Book Review: The Book of Cthulhu

Book Review: The Book of Cthulhu edited by Ross E Lockhart

Fantasy and horror author H.P. Lovecraft wasn’t a big seller during his lifetime, but the loose setting he created of the Cthulhu Mythos, where humans are only the most recent inhabitants of a cold and chaotic universe, and many of the previous inhabitants are effectively gods, has become one of the most popular sub-genres of horror literature.  The twenty-seven stories in this volume are by second- and third-generation Lovecraftian writers.

The Book of Cthulhu

There’s an encouraging variety of protagonists; professors and prostitutes, hitmen and clergymen.  Some of them are from ethnic groups HPL would never have made the heroes of his stories.  There’s a variety of tones as well.  Of course there’s a number that are straight up creepy horror, but there’s also noir-ish crime fiction and deadpan penny dreadful humor.

The volume opens with “Andromeda Among the Stones” by Caitlín R. Kiernan.  A family guards a gate off the Northern California coast; but only one of them was truly born for the job.  I found the story rather slight, and one of the weaker ones in the collection.

The closing story is “The Men from Porlock” by Laird Barron.  Seven lumberjacks go hunting in the Pacific Northwest.  Not all of them are going to be returning.  This one makes good use of escalating creepiness, culminating in a scene where a monster makes its menace particularly personal.

Oldest story honors go to Ramsey Campbell’s “The Tugging” from 1976.  An art critic in a small British city is having disturbing dreams about Atlantis, which may tie into a comet with unusual gravitation behavior.  I’ve read this one before, and it’s interesting as an unintentional period piece.  I remember in my youth paging through great bound volumes of yellowing newsprint as the protagonist does here, instead of scrolling through microfilm, or today’s scanned files.

“Black Man with a Horn” by T.E.D. Klein is one of the editor’s favorites, according to the introduction (which is perhaps a little too generous to Lovecraft’s writing skills.)  An elderly writer who was a friend of HPL in his youth meets a missionary returning from Malaysia.  Over the course of time, the writer learns that at least one thing written by Lovecraft may be uncomfortably close to reality.  It is a good story, told well.

I also particularly enjoyed “Lord of the Land” by Gene Wolfe.  A Nebraskan teacher is collecting oral history in the Appalachian region.  An old man tells him about seeing the “soul sucker”, which seems like a tall tale at first…but it’s actually a warning.  This one held my attention fast.

Overall, this is a strong collection with many creepy stories and some marquee writers like Elizabeth Bear, Joe R. Lansdale and David Drake.  I should mention that one story features incest and marital rape.  Recommended to fans of the Lovecraftian type of horror.

Magazine Review: Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, January 1977

Magazine Review: Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, January 1977 edited by Ellery Queen

Having enjoyed a recent issue of this magazine, I decided to root around for an older copy.  This one was published in December 1976, but the cover date was a month ahead.  Frederic Dannay (half of the “Ellery Queen” writing team) was still editor at this point, as he would be until 1981!

Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine January 1977

We open with “Jode’s Last Hunt” by Brian Garfield.  Mr. Garfield is better known as the writer of Death Wish,  which was turned into a hit movie starring Charles Bronson.  This story, his first in EQMM, stars Sheriff Jode, who was a big hero in his Arizona county when he first started.  But that was a couple of decades ago, and between  competent policing and a naturally low crime rate, Jode hasn’t hit the headlines in years.  When a former rodeo and movie star turns eco-terrorist, the near-retirement sheriff sees one last chance at fame.  This one was collected in Great Tales of Mystery and Suspense in 1985.

“The Final Twist” by William Bankier is set at a small advertising firm where the boss is a bad person who managed to offend each of his workers individually and as a group.  His employees decide he needs to die, but they want to make it look like suicide.  How can they best use their skills to this end?  This one was turned into an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents in 1986.

