Sunday, November 27, 2011

An Interview Not To Miss!

Excellent interview with Mark Valentine, of the Wormwordiana blog, who has one of the best libraries I have ever seen. And he made it all the way through William Hope Hodgeson's The Nightland. I love that he collects reading editions. He also has some kind words for Phyllis Paul, another author whose book I am struggling to read.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Pulp Ink, edited by Nigel Bird and Chris Rhatigan (Needle Publishing)

It may be that the anthology format will be the best one for e-publishing. At least with the newer generation of pulp writers, this seems to be the best introduction to their works. I found this collection to be a quick and deadly read, perfect for my Sony e-Reader. Editors Bird and Rhatigan are to be commended for putting together a selection which is of superior quality.
 The editors of Pulp Ink had a great idea: take little snippets of dialogue from Pulp Fiction the movie, send them to a host of writers working the same groove and ask them to write short stories based on the ideas. The result is this tome, a book with an edge every thousand words. I'm no Tarantino scholar (are there any?), but I do feel the vibe of his 90's classic funneled through these stories.
 I will warn any potential reader that most of these tales are from the dark side. There's not to many people in them to be admired. So if you are looking for stirring stories of inspiration, look elsewhere. If you are looking for demons of the inner mind, you'll find plenty in this collection. Typical is "Zed's Dead, Baby" written by Eric Beetner. It's from the point-of-view of a loan shark enforcer who reminisces over the sound of broken bones when he'd found a reluctant payee.
Reed Coleman's "Requiem for Spider" leads the pack. It's the story of a Jewish gangster named Moe who's hired by his boyhood Italian friend Spider to help broker a deal with Russian Jewish mobsters. Spider wants his old friend to supply back-up because he's of the same persuasion. But as Moe tries to explain to his buddy:

 “Oy, Spider,” I said. “These guys aren't Jews the way you know Jews. They pretty much grew up godless, without religion like you know it. I may be as lapsed a Jew as there is, but I’m the chief rabbi of Jerusalem compared to them." 

Of course the meeting doesn't quite turn out as everyone planned.
"Jack Rabbit Slim's Cellar" by Jodi MacArthur is one of the few stories that ties in directly with the movie. It seems that while Uma Thurman and John Travolta were dancing up stairs at the 50's theme restaurant, somebody was being interrogated in the basement. I did learn a lot about the history of bubble gum from this story.
"Padre" by A J Hayes is one tale which will stick with you for a long time. A renegade priest is meets with a Russian gangster who holds a precious cargo. I highly recommend this one, but to tell more would ruin the conclusion. Easily the one story which would make a great Drive-In movie.
 "Creation of Ice" by Sandra Seamans heads out to the rural part of America. A viscous woman finds herself tied to a chair after killing an old man. It's told from her POV as she tries to figure a way out of her mess. Good ending, which did surprise me.
 Alan Guthrie's "Your Mother Should Know" is another story which remains in the rural part of the USA. It's also told from the POV of the main character, a ripe young woman with a very religious mother. Her father had died years ago from a lighting blast, which momma had attributed to the wrath of God. Lighting does strike twice in this one, with deadly results.
 "You Never Can Tell" by Matthew Funk continues into the hinterlands. A young man named Junior with a wife and kid are hunting down the men he believed murdered his sadistic father. But the real killer may be closer than he could imagine.
 "A Whole Lotta Rosie" by Nigel Bird, had me confused. A rough and tumble women in New Zealand shears sheep and arm-wrestles on the side. I'm not sure about what else happens. It's still a great story.
 "The Lady And The Gimp: A Peter Ord Investigation", by Paul Brazill, is amusing in a twisted sort of way. A private detective is hired to find a missing woman who may be living in a caravan (mobile home for us yanks; the story takes place in the UK). A burial neatly captures the mood of the story:

 “There comes a time in every young man’s life,” he said, his long arms stretched wide, “when he knows that he will never be The Fonz. Shortly after that realization it becomes clear that he won’t even be Richie Cunningham. And, so, then, he has to make a choice. Will he be Ralph Malph or Potsie Weber?"

