Sunday, May 31, 2009

Heavenly Hands (Shelter Western series #27) by Paul Lederer writing as Paul Ledd

Following a morning ménage à trois, Shelter Morgan interrupts his vacation and heads out to California on his latest assignment for General Pomfret and the U.S. government: to stop a band of primarily ex-Confederate outlaws who are raiding settlements.

On the train, Shell meets a beautiful widow named Tabatha Saint and is more than somewhat taken aback when she states her late husband was killed by none other than Shelter Morgan! Good thing Shell had already decided to go undercover with the name Jim Crook and infiltrate the gang from within, or this relationship might have gone nowhere.

It turns out the leader of the outlaw gang is operating under Shelter's name. "Why" is a question Shell will have to find the answer to much later on. But it's an intriguing one, with an eye-opening view into Shelter's past.

It wouldn't be entirely amiss to assume that author Paul Ledd (pseudonym of Paul Lederer) was getting tired of his Shelter Western series by the time he wrote the 27th book, Heavenly Hands, especially since he would write only three more Shelter Morgan novels before handing the series over to Robert J. Randisi, who would finish it with three more.

Ledd sometimes seems more interested in being provocative than in giving the reader a full-bodied story, but Heavenly Hands is still a decent read. There's plenty of bullets and bloodshed along the way, with Shelter befriending an Indian after he refuses to mow down a tribe in cold blood. Shell's relationship with Tabatha is also interestingly written. The story is slow in parts, but with an action-filled double finale and a mind-boggling shocker of a twist, the destination is well worth the trip.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard (edited by Rusty Burke, illustrated by Greg Staples)

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 hero he created, Conan the Barbarian. His range of talent, however, is becoming better known, as pulp-era fiction regains a modern readership. Del Rey Books is doing their part to keep his name in front of book-buyers with their affordable trade-paperback collections of his work, of which The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard is only the most recent.

Compiler and editor Rusty Burke has done a great job putting these 40 stories and 20 poems in an order that makes sense, and not just in a chronological or other arbitrary order — the pieces that "belong" together and actually have some connection to each other appear one right after the other. This gives The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard a smooth flow that I've rarely experienced with a short story collection, and certainly not one of this breadth. The evocative black and white illustrations of Greg Staples heading each story, with an additional handful of full-page images, are the perfect accompaniment to Howard's otherworldly tales.

Howard's skill at blending genres — he wrote fantasy, Westerns, historical fiction, even boxing stories — merely showcases the fact that horror can happen in any situation or environ. "Rattle of Bones" features Howard's 17th-century Puritan hero Solomon Kane. Kane and Gaston L'Armon enter a tavern for the night and discover there's a good reason it's called "The Cleft Skull." This story has suspense, death, and insanity portrayed with skill, and it really let me know what I was in for, in a way that the opening tale "In the Forest of Villefere," a werewolf tale followed by the better "Wolfshead," did not. ("Red Shadows," the novella in which Solomon Kane first appeared is not included, but Kane fans have Del Rey's The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane to satisfy them.)

"The Dream Snake" stands out as a particularly well-done pure horror story in the classic told-by-the-campfire vein. That is, its ending is entirely predictable and, in fact, inevitable from the beginning. But Howard's portrait of a man in the grip of an intense lifelong fear (from a horrific recurring dream) is utterly believable. A well-performed reading of "The Dream Snake" could be the highlight of any Halloween night storytelling session.

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. Lovecraft's "Call of Cthulhu" is immortalized in Howard's "The Children of the Night" as one of "the three master horror-tales" — along with Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher" and Machen's "The Novel of the Black Seal" — that "touch the true heights of horror." (Pick up a copy of Horror: 100 Best Books to read Howard's opinion of another favorite horror novel, James Branch Cabell's Something About Eve.)

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 these stories (including "The People of the Monolith," "The Children of the Night," and "The Black Stone" among others), especially by the fact of their tangential relationship to one another. One story may make a passing mention of a character, while another focuses more deeply on another aspect. Pict king Bran Mak Morn searches for the same Black Stone in "Worms of the Earth," and the poem "The Symbol" describes it with a tone reminiscent of Shelley's "Ozymandias." Read all together, they immerse the reader in a fascinating otherworld in a way that would be impossible encountering the pieces individually. Later, in the section devoted to horrific Westerns, "The Hoofed Thing" is a marvelous mix of Lovecraftian fiction and the Old West. Though somewhat weak in believability, it remains exceptionally effective. Some of the four unfinished "Miscellanea" pieces add more interesting information in this vein, but they are otherwise frustratingly incomplete.

