Book Review: The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard

Book Review: The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard by Elmore Leonard

Elmore John Leonard Jr. (1925-2013) started his career as a professional writer by producing short Western stories for the pulp magazines.  According to the introduction, Mr. Leonard’s first attempt was not very good and was rejected, whereupon he decided that next time he would do his research first.  He focused on the Arizona Territory, because that part of the country had a strong draw for him, and he liked the Apaches best of the various tribes of Native Americans.

The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard

This volume presents the bulk of the stories in order of publication, rather than when they were written.  Thus it begins with Elmore Leonard’s first published work, “Trail of the Apache.”  Indian agent Travisin does his best to keep his Apache charges peaceful and moderately satisfied.  He keeps his wits sharp through a bet with his lead scout Gatito that if the other man can ever touch his knife to Travisin’s back, he will win a bottle of whiskey.  For the last two years, Gatito has not had alcohol.

The trouble arrives with Travisin’s new trainee, Lieutenant De Both.  De Both himself is a decent enough fellow, though green in the ways of the West.  But he’s escorting a band of Apache from another reservation, led by the renegade Pillo.  The Army, in its infinite wisdom, has decided that Pillo and his rowdy comrades should be separated from their wives and families on Travisin’s reservation to calm them down.

To no one’s surprise, Pillo and his men are soon off the reservation with Gatito, and looking to gather other renegades to restart the Indian Wars.  It’s up to Travisin, De Bolt, and the tracker known as Fry to stop them.

By the end of the 1950s, the pulp magazines had died, and the market for short Westerns had dried up.   Mr. Leonard switched to primarily doing crime stories (You may remember Get Shorty.)  But every so often, a Western collection would ask him to contribute, so there’s not quite a handful of such late stories.   The last one published was “Hurrah for Captain Early!” which takes place in a small Arizona town which is having a return celebration for its hometown hero of the recent Spanish-American War.

The main character is Bo Catlett, a cavalryman who also served in the war.  But since Mr. Catlett is black, there are those who don’t believe that he’s a veteran.   In fact, they don’t believe that Mr. Catlett should be in town at all.  And possibly not breathing.  But Sergeant Major Bo Catlett has something to return to Captain Early, and maybe it would be okay if there was a little blood of an ignorant fool on it.

Like the other late-period stories, this one contains strong language that wasn’t allowed in the magazines, as well as the period racism.  Taking place in the twilight of the Old West, it’s a suitable and somewhat cynical endpiece.

Of special interest to movie fans are the stories “Three-Ten to Yuma” and “The Captives” (which became The Tall T.)  Both were considerably expanded from their original short format.  In the former tale, a deputy marshal tries to get his prisoner aboard the title train with them both still alive despite their respective enemies.  In the latter, a rancher who’s lost his horse hitches a ride aboard a stagecoach–which is promptly captured by outlaws, and he must use his wits to keep himself and at least one other passenger alive.  Both are exciting and suspenseful.

Mr. Leonard was no stranger to dark humor, the best example of this in the current volume being “Cavalry Boots” in which a cowardly deserter becomes honored as the hero of a battle.  Mostly because he’s not around to dispute it, but partially because he accidentally did save the day.

This edition has an extra story at the end, “The Treasure of Mungo’s Landing”, which wasn’t in the first edition because it couldn’t be proved it existed.  Tracking down clues, it was discovered to have been printed under the wrong author’s name (Leonard Elmore) and in a different magazine than believed.  The story itself is a nice tale of a man who discovers a robbery is about to be committed, and stops it only to be accused of the crime himself.  The bad guy would have gotten away if he hadn’t let his greed and gloating get away with his common sense.

It’s thirty-one fine stories in all, ranging from talented newcomer quality to very good.  There’s period depiction of Native Americans (not usually entirely negative) and some period sexism (plus a couple of attempted rapes.)

Recommended for Western fans, Elmore Leonard fans and fans of the TV series Justified, which was based on Mr. Leonard’s work.

Let’s have a video of the opening to the 1957 film of 3:10 to Yuma.

Comic Book Review: Snake Tales

Comic Book Review: Snake Tales edited by Mike Howlett

Ophiophobia (fear of snakes) is a common phenomenon (Hi Mom!) and has plagued humanity from ancient times, even appearing in the Book of Genesis.  Even humans not afflicted with undue fear of the legless reptiles tend to distrust them, and snakes are often cast as villains or hazards in fictional stories.  And thus, this collection of eighteen tales from Pre-Code comics, with luridly-illustrated snakes and serpents in every one.

Snake Tales

As museum curator Dr. Frank T. Burbrink explains in the introduction, most of the science in these stories is dubious at best.  The behavior and anatomy of snakes as depicted seldom matches real life, and sometimes the writer just made up new species for the sake of the story.  “Slimy” gets used a lot, even though the vast majority of snakes are not given to producing slime.

This collection opens with “Mirror Image”, in which, surprisingly, the African King Rattler is not the bad guy, no matter what the fellow who finds it in his bed thinks.  It’s more an exploration of what fear can do to a man.

“Meet Me at the Cemetery” concludes this volume with the tale of a second wife visiting the grave of her predecessor, only to find a cobra on the grounds.  Her husband is suspiciously dismissive of her experience.  And who’s that exotic-looking woman cadging a ride from our heroine’s friend?

In-between are tales of people who worship snakes, people who turn into snakes (or vice versa) and two different women with snakes for hair.  Some standouts include:

“The Echo” is the only non-horror story, being more a pulpish tale.  Ventriloquist The Echo, his brother Doctor Doom(!) and sister Cora wander America in search of adventure.  In this tale, they find a snake-handling church, the leader of which has been defrauding his parishioners.   Some voice-throwing tricks make sure he gets what he deserves.