 "A Night at the Royale" by Chris Holm is a very tight little tale that takes place in Amsterdam. Three American hipster tourists make the mistake of getting noisy at a retrospective showing of Foxy Brown, Death Race 2000, and Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS. But the idle man sitting in front is there to enjoy the movies and is in no mood to deal with loud chumps. One for those of us who've had to endure audience participation one time too many.
"Clouds in a Bunker" by David Cranmer is the saddest story here. An old man with an advanced case of senility has locked himself in a backyard fallout shelter with his wheelchair-bound wife. The police and his daughter are trying to talk him out, but he's lost the ability to identify objects directly. What he's planned is far worse than anyone imagines.
 "The Wife of Gregory Bell" by Patricia Abbot would fit into a book of supernatural stories. You're never quite sure if the effects of the lead character's thefts are real or a product of his own imagination. Another side of the gentleman thief so beloved in European fiction.
"If Love is a Red Dress – Hang Me in Rags" by Michael Solender is a prison confession. It's one of the shorter works in here, but still effective.
 "A Corpse by Any Other Name" by Naomi Johnson is another hilarious tale. Two boobs are hired by a Mr. Big in the hinterland to take out one Frank Murray. But they get the wrong Frank Murray and now Mr. Big has a problem on his hands. They decide to dispose of the unwanted body in a cemetery, but things go from bad to worse.
 In "Surf Rider", by Ian Ayris, a couple of Brits decide to steal a valuable surf board from a homeless surfer. The surfer hasn't been right in the head for years (too many drugs), but the board is the one thing he holds dear. And he'll defend it to the death.
"The Slicers’ Serenade of Steel" by Gary Phillips is another supernatural themed story. A small time thug is trying to run from a hit man with the power of death. Just when you think it's over the story turns into a martial arts duel straight out of a 70's Shaw Brothers movie. This one would make a good anime subject. "The October 17 Economic Development Committee Meeting" by Chris Rhatigan has a vengeful reporter taking out a bunch of corporate types with a gun. But what saves it from being another revenge number is the final confrontation with the one older reporter the assailant did admire. I see in the bio that "Chris Rhatigan made it out of the newspaper industry alive". Not too surprised.
"Threshold Woman" by Richard Godwin, sings with sensuality. A gangster is in love with the sister of his boss. His boss is a dangerous man. Much tension results.
"Redlining" by Jim Harrington is dark humor with from the Joe Lansdale school. A hold-up man is talked into taking along a relative by his sister. But his new sidekick is an incompetent oaf who may get them both arrested. And the hold-up man needs the money for medical treatment. Time is running out for both of them. "Jungle Boogie by Kate Horsley is another tale of deception and theft, but with erotic overtones. A man is duped into stealing a statue of the Jaguar god from a museum. However, the gods of the jungle are not known to deal with sacrilege lightly.
How someone could tell a sweet story like "The Little Piggy", when it involves a foot fetish, is beyond me. But Hilary Davidson manages to do it and for that I am impressed. Did I mention it also involves gangsters? More fetish material emerges from "Comanche", by Jason Duke. It's a viscous tale of a mobster who likes to abuse his wife. His wife has another plan, involving the mobster's fortune, and a boyfriend her husband doesn't know about.
More gangsters become involved in "Misirlou" by Jimmy Callaway. A Greek restaurateur known as "Cheeseburger" is murdered by persons unknown. The numbers runner he worked for brings in "Funk" to find the culprit and sends him off with two of his men. In an amusing scene, Funk tells the other gunsels they are playing a game of Dungeons and Dragons and "another adventure in an open-ended campaign".
"The Only One Who Could Ever Reach Me" by Matt Lavin is particularly viscous. A keeper in a secret prison takes a liking to a prisoner just before the torturer comes to do his business. Another one for "The Road to Hell Paved" category.
 All stories of exceptional quality which will keep you turning to the next page. If nothing else, Pulp Ink demonstrates the high caliber of writers working in the new "pulp" field.

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Chloe Files #1: Ashes to Ashes by Howard Hopkins

