Tuesday, February 23, 2010

A Dark Matter by Peter Straub (literary horror)

It's been over five years since we've had a new novel from author Peter Straub, but he's been busy in the meantime with his nonfiction collection Sides, the short pieces in 5 Stories, and the editing duties involved in introducing readers to Poe's Children and in the overview of American Fantastic Tales. But A Dark Matter was definitely worth the wait. Not only is it his first novel since 1999's Mr. X to not feature Tim Underhill as the protagonist (though he is referenced in passing), but it is also a beautifully drawn portrait of the subjectivity of personal experience and of the consequences of self-imposed exclusion.

In it, writer Lee Harwell tells the story of his friends and their guru and the event that changed all their lives forever. If that sounds familiar, you may be noticing the basic similarity between the plot of A Dark Matter and Straub's own classic Ghost Story (as well as myriad other great novels, including It and The Secret History), but the differences only begin with the younger cast.

Harwell's high school friends Howard "Hootie" Bly, Jason "Boats" Boatman, and Donald "Dilly" Olson — and his girlfriend and future wife, the remarkably beautiful Lee "the Eel" Truax — (along with college students Keith Hayward, Brett Milstrap, and Meredith Bright) all fall under the spell of smooth-talker Spencer Mallon. The only one who thinks Mallon is a con man full of b.s. is Harwell himself, so he wasn't there at the meeting with their idol on October 15, 1966, that ended with one person's disappearance and another's gruesome death and mutilation — that basically ruined the lives of his "most intimate friends, who had shared everything with me until the moment I refused to follow them into discipleship."

More than 40 years later, though he has written a book about it, Harwell is still trying to figure out what happened. His wife won't tell him because he wasn't there, so he has to piece information together from what he can get. In true Citizen Kane fashion, he asks everyone else left for his or her piece of the story. What Harwell discovers, though (and not surprisingly), is that each participant in the big event remembers it differently. (Rashomon comes to mind — or The Outrage, depending on which one you've seen — but only in that aspect.)

I haven't always been a Peter Straub enthusiast. In fact, none of his "classic" novels (Shadowland, Julia, the aforementioned Ghost Story) could I say I enjoyed. But there was always something about his work that called to me &mdash perhaps its obvious intelligence, usually missing in most horror fiction — so I kept trying. Finally, I took a leap and skipped ahead and read lost boy, lost girl when it was still new. It had the fresh, unpracticed style I was looking for. From there, I eased backward and read The Hellfire Club, Black House, and Mr. X, all of which I found deeply satisfying. (Black House, Straub's second collaboration with Stephen King, feels much more of a collaboration than its predecessor, The Talisman, ever felt.)

These novels all have similar approaches; somewhere around the time of The Hellfire Club (perhaps before), Straub deliberately tried to adopt a more "transparent" style, and I've liked him all the better for it. Now I look forward to each release without trepidation (though I can't say I noticed the nearly six-year gap between In the Night Room and A Dark Matter, involved as I was in "catching up").

A Dark Matter is like peanut butter: rich and nutritious but with the potential to make a really great dessert. The body has obviously involved a great deal of design and thought, but there's also an offhandedness to it (and a great deal of very welcome humor) that is refreshing.

Straub is a true craftsman, folding the more horrific elements in with the more mundane and making A Dark Matter one of the few recent horror novels to actually elicit a physical response. Plus, it shows that Straub is still interested in stretching himself and in assimilating new influences, like the surreal portion that he openly acknowledges is inspired by Brian Evenson's The Open Curtain. Some readers may be dissatisfied with the ending, as it doesn't really seem to answer all the questions posed in the narrative, but if the characters themselves are, then who are we mere readers to complain?

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Outlaw Josey Wales by Forrest Carter (The Classic Film Collection)

I'm a big proponent of judging an author by his work. Whatever ideals author Forrest Carter espoused during his life, or whatever deceptions he perpetrated, you simply can't deny the power of his storytelling. A perfect example is The Outlaw Josey Wales, which was made filmed by Clint Eastwood in 1976 and has now been reprinted by Leisure Books as part of their acclaimed "Classic Film Collection."

The Outlaw Josey Wales (originally published as The Rebel Outlaw: Josey Wales and then changed to Gone to Texas for a reprinting) is a sneaky kind of "sleeper" novel. At first it didn't seem to be affecting me, but before I knew it, it was over, and I was eager to revisit the characters. (The sequel carries the title The Vengeance Trail of Josey Wales, and it's available bound with this novel as Gone to Texas.)