“Serpent of Doom” is a combination “cursed artifact” and “deal with the Devil” story.  Bud Hampton is fired by his boss, and buys a cheap necklace from a man whose face he can’t clearly see in the rain to placate his wife Lydia.  Lydia isn’t too impressed, and yet the snake necklace does have an appeal.  Especially when she learns that she can become rich and powerful if she calls upon Seth while wearing it–and murdering her husband!  (While many of the stories feature women in skimpy clothing, this is the only one where the female lead is in actual underwear.)

Soon, Lydia is rising up in the world, through judicious application of murder.  But she also starts exhibiting odd behavior and experiencing dry, scaly skin.  It may be too late to avoid paying the price for her success, unless perhaps you would like to buy a necklace?

“The Pool of Eternity” concerns a man who crashlands in the jungles of the Amazon.  A native snake priestess is determined to heal the handsome stranger, even if she has to resort to the title body of water.  It’s said the snake goddess will grant immortality to the drinker, so it’s forbidden to taste the fluid.

Naturally, the foolish young woman breaks this taboo.  The pilot is let go by the tribe, but their priestess is going to be punished.  When the man realizes that he is, in fact, immortal, he returns and induces the beautiful priestess to drink from the Pool of Eternity as well.  Unfortunately for them, the Jivaro have ways of dealing with immortal criminals.  Disturbing ways.

This might be a good time to mention that some of the stories have racist imagery and plot points, in addition to the usual Pre-Code horror use of shocking images.   Concerned parents will want to examine the book before allowing younger readers to peruse it.

The art ranges from excellent, “The Fangs of Death” to not very good, “The Snake Pit.”  The writing is uneven as well, but there’s some chilling stuff in here.  There’s also a cover gallery of some of the stories.

Recommended to horror fans who love them some unlikely snake stories.  Check it out from your library!

Manga Review: Skip-Beat! Volumes 4-5-6

Manga Review: Skip-Beat! Volumes 4-5-6 by Yoshiki Nakamura

Quick recap:  Kyoko Mogami dropped out of school and moved to Tokyo to support her beloved Sho as he tried to break into show business.  A couple of years later, the now rising star let slip that he has never liked Kyoko back, just using her as a free servant.   Enraged, Kyoko has vowed to get revenge by defeating Sho at the one thing he truly cares about, public popularity.

Skip-Beat! Volumes 4-5-6

Despite no training in the field or immediately obvious talent, Kyoko managed to get a internship at the LME talent agency, because she amused eccentric president Lory.   Kyoko and another young woman with difficulties due to attitude, Moko, have been assigned to the “Love Me” section where they do humiliating chores in an effort to get noticed.

At the beginning of this combined volume, Kyoko manages to pass an audition to acting school by flipping a schmaltzy script to let her acid tongue shine.  She doesn’t get the full scholarship, though, because Lory’s granddaughter Maria (whose home situation mirrored the script) interfered.  Maria and Kyoko bond, and Lory begins to get an idea of how bad Kyoko’s mother was.

Next up, a series of coincidences wind up placing Kyoko in a chicken suit on a TV variety show just as that show has Sho as the main guest.  When Kyoko hears Sho telling fibs to make himself sound more cool, she decides to use her anonymity to get revenge by making the heartbreaker look bad.  It doesn’t quite work out the way she planned, but does allow her to see a different side of her coworker Ren.

We also learn that Ren has deeper connections to Kyoko than she’s aware of, but keeping them a secret because of his work ethic.

The following story has Kyoko and Moko  trying out for a soft drink commercial, and we’re introduced to Moko’s self-appointed arch-nemesis Erika Koenji.  A spoiled rich girl, Erika has never forgiven Moko (real name Kanae, by the way) for getting the lead in a third-grade play over her, and has used her wealth and connections ever since to quash Moko’s acting aspirations.   This is at least partially responsible for Moko’s attitude problem and unwillingness to be friends with other girls.

Learning bits of this makes Kyoko, who has never had a female friend either, feel a connection to Moko, and their unique acting styles (plus some dumb luck) gets them the commercial spot.

The next big storyline has a cold going around the office, knocking out Ren’s manager, and since all the regular replacements are also sick, this leaves Kyoko with the job (while she’s also studying for a high school entrance exam–she really wants to complete her education.)  Kyoko isn’t very good at a talent manager’s main job duties, but her skillset comes in handy when Ren falls ill as well and needs a nurse.  Ship tease!

While Kyoko’s negative personality traits are still present, this collected volume allows her to show the positive ones as well.  The appearances of her (literal) “inner demons” are less frequent.   We also get some nice development for a few of the supporting characters, and hints of deeper backstory.  I like the balance of comedy and dramatic elements, and the romantic hints aren’t overwhelming the story.

The character art is good, but backgrounds are often sketchy or outright absent.

Kyoko’s absentee mother comes across as a real piece of work; parents of younger readers may want to discuss unreasonable expectations with their children.  Aside from that, this book is suitable for junior high kids (especially girls) on up.

Recommended to shoujo readers who like a little tartness in their heroines.

Comic Book Review: The Complete Voodoo Volume 1

Comic Book Review: The Complete Voodoo Volume 1 Edited by Craig Yoe

EC was not the only publisher putting out lurid horror comics during the brief period between the post-World War Two decline of superhero books and the installation of the Comics Code.  Others quickly followed in their footsteps.  Robert Farrell was one of those who got on the bandwagon with his company that was eventually called Ajax Comics.  His most successful horror title was Voodoo, which ran long enough to fill three of these collected volumes.  This volume covers issues 1-6.

The Complete Voodoo Volume 1

Mr. Farrell was big on recycling, so several of the stories in these early issues are repurposed from the “jungle” subgenre comics that were also popular at the time.  One of the prominent character types in that subgenre is the “jungle goddess”, a woman (usually white) who acts as guardian to her patch of tropical rainforest.  The first story in the volume, “The Shelf of Skulls” features Olane of the Banishing Islands somewhere in the South Seas.  The frame story is of a wealthy man who collects skulls; his wife (who is planning to murder him with her lover) finally gets him to show her the collection.