No collection of Howard horror would be complete without "Pigeons from Hell," the novella Stephen King called "one of the finest horror stories of our century" in Danse Macabre. Some may know it from its adaptations to other media, from an episode of the Thriller anthology TV series to a recent graphic novel (scripted by Joe R. Lansdale). The concept seems laughable, but Howard manages to make it truly terrifying with an ending that's actually surprising. "The Cairn on the Headland" and "People of the Black Circle" "glow with the fierce and eldritch light of Howard's frenzied intensity" (to use another apt King reference). Howard seems to be at his best at this kind of tale, where men awaken to find themselves turned into the superhuman warriors they once were long, long ago.

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:

Some distance behind him loomed the green, rank jungle, thinning out to low shrubs, stunted trees and tall grass. Some distance in front of him rose the first of a chain of bare, somber hills, littered with boulders, shimmering in the merciless heat of the sun. Between the hills and the jungle lay a broad expanse of rough, uneven grasslands, dotted here and there by clumps of thorn trees. [p. 111-112, "The Hills of the Dead"]

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.

Horror fans 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, as does its often horrific subject matter. "Up, John Kane!" was especially memorable with its folk-ballad rhythm, and the refrain of "Will ye come, will ye come, John Kane?" "Remembrance" is similarly effective telling of a haunting in 14 lines. "Dead Man's Hate" shows how not even death can staunch some men's lust for revenge. "The Dweller in Dark Valley" sets a palpable atmosphere and then explains it with a twist. And that's just a handful of the 20 poems that act as palate cleansers of a sort to The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard. 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 The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard 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.

As a final note, I would just like to mention that, while I was reading this book for review, a severe ice storm hit our community that knocked out the power for nine days. During this difficult time, it was nice to have Howard's wild tales nearby as a small bit of escapism after the kids were asleep, before we crawled into our cold bed for the night. I've found myself returning to them during this economic downturn, as well. Howard's work allows my brain to get away from daily concerns in a way I've not experienced before. His breadth of imagination combined with his expert use of language (two things rarely found in the same individual) showcase a highly literate, action-oriented pulp style that is bound to appeal to all readers of intelligent genre fiction.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Hard Case Crime and "A Sound of Distant Drums"

I only recently discovered that there's a thread that ties together a number of the novels published by Hard Case Crime — and it's not just the distinctive cover design. Here's an explanation from HCC editor Charles Ardai from 2005:

"Back in the PBO era, a number of writers, including Donald Westlake and Lawrence Block, made an in-joke out of including references to A Sound of Distant Drums in their books.... So when the time came for [Max Phillips and I] to write our books for the line, we carried on the tradition."

Here are the occurrences I've found so far:

Lawrence Block: I found a good restaurant where they served me a blood-rare steak and very black coffee. I lingered awhile over a second cup of coffee, then went out and found a movie. [It] was lousy, a historical epic called A Sound of Distant Drums, a technicolor cinemascope package with pretty girls and flashing swords and people getting themselves killed flamboyantly. I dozed through most of it.
— from Grifter's Game (a.k.a. Mona), p. 39.

Donald E. Westlake: A little after midnight, we went down to 42nd Street and saw an important movie that had been made from a Broadway play called A Sound of Distant Drums. It was about homosexuality and what a burden it was, but the hero bore the burden girlfully. It didn't convert me.
— from 361, p. 95.

Lawrence Block: It was evening. Joe was lying on a bed, book in his hand, a western entitled A Sound of Distant Drums, by James Blue. Anita was sitting on the edge of the other bed and staring emptily across the room.
— from A Diet of Treacle (a.k.a. Pads Are for Passion), p. 179.

Donald E. Westlake: Cy Grildquist?... He's got a play on Broadway right now. A Sound of Distant Drums. A good money-maker.
— from The Cutie (a.k.a. The Mercenaries), pp. 147–148.

Max Phillips: "You're Billy Metz," I said.... "William R. Metz. Production design at Paramount. You were really up there for a while.... Catherine the Great's palace in Scarlet Monarch. That big, ah, that kind of desert fortress in A Sound of Distant Drums. Lemme think."
— from Fade to Blonde, p. 141.

Richard Aleas (Charles Ardai): A video store was promoting the latest Chow Yun-Fat import, a film whose two-character Chinese title was translated as A Sound of Distant Drums.
— from Little Girl Lost, p. 133.