Carter ensures that we sympathize with this feared outlaw (he seems to be notorious wherever he goes) by giving us some history. Josey Wales was a farmer and family man. But when he found his cabin and family burned black by red-leg raiders, he became one of the Missouri guerillas known as "Quantrill's Raiders" (another fictional Quantrill rider was Rooster Cogburn). Carter shows Wales's other aspects subtly in how he deals with other people: the young boy Jamie Burns; Lone, the Indian who becomes his "brother"; and the two women he saves from Comancheros and who ride with them.

The Outlaw Josey Wales is not the typical kind of action-packed Western, though plenty happens. It's more a portrait of a man not easily understood. It is one of those novels that reveal more on subsequent readings, a modern classic, and I hope this reprinting gives it the audience it deserves.

Friday, February 19, 2010

The Corpse Wore Pasties by Jonny Porkpie (Hard Case Crime)

Victoria Vice is dead. She died on stage (and I don't mean figuratively) doing a burlesque act pilfered from a colleague. The fact that Victoria had a reputation as a performance plagiarist means that everyone on the program that night had a motive, including Jonny Porkpie, self-appointed "Burlesque Mayor of New York City" and the guy running the show that night at Dreamland.

Before you ask, yes this Porkpie is the same fellow that wrote the book The Corpse Wore Pasties. But unlike Kinky Friedman (who always distanced himself from the Kinky Friedman that starred in his mysteries), these two Porkpies are freely admitted to be one and the same. A professional ecdysiast, Jonny Porkpie also runs Pinchbottom with his partner and wife, Nasty Canasta (another burlesque artist and the model for the redhead in the cover painting by Ricky Mujica).

Porkpie's fingerprints were the only ones other than Victoria's found on her prop bottle of "poison" (that turned out to contain the real thing), so after being interrogated by two cops only distinguishable by their accents, he takes it upon himself to play sleuth and question the other artists. This is a rather precarious position to put himself in, given that one of them is a murderer and they all object to being accused/questioned.

In addition to its author's old-time profession (Porkpie wryly proclaims it "the top entertainment ticket of 1939"), The Corpse Wore Pasties is an old-time mystery, a direct descendant of the Agatha Christie despicable-person-is murdered-and-everyone-is-a-suspect school that produced such classics as Murder on the Orient Express and (my favorite) Evil Under the Sun. Look past all the naked characters and sex puns and the mystery is very traditional in its make-up. Porkpie is the epitome of the amateur investigator thrown into a situation where (like Lawrence Block's Bernie Rhodenbarr, another Christie descendant) he has to solve the crime to clear his own name.

Porkpie keeps thing interesting because he knows there's only so many times you can mention New York before you need a really tense foot chase across the Brooklyn Bridge. And he peoples his novel with larger than life personalities that make for great reading. The names are fictional, but they're based on real burlesquers: Cherries Jubilee (Clams Casino), Jillian Knockers (Jo Boobs), LuLu La Rue (GiGi La Femme, the model for the brunette on the cover), just to name a few. Porkpie and Canasta are featured under their "real" names.

The Corpse Wore Pasties is a hell of a lot of fun, if not in the least bit hardboiled or otherwise noirish, which more than makes up for the otherwise by-the-numbers mystery that follows the Christie law-of-conservation-of-characters rule. It's kind of like an R-rated Murder, She Wrote, and any regular viewer of that show will have the solution figured out long before the unveiling. Porkpie makes the whole mystery-writing thing look easy, and he somehow manages to come across as an innocent despite the fact that he takes his clothes off for a living.

Adding another layer of reality to the proceedings, Porkpie also produced a couple of burlesque shows (called Lurid Pulp) centered around the book release of The Corpse Wore Pasties. In the show, the "characters" in the novel (or their real-life counterparts) object to his portrayal of them in the book and vow revenge. As the promo postcard stated, "Tempers flare, bodices rip, tassels twirl ... and Porkpie ends up dead." Canasta investigates with help from the audience. I imagine if there were more burlesque book release parties, the publishing industry wouldn't be crying woe all the time.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs (first of the Barsoom / John Carter series)

Former Confederate captain John Carter, left with no means of income after the war, heads to Arizona and strikes a quartz mine. Trying to rescue his partner from Apaches, Carter takes a wrong turn and comes to a cave, in which he finds a large room, where he is overthrown by a paralytic gas. With a supreme effort, he attempts to move his muscles, but instead his spirit/soul/whatever leaves his body, and he thus exits the cave completely naked. Staring out at the night sky, Carter sees the planet Mars and feels called to by the god of war. He reaches out his arms, senses cold and darkness, and opens his eyes "upon a strange and weird landscape. I knew that I was on Mars."

