Saturday, October 31, 2009

Halloween Week: October Dreams: A Celebration of Halloween edited by Richard Chizmar and Robert Morrish (short stories and essays)

Anthologies are usually, simply by their nature, uneven. When you depend on many different brains to come up with quality stories, you're bound to get some duds. It is this expectation that makes October Dreams such a pleasant surprise. In fact, there are so many good pieces in here, that it's easier to pick out the minuscule number of lesser ones (Hugh B. Cave, Dominick Cancilla) in this well-executed tribute to Halloween.

October Dreams is subtitled "A Celebration of Halloween" and it takes its task seriously. Interlaced with classic Halloween stories — and new ones written especially for this collection — are "My Favorite Halloween Memory" reminiscences from the authors, as well as a reading list, a film list, and a history of Halloween that focuses on the modern cultural aspects (as opposed to the usual approach of dwelling on its pagan origins).

Usually in an anthology, I've found a few disappointments by the time I've read five stories, but October Dreams has to be the most consistent collection of stories I have ever read. I didn't find anything to criticize until about the middle of the book. Editors Richard Chizmar (publisher of the dark suspense magazine Cemetery Dance) and Robert Morrish (the magazine's editor until he stepped down recently) have really done their work here. Of course, with a selection of authors like Dean Koontz, Poppy Z. Brite, Ray Bradbury, Ramsey Campbell, Peter Straub, and F. Paul Wilson, how could they go too far wrong?

A few stories stand out from the pack, and these were the ones I chose to read out loud on Halloween night. First was "The Circle" by Lewis Shiner which is a Twilight Zone–style tale of a group of people who gather to read stories on Halloween and get a surprise when one of their members is absent but sends in a story to read anyway. Viewers of the series will probably detect the twist before the end, but it is still an enjoyable read because it follows the formula so well. The other stand out is "Mask Games" by John Shirley, where a family invites a mysterious cousin over for a Halloween party and she brings a strange game for everyone to play. This one was disturbing and creepy and kept me riveted throughout its thirty-five pages.

That "Mask Games" is one of the longer offerings is also a bonus, as any story in October Dreams can generally be read in one sitting. The one exception is "Porkpie Hat" by Peter Straub, which is a seventy-odd page novella and another disappointment. The length, I think, is the main problem. Straub, known for being long-winded at times in his fiction, takes far too long to relate the central story within the story and made me wish he would just get on with it. The beginning and end were much tighter and contained an idea I would like to see expanded upon, that of an interview with a reclusive jazz legend.

Some people have pointed a finger at F. Paul Wilson's story "Buckets" — about an abortion doctor who is terrorized by the spirits of his pre-natal victims — saying it does not belong in an anthology that is supposed to be a celebration, because they didn't like its "agenda." I disagree. I think that Wilson, as a practicing physician, is simply tapping into his own fears — sort of a "what if?" — which makes the terror that much more palpable.

Terror is an emotion that is not rampant in these tales, most of which walk along the fun side of fear, while others aim merely for disturbing. Surprisingly, "Heavy Set" by Ray Bradbury is one of these. The ending does not spell out the actions of the character in question, which makes us project our own ideas and let our imagination run wild. Sometimes, since so much focus is placed on the nostalgic nature of his tales, it's easy to forget that Bradbury is quite a hand at the horror story.

October Dreams is perfect reading for the week before Halloween. (I know, because that's when I read it.) It really gets the reader into the spirit of the holiday. Plus, the reading list ("Trick-or-Read" by Stefan Dziemianowicz) and film list ("'First of all, It Was October...'" by Gary Braunbeck) give other suggestions for holiday entertainment to be relished after you've finished with this wonderful book.

Happy Halloween!

Friday, October 30, 2009

Halloween Week: Ghost Stories Deck by S.E. Schlosser (illustrated by Paul Hoffman)

We've all been there. You're at a Halloween party, or some other equally spooky occasion, and somebody asks for a scary story. Everybody looks at you, and you draw a blank! You can't even remember how the story about the hook goes, let alone some terrifying tale that your audience hasn't heard before.

Well, never again. Not with the Ghost Stories Deck. Just shuffle the deck, draw one of the 50 flash cards, and you're the life of the party again (even if it's just a party of one)!

OK, maybe not, but author S.E. Schlosser and illustrator Paul Hoffman have certainly assembled an interesting novelty: an actual deck of cards, each one containing an entire spooky story on front and back. The 50 stories in the Ghost Stories Deck are culled from the duo's series of books entitled Spooky Stories, and each one is rated on a skull system according to its potential scariness. (Though of course how scary they are to you and yours will depend on the individual.)

The stories themselves aren't always written out in the most effectively frightening manner. ("Don't Turn on the Light" perhaps comes closest.) But the pieces are all there for aspiring storytellers to make the tale their own and tell it in a manner that suits their audience, whether around a campfire, at a slumber party, or any other gathering where the call arises for a spooky tale told well. (And, in case you need a refresher, the Ghost Stories Deck also includes the one about the hook.)

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Halloween Week: The Collingswood Story directed by Michael Costanza (starring Stephanie Dees, Johnny Burton, Diane Behrens)

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2003. Reprinted with permission.

The Collingswood Story (2002). Screenplay by Michael Costanza.

Note: With all the buzz surrounding the newest microbudget horror film Paranormal Activity, I thought this was a good time to bring some more attention to another film that didn't get much attention when it came out, but that is equally successful at a similar ambition: to be both thrifty and scary.

It has been a long time since a horror film actually scared me. I grew up watching them, so apart from the occasional disturbing image, it is rare for a film to have a physical effect on me. I've just seen too many. The last one to do so was The Blair Witch Project in 1999, and then The Collingswood Story did it — it actually gave me goosebumps, which I was certainly not expecting.

Winner of "Best Indie Film" at the 2002 Horror Review Awards, The Collingswood Story concerns Rebecca (Stephanie Dees), who has left her hometown — and her boyfriend, John (Johnny Burton) — behind to go to college in Collingswood, New Jersey. For her birthday, John sets them both up with "phone cams" so they can communicate with each other. Phone cams are presented as identical to Web cams with one important difference: you have to dial the person's telephone number in order to contact them.

Collingswood starts off gently, with John and Rebecca talking to each other about their relationship, the distance, and the insecurities it brings up. Having experienced a long-distance relationship myself, it was easy to identify with the situation and the characters' feelings.