1976 was the year of the Bicentennial, the 200th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.  Thanks to that, there was a huge market for stories set during the American Revolution and 1776 in particular.  Fitting in one last story on the theme for the year is “The Spirit of the ’76” by Lillian de la Torre.  It details a bit of secret history when Benjamin Franklin’s grandson is kidnapped and Dr. Sam: Johnson is tapped to track the lad down, with the help of faithful Boswell, of course.  The story perhaps is too eager to have Mr. Boswell praise the inventive American, especially given the political situation.  This one was collected in The Exploits of Dr. Sam: Johnson, Detector in 1987.

“To Be Continued” by Barbara Callahan is about a young soap opera fan who discovers that she has an unexpected connection with one of the characters.  There’s a surprisingly sympathetic portrayal of a gay man for the time period, but the treatment of mental illness may strike some readers poorly.  I did not find any reprints of this one.

“C as in Crooked” by Lawrence Treat is a police procedural starring Detective Mitch Taylor.  He’s assigned to look into a burglary involving a very rich and important man (which is why a homicide detective is working a burglary case.)  Mitch quickly notices that the person in charge of security for that and several other robbed homes is an ex-police officer.  Personal problems for both Mitch and his boss delay the investigation until the next morning, when it has become a murder case.  Mitch cracks the case, but he may not get the credit.  I did not find any reprints of this one.

“‘Twas the Plight Before Christmas” by Hershel Cozine is a poem parodying the famous A Visit from Saint Nicholas and has Santa Claus being murdered by Ebenezer Scrooge.  Don’t worry, kids, there’s a happy ending.

There are two “Department of First Stories” (authors being professionally published for the first time) entries in this issue.  “After the Storm” by L.G. Kerrigan is a short piece about a murder during a rainstorm.  It’s vivid but slight.  “A Pair of Gloves” by Richard E. Hutton is a chiller about a man trying to buy a Christmas present despite the presence of a downer street person who seems to have a grudge against the store.  The ending is telegraphed.  Neither seems to have been reprinted.

Four brief columns follow, two of book reviews (one blatantly pushing items for sale by the magazine’s publisher), one of movie reviews (The Seven-Per-Cent Solution and Marathon Man are highlighted) and a short interview with Dick Francis, former jockey and famous for his racing-related mysteries.

“With More Homage to Saki” by Isak Romun is a short tale of a wealthy gourmet who will do anything to keep his personal chef working for him, up to and including blackmail.  But the chef has prepared his own delicious dilemma.  Foodies will enjoy this one best, I think.  Another I cannot find a reprint of.

Next up is from “The Department of Second Stories”, where EQMM also bought the author’s second effort.  “The Thumbtack Puzzle” by Robert C. Schweik features Professor of Bibliography Paul Engle.  During a talk the professor is giving, the narrator (his bookstore-owning friend) discovers that a visiting chemist’s work has been tampered with, and perhaps stolen.  There’s only a handful of viable suspects, but which, and can it be determined with only a thumbtack as a clue?  The solution hinges on the peculiarities of German typewriters.  No reprint here, either.

“Raffles and the Shere Khan Pouch” by Barry Perowne has the gentleman thief (and devoted cricket player) and his sidekick Bunny visiting India.  There they run into Rudyard Kipling and Madame Blavatsky while attempting to steal rubies.  This is made more complicated by a British diplomatic pouch having gone missing, making the authorities more alert.  There’s perhaps a bit too much coincidence for the story to be plausible, and the epilogue spells out who Kipling is for particularly obtuse readers, but Raffles is always a delight.  This story was reprinted in Raffles of the M.C.C. in 1979.

“Please Don’t Help the Bear” by Ron Goulart is the sad tale of a Hollywood animator with a fur allergy and a penchant for another man’s wife.  Mr. Goulart is perhaps better known for his science fiction, but mostly for his humor, though this time it’s gallows humor.  The narrator is his “Adman” character who has a habit of meeting murderers and murder victims and never saving one.  This story may or may not be reprinted in Adam and Eve on a Raft: Mystery Stories published in 2001.

