. It is often credited as being the first detective story – I’ve seen arguments made for a couple of earlier works, but let’s not be pedantic – even though the term “detective” had not yet been coined at the time of its writing. Poe himself described “Rue Morgue” as a “tale of ratiocination.” The protagonist, the Chevalier C. Auguste Dupin, a man of almost unparalleled intellect and insight, serves as the prototype for many of his succeeding and better known detectives, such as Holmes and Poirot. Dupin also reappears in two other Poe stories not collected here but those are also easily available. There’s little point to me reviewing such a well-known tale as “Rue Morgue,” so I will simply say that Dupin’s methods involve Poe’s “ratiocination,” the application of careful observation, along with inductive reasoning, to draw conclusions based on minute and seemingly trivial observations. You’ve seen Holmes do it a million times, but Dupin did it first. This is a collection of short stories that attempt to extend Poe’s work on Dupin, either directly (by offering some further adventures of Dupin himself) or indirectly, by writing in Poe’s style and usually describing a descendant of Dupin’s dealing with a similar, seemingly impossible and outré crime.

Contents of this collection are as follows:

Introduction by the editors, Paul Kane and Charles Prepolec
Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”
Mike Carey, “The Sons of Tammany”
Simon Clark, “The Unfathomed Darkness”
Weston Ochse and Yvonne Navarro, “The Weight of a Dead Man”
Jonathan Maberry, “The Vanishing Assassin”
Joe R. Lansdale, “The Gruesome Affair of the Electric Blue Lightning”
Elizabeth Massie, “From Darkness, Emerged, Returned”
Lisa Tuttle, “After the End”
Stephen Volk, “The Purloined Face”
Clive Barker, “New Murders in the Rue Morgue” (other than “Rue Morgue” itself, this is the only reprint in the volume)

Now, on to the new stories (I promise not to wreck any of the mysteries for you):

Mike Carey, “The Sons of Tammany”: Dupin travels to Boss Tweed’s New York City in 1870 and quickly runs afoul of that city’s corrupt political machine as he investigates the strange deaths of some workers constructing the Brooklyn Bridge. The transposition of the mannerly Dupin to the rough-and-tumble New York setting works very well, though at times he comes off as a bit too much of a caricature. The mystery is well done though, and the dialogue occasionally very funny.

Simon Clark, “The Unfathomed Darkness”: An excellent mystery in the precise mold of Poe’s creation. Clark probably captures Poe’s voice, the character of Dupin, and the style of Dupin’s mysteries better than any other writer in the collection. Dupin must solve the mystery of a corpse found facedown in the snow, with – seemingly impossibly – no footprints or any marks visible around the corpse. I hope that Clark plans more Dupin pastiches, because he really nailed the tone and language perfectly.

Weston Ochse and Yvonne Navarro, “The Weight of a Dead Man”: This story was well written, but a bit far out there, perhaps straying too far from the original. It’s a mystery solved by Dupin’s grandson, Nate Dupes, in the Wild West on the Mexican border in 1895. Decent story, but only a tenuous connection to Dupin.

Jonathan Maberry, “The Vanishing Assassin”: Well-written piece concerning the savage murder of a dealer in Japanese antiquities. The more Dupin learns about the victim, the more his sympathies lie with the killer.

Joe R. Lansdale, “The Gruesome Affair of the Electric Blue Lightning”: I actually really like Lansdale’s work and don’t think I’ve ever seen anything of his that doesn’t work well. How could you not love a story involving an ape, the Necronomicon, and some bizarre science fiction gadgetry? Any story that connects Poe with Grimm’s fairy tales, Frankenstein, and the Cthulhu Mythos has got to be a good one! Could only have been conceived of my Joe Lansdale.

Elizabeth Massie, “From Darkness, Emerged, Returned”: Like the Ochse/Navarro story, this one is a short piece about a distant relative of Dupin’s, in this case his great-granddaughter Molly, who lives in Brooklyn in the early twentieth century. Molly is a bit of a shut-in who observes life outside her apartment windows all day, including the aftermath of her love interest’s murder. It’s not at all a bad story, it’s actually kind of fun, but it has only the most tenuous connection to Dupin.