That same night, John phones his friend, Billy (Grant Edmonds), who seems to exist only to provide some sophomoric comic relief, and the phone cam number of various phone cam "freaks," including an elderly exotic dancer. Also on this list of gag calls is psychic-for-hire Vera Madeline (Diane Behrens), whom John recommends Rebecca call on a lark.

When Rebecca calls Vera, she finds out more than she expected. Vera knows all about the town of Collingswood and its past, including a series of cult-related murders orchestrated by their leader, Alan Tashi, and a particularly gruesome set that occurred in the house where Rebecca is staying.

From here on, The Collingswood Story provides quite a ride.

Rebecca's laptop allows portability (courtesy of an extra-long phone cord), so viewers are treated to shots of different rooms in the house as well as her recordings of trips around Collingswood searching for the infamous Lees Lane and the home of Alan Tashi. The portability also allows her to climb into the darkness of the attic and broadcast to John as she searches for evidence of the murders. This climactic scene is a 20-minute crescendo into terror. The fact that we pretty much know what to expect and are still carried along makes writer/director Michael Costanza's feat all the more admirable.

The Collingswood Story is the kind of film that thrives on a small budget. The inability to show violence (due to expense) is part of the draw because what happens is unseen and all the scarier. Consider the following titles: Psycho, Halloween, Blair Witch — all movies made on the cheap, and yet always in the top of fright fans' favorites lists in terms of scariness.

It is most often in the scripts that the quality lies. And The Collingswood Story is certainly no slouch in that department. Costanza has captured simple and natural dialogue, allowing the actors to give fully realistic performances, and a plot that flows directly from the characters' actions.

Costanza has managed to gather a terrific cast. Diane Behrens' role as Vera Madeline is the film's main source of information, and Behrens' performance is key to its credibility. Stephanie Dees as Rebecca is adorable and engaging. Her role is the heart of the film and without her complete believability, none of the rest of The Collingswood Story would stick.

Johnny Burton is solid in his supportive role, eliciting sympathy in his eventual helplessness. Even the phone cam ecdysiast is funny for his short time onscreen. Grant Edmonds' turn as Billy is the only real setback, as he tries for complete obnoxiousness and thus eschews all subtlety. The contrast to the others is painfully noticeable, but he is fortunately onscreen little.

All these factors combine in making what is bound to become one of the great indie fright flicks — certainly the best I've seen lately. Though the ending has struck some as confusing and/or unbelievable, it worked for me. Simply put, if it's been a long time since a movie affected you the way a horror film is supposed to, give The Collingswood Story a try.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Halloween Week: The Baby by Al Sarrantonio (Orangefield horror novella)

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on Down in the Cellar. Copyright 2006. Reprinted with permission.

From the jack-o'-lantern on the cover, it's easy to tell that this novella from author Al Sarrantonio was one of the Halloween-related offerings for 2006 from Cemetery Dance Publications. Whereas most pumpkin-heads at least attempt to be frightening, however, the one on the cover of The Baby (as drawn by Keith Minnion) is positively adorable, which nicely reinforces the title.

The Baby is part of Al Sarrantonio's Orangefield series that includes the novels Hallows' Eve, Horrorween, and other stories with similarly holiday-oriented titles. It is also the third in the Signature Series of books from Cemetery Dance. These focus on giving somewhat less story but considerably more art for a comparable price to their usual books.

Detective Bill Grant wishes that "weird shit" wouldn't happen in Orangefield every Halloween, but the town's resident Celtic Lord of the Dead, Samhain, is going to make sure his wish isn't about to come true. After spending a night out with the boys, Jack Carlin comes home a little after one o'clock in the morning to fulfill his promise to his wife Marianne: to try and make a baby. She's a little miffed that she’s had to wait, but they make love and she quickly falls asleep afterward, only to wake up an hour later to find Jack gone again.

Detective Grant has to inform her that Jack actually died outside the bar ... a little before one in the morning. But the fact remains that she is now pregnant. How this happened and what exactly happened to Jack are up for debate. What is not, is that Samhain has plans for this baby ("life created from death"), and he is not above cashing in a couple of favors to do it. But favors for Samhain have a way of making people dead.

The Baby is a thin, narrow volume of 129 pages, with two dozen beautifully rendered realistic and evocative illustrations from artist Keith Minnion. The story reads very quickly, however, and followers of Sarrantonio may feel that the extra money was not well spent. (Minnion fans like myself will likely be more pleased with the quality and value.) Nevertheless, the book itself is beautiful, stands out on the shelf, and the story is engaging and tautly written enough to justify revisiting it every Halloween.

Since this review was first written, The Baby has been expanded by Sarrantonio into the novel-length Halloweenland. This novel is a different take on the story, and reprinters Leisure Books have included the text of The Baby (sans Minnion's art) as a bonus in the paperback. Both versions are just as entertaining, and Sarrantonio's alternate take on the story — especially the ending of the novella — is definitely worth a look.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Halloween Week: The Two Sams: Ghost Stories by Glen Hirshberg (novella collection)

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2004. Reprinted with permission.

"Any resemblance to places living or dead is sort of coincidental." — from the dedication page of The Two Sams

This collection from author Glen Hirshberg is a welcome refreshment from what has become a decreasingly represented subgenre: the ghost story. In the introduction of The Two Sams, British horror author Ramsey Campbell compares Hirshberg's output to the seminal work of M.R. James, Fritz Leiber, and Thomas Ligotti, and Campbell is willing to "stake [his] reputation that history will hail him as a crucial contributor to the field." That's quite a high expectation for a collection of five novellas, but Hirshberg appears to be up to the test.

From the beginning of The Two Sams, Hirshberg shows that, above all, he knows how to set a mood. He seems to rely on a type of sneaky eerieness to carry these spectral stories through to their seldom predictable conclusions. "Struwwelpeter" is a particularly good example of this practice.

On the surface, the narrator in "Struwwelpeter" appears to merely be relating an adolescent that-one-time-I-got-really-scared reminiscence. The author, however, makes sure the reader understands (if only subconsciously) that these events will build into something else and it's not going to be pretty. "Struwwelpeter" was nominated for the World Fantasy Award and was selected for inclusion in The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror #15.

Often, as in "Shipwreck Beach," the fright comes from an unexpected place, with Hirshberg using the stage magician's trick of misdirection to get the reader thinking he is being led towards one conclusion while Hirshberg devises an alternate. It's not always obvious where he is going, but he always plays fair and only one of the five stories in The Two Sams is anything less than immensely satisfying.

