Category Archives: Books & Comics

The Cunning Man Book Review: “Help is on the Way!”

Special problems need a special solution. And a special kind of person to deliver that solution. When the “problems” include demons from hell and undead sorcerers, you REALLY need someone equipped to deal with them. Someone like Mr. Hiram Woolley. A fearless man. A capable man. A Cunning Man!

Mr. Woolley is the hero of a new book by authors D.J. Butler and Aaron Michael Ritchey that should be of interest to all Ravenous Monster fans. It falls under the heading of modern fantasy but can easily be considered a horror novel as well. Don’t be too misled by the term “fantasy” because the setting for The Cunning Man is as gritty and real as the Great Depression, which is the time period during which the novel takes place. I’m very familiar with Butler’s work, as I’m a huge fan of his ongoing Witchy War historical fantasy series but know nothing of Mr. Ritchey.

Hiram Woolley is a different kind of hero, especially in the jaded 21st century, where angsty, foul-mouthed and conflicted characters are all the rage. First off, he’s a devoted Mormon and beet farmer in Utah’s Lehi Valley. Secondly, he’s a naturally humble and unassuming man who is constantly questioning his own abilities. Hiram doesn’t seem to realize his own greatest faculty: fearlessness. He’s the kind of man who would dive into Hell to save a kitten from the Devil.

Hiram is the Cunning Man of the title. What exactly is a Cunning Man? Well, in the British Isles, a Cunning Man was a local low-level warlock or “hedge wizard” who knows all the secrets of the natural…and often unnatural…world. He knows the tricks to cure illnesses, to keep the cattle from dying, to keep crops abundant and to keep evil from your door. He uses “white magic” instead of black to help and aid others. While Hiram is a bit different than the English Cunning Man because of his Mormon faith, he definitely falls under the description.

Due to both his genuine desire to help others and his magical abilities, Hiram is used as a kind of “troubleshooter” by the Mormon Church. Not all the church elders like his magic, but they know he’s an honest man. In The Cunning Man, Hiram is assigned to deliver a load of groceries to the remote mining village of Helper, Utah, where the miners are on the verge of starvation due to a work stoppage. The reason for that stoppage is a battle between members of the Kimball family, who own the local mine. For some unknown reason, Ammon, Samuel and Eliza Kimball are fighting each other and the miners have broken into factions supporting each of them. Hiram’s real purpose is to solve the feud and get the miners back to work.

The book takes place in the depth of the American Depression and the authors do an excellent job of creating a feeling of that time. Cars are rickety contraptions that can fall apart at any time, phones and radios are scarce in the wilderness and there’s a feeling of hunger and desperation at all times. One peculiarity of the book is that Coca-Cola gets mentioned so often, I was wondering if the authors were getting paid by that company. A minor quibble….

Hiram is accompanied in his travels by his adopted son, Michael, a Navajo Indian. Michael is the son of a friend of Hiram’s that was killed in World War I. While Hiram is a firm believer in God and the supernatural, Michael is a devout empiricist who’s studying to be a scientist. He’s also really quick with a sarcastic remark and his wisecracks often test Hiram’s patience over the course of the book.

So far, the supernatural has played a very minor part in the story. It creeps into things subtly, until at the halfway point of the book, it takes center stage and diabolical horror explodes into being. Hiram and Michael find themselves in the middle of the miners’ feud and the factions have split into ethnic lines. The Germans and Scandinavians are on the side of Ammon Kimball, while the Greeks support brother Samuel. The two outsiders also run into Naaman Rettig, a powerful railroad executive who is trying to buy the Kimballs out and is not above using criminal tactics and intimidation to get his way. Hiram learns pretty early that the local police are far from trustworthy.

He also senses supernatural energy around the Kimballs, as if they are being influenced by some outside force. Ammon seems plagued by boils while Samuel, an artist, appears to be completely around the bend, using dead animals in his paintings and speaking in tongues. Although it is February, Hiram notes that huge flies seem to be everywhere, and Samuel’s paintings hint at some hidden power. He learns more about the history of the Kimball family, particularly father Teancum, who has been missing for years. Teancum was a strange man of many wives and many children, few of which survived.

The owner of the local grocery/hardware/everything store is a mysterious one-eyed German named Gus Dollar. Hiram recognizes Gus’s store is full of mystical signs and objects…the man is a warlock and likely more powerful than Hiram himself. His creepy grandchildren look like they would have fit in perfectly at the Overlook Hotel in The Shining. Is Gus behind all the problems with the Kimballs? Or is he trying to prevent something more terrible from happening?

When Hiram takes a secret midnight trip to the mines with a helpful mine boss, all hell breaks loose. It looks like Teancum Kimball delved into the hiding place of a Biblical demon right out of a nightmare. This satanic creature is now on the loose and is capable of horrendous bloodshed. Hiram soon finds himself accused of murder and on the run not only from the police, but from the demon. And then Michael turns up missing….

It’s up to the humble beet farmer and Cunning Man to defeat this monster and save the Kimball family and their mine from disaster. What part does the spinster Eliza Kimball have to play? What is the secret of Gus Dollar and his connection to the demon? And what about the corrupt schemes of Naaman Rettig? Hiram’s only allies are a tough woman labor organizer and a friendly Danish mine boss.

The story unfolds slowly and carefully at first, with the first third of the book almost coming across like a John Steinbeck tale of hard times in Depression-era Utah. At first, the troubles at the Kimball mine seem wholly due to human folly and evil. But Hiram’s keen mystical eye spots signs of supernatural trouble right away and the last third of the book is a non-stop thrill ride full of demoniacal horror.