Lisa Tuttle, “After the End”: A very melancholic little piece about Dupin’s last case involving a serial killer who savages his victims in the style of a wolf, as revealed through a medium at a séance. The premise and prose in the story were both very well done; this is probably the darkest and most chilling of the stories in the collection, and might have been something that Poe himself might have conceived. No spoilers, but I just don’t care for the resolution of the story or Tuttle’s portrayal of Dupin.

Stephen Volk, “The Purloined Face”: This is a bit of an odd duck for me, a story that I’m not quite sure works. A young Sherlock Holmes is informally apprenticed to an old Poe, who apparently faked his own death (!) and is living in Paris masquerading as Dupin, solving crimes the Paris police are unable to. The pair gets caught up in a series of acid-throwing disfigurements at a Parisian theater in a story mimicking The Phantom of the Opera. It was jarring to me to see Holmes depicted as a pretty clueless and bumbling young man, almost useless in the face of the persnickety old Poe’s genius. Perhaps I’m simply complaining about this story as a Sherlock Holmes purist; there’s nothing inherently wrong with the story, per se, it just doesn’t ring true for me. If you go into this one less wedded to the idea of what a young Sherlock Holmes should be like, you might appreciate it more than I have.

Clive Barker, “New Murders in the Rue Morgue”: A truly dark and melancholic story – not surprising, given its author – about Dupin’s great-nephew Lewis investigating a series of crimes and strange events that seem closely tied in, or at least sharply reminiscent of, the original Rue Morgue murders. The resolution is pretty twisted and not for the faint of heart, but I liked it.

All in all, this collection was a little bit of a mixed bag when it came to the quality of the stories it contains, but that’s not unusual for an anthology. I’d have liked to see a few of the stories attempt more of a pastiche of Poe’s Dupin mysteries, rather than just use the basic concept as a springboard for a very different kind of story, but there’s little to complain about here. Each story had merit, and some were downright excellent. There’s clearly still plenty of room available for more actual stories of Dupin’s hitherto unrecorded adventures, and I hope Titan Books or another publisher takes up that challenge. If you’re at all intrigued by the character of Dupin and his unique brand of “ratiocination,” and appreciate the idea of a man of reason tangling with the unknown, then I’d highly recommend this collection.


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Review copyright © 2013 J. Andrew Byers

Book Review: H. P. Lovecraft’s Dark Arcadia: The Satire, Symbology and Contradiction by Gavin Callaghan

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callaghan-h-p-lovecrafts-dark-arcadiaH. P. Lovecraft’s Dark Arcadia: The Satire, Symbology and Contradiction
Gavin Callaghan
McFarland
ISBN: 978-0-7864-7079-2
2013; $40.00 trade paperback; $15.00 ebook

Fans of H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos and other weird fiction are living in a golden age of literary criticism of the man’s work. New collections of essays on Lovecraft and his writings have been coming out with regularity for many years. I’ve read a fair amount of what’s out there already, and have noted that a certain kind of staleness has crept into the field. There are certain key scholars, S. T. Joshi probably foremost among them, who are responsible for helping to popularize Lovecraft’s work beginning in the 1980s and also lending his fiction a certain amount of respectability. We all know how little respect “genre” fiction is given by the literati, and supernatural horror fiction rarely receives more than a disdainful acknowledgement of its existence by most critics. Lovecraft is different though: he’s undoubtedly had significant influence on pop culture and he even generates a fair amount of literary criticism. But much of the extant analysis of Lovecraft does seem to keep rehashing the same basic themes, essentially treading the same well-trod ground.

Gavin Callaghan’s H. P. LOVECRAFT’S DARK ARCADIA: THE SATIRE, SYMBOLOGY AND CONTRADICTION adopts a very different approach. DARK ARCADIA is a collection of six interconnected essays, three long ones – on Lovecraft’s use of Roman and Greek symbology and themes; the image of the father and paternal figures; and the mother and feminine figures – and three shorter ones focusing on narrower topics: images of bees and apiaries; the concept of the “moon-ladder”; and the coda in “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” and Lovecraft’s beloved cousin Phillips Gamwell. There’s a great deal more covered here than that thin list would imply, as these essays are pretty far-ranging. I also certainly appreciate Callaghan looking at some of Lovecraft’s more obscure works that rarely receive any analysis, including “The Green Meadow,” “Medusa’s Coil,” and “The Moon-Bog.”