"Mr. Dark's Carnival" is a particular favorite. It concerns an urban legend come to life and contains a description of a Halloween "haunted house" that had my nerves rattling. Glen Hirshberg can host me on Halloween anytime. "Mr Dark's Carnival" was nominated for both the International Horror Guild Award and the World Fantasy Award and appeared in The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror #14.

The next story, "Dancing Men," is the only clunker in The Two Sams, seeming to go nowhere in the space of forty pages. I've read other stories involving the Holocaust and not been as unaffected by it as in this one. Even so, it was chosen for inclusion in Ellen Datlow's ghost story anthology, The Dark (not too surprising given how Datlow has nurtured Hirshberg's career throughout, not least by her tenure as the coeditor of those Year's Best Fantasy and Horror books previously mentioned).

Luckily, the final and title story, "The Two Sams," is short and instantly compelling. It begins by addressing the ghosts in our memories but soon reveals itself to be about more tangible fears. Coming after the disappointment of "Dancing Men," it makes a terrific closer by reminding the reader of Hirshberg's strengths, one of which is his ability to cover a lot of ground in a few pages.

Taken individually, each tale in The Two Sams offers a chance to appreciate the subtleties that aren't apparent upon first reading, allowing them to simmer subconsciously until the flavors steam forth. Reading them all at once would be like an unnecessary trip back to the buffet — an overwhelming sense of too much, too soon. Tread slowly, and savor.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Halloween Week: Dark Harvest by Norman Partridge (horror novella)

This is an expanded version of the review that was originally published in Down in the Cellar. Copyright 2006. Reprinted with permission.

"He's the October Boy ... the reaper that grows in the field, the merciless trick with a heart made of treats, the butchering nightmare with the hacksaw face ... and he's gonna getcha! That's what they always told you ... he's gonna getcha so you know you've been got!!!!!" — from Dark Harvest

From the jack-o'-lantern on the cover, it's easy to tell that this novella from author Norman Partridge is a Halloween-related offering. Whereas most pumpkin-heads are fairly innocuous-looking, however, the one on the cover of Dark Harvest is positively threatening, which gives you some idea of the book's contents: intense effects in a short amount of time.

In fact, Dark Harvest is so much better than the early fiction that came out in the recent rerelease of his short-story collection Mr. Fox and Other Feral Tales that it is hard to believe they were written by the same person.

You know this kind of story: it's the legend every small midwestern town has, and Partridge has managed to keep things familiar and yet fill this novella with surprises. It's got the nostalgia of Ray Bradbury's classic Something Wicked This Way Comes with a touch of The Twilight Zone and the kind of dark suspense that Partridge specializes in, but the author has also included a melancholy thread that adds depth.

It's that time again: Halloween night, the night when all teenage boys are released, after being locked in their rooms for five days, and set off to find "The October Boy," a midwestern nightmare with a jack-o'-lantern for a head and one thing on its mind: getting to the church on time (no, really). The boy who kills this awful creature (also known as "Sawtooth Jack") gets to leave town, or "jump the Line," something that has become increasingly more difficult, especially with Officer Jerry Ricks enforcing the border. But Pete McCormick thinks this is his year. He has stolen Officer Ricks's .45 and he is determined to get out of the town that has been holding him and his family, and everyone else in it, down for generations.

Dark Harvest is by turns frightening and sad, scary and tragic. It is a pure Halloween horror story, but one whose ripples extend past the time it takes to read it (only a few hours). The characters are people you know, only in a situation you couldn't have imagined that nevertheless feels entirely plausible given the right set of circumstances. I believe that Partridge has crafted a new Halloween classic, one that should find a permanent place on the shelf of every fan of the holiday who appreciates solid writing with no spare parts.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Halloween Week: October Dark by David Herter

The latest in Earthling Publications' series of Halloween offerings is October Dark by David Herter. Originally titled Dark Carnivals, it centers around the unfinished film Dark Carnival, expanded for the screen by Ray Bradbury from his short story "The Black Ferris." Plagued by problems, the film was eventually dropped, and Bradbury later novelized his screenplay into Something Wicked This Way Comes.

The story concerns two aspiring "FX filmers," Will and Jim. With the help of their friends, they discover that a celebrity of sorts is living in their town of Grenton. Lester Deerton worked with the great Willis O'Brien, stop-motion animator extraordinaire.

Meanwhile, a little special-effects movie called Star Wars has just been released, and it's just the thing these two boys need to fill their summer days. What they don't realize is their summer is about to be filled with a lot more interesting, and dangerous, events.

Ambitious in scope and execution, October Dark is a love letter to Bradbury, Star Wars, Halloween, and the special effects masters of the cinema, most prominently Ray Harryhausen and Willis O'Brien, the latter a character in the story.

Herter mixes fact, fiction, and fantasy seamlessly, and it's often difficult to separate the three. (I was fooled in many instances. For example, don't go searching for certain titles or you'll be greatly disappointed.) The more you know about the life and work of folks like O'Brien and Bradbury, the more enjoyment you'll get out of October Dark.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Sunday night begins Halloween Week on Somebody Dies!

Halloween is my favorite holiday. No other celebration combines the frightening and the fun in such a wonderfully equal measure. Plus, it happens during the fall, which is my favorite season. (Though it's possibly the two are related.)

In honor of this, I'll be posting reviews all this coming week of Halloween-related stories: five books, one movie, and one novelty that can only be called "other."

Hope to see you there!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Hunt Through the Cradle of Fear by Gabriel Hunt (as told to Charles Ardai)

Author Charles Ardai met his "co-author" Gabriel Hunt at the Yerebatan Sarayi (Sunken Palace) in Istanbul. (No, really — just read page 144 of Hunt Through the Cradle of Fear.) And I guess they hit it off because Hunt later enlisted Ardai's assistance in chronicling his adventures. ("I would have done it myself, gladly, but I was unfortunately tied up with some matters in Brazil," quips Hunt. "And I do mean tied up.")

Who's Gabriel Hunt? Why, he's only the multimillionaire globe-trotting adventurer (shades of Jim Anthony, but Hunt provides his own wisecracks) — sort of a modern Indiana Jones (in fact, they may have known each other, as alluded to in Hunt's first book) with up-to-date gadgetry like a cell phone with GPS.