Although Hiram’s personality is completely different, he reminded me of another “regular guy” fighting monsters: Carl Kolchak, the Night Stalker. There is a similarity in how this story unfolds and how the original Night Stalker novels did. What Butler and Ritchey have created is horror and fantasy so rooted in the real that it is impossible to separate them from it.

I’ve done some research into American folk magic like the “Hoodoo” of southern Black culture and the “Powwow” and “braucherei” of German immigrants. So have the authors. Hiram’s cunning tricks ring true, like his using a dried dog’s tongue as a way to detect falsehood or using engraved plates known as “lamen” as charms. In one scene, he throws a Coke bottle full of his own urine into a fire as a way to stop a curse that’s been put on him.

There’s something so homegrown and decent about Hiram that you’re always rooting for him. What a change from the violent, sour antiheroes so common today. I immediately saw Jimmy Stewart as the perfect actor to play Woolley. Or in the modern day, maybe Tom Hanks. His relationship with Michael is also interesting and plays out in an unforeseen way by the end of the story.

The good news is that The Cunning Man is not the last we will see of Hiram Woolley. The book has been successful enough that a sequel is already out, The Jupiter Knife. So, this humble Mormon beet farmer might be the latest Harry Dresden or Carl Kolchak. If future stories are as well told as this, I look forward to them and so should you.

William Hope Hodgson: A Sailor on Dark Seas

“The sea has never been friendly to man. At most it has been the accomplice of human restlessness.” —Joseph Conrad

The sea has always stirred dark and mysterious thoughts in mankind. It is part of our world, yet it is not our world. We can’t live there as we live upon land. Even in the 21st century, when the world has been explored and catalogued in ways that were unthinkable before, the Deep contains mysteries. And mysteries always lead to stories.

One man who knew how to delve into those mysteries was a writer by the name of William Hope Hodgson. He certainly was not the only man who could tell stories of the sea, but for sure he was one of the most original. He knew how to tap into the universal fears and wonders of the ocean and transmit those feelings to his readers. And because of his own extensive experience sailing on those waters, he knew the practical side of sea life as well.

Hodgson had an interesting and tragically brief life and his restless mind expressed itself in many ways. Although he was a prolific writer, he was never a vastly successful one, at least in terms of money. But he was a huge influence on later writers of the macabre such as H.P. Lovecraft, Abraham Merritt and Clark Ashton Smith. Even modern authors such as China Mieville acknowledged being influenced by his work.

Although Hodgson’s name is not really known to the general public, many horror fans have at least heard it. Since the rise of the internet, his stories and information about him have become much more accessible and in recent years, there has been something of a revival of interest in his works.

Well, I’m looking to do my part! This article will briefly look at his life, which was quite varied and adventurous, and his major works of strange fiction. It has to be said that not all of Hodgson’s writings were in the supernatural or even the fictional mode, but it is his tales of the weird that are most associated with his name.

Hodgson was born in 1877 in rural Essex in England. His father was an Anglican priest, and his family was pretty robust…William was the second of 12 children. He moved frequently in his youth as his father was constantly going from parish to parish. We can infer his childhood was tumultuous, as he tried to run away from home and become a sailor at the ripe age of 13. He was unsuccessful, but his attraction to the sea was manifest at an early age. He finally got his wish in 1891, when he became an apprentice cabin boy. From there, he took up nautical studies, which he excelled at, and finally became a full-fledged sailor.

Much of Hodgson’s writing revolved around the hardships and strangeness of sea-going life. Due to his small stature and handsome looks, he was bullied by older seamen, something he never forgot and hints of which would occasionally pop up in his stories. To make up for this, he became fanatically devoted to what was called “physical culture” back then, but what we would now call body-building and martial arts. It didn’t take long for others to realize young Hodgson could more than take care of himself in a fight. In fact, he later started a school to teach physical culture and many of his non-fiction writings were devoted to the subject. He also became a fine marksman and an excellent photographer. Many of his sea photographs were used in books and newspapers of the time.

The writing of fiction also became an abiding subject for him, and it is for this that he is mostly remembered today. He wrote a fair amount of poetry and straightforward “sea stories” that made use of his extensive nautical knowledge. But he had always had a love for tales of the strange and was a rabid reader of authors like Poe, Wells and Doyle. In 1904, he had his first story “The Goddess of Death” published. It was a modest tale of a Hindu religious statue that came to life to seek vengeance on those who stole it and brought it to England.

That opened the floodgates and there was no turning back. With a special emphasis on sea stories, Hodgson created a whole series of tales that were inspired by the Sargasso Sea, that eerie location where boats were trapped in endless miles of thick seaweed. Nobody could touch on the strangeness of the Sargasso like he could.

The best of these nautical horrors was a novella called “The Boats of the Glen Carrig”. It told the story of 17th century sailors who had to abandon their ship due to a typhoon. In their lifeboats, they are at the mercy of an angry sea and find themselves in a series of weird locales such as an island which is stalked by what seem to be ambulatory, man-eating trees. There is a scene that is a masterpiece of tension in which terrified sailors are quietly staying still in the hold of an abandoned ship while the monsters are searching the upper decks. Later, the Glen Carrig survivors find themselves lost in a Sargasso sea where the descendants of men trapped centuries earlier are inhabitants of the watery limbo. This story was the inspiration for an oddball Hammer film The Lost Continent released in the late ‘60s. In an even stranger situation, the German funeral doom metal band AHAB based an entire album on Hodgson’s story to surprisingly good effect.

