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.

Comic Book Review: The Golden Age Starman Archives Volume 1

Comic Book Review: The Golden Age Starman Archives Volume 1 Written by Gardner Fox; Art by Jack Burnley

Wealthy playboy Ted Knight has somehow harnessed the cosmic energy of the stars in his Gravity Rod.   As the world moves to war, he decides that the best use of this technology is to become a costumed superhero, taking the name Starman.

The Golden Age Starman Archives Volume 1

Like many characters created during the Golden Age, Starman did not have an origin story as such, (Roy Thomas gave him one decades later); in the first story Ted Knight has already been operating as Starman long enough to have convinced FBI chief agent Woodley Allen to trust him and for his fiancee Doris Lee to be used to his excuses for slipping away.   According to Jack Burnley’s introduction to this volume, this first story was not written by Gardner Fox, and is the only one he substantially revised, inserting a villain he named Dr. Doom (and editorial changed for unknown reasons to Dr. Doog.)

The story itself opens with America in a panic as electrical components suddenly heat up, causing electrical outages, fires and explosions.  The FBI is called in on the case and Agent Allen decides this is a job for the Starman.   Bored playboy Ted Knight is having dinner with his fiancee Doris Lee in Gotham, one of the unaffected areas when the rod in his pocket starts vibrating.  He claims not to be feeling well, but Doris opts to stay for the food she ordered while Ted leaves.  A blackout happens, which makes it even easier for Mr. Knight to switch to his Starman outfit.

Conferring with Agent Allen in a cabin outside the city, Starman is informed that the Secret Brotherhood of the Electron is behind the attacks.  The FBI can’t locate them, however, as their communications and transportation have been wrecked by the Brotherhood’s electrical control device.  Starman’s Gravity Rod is immune to outside control, and can trace the energy to its source in a mountain stronghold.

Inside the stronghold, most of the Brotherhood is ordinary criminals, but Dr. Doog has stolen the Ultra-Dynamo from a Dr. Davis by means of his hypnotic powers.  Starman’s rod protects him from hypnosis, and Doog apparently perishes in one of his own death traps.  Starman seals the mountain just to make sure.

The stories tended to be formulaic, but reasonably entertaining individually.  Starman’s most frequent foe was The Light, a mad scientist who had been laughed out of the scientific community, and developed a shrinking ray (which gives off a hot bright light) to get his revenge.  He returned twice, each time with a different scheme.  The most iconic villain, however, was the Mist, an elderly man whose head appeared to be floating on a moving cloud.  He’d developed an invisibility formula for use in World War One, but been turned down by the government for unknown reasons.  Having perfected it, he turned to crime.

The most out-there villain was Cuthbert Cain, a sallow, puny-looking fellow who had combined an advanced knowledge of photo-electric energy and black magic; he could capture the will of anyone he photographed.   The story also had one of the best covers of the series on Adventure Comics #66.

Jack Burnley had been a sports cartoonist before going into comic books, and had a style well-suited to the superhero genre, with dynamic poses and framing.  But Starman never broke out as a major character.   Part of this, I think, is that Ted Knight wasn’t a very compelling character.   This hypochondriac made Clark Kent look like a dynamic man of action, and was so dismissive of Doris Lee that at one point the writer makes her explain that he’s much more likable off camera, thus her continuing to put up with him.

As Starman, Ted is fairly generic–his inability to use his powers during the daytime did add some suspense, but the combination of square-jawed virtue and battle wisecracks was shared with over half of the other costumed characters being published at the time.

There’s some period ethnic stereotyping.   This may have been the inspiration for Roy Thomas making Starman particularly anti-Japanese in his All-Star Squadron series.

At the time this compilation was published, a modern Starman series featuring Ted’s son Jack Knight was being run with creator James Robinson.  I highly recommend it.

As for this book, the art is good, the writing is decent, and it has rare stories.  Recommended to Golden Age fans, those who enjoyed the Robinson series, and people who have a good library near them.

Magazine Review: Argosy October 8, 1938

Magazine Review: Argosy October 8, 1938

Argosy began its life as The Golden Argosy, a children’s weekly, in 1882.  By 1889 publisher Fred Munsey had discovered that the readers aged out too fast to keep the magazine viable, so he switched to fiction aimed at adult readers and shortened the title.  It’s considered one of the first pulp magazines, and published many famous authors.