If you can get past that extreme leap of faith, the rest of A Princess of Mars is pretty easy to stomach. Author Edgar Rice Burroughs (author also of the numerous Tarzan stories) peoples his debut novel (expanded from the short story "Under the Moons of Mars" and serialized in All-Story before being published as a novel in 1919) with characters that are easy to identify with, though they happen to be green-skinned Martians. Though I had long heard of the stories, I was first intrigued to try this one due to its being listed in the Encyclopedia of Weird Westerns, which stated that it falls firmly into the subcategory of Space Western (the same category under which Star Wars falls).

It was primarily this, but also the fact that I had enjoyed Tarzan when I read it so long ago, that led me to seek it out — preferably in audio, through which I do most of my literary experimentation. I found the Books In Motion audio at the library. Jack Sondericker reads A Princess of Mars from the perspective of time, much as the early part of the novel suggests. His voice is that of an man much older than the protagonist, leading a semblance of retrospective realism to this fantastic tale. (The Librivox audio is also a solid interpretation, with Mark Nelson offering a professional-quality reading that can be downloaded for free.)

Because of the lighter gravity of Mars ("Barsoom" to the locals), Carter finds himself a superman among his new neighbors, able to leap 30 feet in the air and 100 feet away when threatened. The early chapters of A Princess of Mars are mostly given to writing of the expository sort, involving Carter's observations of the strange details of Martian life, peppered throughout with feats of his prowess, which impresses the seemingly unemotional Martians in the only way important to them. Carter even becomes a chieftain of the Tharks after defeating one of them.

I don't usually get into books filled with made-up names and long descriptions of the differences between Earth and whatever planet the story happens to be set on, but Burroughs manages to make it interesting through sheer imagination, with just enough things not so different to balance the very different. A Princess of Mars is such a mythic success at this, it is impossible not to get involved in the exploits of John Carter and the female prisoner he comes across, who looks very different from the green-skinned Martians and who turns out to be Dejah Thoris, red-skinned princess of Helium.

The rest of the book involves the duo's escape from Thark, as they fall for each other, get separated, then reunited, and eventually make a go of it. The ending would be a downer if I didn't know that there are numerous sequels, the first of which is The Gods of Mars. But if you're looking for a full reading experience, with plenty of action, adventure, and even romance, you'd do well to pick up a copy of A Princess of Mars.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Monster of Florence by Douglas Preston with Mario Spezi (unabridged audio book read by Dennis Boutsikaris)

In 2000, author Douglas Preston (best known for his Agent Pendergast thrillers written in collaboration with Lincoln Child), moved his family to Florence, Italy. He intended to write a murder mystery set during the great Florence flood, so he began researching police procedures. This put him in contact with Mario Spezi, a crime reporter for over 20 years. ("'He knows more about the police than the police themselves,' I was told.")

During their first conversation, Preston learned something extraordinary. Right outside his apartment was a local landmark where one of a series of horrific murders took place by The Monster of Florence (locally, "Il Mostro"). It seems that Florence — the birthplace of the Renaissance (which practically created our idea of the modern world), which was funded in large part by the famous Medicis — had its own Jack the Ripper, a serial killer who has yet to be caught.

With this, Preston's pursuit of a fictional book was largely forgotten (though he would use a lot of Italy's atmosphere in the next Pendergast novel, Brimstone), and he focused his efforts on learning all he could about the Monster of Florence. He and Spezi became friends, and they decided to collaborate on a book about the case.

Little did they know how personally it would affect them, especially when Spezi was investigated as a suspect, with Preston accused of being an accessory. (The writer was heavily suggested to leave the country and never return, in essence becoming part of his own story.)

Thus, The Monster of Florence is part crime study, part memoir. The first portion brings the reader up to date and focuses on Spezi and his coverage of the original string of murders during the early to mid-1980s, with the main suspects first coming from a well-known group of local Peeping Toms called Indiani.

Given the nature of the mutilations of the victims, it was suspected (like in the Jack the Ripper case) that the killer was well educated and skilled, perhaps even a surgeon. Spezi, a young reporter, took advantage of the great amount and breadth of material connected with the Monster (he coined the name himself) and produced a wealth of varied and well-received articles that made his reputation as the city's expert on "Monstrology."