Not every story Hodgson wrote was inspired by the sea. He created a character called Carnacki the Ghost Finder who was something of a supernatural sleuth who investigated ghostly incidents. Carnacki’s tales predated later, similar characters like Seabury Quinn’s Jules De Grandin and Joseph Payne Brennan’s Lucius Leffing. You could even say that “The Night Stalker” Carl Kolchak was a distant descendant of Carnacki. Carnacki always tried to use logic and science to solve his mysteries and sometimes discovered that unscrupulous conmen were responsible for the “ghosts” and “monsters.” But just as often, the creatures could be real. A new collection of Carnacki tales for public enjoyment is definitely overdue.

Perhaps the most influential of Hodgson’s stories was “The House on the Borderland”. This bizarre and hallucinogenic tale hugely impressed H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith in their own writings and even modern authors such as Terry Pratchett have acknowledged the power of this surreal tale.  First published in 1908, the novel was unlike anything that had been written before, playing games with the reader’s sense of what is real and what isn’t. It tells the story of two men who stumble across a gaping chasm in the seashore and what seems to be ruins next to it. Within the ruins, they find a kind of journal which tells a fantastical tale….

The narrator is a misanthropic old man who lived in a strange round house by the sea with his dog and his sister. He freely admits that local villagers think him mad.  One night he has a phantasmagorical vision of a great plain on an alien world. He travels through blackness to this strange world and finds a house that seems to be much like his own, only on a much greater scale. Taking refuge in the house, he soon comes under attack from corpse-white monsters with pig-like features. The story becomes a combination of nightmarish terror and otherworldly beauty and ends in a circular fashion that has the texture of a dream.

The story gathered much acclaim in the literary community but reaped little financial reward for Hodgson. Nevertheless, he was encouraged to keep writing fiction. He continued with nautical tales, some of which were realistic such as “The Captain of the Onion Boat” and some which were decidedly supernatural, such as “The Ghost Pirates”. This latter story emerged as a minor classic with its feeling of spectral dread.

In 1912, Hodgson wrote what was his most ambitious novel, The Night Land. There is nothing else quite like this story in English literature and many believe it to be the bleakest story ever told. It’s a funereal, gloomy tale that combines science fiction, horror and romance set millions of years in the future when the sun itself is extinguished. It’s written in a baroque, 18th-century type of language that makes it extremely hard going for casual readers. Despite this, its impact was considerable. Lovecraft wrote that “…it is one of the most potent pieces of macabre imagination ever written.” Clark Ashton Smith called it “the ultimate saga of a perishing cosmos.”

The story’s narrator is an unnamed man of the 17th century, who is overcome with grief following the death of his true love, Lady Mirdath. His undying affection for her is ponderously expressed and in fact gives The Night Land much of its reason for being. Somehow, this man’s mind is projected millions of years into the future, where he sees things through the eyes of this distant descendant.

The future earth is an unimaginably dark and bleak place. The sun itself has gone out and the remnants of mankind are hunkered down in a gigantic mountain sized structure called The Last Redoubt, which is powered by the embers of the Earth’s core. Horrible and powerful creatures called Watchers, vaguely reminiscent of Lovecraft’s Old Ones, are waiting outside the Redoubt for the power to fail so they can destroy what’s left of mankind. The outside plains are also full of ghoulish zombie-like beings that may have once been human.

The narrator’s future self has somehow made telepathic contact with a woman from a second, smaller Redoubt far across the plains. The woman is recognized as the future incarnation of Mirdath and the two realize their love now lives again after eons of darkness. But this second Lesser Redoubt is under attack by forces of the Watchers and her life is in peril. The man immediately leaves the safety of his own shelter and sets out on a dangerous journey across the dark and bleak plains to rescue the reincarnation of his love.

Despite the obtuse language, it’s a remarkable tale. Some of the future technology is fascinatingly theorized and resembles ideas of our own time. The romantic overtones of the story are turgid but earnest and the only thing keeping humanity in the otherwise unbearably somber tale. The Night Land, despite its defects, is a singular creation of the imagination and Hodgson’s greatest work.

Hodgson was on the verge of reaching the next level of his writing career, but as is often the case, real life tragedy put an end to it. In 1914, the raging fires of World War I spread across Europe and the author was not immune to its flames. Always an intensely patriotic man, he enlisted in the Royal Artillery, where he served with great distinction. A concussion and broken jaw received when his horse threw him was only a temporary setback and he soon returned to battle even when he could have accepted an honorable discharge.

Hodgson’s wartime activities would have made for an exciting book in themselves. During one engagement, he led a troop of soldiers to safety under a withering enemy barrage. The heroic author could not escape death’s embrace forever, though. At the battle of Ypres in 1918, his luck finally ran out when he was hit dead-on by an artillery shell, leaving virtually no remains.

He was 40 years old at the time of his death. If he had managed to evade death during the war, there was no doubt his greatest achievements would have been ahead of him. But entire generations of young men were slaughtered during World War I, a cruel and senseless conflict.

During his 40 years, William Hope Hodgson carved out an extremely unique career in fiction. As an influence on some of the greatest horror writers of the 20th century, his impact is still being felt. Like other early horror writers such as Arthur Machen and Algernon Blackwood, he hasn’t gotten the notoriety he deserves. But his works are out there for all to discover.

The Making of Aliens Book Review

Happy 2021, readers! What a crazy ride it’s been, yeah? Well, I’m glad to be here sharing my two cents with you once again. So, this is going to be a little different from my previous reviews, as I’m going to be telling you a little bit about a fantastic coffee table book that is, quite frankly, the most breathtakingly gorgeous thing I’ve laid eyes on. This beauty comes from author J.W. Rinzler and is simply called, The Making of Aliens and it was just released by Titan Books in August of 2020.