“Etiquette for Dying” by Celia Fremlin concerns a woman whose social climber husband has taken ill at a dinner party whose hostess is well above their class.  Is he just rudely drunk or is there something more sinister going on?  This one is reprinted in A Lovely Day to Die and Other Stories (1984).

And finally, we have a story by prolific author Edward D. Hoch, “The Problem of the Christmas Steeple.”  It’s a Dr. Sam Hawthorne story, as the retired physician remembers the winter of 1925.  A parson is found stabbed to death in a steeple, the only suspect being the “gypsy” chief found in the steeple with him.  But due to physical infirmity, that suspect could not have committed the murder.  The treatment of “gypsies” may rankle modern readers, but it’s a story written in the 1970s about the 1920s.  This story was reprinted in Diagnosis: Impossible: The Problems of Dr. Sam Hawthorne (1996).

There are also a couple of limericks by D.R. Bensen, typical of the genre.

This is overall a good issue, with some fine writers.  You can try combing garage sales, but you might have better luck contacting other collectors.

And now, an audio adaptation of “The Problem of the Christmas Steeple”:

https://www.podomatic.com/podcasts/eqmm/episodes/2015-12-01T09_27_41-08_00

 

Magazine Review: Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine July 2016

Magazine Review: Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine July 2016 edited by Janet Hutchings

Frederick Dannay, who along with Manfred B. Lee wrote the Ellery Queen mystery stories, was asked by Mercury Press to be the editor of a new magazine that would print a higher class of detective stories than the general run of pulps, with the first issue of EQMM coming out in 1941.  At first it was a reprint magazine, featuring classic tales by writers like Agatha Christie and Cornell Woolrich.  But by the seventh issue, new stories began to appear, and one, “The Bow Street Runner” by Samuel Duff, was that author’s first professional sale.

Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine July 2016

Over the years, Mr. Dannay sought out new writers to appear in “The Department of First Stories”, many of whom went on to great success.  His successors have carried on that tradition, and as part of the magazine’s 75th Anniversary celebration, the July issue #898 features new stories by authors who got their start in EQMM.

“The Staff of Asclepius” by Stephen Saylor features his Roman sleuth Gordianus the Finder.  This one is set in his youth, when Gordianus and a friend were on a trip to see the Seven Wonders of the World.  They winter in Rhodes, home of the fabled Colossus.  During their enforced idleness, Gordianus learns of a shipping magnate named Rhosander who has suffered several bouts of illness, then miraculously recovered due to wacky cures he dreamed of in the temple of the healing god.  Perhaps these episodes are the symptoms of some underlying illness…but they could also be slow poison.  The illustration has male rear nudity, which is germane to the story.

“Department of First Stories: A History” by Marvin Lachman reveals the material I cited at the beginning of this review, but in much, much more detail, including a list of some of the most famous writers to debut in the magazine and their accomplishments.

“The Granite Kitchen” by David Morrell is a monologue to a real estate agent by a woman selling her home.  She’s obsessed with making her homes just so, always moving on to a bigger project once she has it right.  And either she has the unluckiest bunch of family and friends I have ever seen, or….  Chilling.

“Blog Bytes” by Bill Crider is a regular column of mystery-related internet sites; this time focusing on fans of the Ellery Queen stories.

“The Jury Box” by Steve Steinbock is a more traditional book review column.  Among other works, this month it mentions several novels starring famous writers as the detectives, including A Riot Most Uncouth by Daniel Friedman, which I reviewed a while back.

“Get Them Out” by Nancy Pickard has a homeless man kicked out of a shelter for making a disturbance.  The new janitor at an apartment building offers him a place to sleep in the basement, but his motives may not be altruistic.  Ends on an ambiguous note.

“Black Monday” by John H. Sherman is a first story.  Howard, a lab technician at a hospital, has been having problems with alcohol and painkiller addiction, and has missing time.  His dreams of swimming have gone dark, and he can’t remember what he did last night.