The character of Chloe Everson grew out of another one of Howard Hopkins' novels, Grim, where Arlo Grim battles a coven of witches trying to resurrect a demon in New Salem, Maine. Hopkins liked the character so much he decided to give Chloe here own series of books, of which Ashes to Ashes is the first. There is one other Chloe Files book and a third one is rumored to be on the way.
Chloe is a 5'6" 30ish former stripper who hunts down demonic creatures in New Salem. She and her fiance Arly, a detective in the New Salem police force, are considered "special" in that they can see creatures which normal humans cannot. Chloe lost her parents at a tender young age and was soon separated from her identical twin sister when they went to foster homes. Chloe would go on to an exotic dancer career hitting the circuit until she ended up in New Salem.
Chloe doesn't come across as the brightest light bulb in the pack, but she has a good heart. Which, ironically, makes her more realistic than all the other barroom dancers you encounter in action literature. And she has a good way of sizing up her opponents. She refers to one of her opponents in the book as "Ms. Pixie Sticks" and the name hangs on.
The only real problem with the book is Chloe's constant references to events which happened in the novel Grim. She's perpetually bringing up the coven of witches she and Arly defeated. This might make the reader interested in buying another book, but I found it irritating.
Ashes to Ashes opens with Chloe trying to find out what happened to her fiance Arly. Next, she'd visited on a dark and stormy night by a monkey which delivers her a locket. It had been given to Chloe years ago by her dead parents. But the creep factor really pumps when she has a vision of diseased children singing the "Ring around the Roses" nursery rhyme. She also begins seeing her vanished sister Patricia on TV. Is someone trying to warn Chloe about another demon working its way into the real world?
There's plenty of weird supernatural creatures to go around. A priest who seems to know more than he should. A librarian who may be working for the demons. And she begins to have visions of Arly chained to a wall begging for help.
The final battle scene was the pay-off for the book. After nearly 100 pages of back story, the plot began moving to a page-turner conclusion. It's clear that Hopkins is a shudder pulp fan. The final scenes wouldn't be out of place in a Doctor Death novel. I just wish the book had ramped it up earlier.
Chloe files #1 is a good beginning for a series. It will be interesting to see where Hopkins takes it.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Where Do You Do Your Best Reading?

Chester County, PA has done one thing right: it has extended the Schuylkill River Trail past my little borough. I now have a place to go read in peace. Every chance I get, I head in the direction of the trail and walk it with my attention firmly placed on my electronic book reader ( a Sony). It's a win-win situation for me: I get to hike a few miles, get some solitude and read. The trail, built over an abandoned rail bed, is level, so I can walk and read at the same time without having to worry about cars.
It's not the public library, but I don't have all the distractions of books I haven't read.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Pagan Passions by Randall Garrett and Larry Harris

Randall Garrett was a post-WWII science fiction writer who created a number of fictional words for which he is little remembered. He was also one of the earliest members of the Society for Creative Anachronisms, a recreation medievalist organization. He passed away in the late 1980's and will, sadly, be remembered less as the years go by. Fortunately some of his books are finding their way back into print.
Pagan Passions is a light and amusing fantasy novel about what would happen if the ancient Greek and Roman gods returned to earth. The novel begins by informing us how the gods of Mt. Olympus have returned after several thousand years of absence. Major wars are now abolished (Mars having some understanding of the occasional need for minor ones). Most of the action takes place in a future New York City where everyone is a devotee of one of the major gods.
The book opens with a teacher of world history, William Forrester, lecturing to his students about the return. Forrester is an acolyte of Athena, but he'd hoped one day to make priest. The action switches to a female student (of the faction tied in with Venus, naturally) making suggestive remarks to him for a better grade.
As he contemplates his situation, Forrester is called into the tower of the all-father Zeus. The gods need a replacement for Dionysus, who is currently indisposed, and they've decided to elevate Forrester to demi-god status.
The rest of the book describes Forester's attempts to officiate at an revel held in New York City in honor of Dionysus. These revels take place every 7 years and all his followers party down hard. Forrester even finds himself forced to deal with having 7 gorgeous women presented to him while he secretly pines for a lost love.
The book ends amusingly. I've not read any other of Garrett's books, but it seems this is a minor work.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Beat to a Pulp: Hardboiled, edited by David Cranmer and Scott D Parker

"Hardboiled" fiction has been popular since the post WW2 era. Every since returning GI's started coming home after the Good War, there has been a certain cynicism in detective fiction. Hardboiled differs from the pulp era in that problems could no longer be solved by costumed crusaders and super scientists. No longer were people content to read about masked villains who created zombies, they wanted to read about the real killers. And this style of writing has stayed around.
Ron Scheer creates a bit of a time warp by putting the start of hardboiled fiction at the election of 1912 where Woody Wilson won with a plurality of the electorate. This allows him to connect the latest pulp revival to the election of 2000 where another candidate lost on a technicality. All good and fine, but I don't seem to recall Kaiser Wilhelm exploding a zeppelin over Manhattan in 1914. Which is a nice way to say that he goes a long way to a make a minor point.
Be as that may, the stories in Beat to a Pulp: Hardboiled are all bleak and excellent, with only a few having a ray of hope at the end. "Second Round Dive" by Benoit Lelievre has to be the best of this lot. It's about a prize fighter who's tapped to take one more dive for a Big Man. His observations of boxing strike home to anyone who's ever trained in hand-to-hand combat:

No one gives a shit if you're a good Christian, if you're a family man or a faithful husband. It's irrelevant. If you're injured, if your brother died or if your dog is sick, nobody in the crowd cares.