This 256-page book is full of every behind-the-scenes treat a die-hard fan of the Aliens film could ask for and more. Pages of gorgeous never-before, or rarely ever seen photographs and concept art fill the book. In addition to the photographs, there are numerous enjoyable, informative interviews with the cast and crew of Aliens. The making of this film was certainly no walk in the park.  The way that J.W. Rinzler writes about the timeline of the film’s production, it’s like you can imagine yourself sitting alongside James Cameron and feeling his frustrations and being witness to his thought processes or being in a casting meeting as changes in the script and lineup seem to be unending and wondering how or if Sigourney Weaver would even want to come back to the role of Ellen Ripley. For anyone who thinks that filmmaking is an easy task, this is absolutely the book to read, as it’ll make you reconsider your opinion.

Once again, The Making of Aliens is not a short read, but there are just so many neat things you become aware of once you start. There are a lot of trivia items that could come in handy when you want to make yourself seem cool, there’s a lot of information and description about the special effects used and how the sets were designed and brought to life. I don’t want to give a lot away, because as I said earlier, The Making of Aliens is just the one definitive item that every fan of Aliens needs to have in their collection. Even if you’re not a big reader, just flipping through the pages and looking at all of the visual goodies included is more than satisfying.

I really can’t recommend The Making of Aliens enough. J.W. Rinzler has done a fantastic job in compiling all of the information and research to bring this book to light. Again, it’s not only an entertaining read, but you really do learn so much as you read from cover to cover. If Santa didn’t bring you anything that great this past Christmas, I’d suggest picking yourself up a copy of this book. If you do follow my advice, let me know what you think once you’ve read it!

From the Stars…a Vampiress: An Unauthorized Guide to Vampirella’s Classic Horror Adventures Book Review

From the Stars…A Vampiress is an unauthorized yet comprehensive reference guide to the comic book horror heroine Vampirella. It’s obvious that the author, Steven A. Roman, is a fan as the book is lovingly written. The book is segmented into several parts including a history, episode guide, behind-the-scenes of the nixed Hammer Films project, exploration of the 1996 Jim Wynorski made-for-cable movie, novel series, and more. Anyone who is into the character of Vampirella and horror comics history would surely be interested in this one.

The book goes in deep. There are plenty of behind-the-scenes moments compiled from other written sources and interviews. If you have ever felt the need to geek out on Vampirella you have everything you need right here. After reading the book I do feel that I have an understanding of the history of Vampi and the people and companies behind her. As a fan of comics, comic book art, and the why-things-happened aspect of fandom I found it interesting and enjoyable.

The one thing that the book sadly lacks due to its unauthorized status is nice full-color artwork featuring Vampirella and other characters associated with her. What would have gone great with this book is pages from the original comics and covers from some of the talented artists referenced within the book. I found myself searching for images and pages online as the author actually suggests at one point. He does try to fill the book with photos, letters, and sketches. These images are great companion pieces and no doubt valuable to the serious fan.

From the Stars…A Vampiress is definitely the kind of reference book that one could hold on to and reach for when searching for information on just about anything Vampirella related. For the casual reader, this book is probably too dense with specifics to be a thoroughly enjoyable read. However, I would definitely recommend this to any Vampirella fan, comic book history fan, or horror comic fan.

http://www.starwarpconcepts.com/from-the-stars-a-vampiress/

The Making of Alien Book Review

If you run in the circles in which I run, chances are you’ve been asked whether you prefer Star Wars or Star Trek at least once. The only answer to that question, of course, is Alien. Alien is such a part of our culture that it can be easy to forget what a revolutionary movie it was and, in many ways, remains.

Despite spawning a franchise, the entries of which range from great (Aliens, and, yes, Alien 3—fight me) to abysmal (Aliens Vs. Predator), I can of few other films that have managed to break conventions as creatively and powerfully. Where you’d expect Jedi knights and Federation wunderkind, Alien gives us blue collar laborers under the thumb of an uncaring corporation. Instead of a Buck Rogers-esque action hero and his space princess, we get Sigourney Weaver’s breakout performance as the tough but believable Ellen Ripley. The spectacle of Everywoman Ripley versus H.R. Giger’s seemingly invulnerable Xenomorph, her coworkers winnowed down by its depredations, fit right in with the zeitgeist of the Women’s Lib movement. Really, you could think of Alien as Night of the Living Dead in outer space.

J.W. Rinzler’s The Making of Alien, from Titan Books, delves into the film’s creation from first conceptions to a rundown of its sequels. Rinzler’s beautiful, full-colored book is an exhaustive, fascinating look at the movie’s creation. As with any good “making of” book, Rinzler has something of interest to every fan, from casting (Weaver, a classically-trained actress and graduate of the Yale School of Drama, was wary of the idea of even appearing in a science fiction film) to bits of earlier script drafts (the alien was originally conceived of as a humanoid octopus). Of greatest appeal to me was seeing the evolution of the set and monster designs, with some stunning early concept art by the talented but then relatively little-known Giger, who took the interesting but fairly conventional visuals director Ridley Scott was working with and transformed them into the iconic biomechanical look of the Xenomorph and its facehugger progenitors.

The Making of Alien functions both as a straightforward story that can be read back to front and a book that can be skipped through and read at random—no mean feat, given the amount of research Rinzler did to make it happen. While I would like to have seen more about the franchise Alien spawned (especially since Aliens is that rare movie—The Godfather II is the only other one I can think of—in which the sequel stands up to the original), in a book that already covers the scope Rinzler’s does, cuts have to be made somewhere.