“The Red Tattoo” by Percy Spurlark Parker is a noirish tale featuring Las Vegas private eye Trevor Oaks.  He’s hired to find a man’s missing identical twin; the only clue is that the twin was seen in LV with a woman who had a red tattoo.

“The Hangman” by David Dean is the story of a cops-and-robbers game gone south, and the years later sequel.  Depressing.

“Flight” by Trina Corey is set in a nursing home during the Vietnam War era (I suspect to avoid easy fixes by technology.)  Rachel is crippled by multiple sclerosis, unable to speak or write.  Perhaps that’s why a murderer has taken to coming into her room at night to gloat, knowing that she can’t tell anyone.  But Rachel still has her mind, and there’s a young nurse that hasn’t lost her ability to care yet, and maybe there’s a way to stop the killer.

“The Man from Away” by Brendan DuBois takes place in New Hampshire and Boston.  People tell Amos Wilson he’s too gullible, that his estranged wife is a gold digger he’s better off without.  But when she is accidentally killed by tourists who then vanish, Amos feels obligated to do something about it.  He may be long-suffering, but he’s not stupid.  Satisfying.

“Consuming Passion” by Martin Edwards is about two old friends, one a master chef, the other a restaurant critic, having dinner together.  It does not end well.

“The Peter Rabbit Killers” by Laura Benedict closes out the issue with a little girl whose mother has an obsession with cleanliness, and a neighbor girl who is bullying and not at all clean.   Another creepy tale.

Overall, a strong issue with many fine stories.  I liked “Flight” the best, while “Black Monday” and “The Hangman” were less well done.  This issue is certainly worth picking up while the anniversary celebration is still on.

Manga Review: Weekly Shonen Jump (2015)

Manga Review: Weekly Shonen Jump (2015) by various creators.

It’s the third anniversary of this blog, and as is my custom, I’ll be looking at the current lineup of Weekly Shonen Jump, the online version of Shounen Jump.  For those just joining us, Shounen Jump is the top-selling shounen manga (boys’ comic book) in Japan.  Many of its series get anime (animated cartoon) adaptations, and its ethos of “friendship, struggle and victory” has been highly influential in manga circles.

Shonen Jump  2015

The struggle is exemplified in the magazine itself by the reader polling system.  Each issue comes with a survey to mail in, and the placement of further chapters within the magazine is based on how well they do in the polls.  Popular series get prime spots near the front, while struggling series get moved to the back.  Series that do poorly for an extended period tend to get axed–if this happens right away, it’s called “ten-weeked” for the minimum time a series will be kept.  (There are a couple of exceptions to the polling system that are more or less immune to being cancelled as their collected volume sales are very high, even though the weekly readers rate them poorly.)

Not all of the series in the print edition make it into the online edition, which also adds some monthly features from other magazines also owned by the same publisher.  Let’s start with the weeklies.

One Piece:  On a world that is 90% ocean, a boy named Luffy decides to become the Pirate King.  He gathers a wacky crew as he sails around the world looking for the mysterious “One Piece” treasure of the previous Pirate King.  Currently, the situation in Spanish-flavored Dressrosa has been resolved, and the crew is looking for their vanished members on the “island” (actually a massive elephant) Zou, home to a tribe of animal-people called Minks.

World Trigger:  Earth is periodically invaded by beings from a parallel universe called “Neighbors.”   The agents of BORDER are our primary defense against them.   Currently, our viewpoint agents are engaged in a tournament called “Rank Wars” to try to qualify for an away mission to rescue kidnapped Earthlings from the Neighbor dimension.  This is about to be complicated as a Neighbor strike force has arrived with the intention of crippling BORDER’s ability to launch away missions.  The artist has been having health issues, so the feature takes frequent breaks.

Bleach:  Teenager Ichigo Kurosaki has the ability to see spirits, and has since been inducted into the Soul Society, which attempts to stop evil spirits and conduct good ones to the afterlife.   This is still on what is supposed to be the final arc, as the previously-thought-dead Quincies invade the Soul Society to destroy the afterlife as we know it and presumably replace it with one where they’re in charge.  It looks like the creator is going to milk every last member of the huge cast for extensive flashbacks–we may be at this for another three years.