Mark Trent is a rather cruel person, and insists on telling her how he acquired the latest addition to his collection.  It seems he was involved in a feud between Olane and a headhunter.  Trent was given the skull of the headhunter in exchange for a promise never to return to the islands.  But there’s a twist–Trent’s got a new hobby, and his wife is not going to like this one at all!

The “jungle goddess” thing gives Olane the chance to be a much more active heroine than was the norm at the time, especially in the horror genre.    There are technically no supernatural elements in this first issue; all the menaces turn out to have rational explanations.

“Zombie Bride” in issue #2 is as close as this volume comes to actually featuring voodoo.  The zombies of Haiti are intelligent undead under the control of a master zombie, who can make more from living humans by a special ceremony.  A man must make a chilling choice when he discovers that his lovely wife has been turned into a zombie.

In issue #3, “There’s Peril in Perfection!” is a rather sexist tale about an expert in beauty who creates a robot to be “the perfect woman.”  Unfortunately, he is unable to handle it when Cynara begins to have emotions that make her all too human, and tragedy ensues.  All blame is placed on the woman, and not the men who made her that way.

Issues #4 and on were almost completely straight up horror as the inventory stories ran out.  Most of the art and writing was done by the Iger Shop, which had a factory-like approach to churning out stories for their client publishers.  Most of the credits are unknown, and two or three artists might have collaborated to finish a single tale.  Some stories come off very well, while others are uneven.

The volume ends with “She Wanted to Know…the Black Future.”  College student Lila Simmons is taking a minor in the occult, and decides to try out one of the spells in the old books she’s been reading.   Theoretically, it will allow her to see into the future.  But when Lila performs the ritual, she sees only the face of Death!  What does this portend?  Well, what do you think it portends?

Like many Pre-Code horror books, these stories are filled with women in form-fitting or scanty outfits, and some rather racist treatment of non-white people (but not to the vaudeville-level some Golden Age comics used.)

This doesn’t rise to the levels of EC stories, but is still grisly stuff to be enjoyed by fans of old-fashioned horror.  I found this copy in the library, and you may be able to do so as well.

 

Book Review: Old Celtic Romances

Book Review: Old Celtic Romances by P.W. Joyce

The Gaelic-speaking people of ancient Ireland told tales of their mighty ancestors and great men, not unlike the people of every nation and tribe.  When writing came, they began to put these tales into manuscripts.  Out of the large body of remaining literature, in 1879 P.W. Joyce chose thirteen legends he felt represented the most interesting of Irish tales.  Eleven of these were printed in the first edition, but this volume is a reproduction of the third edition which has them all.

Old Celtic Romances

They’re roughly in order of internal chronology.

“The Fate of the Children of Lir; or, The Four White Swans” is the first of what are called “the Three Sorrows of Irish Storytelling” due to their somewhat tragic endings.   Lir’s four children are turned into swans by their stepmother due to her belief that people liked them better than her.  She curses them to spend nine hundred years in those forms, three hundred years each in three different bodies of water.

Only the arrival of Christianity to Erin allows them to leave their watery prison, and a disciple of Saint Patrick is able to turn them human, whereupon the children of Lir die of extreme old age.

There’s some evidence to suggest that some of the older tales started out under the old “pagan” religions and then were altered to meet new Christian guidelines.  “Druidical wands” are common in the early ones.

“The Fate of the Children of Turenn; or, the Quest for the Eric-Fine” is set in the days of Lugh of the Long Arms, as he battles the Fomori (sea raiders, often depicted as giants or deformed.)  Lugh’s father Kian is murdered by the three sons of Turenn due to an earlier quarrel that is not explained.  Because Turenn is a distant relative of Kian, this is considered kin-slaying and Lugh can choose to have them either executed immediately, or exact a blood price (the “eric-fine” of the title.)

Lugh describes the eric-fine in general terms that makes it sound not so bad, but when the brothers accept, he reveals that each of the items he mentioned are in fact mystic relics of great power guarded by mighty owners, or are otherwise hard to get.  For example, the three apples he wants are the Golden Apples of the Garden of Hisberna, which can heal any wound among other properties.

The brothers cut a bloody swath across Europe gaining the parts of the eric-fine, using each item they gain to make it easier to get the rest.  Eventually, a smart king just gives them what they want rather than have his army and himself slaughtered.  But with 5/7ths of the fine gathered, Lugh plays a nasty trick on the children of Turenn, mind-zapping them into returning to Eire with only that part of the eric-fine, confiscating the magic items, and then sending them off for the rest.

The last two items have the toughest guardians yet, and the brothers are fatally wounded in the process of gaining them.  The children of Turenn manage to return to Lugh successful in paying their fine, and ask him to heal them.  He refuses and cheerfully watches the brothers expire, followed by their grieving father and sister.  The ancient Irish really know how to hold onto a grudge!

“The Overflowing of Lough Neagh, and the Story of Liban the Mermaid” tells the tale of two brothers who decide to leave home with their followers to settle new territory.  One perishes quickly, but the other settles down in an area with a magic well.  Too soon the protection around the well is broken, and it floods the entire valley.  One person, Liban, survives by becoming a mermaid.

“Connla of the Golden Hair and the Fairy Maiden” has the handsome young man lured from his home by  a beautiful woman from the land of Moy-Nell, where there is no old age or sickness.  He is never seen again.

“The Voyage of Maildun” has the title character go off for vengeance against the raiders who killed his father.  He’s told by a soothsayer to only bring sixty crew members, but his three foster-brothers insist on coming along.  Breaking this prohibition gets the ship lost in a storm, and they must sail randomly to bizarre islands and have adventures not unlike the Odyssey.  They lose each of the foster-brothers and are at last able to find their way again, but Maildun learns he must show forgiveness to finally come home.