While I can’t recommend The Making of Alien highly enough to fans of the movie, it’s also an interesting look into the creative process, shedding light on the creation of one of the greatest films of all time. Rinzler and Titan have released a top-quality book that should interest any fan of horror, science fiction, or good film in general.

All My Colors Book Review

At first blush, All My Colors seems to slot neatly into the subgenre of “writer horror” — a book that delves into the fear that lingers at the edges of creativity. In some respects, it shares much in common with Stephen King’s novella Secret Window, Secret Garden or Kathe Koja’s cosmic artist’s horror, Cipher. But while author David Quantick‘s concept may start there, it wanders off into a different and more timely direction, cut through with a Jordan Peele-esque level of social satire.

In the book’s first chapter, readers are introduced to Todd Milstead, the kind of insufferable know-it-all and unrepentant jerk that we’ve all had the misfortune of knowing (or perhaps dating) at least once. Todd is a wannabe writer who never writes, preferring instead to live off his more affluent wife and host parties where he can invite other wannabe writers and make them feel inferior with the tyranny of his aesthetic opinions and, of course, his eidetic memory. What’s worse than a chronic mansplainer? A chronic mansplainer who can quote books word-for-word from memory.

While using this party trick, Todd inadvertently discovers that he has perfect recollection of a book that no one else has ever read or even heard of. And when his wife leaves him, Todd has a brilliant idea for supporting himself: He’ll just write the book, sell it, and become a rich and famous author. What could go wrong?

But things start to get weird soon after. Once he starts writing, he is physically unable to stop, as though an outside force were acting on his body. People close to him begin to die in gruesome ways. And a certain mysterious figure begins to haunt him everywhere he goes…

Quantick has his roots in screenwriting, and it’s made clear in the way All My Colors unfolds. There are long passages of story that rely almost exclusively on dialogue, with characters seeming to trade barbs in otherwise empty space. This keeps the pace brisk, but it does allow the story to feel untethered at times.

The book bills itself as both a comedy and a cosmic horror, but it straddles the line in a way that keeps it from being fully effective at either. It is more absurdist than comedic; the book is funny, but in a way that invokes a wry smile more than a laugh. Its brand of horror is also unique: Although there are moments of genuine terror and bloody mayhem, much of the narrative is wrapped up in the fear of the “too good to be true.” We watch as Todd stumbles blindly through one undeserved good fortune after another, and it’s impossible not to squirm with knowing it’s all bound to end in a terrible manner.

The creators in the audience may be unsettled by the story’s questions about where ideas come from and just what compels us to put words on the page, but the real heart of All My Colors lies in a somewhat different question: Who has the right to tell another person’s story, and what if there were a real, bloody price for talking over others in the room? It’s a surprisingly fierce proponent of #OwnVoices from an unlikely – even ironic – source, but then maybe this is a story that can only be told by the privileged white male type who most needs to hear its message.

The ending itself is perhaps the story’s greatest strengths, a double helix of twists worthy of The Twilight Zone. It also raises some of the most interesting questions, leaving you with plenty to ponder once you’ve closed the book. I won’t spoil the takeaways, but I will say that the story left me puzzling for days after, which is perhaps the highest measure of success for a story like this. If you’re looking for a fun romp with a hidden bite, All My Colors fits the bill perfectly.

Fury from The Tomb: The Institute of Singular Antiquities Book I Review

It’s true that I am mainly a doctor of medicine (or so it’s been claimed) and I’ve mostly been confined to the laboratory. Yet I’ve always had an interest in archaeology. Digging up stiffs of ancient ages has always had its fascination for me, which explains my love of mummies and archaic curses. In recent decades, books and movies based on these subjects have been few and far between.

So, I was delighted to see Fury from The Tomb by Chicago-based author S.A. Sidor on the shelf of the local bookstore. One look at the pulpy, Raiders of the Lost Ark-inspired cover of this beauty drew me in and a quick read of the back-cover hype got me more intrigued. Here was a book set in the latter days of the 19th century about evil mummies, Mexican bandits and intrepid archaeologists. SOLD!

The book is apparently meant to be the first in a series under the heading of “The Institute of Singular Antiquities” featuring a steady cast of characters. Fury from The Tomb is basically the origin story of the Institute and explains how its eccentric members came together.

This book is WILD! It does indeed have much of the globe-trotting adventure of the Indiana Jones movies, but what took me by surprise was some of the sheer horror contained within these pages. There are some nightmarish, bloody scenes here, more than enough to push the book into the horror category. And yet there’s also enough bizarre, off-kilter humor here to almost make this a satire as well. And did I mention the profuse amount of classic Western settings and tropes as well?

Sidor crams an awful lot into this book, yet its general trajectory is very straightforward and easy to describe. The events are seen through the eyes of one Dr. Romulus Hugo Hardy, who is our hero and narrator. As the book opens, it is 1920 and Hardy is reminiscing about the terrible incidents of more than 30 years earlier…

At that time, Hardy was a talented but inexperienced Egyptologist yearning to do real fieldwork in the Land of the Pyramids. He gets his break when an eccentric millionaire named Montague Pythagoras Waterston hires him with a generous advance of money and sends him into the Sahara in search of a forgotten tomb. Hardy never actually sees Waterston, who is described as both deathly ill and fanatically interested in the occult…all business is conducted from afar with the help of the tycoon’s daughter Evangeline.