Hunt's adventures are funded by the $100 million Hunt Foundation, paid for with the money of his parents, best-selling religious historians who were lost at sea and are presumed dead. Gabriel also has a brother, Michael, who helps him out on occasion, and a sister, Lucy (whose full name made her relationship with her parents more than a little strained), whom neither of the brothers has seen since their parents' disappearance.

His exploits are scheduled to be written down by a selection of writers skilled at action-oriented stories: James Reasoner, Charles Ardai, Nicholas Kaufmann, Christa Faust, David J. Schow, and Raymond Benson. For the first book in the Hunt chronicles, Hunt at the Well of Eternity, Reasoner was praised by Publishers Weekly as setting the bar for modern adventure "to nosebleed heights," stating also that the pulp-adventure genre had been "smashingly resurrected."

This Ardai-penned adventure continues the quality (not surprising, since Ardai came up with the concept and created the "bible" for the other writers to follow). In Hunt Through the Cradle of Fear, Gabriel hops from Manhattan to Hungary, from Egypt to Greece, and on to Turkey. He answers the riddle of the sphinx, meets a son of Homer, and soars, shoots, and slices his way to a mysterious treasure that is both invaluable and inscrutable, with the deliciously evil Lajos De Groet dogging him every step of the way.

Tongue is planted firmly in cheek with frequent references to how implausible things get, especially at the end when the story loops around to something said at the beginning. It is not only entertaining but informative: every chapter seems to have some educational tidbit to take away. Hunt Through the Cradle of Fear is intelligent and ironic and still every bit a full-blooded adventure novel.

As a bonus for readers, Hunt asked Ardai to include a separate, unrelated novella. "Nor Idolatry Blind the Eye" is a sort of hard-boiled adventure story that shows Ardai's darker side, with an ending that gets under the fingernails and sinks its teeth into the quick.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Liar in Your Life: The Way to Truthful Relationships by Robert Feldman (unabridged audio book read by Bob Walter)

"Deception forms a common part of ordinary social interactions.... If we didn't lie, we would be considered socially awkward, not to mention something of a jerk." — from The Liar in Your Life

You're a liar. And you're lied to every day. Think you're not? Count the number of times someone answers "Fine" to your "How are you?" when they're obviously bothered by something. Even your "How are you?" is a lie, because how often do you really want to hear about an acquaintance's personal problems? And how many times have you said, "What a beautiful baby" when you really believe the child looks just like its ugly parents?

Why do we lie so much? Why are lies like, "That dress looks great on you" and "The dinner was delicious" considered vital for social interaction when, if we knew the person was lying to us, we would likely be disturbed — and yet, according to the research of author Richard Feldman, just as likely to increase the number of our lies to that person?

In The Liar in Your Life: The Way to Truthful Relationships (which is being marketed as self-help when it's really a wonderful psychological portrait of deception), Feldman shows that even trained lie detectors like police officers are statistically only as good as the average person at detecting a lie: accurate less than half the time (this is worse than random guessing). He also describes the liar's advantage and the truth bias, and offers tips on encouraging truth and how to find the balance between "radical honesty" and blatant deception.

Feldman shows how the legend about George Washington and the cherry tree is a made-up story that we ironically use to keep children honest. And there is a politeness / honesty paradox. We teach children to always be honest, but then we want them to be polite, a practice that often involves outright lying if not merely the omission of the truth.

Surprisingly, Feldman's take on lying is not entirely negative. He goes on in The Liar in Your Life about how, in our society, knowing how (and more importantly, when) to lie is a sign of proper social development. There is even evidence that deception is a survival instinct. Natural selection favors deceitful practices like camouflage and "playing dead," and even infants as young as 6 months will use false crying to get attention. Is it possible we're born to lie?

Dr. Feldman may be mildly long-winded, but he has so much interesting information to impart that it's rarely a problem. Instead, his conversational narrative style makes the bulk of The Liar in Your Life go down easily. Remarkably, audiobook reader Bob Walter adopts this style as his own so completely that it seems as if the author is reading it himself.

From self-deception to cognitive dissonance, from blind dates to job interviews, from résumé padding to online avatars, from Lou Pearlman to Bernie Madoff, lying is a part of our everyday life, even a part of being human. So maybe it's less important to be honest all the time than it is to be aware of the deception that surrounds us. That sounds like a more reasonable expectation, at least until something better comes along.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Valley of Fear by A.C. Doyle (Hard Case Crime)

If you're a crime-fiction enthusiast, it's likely you've encountered the work of author A.C. Doyle. His books and stories are internationally renowned, especially his private investigator series, of which The Valley of Fear was the last novel. (My favorite is the one about the dog.)

Doyle takes an interesting tack with The Valley of Fear in dividing the novel into two separate stories that tie together at the end. Part one involves solving a coded message connected to the author of The Dynamics of an Asteroid — hardly the subject matter one would expect to find in a Hard Case Crime novel. But when the murder victim is a man shot in the face with an American sawed-off shotgun at point-blank range, we're firmly in hard-boiled territory.

Some seem to think it was a suicide. Not hardly, with a dirty bootprint near the window. Is a secret society behind it all? The victim's wife remembers him saying, "I have been in the Valley of Fear. I am not out of it yet." Is there a conspiracy? And who is Bodymaster McGinty? Even the police think the case contains "some very perplexing and extraordinary features."

Part two is the lengthy story behind the crime, as written by the deceased himself. It involves The Scowrers, a cadre of freemasons led by McGinty on a rash of beatings and killings. Freemasons? Gangsters, more like. The group seems invincible until a Pinkerton comes on the scene.

Though the detective is understandably absent for the backstory, this portion is sometimes the more interesting, given its view into an underworld of sorts. Doyle offers a tentative solution to the mystery at the end of part one, but it is not until after part two, in the epilogue, that all the pieces finally fit together. The Valley of Fear is definitely one of the author's most underrated works. In style, it is the most ambitious of the series (though the first novel in the series also contains a lengthy digression into the past), and I'm glad to see Hard Case Crime giving it the respect it deserves.

Friday, October 16, 2009

The Midnight Room by Ed Gorman (dark suspense)

Detective Steve Scanlon's life is out of control. Married with kids, he also has an expensive mistress — or thinks he does. Actually, ever since Nicole found out he was married, she'd rather he left her alone, that he's stop buying her expensive gifts in a desperate attempt to re-win her affections.

Steve doesn't give up easily, but he needs more money. He's been neglecting his family, his wife and kids, his brother Michael (also a cop), and their father in the nursing home, leaving Michael to continually make up stories to cover for him more than Michael wants or their father believes.