"Ric With No K" by Patrica Abbot is in the same vein: a teenage girl becomes involved with an older hood, but you wonder who is the corrupted and who is the corrupter. "The Death Fantastique" by John Jacobs goes further in this direction in its tale about a drug mule, a prostitute, and her vicious pimp. These are the kind of stories where there is no "good guy".
On the black humor side there is "Vengeance on the 18th" about a golf course owner who takes out his revenge on a cheating wife with a snappy conclusion. There's also "Tachibana Hustle" by Garnet Elliot where Japanese hoodlums screw up one time too many.
I also learned a new term: flash fiction. It's applied to any story under 500 words. In the old days we called these "short-short stories". Several of the writers here are connected with an online zine called Shotgun Honey which is devoted to this style.
The final story, "Bulls Eye View", is my own favourite. A private eye and a bounty hunter are relaxing in an Oklahoma bar when one of them notes an infamous New Orleans hitman in their midst. What happens next is worth the read. Not to give to much away, but I'll be a lot more careful he next time I go fishing.
All the stories in this collection are of superior quality. I hope we'll be seeing more in the future.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Avenger: The Gray Nemesis by Howard Hopkins

(Outstanding George Gross painting for one of the 70's Avenger reissues.)
Richard Henery Benson, AKA The Avenger, was a character hero of the pulp era who battled all kinds of criminals through the years 1939 and 1942. A world class adventurer, he'd made his fortune in the rough parts of the globe. At the start of the series, he suffers a tragedy which turns his hair white and makes his skin plasticine. Later in the series, his skin and hair return to their normal state.To avenge himself and others who have suffered at the hands of criminals, he uses his vast fortune to create "Justice, Inc.", an organization dedicated to fighting crime. Most of the novels were written by Paul Ernst under the house name Kenneth Robeson.
I first read The Grey Nemesis, Howard Hopkin's study of The Avenger series in 1992 when it was originally released. It has since been updated in 2008 by the author and is available as an electronic download. Its an excellent study and I highly recommend the book. Nemesis is not very long, just a little over a hundred pages, and can be read in a single sitting.
In the first few chapters, Hopkins breaks the book down by characters: Benson and his sidekicks. Each of the Avenger's assistants get a profile, from Irish Chemist Fergus McMurdy to Cole Wilson, the final member of the team. He examines possible inspirations for them and how each character resembled what was accepted at the time. For instance, Hopkins applauds the series' principle writer Paul Ernst for creating two black American heroes, but points out the accepted stereotypes of the era.
The series was reissued in the 1970's action paperback boom. Although the original pulp series was discontinued at episode 24, the reissue company paid write to continue it. Hopkins feels the "new" adventures, although still set in the proper time frame, are inferior. There were also a number of Avenger short stories written as filler in the pulp magazines after the original series discontinued.
One area I totally agree with him was the appeal of the paperback covers in the 70's. He writes of the monthly trip to the mall to grab a new one. And those covers sold the book: excellent examples of graphic art which featured Richard Benson in some of the most eye-grabbing action shots imaginable. They were magnetic and sold those novels.

The book is an excellent study of one of the lessor-known heroes of the pulp era and how it was revived in the 1970's.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Anathem by Neal Stephenson (2008)