A later investigation centers on a doorstop, collected in lieu of any other evidence 20 years before. Other avenues include a possible Satanic sect involving "picnicking friends," and the so-called Sardinian Trail: the search for the owner of a Beretta 9mm used in every crime — including an apparent crime of passion from 1968. Preston and Spezi do not solve the case, but they do lead the reader down the most logical road of possibilities.

The Spezi portion of The Monster of Florence lays out all the facts of the case up to 2000, when Preston came onto the scene. It's a little dry at times, but the information is needed to understand the rest of the book, and it paints Spezi with the necessary "heroic" colors for us to disbelieve his accused guilt later on. The second part focuses on the entry of Preston into the case, their collaboration on their first Monster of Florence book together (an Italian-language edition and the catalyst that brought the government down on their heads), and the aftermath.

It is reported that author Thomas Harris based Hannibal Lecter in part on the Monster. He was seen at several of the trials, taking copious notes, and he set Hannibal in Florence itself, using as its antagonist a fictional member of the famed Pazzi family as a police inspector who solved the Monster case. In fact, there are so many mentions of Hannibal and Harris in The Monster of Florence that I was surprised to discover that they don't share a publisher.

The Monster of Florence illustrates the danger of running afoul of a foreign government when you're barely fluent in the language. It is also an interesting portrait of a seemingly incompetent police force, whose members would rather pursue a line of inquiry involving possible Satanists than search for any plausible evidence.

Audiobook reader Dennis Boutsikaris (whose Russian inflections were highlights of his readings of Tom Rob Smith's novels Child 44 and The Secret Speech) once again uses his skill with accents (this time Italian) to add realism and authenticity to the telling of this horrific tale. (The unabridged audiobook of The Monster of Florence also contains an interview with Douglas Preston.)

Sunday, February 7, 2010

By Reason of Insanity by Shane Stevens (serial killer novel)

With his book By Reason of Insanity, author Shane Stevens has created one of the classic novels of the serial killer subgenre. He approaches the exploits of Thomas Bishop — serial murderer and son of Sara Bishop, who was assaulted by robber-rapist Caryl Chessman — with a detachment usually reserved for news reports.

This gives By Reason of Insanity the feel of a true-crime book, though Stevens's book is otherwise brilliant imagination. Here's a sample from the early pages that sets the scene: "Caryl Chessman's death at the start of the sixties marked the beginning of an age of bloodletting with is not yet over.... To see why and how this came about, one must first go back to the early postwar years of Los Angeles."

This is not to say that Stevens missed out on the emotional impact Bishop's actions have on his victims' families. To wit, this passage: "Unlike the average layman, he understood precisely what was written in the report, and as he read he saw exactly what had been done to his daughter. Tears welled in his eyes; he found it hard to swallow. The one who had done these things was a devil."

But a highly intelligent and astute devil, as we see when Bishop plans his escape from the state hospital he has called home for the last 15 years, since he burned his abusive mother alive in their wood stove at age ten. He acquires some very recognizable accessories and becomes known for having them always with him.

Then he befriends another man, Vincent Mungo, and invites him along on the escape, during with they exchange clothes and Bishop kills and butchers Mungo unidentifiably, leaving the accessories on him. For four months, the police are looking for Mungo and thinking Bishop is dead while Bishop goes on a murder spree — going from location to location, and identity to identity, keeping one step ahead (and sometimes only one step ahead) of the hunters.

This is chronicled in detail by Stevens's skillful hand, which it seems can handle innumerable characters with all their various histories and ambitions. So much happens with so few words that By Reason of Insanity could easily have been stretched out to a four-book series by a less disciplined writer.

After three months of police failure, Newstime magazine, the main coverer of the Mungo story, sends its star reporter (and current case expert) Adam Kenton on a one-man manhunt. Kenton will use all the resources at Newstime's disposal — even the highly guarded confidential sources — and will have all the money he needs, provided he "captures" Mungo before the police do.

If the police catch the killer first, Kenton will be considered as having failed. Also, Kenton cannot tell anyone what he is doing — all communication is to be coded — and he must act fast, because who knows when the police may close in on their shared target.