“The Fairy Palace of the Quicken Trees” is the first of the tales starring Finn, mighty leader of the Fena.  Finn  and his men slaughter an invading army, sparing only Midac, the youngest son of the invading king.  Finn brings up the lad in his own house, intending to turn him to good.

Midac, though, holds a grudge, and when he is fully grown, invites Finn and his men to his palace made of quicken tree (mountain ash).   It turns out to be a magical trap, foiled only by a) a couple of the younger men of the Fena being left on guard outside the palace, and b) Midac holding a huge banquet for all the villainous fellows he’d recruited to help him kill Finn.  The baddies come over in small groups, and by the time Midac is there with his full army, the Fena have been freed to fight.

This story also introduces Conan Maol (“Conan the Bald”) who is something of a comic relief figure.  He’s a coward, glutton and most feared for his sharp tongue-but also deadly in a fight.

“The Pursuit of the Giolla Dacker and His Horse” has Finn and his men be fooled by a giant calling himself “Giolla Dacker” (“slothful fellow”) who has a equally slothful-looking horse.  Giolla Dacker tricks several of the Fena to mount his horse in an effort to tame it–they are then stuck to it, and the suddenly vigorous horse runs off, followed by its also suddenly speedy master.  The rest of the story is the many adventures of Finn and his men trying to get back their fellows.

One bit that I noticed was Dermat O’Dyna has the habit of never eating leftovers–later his companions are able to know he’s been somewhere by the heap of half-eaten deer, as he kills a new one whenever he’s hungry rather than finish off the old one.

“The Pursuit of Dermat and Grania” has the young hero Dermat elope with the beautiful Grania.  This is an issue as she was promised to Finn (who is by this time old enough to be her grandfather.)  Finn reacts badly.  After much slaughter, Finn finally backs off.

However, this leads to the scene I describe as “remember that time twenty-five years ago when I said I forgave you?  I lied.  Now, I’ve led you into a trap, and will watch cheerfully as you bleed out and refuse to magically heal you.”  The translator notes that this is an unusually negative portrayal of Finn.

“The Chase of Slieve Cullinn” is the story of how Finn’s hair changed from golden to silver.  It involves a shapeshifter, a magical lake, and vanity.

“The Chase of Slieve Fuad” has another shapeshifter lure the Fena including Finn to her brother’s castle to be magically imprisoned and slaughtered.  This is Conan Maol’s big moment as he saves everyone–but also has a sheepskin permanently bonded to his body, requiring shearing every year.

“Oisin in Tír na nÓg” concerns Finn’s son Oisin, (also known as Ossian), the last survivor of the Fena.  He had been scouted by a young woman from the Land of Youth, and agreed to accompany her there to be her husband.  And that fair land was agreeable to him, but Oisin grew homesick.  When he returned to Ireland, the Fena were long  dead, the people had shrunk, and Christianity had come to Erin.  Oisin accidentally broke a taboo, and could not return to his wife, becoming old and blind.  (Tradition has it that this and the preceding two tales were told by Oisin to Saint Patrick before he died.)

“The Voyage of the Sons of O’Corra” has triplets who were dedicated to the Devil before birth (as God had not answered O’Corra’s pleas for children.)  They caused much mischief in honor of their sponsor (mostly destroying churches and outraging the religious) before suddenly coming to the epiphany that evil is bad.

Repenting, they converted to Christianity and started atoning for their ill deeds.  As part of their penance, the triplets and several men of the cloth took a sea voyage where they saw many strange islands, some of which were metaphorical.  (The translator notes that many of the instances are similar to or identical to scenes from Maildun’s voyage.)

“The Fate of the Sons of Usna” ends the volume with the Third Sorrow.  A girl named Deirdre is born, and it’s prophesied that she will bring woe to Ulster and Erin.  Deidre is raised in isolation, but decides that she wants to marry a man with hair as black as a raven, cheeks as red as blood, and skin as white as snow.

This turns out to be Naisi, one of the sons of Usna, and a Knight of the Red Branch.  He reciprocates, and they elope to Alba (Scotland) with his brothers and a group of followers.

Unfortunately, King Conor has decided he wants Deirdre for his own wife, and engages in a series of treacherous actions to bring the sons of Usna and Deirdre back to Ireland and then have the men killed.  This eventually works and Deirdre dies of grief.

Mr. Joyce notes in his prologue that he has erred more on the side of preserving the sense of the language from the old texts than a literal translation.  He’s also kept in the poetry that the characters occasionally burst into, which is probably fragments of the earlier oral tradition versions of the stories.  There are copious footnotes that explain words and the present-day names of places.  End notes go into further detail on aspects of Irish folklore.

As mentioned earlier, this Dover publication is a reproduction rather than a reformatted reprint.  This means it keeps the tiny font of the original book, and the even tinier font of the poetry sections.  It was difficult to read on Kindle, so I would recommend springing for the hard copy instead.  I also urge Dover to come out with a large print edition.

The writing style is a bit stiff and old-fashioned, but that’s to be expected.  Recommended to those wanting to research Celtic legends but without the ability to read the sources in the original languages.

Disclaimer:  I received a download of this book through Netgalley for the purpose of writing this review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.

Manga Review: Manga Classics: The Stories of Edgar Allan Poe

Manga Review: Manga Classics: The Stories of Edgar Allan Poe adapted by Stacy King

When I was young, a half century or so ago, there was a line of educational comics called Classics Illustrated.  These presented classic public domain works of literature in a comic book format.  The art tended to be static and pedestrian, difficult or disturbing plot material got left out, and very little of the stirring language that made these works classics remained.  But they read fast, and had helpful pictures for kids not ready to tackle Cliff’s Notes.

Manga Classics: The Stories of Edgar Allan Poe

There have been several revivals and imitators since then, and currently Udon Entertainment has brought out a line of such works under the group name Manga Classics.   The word “manga” is used rather loosely here as the material is neither produced nor created in Japan.  The artists do use “mangaesque” art styles, and some of them are at least of Japanese heritage.   It will be published in the chunky paperback format familiar to manga fans, and printed to read right to left for aesthetic purposes.  The hope is that the sort of kid who enjoys other manga will pick up these volumes.