My Hero Academia:  Izuku Midoriya (aka “Deku”) was born without superpowers on an alternate Earth where 80% of the population has “Quirks.”  But he has the heart of a hero, and has earned a special power, so can attend a magnet school for aspiring superheroes.  Currently, Deku’s class is on a summer field trip for intensive training.  (I’ve reviewed a couple of the individual volumes.)

Nisekoi:  Raku and Chitoge, the scions of feuding crime families, are forced into a fake dating relationship (the “false love” of the title) to stop the feud.  They start developing genuine feelings for each other, but things are complicated by there being several girls who have a thing for Raku, at least one of whom he also has feelings for.   The series just concluded a story arc that eliminated one of the “harem” from consideration; this did very poorly in the polls, perhaps because it centered around her frankly annoying personality and equally annoying family.   Now Raku is down to two viable choices and desperately trying to avoid making up his mind.

Toriko:  A far-future Earth has become a world where the more dangerous a creature is, the more delicious it is (usually), and Toriko is one of the top Gourmet Hunters, dedicated to seeking out new flavors and foods.  Over time, the series has come to focus more on his sidekick, aspiring chef Komatsu.  This may be in its final story arc, as the Earth is “ripe” and about to be eaten by a cosmic being, unless our heroes find an alternative.  But there is so much going on with different parts of the cast that it may take several real-time years to resolve.

Black Clover:  In a fantasy world where everyone can use at least some magic, Asta was born without any.  He’s trained his body extensively to make up for this, and has “never giving up” as his primary personality trait.  At his society’s coming of age ceremony, he initally does not get a grimoire of spells, but then is gifted with one that turns into a sword with the power of anti-magic.  He joins the Magic Knights that protect his kingdom, but only in the Black Bulls, a ragtag group of misfits who are looked down upon by the more professional units.  This series is new this year, and is considered something of a successor to Naruto.  Currently, Asta is helping a mirror mage and a fire-powered nun fight kidnappers who steal the magic from children.

Food Wars!:  Known as “Shokugeki no Souma” in Japan, this series features Souma, a young maverick aspiring chef as he attends the top culinary institute in Japan and engages in cooking battles.  The early chapters were heavy on the cheesecake imagery, but the series has backed off on that some to concentrate on the food porn.  Currently, the school has been taken over by a sinister man who wants to make all cooking conform to his idea of perfection without regard for individual tastes, and Souma is in a cooking contest with one of that man’s minions (who has already bought the judges, so we have no idea how he’s going to win.)

On to monthly features.

Blue Exorcist:  Rin Okumura discovers  that he is the son of Satan, destined to bring about his father’s final triumph.  Rin decides to defy his heritage and joins a school for exorcists that battle the forces of evil.   Currently, Rin and his human (or is he?) fraternal twin Yukio have been sent on a mission to locate a missing exorcist.  They spend much of this month’s chapter being mistaken for a gay couple, much to Yukio’s annoyance.  (Rin seems to think it’s kind of funny.)

Seraph of the End:  In the not too distant future, a plague seemingly wipes out all adults, and many of the surviving children are enslaved underground by vampires.  Yuichiro Hyakuya, one of these slaves, escapes to the surface, at the cost of losing his friend Mikaela Hyakuya (they were named after the orphanage they were brought up in before the plague.)  Yu joins the Demon Army, humanity’s last defense against the vampire menace…or are they the real enemy?  Currently, Yu has been reunited with Mikaela, who has become a vampire.  Meanwhile, the Demon Army’s mission seems to have gone south, or possibly that was always the plan, as the top brass start sacrificing their own troops to summon the Seraph of the End, and Captain Guren appears to have gone insane and it’s not clear what side if any he’s on now.