So, in the growing field of Lovecraft studies, what exactly does Callaghan contribute? First, Callaghan explores the many classical allusions to Greco-Roman myths found in Lovecraft’s work. That is valuable and mostly hasn’t been done before. Callaghan also seeks to explore the satirical possibilities of Lovecraft’s work. That too is a welcome study, since most of the scholars examining Lovecraft take it all just a little too seriously at times, even though I’m not entirely convinced of Callaghan’s arguments here. Perhaps most important for Callaghan is the tool of literary psychoanalysis (mostly Jungian here) to explore Lovecraft’s development as a way to examine the tropes he uses and keeps returning to in his fiction. I’ve always been more than a little skeptical about using psychoanalysis to examine authors and – even worse – fictional characters, but Callaghan at least offers some interesting speculation here. I think that one of Callaghan’s most valuable contributions, though, is his attempt to overturn the conventional wisdom that has come to dominate Lovecraftian scholarship (the “Joshian” school of thought) that emphasizes the cosmicism found in Lovecraft. It’s hard to avoid that: Lovecraft does, after all, often write about a fundamentally uncaring universe and incomprehensibly powerful alien beings who take no more notice of human affairs than we would notice a single small ant colony in the jungles of Borneo. But Callaghan argues that the cosmicism everyone points out in Lovecraft is almost incidental. What we see of cosmic elements are, to Callaghan, Lovecraft’s efforts to work through his troubled past and psyche, mostly revolving around his feelings toward his parents. What remains of Lovecraft’s fiction, Callaghan suggests, is mostly a set of far more conventional, almost gothic horror tropes and scenarios in new guises. We keep returning to Lovecraft’s cosmicism because, Callaghan suggests, everyone “knows” that that’s what Lovecraft was all about, so that’s what we all think. But this very well may be simply the popular consensus found in secondary sources, rather than what a truly fresh reading of Lovecraft’s original work might uncover. Callaghan argues that if we really think about it, the horrors in Lovecraft’s work are actually pretty familiar tropes for his time: miscegenation, bestiality, sadism, cannibalism, infanticide, necrophilia, incest, paganism, witchcraft, vampirism, and lycanthropy (these terms applied broadly). Again, I don’t know that I’m entirely convinced by that argument, but I’m very glad that Callaghan has made it. This is a work of Lovecraftian literary criticism that can’t be ignored; it can be dissected, poured over, and argued against, but it can’t simply be dismissed, and that’s a valuable contribution indeed.

I know that many Lovecraftian scholars and analysts are virtually obsessed with Lovecraft’s racism (I mention this because it’s become one of my pet peeves). You can’t find an analytical piece on the man’s writing from the last ten or fifteen years that doesn’t devote a lengthy section to the subject; it has become de rigeur. Lovecraft was a white New Englander born in 1890. Of course he was a racist by twenty-first century standards. (So was Abraham Lincoln, for that matter.) Lovecraft’s era was a time in which Irish and Italian immigrants to the United States were only grudgingly accepted as “white” by most – but still not all – Americans. Lovecraft’s “xenophobia” and disdain for non-white ethnicities and races, which does occasionally pop up in some of his fiction output, is neither unsurprising nor interesting to me. I would vastly prefer that much more interesting themes about Lovecraft;’s writing be explored, but your reaction will likely vary. In any case, if you want more of that sort of thing, there’s some of that here, but it doesn’t overwhelm and distract.

DARK ARCADIA is not without its flaws and it’s certainly not for all readers. If you’re mostly a casual fan of Lovecraft and Cthulhu, avoid DARK ARCADIA (and literary criticism in general). If you’re not particularly familiar with Lovecraft’s work, this isn’t a good place to start. If you’re at all interested in exploring some of Lovecraft’s work on a deeper level, however, you should check out DARK ARCADIA. You might not come away agreeing with Gavin Callaghan, but you won’t regret hearing him out.


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Review copyright © 2014 J. Andrew Byers