By Reason of Insanity is divided into three sections. The first ("Thomas Bishop") focuses on Bishop's mother, his childhood, his time incarcerated, and his subsequent escape and reign of terror. The second portion ("Adam Kenton") tells the story of that point primarily from the viewpoint of the reporter, showing his investigation with the suspense inherent in such a risky venture that may end unexpectedly.

Then the final section ("Thomas Bishop and Adam Kenton") closes in on the inevitable meeting of the two, and we realize that Bishop and Kenton are more similar than perhaps the reporter would like to believe. We get some insight into Kenton's thought processes, but this is mostly used to show that he has begun to think like Bishop and guess his next actions.

As I mentioned, the usual tone is one of distance, so when Stevens does occasionally address the reader directly, it has a very powerful effect. By Reason of Insanity also includes several well-placed moments of dry humor, and it seems Stevens has a particularly snide view of a popular nightly broadcast:
That evening he ... fell asleep watching a TV show that featured a double rape by a gang of toughs, a murder in which pools of blood were shown close up, a child thrown out of a fifth-floor window by a parent, and a shoot-out between police and a gunman holding hostages. All of which occurred in the first fifteen minutes. The program was called the Eleven O'Clock Evening News.
By Reason of Insanity is a wholly absorbing book is recommended for those with strong stomachs and hearts. Shane Stevens has written the serial killer novel that all others should be compared to. (Yes, even Thomas Harris's.) It is dated in some ways, primarily how in 1973, Bishop gets away with stealing identities and leaving DNA at crime scenes, two things that would never be allowed now, almost 40 years later. But, though it is a snapshot of its time, it is even more a timeless portrait of the mind of a murderer, something that will likely never go out of style.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Spy Killer by L. Ron Hubbard (unabridged espionage/adventure audio book)

L. Ron Hubbard is probably best known as the founder of Scientology and creator of Dianetics. These days, his name is largely connected with the antics of the some of the more "outspoken" members of the religion, overshadowing the fact that the man really knew how to tell an entertaining story. All 150 of the stories Hubbard wrote for the pulp magazines of the 1930s and '40s are being rereleased in paperback and audio under the evocative title Stories from the Golden Age.

The recordings I've tried so far are just terrific. They are a professionally produced combination of traditional narrated audiobooks (with narration deftly handled by R.F. Daley) and old-time radio, with skilled actors playing the characters (often multiple roles) and genre-specific music and sound effects rounding out the experience.

When bucko mate Kurt Reid escapes the ship Rangoon (with help, it turns out), he has two choices: go into hiding as a fugitive of the Chinese government, or assist Russian beauty Varinka Sevischna in her project against Chinese intelligence. Since hiding in unlikely, and Kurt is always "spoiling for a fight," he accepts her offer — and soon finds himself in over his head, hot least of which when Varinka's friend (and Kurt's ex-fiancée) Anne Carsten resurfaces with an equally enticing offer.

Soon the two women disappear, however, and Reid is faced with Chinese warlord Lin Wang, who offers freedom from pursuit. In a delicious ironic twist, in order to avoid punishment for the murder he did not commit (and the reason he was a prisoner in the first place), Reid must murder someone else, namely a Japanese spy named Takeki ("the courageous"). But when Reid gets there, he recognizes Takeki and has to make a difficult choice.

Author L. Ron Hubbard fills Spy Killer with action and suspense in a land where death waits as a consequence for nearly every decision — especially inaction. But he also offers up a love story (however implausible) that adds an extra layer to events to this wonderful example of the "yellow peril" genre.

Lin Wang is a great villain — deformed physically and mentally — and Tait Ruppert plays him with gusto. Likewise, Lori Jablons is terrific in her dual role of Varinka and Anne, underscoring the fact that the two women embody separate halves of Reid's ideal.

Anyone who pays attention to things like dialogue that makes no sense unless something unspoken is true, will figure out the big twist early on. (Those who solve TV mysteries by assuming that the guest star with the least amount of air time must be the murderer, will also have an advantage.) Despite this flaw (if it is one), and its slight overlength for the breadth of its story, Spy Killer is still a pretty good adventure tale of Oriental espionage, provided you don't mind overlooking implausibilities and suspending a certain amount of disbelief. But, then, many pulp fiction enthusiasts merely consider that all part of the experience.

Bonus: for more of the story behind Spy Killer, watch the following tongue-in-cheek interviews with Kurt Reid and Varinka Sevischna, as conducted by Lawrence Carpetburner (director Jim Meskimen) on the fictional program Elbows on the Table:

Kurt Reid

Varinka Sevischnya

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