|Posted by Gilbert Stack on October 20, 2021 at 7:00 AM|
Occultober Day 20 American Monsters by Adam Jortner
If you enjoy a good horror story (and everyone reading these Occultober reviews should), this book will teach you a lot about where those images come from in America, and how they have been cultivated over the history of the nation. It’s a very quick but fascinating read. In addition to looking at the historical roots of things like spirits and witches, Jortner also spends a great deal of time looking at how movies, televisions, and novels have shaped the images. The popularity of monsters, and the way that those monster stories are told, has a lot to do with the stresses, fears, and problems of American society. Therefore, it should not be surprising that racism and civil rights are often underlying themes of the monster tale. Another fascinating theme is whether or not we can really govern ourselves when the people in charge in the stories often show themselves to be idiots. American isolationism, the Cold War, the proper role of science in our society… all of these themes pop up again and again as do stories about what happens when teens or women start to get a little independence in our dangerous world. Each section fascinated me and my only complaint is that the book wasn’t longer.
So if you’d like to know what your love of horror, the supernatural, and urban fantasy says about our society, take a look at American Monsters.
|Posted by Gilbert Stack on October 19, 2021 at 6:05 AM|
Occultober Day 19 Miss Knight and the Ghosts of Tsavo by Vered Ehsani
Here is a lovely urban fantasy set in the English Empire during the reign of Queen Victoria. It begins with one of the best opening lines I have ever read: “It’s an uncommonly known fact that a strong pot of tea will obscure a werewolf’s stench.” What follows is just as good as those first words. Miss Knight (or Mrs. Knight as she insists as she considers herself to be still married to her husband who has become a ghost) is a rather atypical adventuress. In many ways she struggles to maintain a façade as a proper Victorian lady, but in practice she is an agent of a society that investigates and regulates the paranormal—something she is well suited to do because of her peculiar gift to recognize the paranormal and speak with ghosts.
The plot of this book involves her and her adopted family having to travel to Africa after the father of the family’s poor investment strategy leaves them bankrupt. So much of this book reads like a colonial novel—the reactions of Miss Knight and her family to living in a part of the world very different than London society. The other part is an investigation into two ghost lions that are still killing people. It’s frankly a delightful story, sedately paced but never feeling overly slow. There are some nice surprises along the way and a great setup for the next book.
I’d like to say thank you to Amazon Top 500 Reviewer Charles Van Buren who brought this excellent novel to my attention on the Written Gems Discussion Group on Goodreads.
|Posted by Gilbert Stack on October 18, 2021 at 6:05 AM|
Occultober Day 18 Diving into the Wreck by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
This novel doesn’t technically fit in Occultober, but it sure does read like it does. It’s a science fiction adventure that reads like a ghost story. The heroine, usually referred to as “Boss”, makes her living “diving” on old spaceship wrecks, exploring the detritus of 5000 years of humanity out among the stars. She’s an odd bird. When she was a young child, her mother and her entered a place called “The Room of Lost Souls” on an abandoned space station and her mother never came out again. Her father abandoned her to her grandparents who were less than happy to be responsible for a grandchild whose trauma had produced emotional issues. So Boss is very much a secretive loner making her living in a very dangerous line of work, bringing people around her only because it is necessary for safety in these dives.
The novel focuses on the consequences of finding a 5000 year old ship where it had no business being. It’s a ship with an abandoned military stealth technology that Boss’ nation is secretly trying to rediscover so it can pick up a stalled war with its major enemy. And that is the crux of the story. What is the stealth technology? How does it do what it does? And why does it horribly kill just about everyone who comes into contact with it—except Boss? Add in one of the galaxy’s worst fathers and a superrich businesswoman with her own set of daddy issues and you have a really exciting tale, yet none of that explains why this is a great story. I think that the novel succeeds not because of its fantastic plot and mystery, but because Rusch brilliantly creates the tone of an old-fashioned ghost story to reveal layer by layer what is going on as she tries to pierce the mystery of The Room of Lost Souls that sits at the heart of the entire mystery. Where do people who enter the room go? And is there any way for Boss to find her mother again?
|Posted by Gilbert Stack on October 17, 2021 at 7:55 AM|
Occultober Day 17 It’s a Bad, Bad, Bad, Bad World by Curtis M. Lawson
How can bad be so much fun? If you’re curious, take a look at Curtis M. Lawson’s tale of two magical daggers that act as vampires, transferring the life, vitality, and soul of the person stabbed to the person doing the stabbing. Old people become younger and stronger. Injured people heal instantaneously. Sick people become healthy. All at the small price of being turned into a crazed homicidal maniac.