Author Neal Stephenson continues to provide outstanding science fiction novels. Right now, I emeshed in his latest doorstoper, Readme. I've been following his writings every since The Diamond Age turned me on the possibilities of nanotechnology. I didn't have the endurance to make it all the way through his Baroque cycle of three books, but was impressed by another one of hishistoricalsCyptonomicon. It's too bad that the immersion 3D computer technology he championed in Snow Crash never came about, but it was a good read just the same.
Now, he's returned to the world of hard science fiction. Anathem is a complex book, one which I hope people will read in years to come. I was lucky to grab the one I saw at the Chester County library and ended up renewing the loan just to finish it. It's not easy finding time to read a book which is almost 900 pages long when you are helping to run the greatest epoxy company in the Known Universe. Heck, right now I had to write this at the auto repair place where I was getting the brakes repaired for the my van.
Anathem is about a world called Arbre which is very similar to our own planet. At some time in the distant past of Arbrephilosophy became a competing force with organized religion. After the fall of a great empire, similar to Rome, philosophers began organizing themselves into cloistered communities called "Maths" to practice their discipline away from the saecular or mundane world. The mathic world may have many "concerts" (convents) housed together or be smaller. They keep order by only opening the doors once a year for "apert" to the general public. However, some of the groups inside these monasteries only open their sections to the general public every ten, hundred, or even thousand years.
The world outside the concerts has continued on its merry way. Since the "avout" (those who live within the walls of the mathic world) do not reproduce, new recruits are collected from the outside. The avout are only permitted to own three things: a robe, a tie to hold it together, and a device known as a "sphere" which has a multitude of purposes. They gather each day for a service which reaffirms their community.
The book's main character is Fra Erasamus, who has lived most of his live behind the mathic walls. Since his sect is a "tenner" he's allowed to leave at the apert which occurs at the opening of the novel and visit the rest of the world. This allows the reader some idea as to how the saecular world contrasts to that of the mathic. But soon after he returns, many of the avout are "evoked"(summoned) by the saecular government. It won't be telling much to give the reason: astronomers have dedicted a giant spaceship in orbit around the planet. No one knows where it originated or what it wants.
It's difficult writing about Anathem since Stephenson has created such a complex world. Although there are plenty of analogs to philosophies and ideas on earth, it can be difficult to identify which ones. For instance, there is much discussion about Gardan's steelyard. It took me awhile to figure out this was the parable to Occam's razor. And there are similar philosophical discussions of Godel, Plato, and Michael Faraday.
The book is also filled with fascinating characters, another of Stephenson's trademarks.
Highly recommended, this could be The Name of the Rose of SF novels.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Wetbones by John Shirley (1993)

First of all I want to give a shout-out to Glorious Trash for turning me on to this book. I'd always thought of John Shirley as a science fiction writer from the new school until encountering this punch in the gut. I'd read his City Come A-Walking book a few years ago, found it decent, just nothing to get excited about. No way was I prepared me for Wetbones. Holy Mother of Pearl, this book takes a chainsaw to just about everything sacred in Hollywood.
The story is split between many different points of view. Under a lot of lessor writers, this would bog down the plot. Shirley, on the other hand, is able to use this technique to show different aspects of it. In some ways, he uses this book to slam the entire entertainment industry. If Wetbones has one over-riding theme its how corrupt and damning the entire system is to everyone connected with it.
The cast of characters include:
  • Tom Prentice, a screenplay writer who has seen better days.
  • Rev. Gamer, a liberal christian minister who helps addicts.
  • Gamer's teenage daughter Constance.
  • Tom's brother.
  • Ephram Pixie, a college professor turned serial killer.
  • Orpheus, a street kid from the 'hood.
  • Eurydice, his sister.
  • The More Man, a sinister enterainment executive.
  • An immortal German matriarch
  • The Handy Man, a sinister henchman
  •  An avenging hippie living in a shack
  • The Akishra, worm-like psychic vampires who live off human desires.
And these are just some of the major characters.
Of course all of these people are going to end up in the same place: a decrepid mansion near Hollywood called "The Keys", where a degenerate entertainment producer and his equally degenerate wife live. The place is falling apart and guarded by a huge black guy who is paid to look the other direction. Because what lurks inside The Keys is hideous beyond belief: people embedded in rose bushes, couples forced to have sex until they drop dead, people who self-mutilate, and worse. The human allies of the Akishra have developed mind control techniques which allow them to force their will on anyone.
There's even reverse astrology consisting of such constellations  as The Hangman, The Black Widow, etc. The serial killer Ephram consults the sky constantly trying to find direction in this sinister zodiac. He's also the main focus of the book's title: Wetbones being an evil ritual which turns people inside out, leaving them in a pile of goo and calcium.
Shirley displays his political bent by turning his nose up at another character's NRA dad and making a not-so-suttle reference to Reagan's first Secretary of the Interior as one of the worm creatures best allies. But his depiction of a ghetto is not the sort of thing which would ever pass for PC. Shirley is disgusted at every facet of Los Angeles in general and Hollywood in particular. The overall theme: This is where hedonism leads.
One of the best books of the "splatterpunk" movement and not to be read on an empty stomach.