The current volume retells four of Edgar Allan Poe’s weird stories, and the poem “The Raven.”  The strong narrative voice and short length of the works means that nearly the entire prose of the story can be used as word balloons or caption boxes for the illustrated panels.

The collection begins with “The Tell-Tale Heart” in which a murderer explains that he is not insane, just gifted or cursed with sensory sensitivity.  The format is used to switch between scenes of the narrator telling his story to a doctor or lawyer (it isn’t clear which) and the narrator’s actions that led up to his imprisonment.

“The Cask of Amontillado” is a tale of the perfect revenge (for what, the narrator never quite makes clear) as a fool is led to his doom by his love of and expertise in wine.  The art goes heavy on the screentone.

“The Raven” has a man thinking of his lost love and being tormented by the title bird with its cry of “Nevermore.”  The art style makes the man look too young for the tone of the poem, but it’s otherwise a good adaptation.

“The Masque of the Red Death” is about a party held in the last refuge from a plague; the rich and powerful safe and well-fed while the poor die in droves.  This one works very well, but suffers a bit from not being in color, since the color schemes play so much into the atmosphere.

“The Fall of the House of Usher” finishes the volume with a long tale of the last dregs of a noble family and their symbolic dwelling place.  There are some rather large implausibilities here, but the faces of Usher as he succumbs to madness are well done.

Poe’s masterful writing is the best thing about this volume, but the art is pretty good too.  Most recommended for younger teens who enjoy both spooky tales and manga-style illustrations.  It seems less likely to appeal to older readers already familiar with the material.

Disclaimer:  I was provided a free download of this upcoming book through Netgalley for the purpose of writing this review.  No other compensation was requested or offered.  There may be changes in the final edition.

Let’s have a trailer for the Vincent Price version of Masque of the Red Death!

Book Review: The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2014

Book Review: The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2014 edited by Paula Guran

Even the fastest, most dedicated readers can’t read everything that’s published each year.  Not even in relatively limited genres like fantasy or horror.  That’s where “Year’s Best” collections come in handy.  Someone or several someones has gone through the enormous pile of short literature produced in the previous year, and winnowed it down to a manageable size of good stories for you.

The Year's Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2014

Admittedly, these collections also come down to a matter of personal taste.  In this case, Ms. Guran has chosen not to pick just straight up horror stories (which do not necessarily include fantastic elements) but fantasy stories with “dark” elements.   She mentions in the introduction that at least some good stories were excluded because they weren’t brought to her attention–small internet publishers might not even know such a collection exists to submit to.

This thick volume contains thirty-two stories, beginning with “Wheatfield with Crows” by Steve Rasnic Tem.  Years ago, a man’s sister vanished in a wheatfield.  Now, he and his mother have returned to the site as darkness falls.  Will history repeat?

The final story is “Iseul’s Lexicon” by Yoon Ha Lee.   A spy discovers that the army occupying half her country is being aided by not-quite-human wizards everyone thought were wiped out centuries before.   They are compiling a lexicon of every human language for nefarious purposes, and it is up to Iseul to find a way to stop them.  In the end, she learns that there are innocent casualties in war no matter how  targeted the weapon.

Some stories I particularly liked:

“The Legend of Troop 13” by Kit Reed, about Girl Scouts gone feral, and the foolish men who think to possess them.  This one has a logical stinger in its tail, and very dark humor.

“Phosphorous” by Veronica  Schanoes is about the women who made phosphorous matches, and their fight for better working conditions.  The viewpoint character is a woman dying of “phossy jaw” caused by the poison she’s been exposed to.   She is determined to see the strike through, and her grandmother knows a way–but the cost is high indeed.

“Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell” by Brandon Sanderson concerns a bounty hunter who must track her prey in the forest that has Three Simple Rules.  Don’t start fires, don’t shed blood…and don’t run at night.   So simple.  But there are other bounty hunters in the forest tonight, and treachery.  Some rules will be broken, and the shades will descend.

One story I didn’t care much for was “The Prayer of Ninety Cats” by Caitlin R. Kiernan, which is a description of a horror movie based on the legend of Elizabeth Bathory, the Blood Countess.  There are some good scenes, but the presentation muffles the effect, taking me out of the story.  There’s also use of “Gypsy” stereotypes within the film.

Most of the other stories are good to decent, and there are big names like Tanith Lee and Neil Gaiman represented.  If this is the sort of genre fiction you like, it would be worthwhile to check the book out at your library–and then buy it if enough of the stories please you.

Book Review: Oliver Twist

Book Review: Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

An anonymous woman stumbles into a village about seventy-five miles from London, heavily pregnant and with her shoes in tatters.  She collapses in the street, and is taken to the parochial workhouse.  There, she gives birth to a boy and then perishes, seemingly leaving no clue to who she was.

Oliver Twist

The boy is named Oliver Twist, the surname being because he is the twentieth nameless foundling in the parish since Mr. Bumble, the parochial beadle (a sort of petty law enforcer) took up the office and started using alphabetical naming.  He is shuffled off to an “orphan farm” to be neglected until old enough to start picking oakum in the workhouse.  At the workhouse, Oliver is labeled a troublemaker when he dares ask for more gruel.   Is it possible for things to get worse?  Probably.

This was the second novel length work by Charles Dickens (1812-1870).   He moved from the straight-up comedy of The Pickwick Papers to a dramatic plot with comedic undertones.  Much of what happens to young Oliver in the early parts of the book is drawn from what Dickens remembered from his own poverty-stricken childhood.  In the preface to the Third Edition (the one used for the reprint I read), Mr. Dickens defends his use of what we’d call “gritty realism” compared to the usual treatment of poverty and crime in that time’s literature.    Then he admits to toning the language way down to avoid having the book be banned for cuss words.