After difficult digging in the barren sands, a well-hidden tomb is finally found. But Hardy and his foreman Hakim are shocked to find out that the tomb is that of Amun Odji Kek, an ancient sorcerer of diabolical fame said to be the most evil man that ever lived. When the seal of Kek’s tomb is broken and the expedition heads inside, the real horror begins. Hardy is pursued through narrow tunnels by a slavering giant maggot. And then the tunnels begin to flood with what seems to be human blood…

After a dreadful loss of life and much trauma, the huge black sarcophagus of Kek is secured, along with the coffins of five more mummies, Kek’s followers. During a grim sea journey back to America, Hardy is haunted by a vision of what could be the giant mummified form of Kek himself.

Once the sarcophagi arrive in New York, a train is secured to take them across the country to Waterston’s West Coast headquarters. Two taciturn Pinkerton agents are assigned to protect the fabulous find. Other than some ominous dreams and omens, the trip in uneventful until the train arrives in Arizona territory. Then it comes under attack by a band of Mexican bandits who are intent on stealing the fruits of the tomb.

These bandits are far from the kind who harassed Humphrey Bogart and friends in the Sierra Madre. The train’s porter Thomas informs Hardy that they are known as “necrofagos” …ghouls who eat the bodies of their victims and wear masks made of human flesh. Not a nice bunch at all.

Waterston’s daughter Evangeline appears aboard the train just before the necrofagos attack, warning that they may be following the orders of Amun Odji Kek himself. The train is abruptly derailed when it falls into a pit that seems to have been chewed out of the rock by a gigantic worm…a larger version of the one that chased Hardy in Egypt.

After hair-raising moments, the necrofagos, led by a cheerful but inhuman chief known as El Gusano (The Worm), manage to make off with the sarcophagi. Hardy and Evangeline have managed to survive, along with a young Chinese porter named Yong Wu. After heated debate, the decision is made to hire some help and go after the necrofagos and recover the stolen treasure.

Yong Wu says he knows of a great gunfighter for hire in a nearby small town, a man without fear who can help them. They make the acquaintance of this man, named Rex McTroy and find him to be a rather cold-blooded fellow who is as hard as nails. I immediately pictured Sam Elliott in my head as McTroy.

After some deft negotiating, Hardy and friends enlist McTroy’s aid and set out to see if they can recover the lost mummies. Their destination is a former Christian mission in a remote area. The mission is not only the headquarters of the necrofagos, but it is inhabited by a band of Satanic monks who plan on bringing Kek and his followers back to life so they can engender a new dark age. Fun for all the family.

If this seems like an in-depth synopsis, believe me, it doesn’t even skim the surface of everything going on in this book. Who are the mysterious supernatural allies with a connection to the orphan Yong Wu that are providing vital aid to Hardy’s expedition? Who is the unknown force behind the robbery of the mummies? What is Kek’s grand plan and how does it involve the ancient Egyptian gods? And then of course I haven’t mentioned perhaps the most bizarrely endearing character I’ve encountered in many a moon…the sympathetic, torn-in-half zombie bandit Rojo, who likes to play guitar and trade banter with the people he earlier tried to eat. My words can’t do him justice.

The pulp aspects of the book are obvious to anybody who glances at the cover to Fury From the Tomb. The action is virtually non-stop and features cliffhangers and impossible traps that would do Indiana Jones proud. But what surprised me was the darkness and violence in the book. This is not something for squeamish readers. There are a lot of extremely gruesome deaths during the course of the story. The grisly habits of the necrofagos in particular are focused on in great detail. And author Sidor has a rather unique way with words, resulting in some surreal descriptions—he has a sardonic touch even when describing horrid scenes.

The main villain Amun Odji Kek is one arrogant and sadistic antagonist. He appears first in dream-like visions, then as a desiccated giant mummy and finally as a fully living sorcerer. There’s a lot of classic Marvel Comics villains like Dr. Doom and Dormammu in Kek, who loves to speak of his own magnificence and the torments of hell he endured while imprisoned in the afterlife. There’s no shade of grey or sympathetic vibe to this guy…he is an inhuman monster.

I think sometimes Sidor’s liking for macabre humor gets the best of him. Several of the action scenes come across as absurd, particularly when Hardy winds up riding the monster worm El Gusano. The only fitting description of the scene I could come up with is “worm rodeo.”

Romulus Hardy emerges as kind of a courageous bookworm who takes himself very seriously. Not the most dashing hero, but with a kind of stubborn drive that makes him admirable. McTroy is right out of Western “central casting” as the cool and deadly gunslinger. Evangeline starts out as a not very likable character but grows during the story. Her relationship with Hardy proceeds in a rather predictable fashion, but the story’s velocity and Sidor’s clever wordplay make her interesting. Yong Wu is the sympathetic child in peril and something of a cliché, but it’s his connection to the mysterious allies that makes him unique and fascinating.

There’s not much out there like “The Institute of Singular Antiquities” right now. Weird Westerns are slowly becoming a thing and Fury from The Tomb has much of that vibe, but this is pure pulpy goodness with macabre twists to make it interesting to modern readers. You can pick some holes in this initial offering but that almost seems to be built in as part of the story. One thing this isn’t is another interminable “door stopper” epic that requires you to buy ten volumes to enjoy the story. I actually think it could have been pared down a bit more, but since Sidor keeps the ball rolling, it’s not overstuffed to the point of being unenjoyable. Back in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, a lot of horror and SF books were churned out fast and nasty and didn’t require a Ph.D for a new reader to jump on board.

I will check out the second book The Beast of Nightfall Lodge where Hardy and Co. get on the track of what sounds like a werewolf. Will it build on the success of Fury from The Tomb or be a step back? Time will tell, but I’m hoping this series really takes off.