Ardai explicitly states that there were other authors involved in this literary game, so any additions to this list will be greatly appreciated, whether HCC books or not. This is a fun little piece of trivia, and I'm interested in pursuing it with your help.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Beat the Reaper by Josh Bazell (unabridged audio book read by Robert Petkoff)

Peter Brown is an intern at New York's Manhattan Catholic Hospital, but he used to be Pietro Brnwa (a.k.a. "Bearclaw"), a hired assassin for the mob, and now he's hiding out with the help of the Federal Witness Relocation Program. While doing his usual rounds, he comes across a familiar face: Nicholas LoBrutto (a.k.a. Eddy Squillante, a.k.a. Eddy Consol), who immediately thinks they've sent Peter to kill him.

But Eddy soon realizes the true situation and proposes a deal (of sorts): keep him alive (Eddy has signet-cell stomach cancer), and Eddy won't pass along Peter's location to David Locano, the father figure Peter turned over to the Feds (which got him put in WITSEC in the first place).

Beat the Reaper is the debut novel from author Josh Bazell. Titled after a Firesign Theatre skit, this book has the same sort of frenetic nature as the work of that comedy troupe. The main plot is pretty thin (I just summarized it entirely), so just like life, the book consists mostly of the stuff between events: flashbacks, various medical crises, and Peter's darkly humorous philosophy on the happenings.

We get to learn all about Peter's backstory, including the murder of his grandparents, his search for revenge, his "adoption" by David Locano and antagonistic brotherhood with Locano's son "Skinflick," his love for the beautiful Magdalena, and why he doesn't care much for sharks. Bazell slips from present to past tense with the ease of a more seasoned writer. This is especially impressive considering that he reportedly wrote Beat the Reaper while finishing his own residency (Bazell has an M.D. in addition to a B.A. in creative writing). This makes him the latest in a line of doctors/writers that includes two of my favorites, F. Paul Wilson and Somerset Maugham.

Bazell's medical expertise gives us lots of educational tidbits throughout the many footnotes in Beat the Reaper. (These footnotes are included seamlessly in the audio version.) And the medical details such as the arrangement of the bones in the forearm actually serve to make the surrounding narrative that much funnier (though we're later warned away from taking any of it as factual — and I'm not sure that the LD50 of defenestration will come in handy any time soon, anyway).

I've also never learned so much about the camps at Auschwitz in one sitting; this novel is definitely much more than it seems — and so entertainingly written. The jabs at the mafia are particularly astute ("The Godfather [is] a movie from the 1970s about the 1950s that mob guys model their lives on to this day").

Beat the Reaper is a wholly modern venture into crime fiction with Peter Brown (you'd think WITSEC would've given him a moniker not quite so close to his own; that's purely old-style Ellis Island–quality naming right there) as the currently preferred hardcase antihero who is only likable in comparison to everyone else (and because of his biting, cynical sense of humor). Yet it retains a mainstream appeal and should draw anyone from fans of classic noir fiction to horror aficionados (with its incredibly gut-wrenching finale).

Narrator Robert Petkoff pulls all this off admirably in his reading of the unabridged audiobook of Beat the Reaper, especially his integration of the footnotes into the running text. His world-weary delivery fits the character so well that one could be excused for thinking it was Bazell himself at the microphone. Also, the two musical pieces that open and close the audiobook (one jazz, one hip-hop) perfectly bookend the experience with percussion that both sets up and carries off the "badass" feel of the novel.

The storyline requires a good deal of suspension of disbelief, and the love story is the weakest portion — two guys having a close friendship with little in common is a regular occurrence, but I seriously doubt any woman would put up with Peter's garbage — but the narrative voice is so strong that it carries the reader or listener smoothly over any of Beat the Reaper's bumps in logic. Josh Bazell is definitely an author to keep an eye out for. He makes writing a novel this layered look easy, and his style is one that could translate to many different tales, though how he can follow this debut is anyone's guess.

Monday, May 18, 2009

The Maze by Catherine Coulter (audio book read by Susan Ericksen)

Seven years ago, Lacey Sherlock's sister was murdered by a serial killer that the newspapers dubbed the String Killer for his tactic of making his victims follow a string to the center of a maze before killing them. Now Lacey is an FBI agent determined to use her access to find the perpetrator. But when she offers herself up as bait, the String Killer has a surprise for her....