Once the adults in the charity system have decided that Oliver is a bad child, they proceed to behave as though this is the case while completely ignoring the lad’s actual behavior and character.  (Consistent with the general treatment of poverty as being the result of moral failings, and therefore the poor being undeserving of better treatment, and indeed an excuse to treat them horribly.)

The first adult we see even momentarily show some concern for Oliver is a magistrate that refuses to apprentice the boy to a chimney sweeper that routinely works his apprentices to death on the grounds that Oliver is clearly terrified by the man.   The workhouse managers blame Oliver for failing to look properly grateful.  A second apprenticeship application by undertaker Mr. Sowerberry goes better.

Mr. Sowerberry cannot be described as a good person; there’s too much petty greed and schadenfreude in his character.   But he’s not actively hostile to Oliver and sees a way to make the boy useful and good for the business.  Unfortunately, Mrs. Sowerberry,  older apprentice Noah Claypole, and serving girl Charlotte are hostile and make life miserable.  Noah, whose living circumstances are barely above Oliver’s, has always wanted someone to punch down at.

Oliver finally snaps after one too many insults to his dead mother, and punches Noah back.  This gets Mr. Bumble called in, and it appears that Oliver will be sent back to the workhouse, if not prison.  Understandably, Oliver decides to run away.  Life is not easy for a penniless child alone on the road, but a day’s coach ride out of London, Oliver meets someone who likes the cut of his jib.

This is Jack Dawkins, known on the street as the Artful Dodger.  A bit older than Oliver, and good-natured for a hardened criminal, the Dodger brings Oliver home to meet a gentleman who would be willing to teach Oliver a trade.  This gentleman is Fagin, a “kidsman” who trains children to steal for him.  At first, Fagin pretends that he teaches the boys hanging out in his shelter how to make handkerchiefs and wallets.

Oliver learns the truth when he’s sent out on his first mission with Jack and his amiable partner Charley “Master” Bates.  When he sees the pair steal an old man’s silk handkerchief, Oliver runs away from them, making it appear that he is the pickpocket.  The victim, Mr. Brownlow, quickly realizes the truth and does not press charges, instead taking the seriously ill boy home to tend him.

Mr. Brownlow realizes that Oliver Twist looks a lot like someone he used to know, but keeps that information to himself to avoid raising the boy’s hopes.   The lad grows well again, and for the first time in his life experiences enough to eat and decent clothing.  (Fagin provided minimal food and shelter.)  Unfortunately, Fagin’s gang, including Nancy (whose job is mentioned in the preface as prostitution) and Bill Sikes, a brutal burglar, have managed to track Oliver down.

The very first time Oliver is alone outside the house, he is abducted by the gang.  Fagin worried that Oliver might be induced to give evidence to the police, and also has been engaged by the mysterious Mr. Monks to make sure Oliver returns to a life of crime.  After they think that Oliver’s will has been broken enough, Sikes bullies Fagin into giving him the boy for a job in the country.

This crime goes south quickly, and things look bad when Oliver is shot.  But this is where Oliver’s fortunes truly turn, as he is taken in by generous householders, one of whom feels a certain kinship towards him.

The villains, however, are still at large, so Oliver’s trials are not yet done.

The last third of the novel moves the focus away from Oliver as the various schemes and plans of the adults in the story play out for good or ill.  Only at the end do we return to the boy as his true heritage is revealed.

Good:  Dickens had a way of language, and a saucy narrative style.  One character has the habit of exclaiming “I’ll eat my head!” and the narrator points out that even if science devised a method by which eating one’s own head was physically possible, the appendage in question is too large for him to devour in one sitting.

Many of the characters are comical even while being horrible, as with Mr. Bumble, who talks up his virtuous charity while doing nothing of the sort.  Bill Sikes is a notable exception, with no punches pulled as he abuses pet and lover alike, before slipping into outright murder.

Plus, Mr. Dickens was good at pulling on heartstrings.  Thus it feels earned at the end when the good people mostly are rewarded, while the bad people tend to meet stickier ends.  (Though I do kind of hope that the Artful Dodger makes good in Australia.)

Not so good:  Mr. Dickens was paid by the word in monthly installments, and you can spot passages where he’s using more verbiage to fill out his pagecount, and plot twists thrown in where the monthly installment would have ended to make sure the readers would come back.

And then there’s the antisemitism.  Fagin really gets hit with the stereotype stick in earlier editions, in addition to being referred to as “the Jew” in the narration.  Mr. Dickens claimed that he hadn’t done this because he thought Jews were criminals, but because he was given to understand that the type of criminals that Fagin was tended to be Jewish.  But that doesn’t change that the entire Jewish representation in the book is Fagin (a fence and pimp who exploits children), Barney (a henchman of Fagin’s with a speech impediment) and an unnamed rag dealer who does business with Fagin.

Later in life, after Charles Dickens actually met some Jewish people and got to know them better, he revised the book to lessen the emphasis on Fagin’s Jewishness and excise a few of the physical stereotypes.

There’s also some period sexism, with the villains sliding into outright misogyny.  Mr. Bumble falls afoul of the down side of patriarchy for men when he learns that the law will consider him responsible for the crimes of his wife.  (“The law is a ass.”)   The actual women in the story range from saintly (Rose) to wicked (Mrs. Bumble).  It’s worth noting that Nancy, despite her never-explained day job and criminal behavior, for which she feels she can never atone, is still a better person than say Mrs. Sowerberry, who never breaks the law, but has no charity in her heart.

And of course, there’s some pretty contrived coincidence involved, as Oliver just happens to run into the only two people in England who have personal reasons to help him…and the only person in England who has personal reasons to make sure he never reaches adulthood.

This is a classic novel which has had considerable influence on popular culture, and is well worth reading once.

And a trailer for the musical, perhaps?