One-Punch Man:  Saitama trained really hard to become a superhero that could take out any opponent with one punch.  He achieved that goal, but found it hollow as fights no longer hold any joy for him.  This parody of superheroes turns out to have some deeper themes about what it really means to be a hero.  Currently, the main plot seems to be about Garo, who hates stories where the hero always wins, and is working to become a villain who can defeat any hero.  (See my review of the first volume.)

Yu-Gi-Oh Arc-V:  yet another spin-off of the toyetic Yu-Gi-Oh series, centered around a children’s card game that is the most important thing in the world.  Yuzu Hiragi is the heiress to a card dueling school that’s seen better days, and is trying to snag a celebrity duelist as a teacher.  She’d like to snag the mysterious Phantom, who’s been engaging in illegal card games, but may have to settle for another person with a very similar appearance.  Currently, it appears that Yuzu’s father has been kidnapped to lure the Phantom into a duel.

The online edition also features a “Jump Back” slot, reprinting the first few chapters of an earlier series to advertise the back volumes.  Currently it’s running Yu Yu Hakusho.  Junior high delinquent Yuusuke Urameshi is dead on the first page, having senselessly sacrificed his life to save a child that wasn’t actually in danger.  But because of his anomalous circumstances, Yuusuke can undergo a test to see if he is worthy of returning to life.  (Yes, but the experience leaves him with supernatural powers he must use to protect humanity.)

This is still a huge bargain for anyone who likes shounen manga, even if not all the series are that good, and lives in a country with legal access.  Recommended.

Comic Book Review: The Batman Adventures Volume 2

Comic Book Review: The Batman Adventures Volume 2 written by Kelley Puckett, pencils by Mike Parobeck, inks by Rick Burchett

Batman: The Animated Series ran on Fox 1992-1995, and is considered one of the best animated TV series of all time, as well as one of the best adaptations of Batman outside comic books.  It spawned an entire DC Animated Universe set of series with its unique look and strong continuity.  The series also influenced the comics it had spawned from, creating the madcap Harley Quinn and her friendship with Poison Ivy (and suggesting they might be very close friends) and a new sympathetic backstory for Mr. Freeze, who had been a flat character before.

The Batman Adventures Volume 2

But more directly, there was a tie-in comic book series, The Batman Adventures.  It was written for younger readers than the mainstream DC Comics universe, although it could still handle some subject matter that the TV series had to shy away from.  The art was meant to evoke the style of the show, and frequently succeeded.  Rather than copy scripts from the TV series, most of the issues tell stories in between episodes.

Many  of the stories in this second volume revolve around secondary characters rather than Batman himself.  There are stories for Batgirl (taking place before her first appearance on the show), Robin and  the pair together.  Man-Bat, Talia, and Ra’s al Ghul each get a spotlight story, as does Commissioner Gordon.  There’s even an issue from the viewpoint of the Professor, a brainy guy who teams up with schemer Mastermind and reluctant master of violence Mr. Nice to steal nuclear weapons.  Their plan is foiled by one unexpected glitch….

The cover story is from issue #16, “The Killing Book.”  When the Joker discovers that the Gotham Adventures comic book depicts Batman always defeating him, the Clown Prince of Crime kidnaps an artist to draw the true-life stories of the Joker’s triumphs.  This one has a lot of meta-humor, from the titles of the chapters to the comics creators being roughly based on the real ones at DC.  The lighter nature of this series is shown by the Joker not actually killing anyone, though he tries to remedy this with a deathtrap for Batman.

The Scarecrow story in #19 is darker, as fear of the Scarecrow spreads over Gotham City, far in excess of his actual threat level.  He’s even invading Bruce Wayne’s nightmares of the death of his parents!   It turns out that Jonathan Crane isn’t the only ethically deficient scientist in Gotham this month.

Some bits in this series may be too scary for the youngest readers, but most ten year-olds and up should be fine.  Older readers will enjoy the in-jokes and references.

Recommended to fans of the cartoon, and parents of young Batman fans who aren’t ready for the very dark mainline comics.

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