The Maze was my first venture into the so-called "romantic suspense" genre. I had not originally intended to take this trip down a previously untraveled road, but I found the audiobook on a table of free stuff at work and decided it would be an experiment that was relatively free of risk.

My low expectations led to a pleasant surprise. I had feared that The Maze would be basically a romance novel with suspense overtones, but Coulter actually does a fine job capturing all the nuances I've come to expect from the serial-killer subgenre (if not the explicit violence a horror fan like myself would anticipate).

Of course, given the target audience, Lacey's relationship with her boss Dillon Savich instantly turns into antagonistic flirting (which everyone recognizes but them) and quickly progresses beyond that (albeit with unrealistic speed). But that is a minor quibble, and the existence of sequels featuring the pair told me that would happen, anyway. The Maze is actually quite suspenseful and fast-paced and kept me guessing to the end. And that's all I was looking for.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Cemetery Dance by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child (unabridged audio book read by Rene Auberjonois)

Respected New York Times journalist William Smithback Jr., best known for his exposés, has been murdered. His wife Nora Kelly, archeologist with the Museum of Natural History, was brutally attacked as the killer left. But this is an open and shut case. The perpetrator, the couple's neighbor Colin Fearing, was identified by five witnesses and was captured clearly on security cameras. There's only one problem: Colin Fearing's death certificate was signed ten days ago.

When voodoo artifacts are found at the scene, the press cries "Zombie!" And when DNA testing confirms that the killer was indeed Fearing, things start to get really strange. Is there really some form of zombi voodoo involved, or is the solution as simple as a local multimillionaire paying for a hit on Smithback, the reporter who smeared his name? And what does a well-hidden Manhattan commune (connected by Smithback in the press to animal sacrifices) have to do with it all?

Both angles are thoroughly investigated by FBI Special Agent Aloysius X.L. Pendergast and New York police lieutenant Vincent D'Agosta (the heroes of several of authors Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child's previous novels), with the added incentive that Smithback was a friend of theirs and accompanied them on previous cases. But you can be sure that the authors will not let us off with an easy answer.

Cemetery Dance is my first of the Preston/Child collaborations. I had previously enjoyed Preston's solo novel The Codex (one of the best books I read in 2008), and it's great to learn that he and Child work together equally well. Readers interested in voodoo and other similar practices will find a lot of good information here, as Pendergast's mentor arrives and acts as a veritable encyclopedia on the various forms, specifically obeah.

But Cemetery Dance is not all talk. There is plenty of action, and no character is ever truly safe. One particular highlight is a chase through a large museum storage room housing dozens of plastic-covered whale skeletons. And Preston and Child manage to leaven the intensity inherent in a murder being investigated by the friends of the deceased by including some slower scenes delving into D'Agosta's other personal struggles, particularly his relationship with fellow cop Laura Hayward. In the process, this makes him much more fully developed than the sometimes chimerical Pendergast. (A Sherlock Holmes type, Pendergast is prone to unconventional methods of investigation, often leaving D'Agosta to clean up the mess, and D'Agosta is getting a little tired of this role.)

The authors' highly descriptive style immerses the reader in a richly drawn, though unfamiliar, world. And their intelligent approach appeals to more literate readers while their plot operates solidly within the confines of the thriller genre. This includes, of course, a number of cliches that must be expected, if not necessarily welcomed, such as how, no matter what information is needed, Pendergast magically seems to have access to it. (Perhaps Cemetery Dance will boost sales of the works of Wade Davis, whom Pendergast references by name.)

In addition to D'Agosta and the fascinating Pendergast (though flawed, surely one of fiction's great idiosyncratic investigators), Cemetery Dance is peopled with other terrific characters — people like Bill Smithback, Nora Kelly, and Laura Hayward — who I am eager to encounter again. Luckily, most or all of them are featured in the many previous Preston and Child novels, like The Cabinet of Curiosities (the one I'm most likely to try next).

Actor René Auberjonois — probably best known for his television work on Benson (for which he was Emmy-nominated), Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and Boston Legal, as well as in the film version of M*A*S*H — shows off his impressive vocal range in the unabridged reading of Cemetery Dance. Auberjonois makes each character different while retaining a familiar thread throughout (though he doesn't quite achieve the "mellifluous" tone frequently attributed to Pendergast).