Book Review: Felifax the Tiger Man

Book Review: Felifax the Tiger Man by Paul Feval fils

Sir Eric Palmer, the world’s greatest detective, is about to retire on his daughter Grace’s eighteenth birthday.  He’s looking forward to taking up gardening in Cornwall and becoming a full time grandfather (Grace is beautiful and accomplished, surely a suitable young gentleman will snap her up quickly.)  But he’s abruptly called in by Scotland Yard.

Felifax the Tiger Man

A baffling series of weird incidents in Benares, India have come to the British government’s attention.  There are rumors of a “tiger man” in the area who might be a threat to the colonial government.  Would Sir Eric please look into this for them?

So the noble detective (and Grace, having invited herself along) depart for India to learn what they can.  It turns out there really is a tiger man, dubbed “Felifax” by a certain Brahman priest.  This encounter is inconclusive, but back in London, a series of bizarre murders suggest that Felifax is more bloodthirsty than previously shown.

This book is by a second-generation French author of pulp-style adventure fiction, and translated by Brian Stableford, who also provides an introduction, postscript and end notes.  Per Mr. Stableford, Mr. Feval was a very fast writer who didn’t do a lot of planning ahead.  In this book in particular, the “Sherlock Holmes meets Tarzan” genre clash produces some plot issues that are clumsily handled, and require authorial juggling to resolve by the end.

It’s difficult to discuss this volume without going into heavy spoilers, so I will sum up here, and then go on to a spoiler section.  It’s an interesting read with some cool ideas, some bad ideas, and uneven execution.  Content warning for rape and torture.  Recommended for people who like the more out-there pulps.

SPOILERS from this point on–you have been warned.

The Tiger Man’s origin story is not quite what you might have expected from my using the word “Tarzan.”  Rather than being raised by tigers, young Rama (his real name) is the result of a bizarre mad science experiment.  The priest Sourina and an English doctor artificially inseminate beautiful temple dancer Siva with tiger semen.  This does not quite work, and the result is hideously deformed and stillborn.

However, the English doctor invokes Lamarckian genetics, and has Sourina make Siva  have dubiously-consented sex with handsome young Brahman Rao.  The result of this pairing is a human-looking baby with faint brown stripes, unusual strength and speed, and the scent of a tiger.  Sourina murders Rao and has Siva imprisoned as soon as the baby can survive without her, then raises “Felifax” with tigers in his temple of Kali.  (The English doctor is deported from India for unrelated bad behavior.)

When Felifax reaches adulthood, he seeks freedom in the jungle, but also begins a campaign of terror against Sourina to get the priest to release Djina, a young girl who’d been raised in the temple with him.  These actions set off the plot with Sir Eric.

The first half of the book takes place in India, and the depiction of Benares (now Varanasi) owes more to stereotypes and imaginative fiction than to reality.  If it’s any comfort, the second half in England is equally dubious, as it has Newgate Prison and transportation to Australia surviving into the 1920s and a British man doing the “kiss on the cheek to show respect” thing no Englishman of the time would have done.

There’s a bit of period sexism and racism, though the latter is undercut when Sir Eric has to back up his fine words about all men being brothers when Grace falls in love with Rama.

There’s also a scene where the narration becomes creepy as it points out that Djina has the hots for Rama, she’s very attractive, and thirteen is considered of marriageable age in India–but not to worry, eighteen year old Rama thinks of her as a sister.  Thanks, narration.

To keep the story from ending early, Sir Eric is laid up with illness for most of the first half, then retires to Cornwall in the second half.  So the murders (which are nicely inventive) are investigated by a new character, Inspector Sullivan.  He’s introduced as the world’s second-greatest detective and the personally chosen successor of Sir Eric.

And he does great for a couple of chapters.  But then the author remembers that he has to bring Sir Eric back to tie up the plotline, so Sullivan rapidly degenerates into a complete stooge.  (And then the narration pretends it knew this all along.)  He spends some time pursuing a petty criminal named Blood-drinker (it’s never made clear if that’s the man’s actual name or an alias) who happens to be innocent of these particular crimes, then fastens on Felifax, who’s in town with the circus.

Meanwhile, there has been no mystery for the reader, as we know that the evil priest Sourina is the real master of the circus, and is carrying out his vengeance against the British occupiers of his homeland.  Sir Eric figures out the truth, though Sourina escapes in a sequel hook.

One of the most disappointing bits is that although Rama gets to show off his powers on various animals, the author goes to great lengths to prevent him from ever ripping a human opponent apart with his bare hands.  I mean, seriously, you have a tiger man with an anger-triggered super mode, and he never gets to kill anyone?

Oh, and meanwhile, Grace has developed a cure for smelling like a tiger, which allows her and Rama to hook up.

There are lots of individual scenes that are good, but the novel as a whole doesn’t hold together.   Read it for the good bits.

 

Magazine Review: Saucy Romantic Adventures August 1936

Magazine Review: Saucy Romantic Adventures August 1936 by various

This was one of the “spicy” pulp magazines, sold “under the counter” to readers wanting something more titillating than the standard action fare.  By modern standards, this is pretty tame stuff, mostly consisting of descriptions of women’s naked bodies (minus genitalia) and strong hints that the characters engage in extramarital sex.  The reason this particular issue was reprinted by Adventure House is because the Domino Lady is on the cover (painted by Norman Saunders).  But we’ll get back to her.

Saucy Romantic Adventures August 1936

The lead story is “Yeomen of the Woods” by Armstrong Livingston (almost certainly a psuedonym.)  It takes place during the Anarchy, the war between King Stephen and Empress Matilda in 12th Century England.  Four people traveling through the woods are set upon by bandits led by John o’ the Glade.  John, it turns out, is in the style of Robin Hood (who traditionally is said to have lived some decades later.)

The wealthy knight is held for ransom, and his squire set to fetch it.  A poor monk returned from the Far East is treated with a bit more respect.  As for the stripling lad, it turns out to be a maiden in boy’s clothing.  Alais has in fact come to the woods to find John and request his help.  Her father is a craftsman, and false rumors of his wealth have reached the ears of Baron Raymond de Gondrecourt.