But Steve had a solution to all his problems. He originally meant only to rob Dr. Peter Olson, but now he knows what the doctor has been up to: kidnapping local girls and torturing them to death in his basement dungeon. Steve found in Olson's safe the DVDs the doctor made of his last two captives, and Olson will pay to keep them secret. It is therefore in Scanlon's best interest that Dr. Olson is not discovered for his latest victim — a recently missing girl named Cindy Baines.

The police have stepped up the investigation since the last victim's skull arrived in her mother's mailbox. Luckily, Scanlon is the investigating officer on the case along with his partner, Kim Edwards — who, not coincidentally, Dr. Olson has just begun dating. And that's just the beginning of author Ed Gorman's The Midnight Room, a dark ride that isn't even over when the main story has played out. There's more to come, and it's even more shocking.

Ed Gorman is one of the great dark suspense novelists working today, and The Midnight Room is his best work yet. Its pieces are assembled bit by bit, and it takes a while for the reader to figure out what exactly is going on. (The strangely misleading blurb on the back cover — which seems to be advertising the book as a horror novel — goes a long way toward clouding the waters.) But Gorman always plays fair and is only keeping back some information for greater effect in later pages.

The Midnight Room is a wholly modern novel, but its roots lie in the Gold Medal novels of the 1950s and '60s. Gorman's influences are right there on the page. His skill at plotting is highly reminiscent of John D. MacDonald's standalone (that is, non–Travis McGee) novels. But his deft control of a multitude of major characters shows the marked influence of John Farris, particularly the author's intriguingly complex Harrison High. (Though Farris also wrote a handful of Gold Medals himself under the name Steve Brackeen.)

Gorman himself has called The Midnight Room his own "Gold Medal novel" and dedicates it to four "old friends who were masters of the form": Peter Rabe, Stephen Marlowe, William Campbell Gault, and Robert Colby. I think they would be proud to be connected to this book. It is the culmination of a life-long love of hardboiled crime novels and is a worthy addition to their ranks.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Guest Blogger: Robert Greer, author of Spoon (book giveaway!)

Today, I have the honor of welcoming author Robert Greer to the pages of Somebody Dies. His latest novel is Spoon, and this new book — "set in the contemporary American West" — is somewhat of a departure from his mystery series featuring C.J. Floyd.

Below, Greer lets us in on the origins of the novel. After that, read on to find out how to receive a free copy of the book.

My novel Spoon germinated from a short story that I wrote more than twenty years ago, the summer after I finished my master's degree in creative writing at Boston University. At that time, I was still writing what some would consider to be literary pieces and hadn't yet begun to work on the mysteries and medical thrillers that have now solidified my writing reputation.

Spoon is the story of a biracial cowboy searching the West for his roots. In doing so, Arcus Witherspoon (his given name) stumbles across a ranching family in Montana who are down on their luck. Spoon, it turns out, is oddly clairvoyant, and that gift helps him when the Darleys, the family he befriends, come up against a coal company that is trying to usurp their land.

I thought about the character of Arcus Witherspoon for a long time before I decided to expand my short story into a novel. More than anything, it was Spoon's tenacity and wisdom, I suspect, that kept me tethered to him all those years.

The novel does have a degree of suspense, so I couldn’t get away from my mystery/thriller roots altogether, but all in all, the piece is literary. Personally, I don't make much of a distinction between genre fiction and literary fiction. In the end, for me writing is simply writing. So in a sense, with Spoon, mystery, thriller, and literary buffs can have what they like, all rolled into one.

Many thanks to Robert Greer for offering some insight into the origins of Spoon. Greer's publisher, Fulcrum Books, has graciously offered 5 free copies of his book to the readers of Somebody Dies.

The first 5 people to send me their mailing address (via the e-mail address located in the site description at the top of this page) will receive a free copy of Spoon direct from the publisher. (Their publicist asks that only residents of the U.S. and Canada apply, however — and no P.O. boxes, please.)

Good luck, and thanks for reading about Spoon.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

First Family by David Baldacci (unabridged audio book read by Ron McLarty)

During a birthday party at Camp David, President Dan Cox's niece Willa Dutton is kidnapped and the girl's mother killed. Suspicious eyes turn toward Tuck Dutton, father of the girl and brother to First Lady Jane Cox. Almost immediately, Jane calls private investigator Sean King.

Years ago, when Dan Cox was a senator and Sean was in the Secret Service, he saved the young senator from a potentially career-ruining situation, and now Jane trusts Sean completely. So, he and partner Michelle Maxwell begin investigating the mysterious murder/kidnapping, until she is pulled away by the death of her mother, and she notices that all the evidence points to her father.

Elsewhere, Sam Quarry is angry. His daughter Tippi has been in a coma since a tragic occurrence years ago, and all he can do is wait — and read to her from her favorite book, Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. Or is that all he can do? Could it be that revenge is the answer?

First Family takes its time getting started; there's a lot of character history to impart before the book can really get moving. After disc 3, I was close to putting it down for good, but two discs later I didn't want to turn it off. This is a testament to author David Baldacci's skillful plotting.

He has three different main plots going simultaneously (only one of which feels redundant), and yet things never get confusing or out of control. And he really knows just the right spot to spring a surprise bit of information. Although I had low expectations for First Family, I ended up being very impressed. Which is especially surprising since I generally don't care for this brand of mainstream mystery-thriller.

Baldacci offers a highly sympathetic villain. In fact, by the end of First Family, you'll be asking yourself just who the villain really is. Protagonists King and Maxwell (Simple Genius) are comparatively weak. Their developing relationship is such a minor part of the story, since they're so busy, that scenes that bring them alone together feel forced.

However, audiobook narrator Ron McLarty gives one of his best readings yet (assisted by the occasional melody and sound effect). He is equally proficient at all types, but it is his portrayal of Sam Quarry that really shines. Sam is a full-bodied individual. He is really the only character in First Family that feels that way. It almost seems as if McLarty were not involved at all, and that Sam himself were simply caught on record. This is one case where the narrator is able to bring more to the experience than just words on a page.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Quarry in the Middle by Max Allan Collins (Hard Case Crime)

A new Max Allan Collins novel is always a source of excitement at my house. I would have read Quarry in the Middle as soon as it came in the mail — but my wife grabbed it first, while I satisfied myself watching Caveman, Collins's fascinating documentary on Alley Oop.