 

 

 

 

5 Horror Books That You Can Judge by Their Covers

79% of people say that a book’s cover plays a decisive role in whether they purchase the book or not. Readers don’t want to see books with repetitive, cliché covers as those covers don’t entice people to want to pick up their respective books and read them. It’s a common phrase that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but if the cover does a good job then it’s the best way to reveal what sort of story you’re in for. Horror book covers do generally stick to a few conventions, mainly the colors they use, but if the design can back it up then it’s fair game for some really creepy and eye-catching covers.

Dracula, 1980s Edition

Bram Stoker’s Dracula was first published in 1897, but it’s the 1980s cover by Penguin books that really catches the eye. Opting for fingernails over fangs, the cover shows Dracula’s colorless hand actively clawing its way out of a weathered coffin. It sticks to a traditional and effective color scheme of black and white with a burst of bloody red for the title ‘Dracula’ scrawled across the top and a peak of the coffin’s lining in a similar shade. By the time this was released the story of Dracula was well-known and this cover offers something a little different to previous ones to draw readers in.

The Silence of The Lambs, 1988

The first US edition of The Silence of the Lambs book cover looks fairly harmless at first until you take a closer look and notice the symbolism. The insect flying from the woman’s hand appears to be a beautiful butterfly, but is actually a death’s-head hawkmoth which are suitably named for the sinister skull-like face that sits between their wings. The cover exaggerates the skull to make it more apparent, despite being a small part of the cover. The moth is an omen of death in some cultures, making it a particularly fitting symbol for a story immersed in the death and cannibalism that surrounds Hannibal Lector. The shadow the moth casts in the background is unusually large, which combined with the skull suggests the horror in store for readers.

Goosebumps: The Barking Ghost, 1995

Horror books are a less common genre for children, but Goosebumps changes that with a series of 62 books, selling over 300 million copies worldwide making it the second best-selling book series in history. The covers in the series are often colorful and artistic to make them more child-friendly, but The Barking Ghost goes back to the classic color scheme for horror stories: black and red. A close-up of a realistic drawing of a dog aggressively baring his fangs and teeth with a ghostly white shimmer lighting up his fur is the focus of the cover. A red border surrounds him and is also used in his eyes and gums to add to the sinister look. The use of a canine illustration over a photograph makes this more appealing for children without taking away from the fact that it’s a horror story.

Coraline, 2002

Coraline is a horror book aimed at children again, but the interesting story draws in adults too, and rightfully so. It was adapted into a film by Henry Selick who also directed Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, giving it a similar vibe. The book’s cover features Coraline, a young adventurous girl, holding a candle and looking spooked, as if she’s discovered something while out exploring in the dark when she shouldn’t be. Everything appears ‘normal’ until you realize her eyes are just small black dots and there are ghostly arms floating around her with sewing needles and threads, perfectly tying in with the story.

This Book Is Full of Spiders: Seriously, Dude, Don’t Touch It, 2012

This one is a comic horror novel and steps outside of the box when it comes to conventions but is very effective in doing so. Its eye-catching orange background features spiders made from the book’s pages and bursting out of the middle. Clippings from the pages add additional text that blends in. The title alone tempts readers as people can’t resist touching something they’ve been told not to, so they’re already picking up the book before examining it more closely, where the clever and well-thought design of the cover makes it hard to resist.

A lot of horror stories depend on their content or the author’s name to help sell it, but the artwork on the covers should be taken just as seriously. People do judge books by their covers and assume the story based on what they can see, so it should be something to grab their attention and then keep them intrigued. Some books’ covers become more iconic than the stories behind them, which can only be a sign of a job well done.

Rabid Genius: Harlan Ellison Eulogized

Author Harlan Ellison died in his sleep on June 28th at the age of 84.  I’ve written and deleted that sentence about two-hundred times over the past 48 hours.  I have no idea what to follow it with, because I have no idea how to sum him up.  There’s no clever literary trick to summarize Harlan Ellison.  You can’t carve out a neat little three-paragraph obit from a life as grand and messy and elemental as his.  It’s like trying to sum up the Pacific Ocean by saying how many cups of water it contains.  So I’m left with that basic fact: Two days ago, Harlan Ellison died.  What happens next, for me, is time travel.

It’s 2000, and I’ve just moved from suburban Baltimore to small-town Iowa.  I’m a tightly-wound, neurotic, rigidly well-behaved kid bubbling over with an anger so hot and violent and all-encompassing that I’m barely conscious of it, like the proverbial frog in boiling water.  I want to be a writer but I forgot what it is to enjoy writing; I write to impress English teachers and my parents with my bon mots and silly, pretentious attempts to be a Great Writer as a high school senior.  I hate high school, I hate Iowa, and I hate this art that I’m supposed to love, that I’ve already begun to stake my life’s worth on, that I can’t bring myself to walk away from.

Somewhere in this maelstrom, a teacher asks me if I’ve ever read somebody named Harlan Ellison.  I tell him I haven’t.  He lends me a science-fiction anthology with a story called “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” in it.  I finish that, and he lends me a book called Mind Fields, which pairs this Harlan Ellison’s flash fiction with beautiful paintings by the Polish surrealist Jacek Yerka.  Then I read everything by him I can get my hands on, because what I’ve found isn’t just a good writer, but something like a trash-talking bodhisattva.  He shows me the way out.  I fall in love with words again.  He’s my Virgil, leading me through a corn-choked circle of hell.