As a result, the wicked baron has captured Alais’ father and is trying to compel the old man to tell where his treasure is hid.  Since there is no treasure, the baron will no doubt resort to torture unto death to force the old man to speak words he does not have.

John doesn’t have the forces to invade Gondrecourt Castle, but comes up with a plan to trick the baron and one of his neighbors (who the baron is at odds with) into fighting each other away from their castles, then have a third lord of better character mop up the survivors while John and his men use a ruse to take the small garrison that will be left at Gondrecourt.  This works, up to a point, but it turns out that Gondrecourt’s castellan is a wily old fellow and more than a match for John’s strategy.

The monk turns out to have brought gunpowder back from China, a very useful item.  Too bad that history must be preserved!

Honestly, this story contains no “spicy” bits whatsoever and could easily have been printed in any of the standard adventure pulps.  There’s period ethnic prejudice between the Normans and Saxons, and the monk uses some unfortunate language to describe the Chinese.

“Emeralds Aboard” by Lars Anderson is the Domino Lady tale.  Ellen Patrick was a California socialite until her father was murdered by the crooked political machine.  To avenge her father and maintain her lifestyle, Ellen donned a domino mask, cape and backless white dress to become the Domino Lady.  She steals from the rich (particularly corrupt politicians) and takes a cut for herself before giving the rest to the poor.  She was one of only a handful of masked mystery women in pulp fiction.

In this story, Ellen is returning from vacation in Hawaii when she learns that the snooty wife of a corrupt politician is aboard, and sporting some valuable emeralds.  Also aboard is “Fingers” Deshon, a known jewel thief, and part of a gang that has a grudge against the Domino Lady.  Ellen must find a way to lift the gems and deliver her rival to justice, with the unwitting assistance of a handsome ship’s officer.

The cover depicts a scene from the story, as Fingers (disguised as a ship’s officer) whips the concealing deck chair blanket off Domino Lady.  The clown in the background is seasick and doesn’t see any of this.  Later, Ellen starts a striptease to distract Fingers, but he doesn’t get to see much before she knocks him out.

An amusing but slight story.

“Cupid By a Nose” by Ernie Phillips takes us out West, to a young farm girl hoping to make some money by competing in a rodeo.  What Clara Lou doesn’t know is that the women’s competitions in this particular traveling rodeo are fixed to make sure that the owner’s daughter Vesta always wins.

Vesta’s fiance Bob Carter takes a shine to Clara Lou pretty much instantly–he’s telling her that he loves her later that night.  Vesta understandably reacts badly to this, framing Carter for running off Clara Lou’s handsome trained horses.  That leaves Clara Lou with just Cupid, a scarred, scrawny-looking cayuse.

This being an underdog tale, Clara Lou and Cupid outperform expectations, even winning the big race.  The crooked judges try to disqualify Clara Lou in favor of Vesta, but Carter shows up with Clara Lou’s other horses and the proof of wrongdoing just in time to save the day.

The insta-love thing aside, I liked that both the male and female leads got to shine and contribute to the solution of the story’s problem.

“Aloha Oe” is set in Hawaii.  Bim Arlen, recent Annapolis graduate, is on shore leave on the big island.  Taking a walking tour, he’s shocked yet intrigued when he spots a young woman skinny-dipping on a remote beach.  After waiting for her to put her clothes back on, Bim introduces himself to Kee.

Kee is a local mixed race girl, who is “white-passing” at a small distance.  She works as a schoolteacher in Honolulu, but is on vacation here in her tiny home village.  Bim and she fall in love almost instantly and are soon engaged with the blessing of her father.

Except that then Bim remembers that all his relatives are racist, and the Navy officers’ wives society isn’t much better.   He’s not sure he has the moral courage to stand up to them, nor does he want to subject Kee to their scorn.  Bim’s cold feet lead to an apparent suicide.  You suck, Bim.

“The Lover of the Moon Girl” by Hector Gavin Grey, is schlock science fiction.  Zane Hansard, an unusually handsome and strapping astronomer, discovers that a spaceship from the moon is about to land near his Pasadena observatory.  He rushes to tell his boss, only to discover that said boss is in league with the moon invaders–indeed, he was the one who invited them here!

Cecelia, the moon girl, comes from a society that uses artificial wombs, and knows not the concept of love between a man and a woman.  (Or any of the variants you might have thought of.)  One hot kiss later, Cecelia has converted to the Earth cause, and winds up pumping babies out the old-fashioned way.

It’s exactly the sort of thing that gives pulp SF a bad reputation, with bad science, plot holes galore and a terrible romance plotline.

“Dark Lady” by Mohammed El Bey is set in Egypt.  Archaeologist Nelson Cliff bears an amazing resemblance to the statues of Amen-Ra the Second, whose tomb he is excavating.  His headman Abu has been acting suspiciously of late, far less efficient and effective than when they started.

Things come to a head when a young woman from a nearby city comes to the dig claiming to be Ayesha, wife of Amen-Ra.  Nelson is not amused, but a series of incidents indicates that even if she isn’t a reincarnation of the ancient queen, the girl has some peculiar gifts.  Abu’s trap works, but not before he himself is destroyed.

Murky story, and the villain is ill-defined.

“Mockery” by Marie Forgeron is a short-short.  A man meets his ex-wife on a cruise ship back from Hawaii.  It turns out this was deliberate; she’s gotten divorced from the man she dumped him for, and is ready to let bygones be bygones.  Unfortunately for both of them, the man has a subtle and horrific plan for revenge.  An effective little chiller.  (Some offhand racism.)

The issue is rounded out with “Our Days are Numbered” by Patricia Peabody.  It’s a numerology column, which strikes first with the note that it’s hard to get any pleasure out of numerology if you don’t believe in it.

This is a nifty little reprint.  If you’re just interested in the Domino Lady, her stories have been collected into their own book.

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