There are quotes in the front of Quarry in the Middle from Dashiell Hammett, Akira Kurosawa, and Sergio Leone. What do these men have in common? All three have written or directed a version of the same story: a loner playing both parties of a situation for his own profit. It's a very old story, at least as old as Carlo Goldoni's 18th-century commedia dell'arte Servant of Two Masters, but Hammett brought it to 20th-century readers in his "Continental Op" novel Red Harvest.

Red Harvest is considered to be a direct influence on Kurosawa's samurai film Yojimbo (though Kurosawa himself cited The Glass Key). Leone later remade Yojimbo into A Fistful of Dollars. (Leone was sued by Kurosawa for neglecting to purchase remake rights; Kurosawa stated he made more money off Leone's film than his own).

Interestingly enough, all three protagonists are "men with no name": Hammett's hero is known only as "the Continental Op," Kurosawa's samurai names himself after a plant he sees nearby, and Leone's character has popularized the phrase to the extent that he personifies it. But enough with the history lesson; a good portion of readers probably know all that stuff, anyway.

Where The Last Quarry showed the end of his career and The First Quarry showed the beginning, Quarry in the Middle understandably fills in some blanks. It's set in the mid-1980s. (I'm guessing late 1986; Collins doesn't say outright, but he gives various historical clues.) No longer working for The Broker, Quarry has begun a new kind of business. Using The Broker's files, he gets hired killers' targets to hire him to kill the killers. How very meta!

Following his latest ... uh, quarry ("a guy named Monahan"), Quarry finds himself in a town with the unlikely name of Haydee's Port, Illinois — home of the Paddlewheel ("a mini–Las Vegas under one roof") and its official digs, the Wheelhouse Motel — and a hell of a place to be unless you can think on your feet. Luckily, our hired-killer-with-no-name (at least not one he's telling us) has shown himself to be quite adept at thinking ... on his feet, on his back, etc.

Quarry finds out Monahan is gunning for Richard Cornell, owner of the Paddlewheel, and that he's been hired by Jerry G, son of mob-connected Gigi Giovanni, owner of Cornell's main competition, the less-classy Lucky Devil. A man who knows how to turn every situation to his best advantage, Quarry takes an assignment to knock off the Giovannis.

The Quarry series contains Collins's leanest and tightest writing, and Quarry in the Middle is no exception. Collins blends past and present seamlessly, alternating between telling Quarry's back story and the current one with unmatched skill.

I finished Quarry in the Middle in two sittings, or about an hour and a half. It's a very quick read and one you may want to start right over again from the beginning. Collins's take on Yojimbo is fresh yet familiar, and it's always fun to watch Quarry do his thing. Here's hoping the series continues, filling in even more blank spots in the timeline along the way.

Nitpicker's Note: At one point Quarry mentions watching Turner Classic Movies. But, since the channel debuted in 1994 and Quarry in the Middle is set in the mid-'80s, Quarry must have actually been watching American Movie Classics in its heyday (perhaps with the great Bob Dorian as host).

Monday, October 5, 2009

Outlaw's Reckoning: a Ralph Compton novel by Marcus Galloway (Western)

Gus McCord and Doyle Hill are engaged in one of their favorite pastimes, robbing a stagecoach, when a man named Mason gets especially protective of his black case. Their interest piqued, the duo soon find it contains a woman's clothes covered in blood.

The woman is Abigail Swann, and her father is a very powerful man. Mason is part of the crew involved in the kidnapping. Surprising his partner, the one-eyed Gus decides to do the noble thing and rescue Miss Swann, and Doyle goes along. ("[He's] my conscience," Doyle says at one point.)

I've enjoyed the Westerns of Ralph Compton — whether by the man himself (The Goodnight Trail) or, more recently, by others writing under his name (Joseph A. West's The Man from Nowhere) — for a couple of years now. They manage to combine traditional Western tropes like trail drives, stagecoach robberies, and gunfights with more modern approaches like personal redemption, strong female characters, and the occasional serial killer (David Robbins's Rio Largo).

The writer behind Outlaw's Reckoning is Marcus Galloway. Galloway has written two previous Compton novels, The Bloody Trail and Death of a Bad Man. He is also the author of two prominent Western series of his own: The Accomplice featuring Doc Holliday and The Man from Boot Hill, which chronicles the adventures of professional mourner Nick Graves. (He has also ghostwritten for a couple of monthly Western series, and he writes the Skinners series of werewolf-hunter horror novels under his birth name Marcus Pelegrimas.)

Marcus Galloway has a easily flowing prose style that allows the reader to get straight into the story with no obstacles of language. And, though I can respect a word craftsman, most often all I want is some simple escapism. All of the author's characters are strongly drawn; they come easily to the mind's eye and are distinctive through their dialogue.

Galloway also leavens the suspense of Outlaw's Reckoning with a great deal of humor, primarily coming from the interactions of Gus and Doyle with their conflicting quirks, grudging respect, and antagonistic friendship, there's obviously also a love there. Gus and Doyle are one of the great mismatched teams. They continually get on each other's nerves, but each also fully respects the other's skills because they complement each other so well.

I had hoped for further adventures of the duo, but Galloway has unfortunately slammed the door tight on any possibilities for a sequel to Outlaw's Reckoning. Nevertheless, I'll keep an eye open for any future Ralph Compton novels by this author, in addition to seeking out his other work. (I'm especially curious about those werewolf novels.)

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Death Ground by Ed Gorman (Leo Guild Western)

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on Ex Libris Reviews. Copyright 2005. Reprinted with permission.

Ed Gorman writes my favorite kind of Western, at least as far as I can tell from the example of Death Ground. I really enjoy dark fiction like horror and hard-boiled crime novels. There, characters unrepentantly operate by their own set of rules. This was the first Western I read that didn't appear to be peopled entirely with black-and-white characters either trying to do the right thing or blatantly the opposite.

Everyone's motives in Death Ground are questionable. Even the protagonist is a bounty hunter named Leo Guild who is more interested in collecting the reward for returning the spoils of a bank robbery than in bringing the robber to justice — although that would be okay, too, as long as the reward was worth it.

Gorman puts enough plot into the 200 pages of Death Ground to fill a much longer novel. At least four of the characters undergo some type of change, a cholera outbreak wipes out half of a settlement, and all of the bad guys are punished — usually with a bullet or six.