Delving into their world for the first time, I did not expect something so akin to a horror novel coming from this duo. But I'm not complaining. Preston and Child walk the line of mainstream thriller and zombie horror deftly in Cemetery Dance, and it makes me wonder if perhaps the zombie subgenre is not as over and done with as it would seem, if such a literate and intelligent plot can be gleaned from it. Maybe more authors need to go back to the original roots of the phenomenon.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

History Is Dead edited by Kim Paffenroth (zombie historical fiction)

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form in the Spring 2008 issue of Dead Reckonings. Copyright 2008.

Kim Paffenroth is a theologian and a zombie aficionado whose work also includes Gospel of the Living Dead (which won the Bram Stoker Award for nonfiction) and two novels, Dying to Live and its sequel. Wearing the editor's hat this time around, Paffenroth combines the living dead with an entirely different academic discipline to compile a consistently impressive parade of the undead throughout time. Presented in chronological order, the 20 tales in History Is Dead provide individual historical snapshots spanning from prehistory to the close of the 19th century.

Though largely written by up-and-comers (with three authors published for the first time), the quality of the stories in History Is Dead is remarkably high, especially for a micropress anthology. None are truly awful; the worst are merely ineffective. For example, Derek Gunn’s and Joe McKinney’s stories stop just when they get interesting.

The best entries work by combining the expected elements of horror with humor and heart. Among the highlights is the debut of Raoul Wainscoting, as a scourge of "postvitals" invades opening day at the Globe Theatre. Also worth singling out is Jenny Ashford’s story about a vengeful father and a son with his own idea of duty, from which both Rembrandt and posterity benefit.

Leila Eadie deposits an outbreak of the "sickness" into Regency society and juxtaposes the priorities of the time with the actions necessary for survival: to wit, the heroine’s father’s lament that her firearm skills leave her little chance of finding a husband. Rebecca Brock employs well-worn Southern-fiction tropes in a moving story of another woman and her father during Restoration. John Peel cleverly twists the myths surrounding the Lone Ranger with genuine wit, and his story is the most purely fun.

But all of the stories possess considerable intelligence and commendable detail, with their respective periods presented with authenticity. With its fascinating "what if" scenarios that allow for a wide range of speculation, History Is Dead offers a highly coherent anthology-reading experience ... and a cover disturbing enough to be brought out when houseguests overstay their welcome.

Friday, May 1, 2009

You've Been Warned by James Patterson and Howard Roughan (unabridged audio book read by Ilyana Kadushin)

Kristin Burns is a photographer, but until she can make a living from her pictures, she works as the nanny to Michael and Penley Turnbull's two children, Dakota and Sean. She's also having an affair with Michael, a successful businessman with international connections, but she refuses to let him ease her own path to success.

Sounds like she thinks she's got her life all worked out at age 26. But just like Hamlet said to his childhood friend Rosencrantz, "I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space — were it not that I have bad dreams."

And Kristin has a doozy: a recurring nightmare that causes her to scream herself and her neighbors awake every morning. Who needs an alarm clock? (Interestingly enough, the neighbor that complains the most is named Mrs. Rosencrantz.)

When the nightmare — which involves the Falcon Hotel and four body bags — seems to be coming true, Kristin wonders if she's losing her mind. Is she? After all, she sees her father (dead for 12 years) on the streets of Manhattan and hears a repetitive snippet of music coming from inside her head. And she doesn't know what to make of the strange "warnings" she's getting from a guy in a ponytail, or the homicide detective who follows her, even out of state.

But authors James Patterson and Howard Roughan (Honeymoon, Sail) aren't going to let us off with an easy answer like "she's crazy." They've got something very different in mind for You've Been Warned. And it's not something usually encountered in a mainstream bestseller.

Ilyana Kadushin (who also narrates the Twilight saga — maybe you've heard of it? — in addition to being half of the music duo Lythion) gives a tour de force performance in You've Been Warned, personifying every one of Kristin's idiosyncrasies without judgment (something the authors cannot claim to do). Her sweet-sounding voice makes it easy to root for Kristin, even when we realize she has a serious impulse-control problem and really needs a best friend to talk some sense into her.

You've Been Warned is a totally gripping psychological thriller whose ending lifts boldly from two familiar films in that genre (in fact, so familiar that if I named them, it would give the whole game away, and the ride is too good to spoil). The ending has disappointed many readers, and I guessed part of it early on. But Patterson and Roughan have created such memorable characters, and the rest of the book is full of such fantastic twists and turns — including questions that only seem to lead to more questions — that I don't begrudge them.
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