Ellison bristled at being called a horror writer, insisting that he wrote “fiction of the macabre.”  Whatever.  Fuck it.  What matters more than labels is the stories so weird and deep and original that even now, nobody’s quite managed to imitate them.  “The Prowler on the City at the Edge of the World” sends Jack the Ripper into the distant future.  The innocently-titled “A Boy and His Dog” pairs a post-apocalyptic thug with a telepathic dog in a twisted adventure that somehow manages to be both touching and horrifying.  “The Deathbird” is a Gnostic fantasy which proposes that the Serpent was the real hero of the Book of Genesis, but God had better PR.  “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” is pure nightmare, the story of the last six human beings in existence, kept alive for centuries just so an omnipotent supercomputer can torture them.

The truth is, Ellison wasn’t a horror writer—not just a horror writer, at least.  He did science fiction.  He did realism.  He did comedy.  He did memoirs and essays so entertaining that I came to love them as much as I loved his stories.  He did investigative reporting, going undercover to run with a street gang in New York City.

He wasn’t an easy man to get along with, by all accounts.  His list of enemies included everyone from Roy Disney (who fired him for joking about making a porn film starring Minnie Mouse) to Barbara Streisand (with whom he evidently performed when Babs was young) to William Shatner and Gene Roddenberry.  Through the sandpaper alchemy of his personality, he transmuted friends into lifelong enemies.  He raged against meaningless classifications: science-fiction is a noble genre, but “sci-fi” is hackwork, with a name that “sounds like crickets fucking.”  He hated TV and computers and video games on principle.  Let’s be honest—he was an asshole.

But he was usually an asshole for all the right reasons, a volcano of selfless self-righteousness whose sympathies unfailingly rested with the downtrodden and the voiceless.  He marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma and came out as a strong, early voice for women’s lib.  His work exudes foul-mouthed, pugnacious, sincere humanity.  His rage spoke to my rage, as his bravery spoke to the bravery I wanted to manifest and his prose spoke to the prose I wish I could write.

I hadn’t thought much about Harlan Ellison for a number of years.  I haven’t read anything by him since my early twenties, and since the 2000s he seems to have more or less coasted on his reputation.  His health grew worse: a heart attack in 1994 and a stroke in 2014.  In the increasingly priggish world of modern speculative fiction, he was like a prehistoric monster, a bloody-jawed and majestic thing we all knew would die out, but that improved the world with its wrathful existence anyhow.  And then, on June 28th, 2018, author Harlan Ellison died in his sleep at the age of 84.

I never met him, and he probably wouldn’t have liked me if I had.  I regret it anyway.  I wish I could have shaken his hand, told him what he meant to me, and basked for a few minutes in the atomic glow of his rabid genius.

Goodbye, Mr. Ellison.  May your memory be a haunting and inescapable blessing.

Alien: Covenant Origins Book Review

As a huge fan of the film franchise and someone who has absolutely loved both Prometheus and Covenant, the films, I was more than excited to dig in to the Alien: Covenant Origins novel.

Unfortunately, the novel fell short of expectations just a tad for me, but it was still an entertaining read. The book revolves mostly around the attempted sabotage of the Covenant mission, with not a xenomorph in sight. Frankly, after the first few chapters of the book, I stopped thinking of it as a prequel to the Alien franchise at all. The book reads more like a James Bond/Jack Reacher in space, and while that still makes for a good read, it simply doesn’t fulfill the quota you’d expect from an Alien novel.

To make matters worse, the baddies in the novel play out like cardboard Bond villains—trash talking con artists who call themselves the Earthsavers. They are hell-bent on putting a halt to the Covenant mission thanks to the fever dreams of a man named Duncan Fields. Fields is the only character in the entire book who seems to have any sort of knowledge of xenomorphs—images of terrible alien beasts destroying anything and everything in their path if the Covenant mission succeeds is what scares the Earthsavers enough to plot the end of the mission. The only problem with the Earthsavers as being any real threat to the mission is the fact that they are caricatures of bumbling villains from syndicated television shows and cheesy movies of years past.

We do meet a few familiar faces in the novel, namely Daniel Lope and Daniels. If you’ve seen the film Covenant, you know Lope as the wheat expert—and the guy who gets eviscerated in grand Alien fashion. Here, though, his character is fleshed out a bit more and I actually wish some of this characterization was brought up in the film, as well. Daniels, meanwhile, is little more than our perspective into the actual ship’s preparations. We even get a little bit of Captain Brandon, aka James Franco’s character Captain Branson from Covenant!

Lope is busy chasing the maniacal Earthsavers through London while Daniels is busy prepping the ship for takeoff. Hideo Yutani, of Weyland-Yutani fame, is the man in charge of trying to keep Weyland-Yutani afloat while kidnappings, sabotage and even sleek-footed ninjas try their best to take down the big conglomerate. I liked how the book doesn’t paint Yutani as your run-of-the-mill Weyland bad guy. That’s another aspect I can only hope gets fleshed out more in future films and novels.

Besides, ahem, aliens, this book also seems to be missing much of a captivating plot. While the shoot-outs, exploding farm animals and fleshing out of Lope is fun, there just isn’t enough to really sink your teeth into here. I didn’t find myself investing much, mentally or emotionally, into the book and that always bums me out when that happens.

Alan Dean Foster is arguably the best adaptation writer living today. The dude simply churns out awesome reads and they don’t skip a beat. While Alien: Covenant Origins certainly told a story, it was one that just felt a little weak. If you’re a fan of Foster’s work (and who isn’t?), this is worth a read. If you’re expecting any sort of palpable terror or anything resembling importance in the Alien franchise, you’d be better off skipping this one.