Somehow, Gorman manages to make each individual sympathetic (like the priest who isn't really, two brothers with an incredibly dysfunctional relationship, and a murderer who adopts an orphan) in an emotionally resonant narrative. With the existence of three other Leo Guild novels to help ease the transition via familiarity, Death Ground also acts as the ideal introduction to Westerns for the horror or crime fiction fan.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Black and White and Dead All Over by John Darnton

Theodore S. Ratnoff is dead. The assistant managing editor of the New York Globe was found near the fifth-floor conference room with the tool of his trade — an editor's spike, used to "kill" stories — sticking out of his chest, and the only compliment he regularly gave ("Nice. Who?") impaled on the spike.

Young upstart reporter Jude Hurley is assigned the story; young no-nonsense police detective Priscilla Bollingsworth is assigned the case. They must work together (while dealing with their attraction to one another) to find out all the facts before the newsroom becomes a morgue (and I'm not talking about the one where they keep the news archives).

Author John Darnton brings 40 years of journalistic experience (and a Pulitzer Prize) to Black and White and Dead All Over, lending the details an authenticity that carries the plot through its slow parts, namely the mystery.

The murder investigation is entertaining enough, and Darnton does a fine job with that portion of Black and White and Dead All Over, but it's the behind-the-scenes operations of a modern daily paper that really shine. It is most memorable as a playful satire on the industry and especially of those individuals who choose to make it their career.

Just don't take it too seriously because Darnton has a biting wit that peels the veneer from some very self-important people. His tome is one of good-natured mean-spiritedness. Darnton's supporting characters are thinly veiled caricatures (drawn with a good deal of literary license) of his former co-workers at the New York Times. (Judith "Dinah" Outsalot, for example, is obviously based on disguise-happy food columnist Ruth Reichl.)

For those so inclined, there is also an unabridged audiobook of Black and White and Dead All Over read by Phil Gigante. Though his reading is otherwise unremarkable, Gigante offers some appropriate (and skillfully rendered) accents to characters of Western European extraction.

Interestingly, Black and White and Dead All Over was the second I read in a month (the first was Bad Things Happen) where the murderer left a note quoting from Hamlet — which doesn't say much for us fans of Shakespeare, I must admit.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Crimson Shadows: The Best of Robert E. Howard, Volume One (edited by Rusty Burke, illustrated by Jim and Ruth Keegan)

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2009. Reprinted with permission.

Robert E. Howard wrote short stories during the heyday of the pulp era, mostly for Weird Tales, from 1924 until his death by suicide in 1936 at age 30. Howard wrote in various genres, but he is now best known for his stories popularizing the fantasy subgenre "sword and sorcery," and especially the Cimmerian hero popularly known as Conan the Barbarian. His range of talent, however, is becoming better known, as pulp-era fiction regains a modern readership. Subterranean Press and Del Rey Books are doing their part to keep Howard's name in front of book-buyers with, respectively, their limited-edition hardcover and affordable trade-paperback collections of his work. Crimson Shadows: The Best of Robert E. Howard, Volume One is the first of two "best of" retrospectives.

Compiler and editor Rusty Burke has done a great job selecting 16 stories and 12 poems that offer an idea of the range of Howard's output. Helping him in his selection was a poll of Robert E. Howard fans; 19 of the top 25 vote-getters are included. Everything from sword and sorcery to adventure to horror, from crime to boxing to Westerns, is showcased here. This does give the collection a scattered feel sometimes, but what holds them all together is the quality of the author's writing.

Both versions of Crimson Shadows are illustrated by Jim and Ruth Keegan. I find their art serviceable but too static for Howard's active prose. It probably would have been good enough had I not first read The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard, illustrated by Greg Staples. His art in that collection is so emotionally and physically realistic, often seeming to glower or move on the page, that it makes the Keegans' work pale in comparison. Rarely do the couple choose to depict action scenes, and when they do, the positions feel posed, where Staples seems to catch his subjects in mid-motion.

For Keegan devotees, however, the Subterranean Press limited edition hardcover is a must have. It is not only signed by the artists but also has four new color plates (one of which also serves as new cover art) not included in the Del Rey trade paperback.

Opening the collection is "The Shadow Kingdom," featuring Kull from Atlantis, usurping king of Valusia. Kull meets his own attempted usurpers in the Serpent Men, a fascinating race of snake-headed individuals who deal in mesmerism and shape-shifting. Kull has to struggle with his own doubts to maintain the throne. Though similar in many ways to the later character of Conan (the first Conan story was a rewritten Kull story), I find Kull superior due to his tendency toward deeper thinking. (He appears twice more in this collection.)

"Red Shadows" introduces Howard's 17th-century Puritan hero Solomon Kane. Avenging the death of a young woman, Kane travels for years to find Le Loup ("the wolf"), meeting "good juju man" N'Longa — who later plays a larger role in Kane's life — for the first time. Howard doesn't shy away from the action here, putting Kane in peril no less than three times. Many consider this the beginning of the sword-and-sorcery genre — "The Shadow Kingdom" also has its supporters for that title — with the main difference being this one's use of a realistic setting (Kull lives around 100,000 years B.C.). I've experienced "Red Shadows" multiple times, in print and audio, and it never loses its power to entertain. Both Kane and Le Loup are indelible characters, and the action sets up Kane admirably well for his later stories. (The poem "One Black Stain," also included here, has Kane stand up to Francis Drake in the face of an execution.)

In "The Dark Man," Turlogh Dubh goes to save a girl from his family though his family no longer recognizes him. This story is a terrific adventure with a surprise that connects it to another Howard stalwart, Pict king Bran Mak Morn. "Kings of the Night" brings Bran and Kull together through an ancient lineage. A wizard conjures Kull up from the ancient past when Bran's potential fighters ask for "a king, neither Pict, Gael, nor Briton" to lead them against the invading Romans. This is truly one of the great battle stories, with realism, history, and myth blended in ideal measure.

Sailor Steve Costigan is confronted with the prospect of a dog fight involving Costigan's best pal Mike, a bull dog,in "The Fightin'est Pair." This story, one of Howard's famous boxing yarns, showcases in a surprisingly sensitive manner, without getting blubbery, the love of a man (who talks with his fists) for his dog. Those wondering if Howard had a more romantic side need only read "For the Love of Barbara Allen," a story of love across time, told in the style of a Southern folktale. I was so surprised at how moving it was, that it just may be a new favorite.