Argosy October 8 1938

By 1938, the magazine had combined with several others, but continued to be weekly.  Rather than a specific genre, Argosy published adventure of all types.  Generally, it would have two or three  novel-length stories serialized, and then the rest of the magazine would be self-contained short stories.  Series of short stories were also common, bringing back a colorful character in different circumstances.

“Two Hours to Go” by Theodore Roscoe is the cover story (cover by Emmett Watson), with the first part of six.  A Trans-Andean flight is forced down to an abandoned airstrip by mechanical failure and stormy weather.  While the pilot goes off in search of the nearest place with a telephone, the passengers play a game.  “What would you do if you had only two hours to live?”  The man proposing the game has an ulterior motive–he knows a murderer is on board, and hopes to identify that person by what they say.

There’s a character who is obviously supposed to be autocratic and eccentric publisher William Randolph Hearst (three years before Citizen Kane!) and his mistress, a faded movie starlet who clawed her way up from poverty.  Also an algebra teacher who hate schedules and a lawyer who wants to reform the legal system.  This installment ends with a poor little rich girl saying she killed a man–but does that make her the murderer?  Several nice monologues, and I’m glad it’s not the story about the soccer players.

“Bluebeard’s Closet” by H. Bedford-Jones is a weird story about Gilles de Rais and an encounter he supposedly had with Jeanne d’Arc after her execution.  There’s a framing story about a museum of the occult called the Halfway House that a Joan of Arc scholar has been called to.   He and the narrator witness the events of the past…or do they?  And was that woman really Joan, or an imposter?  The world may never know.  I felt the frame story weakened the tale a bit.

“River Pig” by Robert E. Pinkerton sets itself in the woods of Wisconsin in horse and buggy days.  A lumberjack foreman who’s just argued himself out of a job saves a young woman from a runaway horse, and consequently gets hired by her father, a rival logging baron.  As it happens, the baron is overextended in wheat, and cutting corners–so he decides to smash the foreman’s previous boss (and best friend, even if they’re not on speaking terms right now.)   Can a lowly river pig get the logs to the mill on time, put the crooked baron in his place and still win the heart of the girl?  I don’t think it spoils the story to say, yes, he can.

“Death Had a Pencil” by Richard Sale reminded me a bit of Death Note.  There’s this ancient Persian scriber that was used to sign death warrants.  Supposedly, it’s been cursed so that anyone or anything that has its picture X-d out by the pencil dies within twenty-four hours.  But Captain McGrail of the NYPD smells a rat in the picture somewhere.  After all, curses don’t really work…right?  Nifty story with a logical twist.

“Beat to Quarters” by C.S. Forester is part four of six of the first Horatio Hornblower novel written.  (Published as The Happy Return in Britain.)  It’s sixth in the chronological sequence.  Captain Hornblower has been helping a South American revolutionary, El Supremo, against the Spanish, but has now learned that England and Spain are allies.  This means he must battle the very ship he just acquired for El Supremo.   This chapter is the first round of that battle, fought in the heart of a raging storm.  Both ships are heavily damaged, but the revolutionary ship is closer to a friendly port–can Hornblower’s crew repair the ship in time and find the enemy in a trackless sea?   Great stuff.

“For Divers Reasons” by William E. Barrett is a boxing story.  A fighter fresh from the West is finding the boxing game more…complicated in the East.   When his love interest asks if he’s going to take a dive in his upcoming fight, he can’t honestly answer “no” and that bothers him.  On the other hand, he hasn’t actually been told to lose….  Some brutal fight descriptions in this one.

“Weasel, Weasel” by Frank Richardson Pierce is narrated by No-Shirt McGee, an Alaskan prospector and series character.  A criminal is playing mind games with a deputy U.S. Marshal, and the law officer is rapidly heading for a heart attack.  Will his doctor’s prescription cure–or kill?  So-so story.

“It’s Hard to Die” by Walter Ripperger concludes with its third part rounding out the issue.  A man thinks his brother has committed suicide due to embezzling large sums of money, and is trying to get himself killed in a non-suicide manner to collect the insurance and pay off the debt.   He’s finally found a gangster willing to do the job, but that criminal would like to keep the insurance money for himself.  Meanwhile, a police detective has figured out that the brother was actually murdered, and was not an embezzler.   Evil is paid unto evil, thanks to a descendant of the Borgias.  This is one of those stories where a crook could have won, getting out with an amazing amount of money, but he can’t control his greed.

There are a couple of picture features, and an oddly amiable letter column.

Most of these stories will be hard to track down, but Beat to Quarters is a classic and you should be able to find it in any decent book store.  A fun read!

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