An unexpected highlight of this collection is a selection of Howard's Lovecraftian horror. H.P. Lovecraft was Howard's friend and mentor, and they corresponded by mail for years. Howard's confidence is astonishing, as he boldly makes his own additions to the Lovecraft canon (Von Junzt's Nameless Cults, poet Justin Geoffrey) that have become as much a part of the Mythos as Lovecraft's own works. But even as he adds to another author's world, he remains firmly in Robert E. Howard territory, and these tales are just as enjoyable with no prior appreciation for such "Yog-Sothothery" (what Lovecraft called the practice of Mythos-sharing, which he supported).

Having long been enthralled by tales of rare books and their supernatural effects on unassuming readers, I was deeply engaged by "The Black Stone," especially by the fact of its tangential relationship to "Worms of the Earth" (wherein Pict king Bran Mak Morn searches for the same Black Stone). Read together, they immerse the reader in a fascinating otherworld in a way that would be impossible encountering the pieces individually.

As you may surmise from the title, "Lord of the Dead" is less a mystery than an adventure tale, though it is up to oversized detective Steve Harrison to figure out why someone who died 30 years ago is trying to kill him right now. The confrontation with Erlik Khan was reminiscent of The Mask of Fu Manchu, but I'm still interested in reading more about this "big dick" (as the narration refers to him) because, unless I miss my guess, Harrison is the first detective to so deftly use an ancient axe against his enemies.

Though many Howard fans are bound to be appalled, I must state here that his most famous character, Conan the Cimmerian, is vastly overrated. I've read around half a dozen of the author's Conan stories and, apart from Howard's wonderful way with words, have found little to impress. Conan seems rather uncomplicated when compared to Solomon Kane or Bran Mak Morn, and Howard seems to run off at the pen writing of the barbarian in a way not seen in his other, more tightly written tales. (By far the longest, these two stories alone take up just under one-quarter of the book's 500 pages.) The result is I consistently found my mind wandering during "The People of the Black Circle" and "Beyond the Black River," something that never happens with his other work. Since I had not read these two before — and since they are considered the best of the best, so to speak — I was more than willing to let them convert me. But they did little but confirm my belief that Conan, while a source of great pleasure for many, is simply not for me.

But the Cimmerian has been popular from the beginning, and perhaps with good reason. Howard himself stated in a letter to Lovecraft that "his supernatural adventures aside — he is the most realistic character I ever evolved... he seemed to step full-grown into my consciousness when I wrote the first yarn of the series." So, Howard may have continued to write Conan's adventures if not for the convergence of two things: his steadily growing interest in the facts and legends of the West, and a steadily growing sum of money owed to him by Weird Tales. Both combined in such a way that Howard write primarily Westerns until his death.

"The Valley of the Worm" distinguishes itself from a plethora of sword-fighting stories by virtue of its unexpected conclusion. In most other ways, it is merely average Robert E. Howard, though any story that features the beheading of a giant snake (another mythos link?) is OK in my book. "The Grey God Passes" is the story of heroic Conn the kern and his role in the historic Battle of Clontarf. It contains a full-fledged epic story in just 30 pages.

"Hawk in the Hills" is the second of the five El Borak (Arabic for "the swift") tales published during Howard's lifetime. And the man who was born Francis X. Gordon is certainly fleet of foot, finger, and faculties, but he also talks too much, which often slows down the action in an otherwise fine story. This Texas gunfighter transplanted to the Middle East (Howard reportedly created the character when he was ten) gives the author the opportunity to write a Western character who confronts the same kind of exotic villains his other heroes did.

Breckinridge Elkins, Howard's most popular Western character by far, intends to bring a pretty schoolteacher from nearby Chawed Ear to Bear Creek by whatever means necessary in "Sharp's Gun Serenade" ("Bear Creek is goin' to have culture if I have to wade fetlock deep in gore to pervide it"). This was the last of the Elkins stories, and it is told, like the rest, in a "tall tale" style peppered with low-brow humor and Howard's deft touch with dialect.

Not only does Howard write gripping tales, but he also uses the English language with a skill I've not yet seen in genre fiction. His vocabulary range is immensely impressive, and I've never seen so many semi-colons all in one place — and used with such skill. Howard picks his words with a master's touch, making unconventional choices that still retain easy readability, like in selection from "Beyond the Black River": "A heavy chopping crunch sounded behind the leaves. The bushes were shaken violently, and simultaneously with the sound, an arrow arched erratically from among them and vanished among the trees along the trail."

Not difficult language, by any means — merely the right word for the purpose. One never gets the sense that such and such a word was "good enough," but that only the perfect one would do to set the proper mood. Yet his descriptive narrative style flows smoothly even as it speaks poetically.

Readers who tend to eschew modern poetry need not skip Howard's verse. There's a lot here to appreciate. It is written in an older style that any student of literature will find familiar. This makes it highly approachable. "The Song of a Mad Minstrel" seems to be sung by a demonic entity. It is filled with Howard's wonderfully specific word choices, like "There were crimson gulfs unplumbed, there were black wings over a sea; / There were pits where mad things drummed, and foaming blasphemy." The selection of "The Dust Dance" included is particularly effective in illustrating the epic span of man, as told by one of the first. "The Tide" has much the same effect as "For the Love of Barbara Allen." And that's just three of the dozen poems that act as palate cleansers of a sort to Crimson Shadows. Interspersed throughout, they only add to the total effect.

For the Howard completists, the editors have included an exhaustive rundown of how the versions of the pieces published in Crimson Shadows: The Best of Robert E. Howard, Volume One are different from their original sources, from the placement of commas to the cleaning up of misspellings and further. I was for some reason enthralled by this information, mostly because it shows that Burke and company are fans and scholars who want nothing more than to present Howard in the best possible light. Their choice to use en-dashes instead of em-dashes throughout is mildly irritating, but the text is otherwise nearly pristine. Other extras include a foreword from the Keegans, an introduction and a short bio of Howard from editor Burke, and Charles Hoffman's "Robert E. Howard: Twentieth Century Mythmaker."

As a final note, I would just like to mention that, before being introduced to the work of Robert E. Howard, I was under the impression that fantasy was a tired genre with nothing to offer me. Also, short stories held no appeal. These two perceptions were turned on their ears upon entering Howard's world. After only one book, The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard, I was an instant enthusiast, and Crimson Shadows has given me all the more reason to remain that way. It confirms my opinion (formed by the Horror Stories) that Robert E. Howard was a Great Writer and one who deserves to be reevaluated by those who feel that men who do their best communicating with swords, guns, and large fists are not to be taken seriously. This collection strongly suggests otherwise.
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