Naturally, most people don’t believe the legend behind the daggers is true. They just see extremely valuable artifacts of an earlier age. When the knives are sort of accidentally stolen, lots of people become interested in possessing them. Most initially want to claim the reward, but just about everyone gets seduced by the very real power of the blades. This makes for a madcap adventure in which large numbers of people are seeking the prize in a very dark parody of the famous comedy, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.
The truth is, I expected to like this book, but was surprised by just how quickly I fell in love with it. Lawson’s characters are fantastic—quirky (if not outright weird)—and many of them are really, really, bad. All of them are in over their heads. Watching people struggle to obtain or regain possession of these magic items was fascinating. Wondering who would ultimately survive made for a gripping and extremely fast-paced storyline. Honestly, my only problem with the tale was that it came to an end.
Fortunately, there’s a sequel.
|Posted by Gilbert Stack on October 16, 2021 at 7:55 AM|
Occultober Day 16: The Rules of Supervillainy by C. T. Phipps
Can something be spooky if it makes you laugh? I think you’ll agree the answer is yes if you give C.T. Phipps’ Supervillainy Saga a try. On the surface it’s the story of Gary, a troubled man who gets a package
in the mail that turns out to be the magical cloak of the recently deceased superhero, Nightwalker. Gary dons it and instantly decides to fulfill his lifelong dream of being a supervillain. He names himself Merciless—which really proves to be a terrible name because Gary is filled with mercy and concern for those around him even as he pretends not to care.
As one would suspect of a superhero story, Gary’s life is filled with melodrama and bizarre coincidences. His brother was a “c-grade” retired supervillain murdered by one of the new “tougher” heroes, starting Gary down his “villainous” road. Apparently every woman he’s ever dated is on the path to being a supervillain or superhero as well—and of course he runs into all of them. He’s constantly stuck between his desire to be “evil” and his hatred of the idea that the innocent get hurt which leads him to become what he calls an anti-villain with hilarious results.
Hilarious is a good word to describe the whole series. Many of the villains feel like they could fit in well on the set of the 1960s Batman series. The cloak is sentient and talks to him. His henchwoman (ex-girlfriend) thinks he’s the best boss in the world because he doesn’t want sexual favors. (Gary is happily married to a woman who wants to be a superhero.) His henchman and villainous mentor is a strangely honorable Satanist. And it gets weirder and weirder from there.
And yet, Gary/Merciless walks the dark magic side of the superhero genre. He encounters death (personified), vampires, zombies, a Cthulhu inspired monster, and that’s just the beginning. If you stop to really think about what he’s facing, it’s smack in the middle of the horror field, although Phipps is so dang funny that you’ll be laughing your way through even the nastiest of situations.
What comes through most clearly as you read or listen to this novel is how much C.T. Phipps knows about the superhero genre and how important it is to him. If good parody truly comes from love of your subject, I think Phipps has been engaged in a torrid romance with superhero comics for the last forty or fifty years.
|Posted by Gilbert Stack on October 15, 2021 at 6:10 AM|
Occultober Day 15 Blood Ties by Gilbert M. Stack
One of the things that made Dracula so effective is that it began by taking an English man out of his normal world and placing him in what was effectively another world—Transylvania, which was described in almost medieval terms. I wanted to recapture that sense of helplessness that comes from being dropped into a foreign environment way outside a person’s comfort zone when I wrote Blood Ties. So, I take a capable lawyer with some baggage, throw in a grieving son who is not thinking very clearly, and rip their world apart in the ancestral home of the paranormal adventure. My tag line for this one is: In the quest for immortality, a relative is a terrible thing to waste.
Here’s the blurb: It seemed like such an easy case. All attorney Liz Dunn had to do was escort Ryan Hart to meet his long lost uncle in the tiny country of Carpathia on the Transylvanian border. Ryan stood to gain a ten-million-dollar estate. Liz wanted the hefty check that would keep her law firm in the black. But Ryan’s dying uncle, the enigmatic Stefan Carpathios, planned to get something far more sinister in return. In an ancient land where legends come to life, Liz is about to discover that the world is much more complex than she believed and a blood tie can be an exceedingly dangerous thing.
|Posted by Gilbert Stack on October 14, 2021 at 7:10 AM|
Occultober Day 14 Sherlock Holmes and the Shadwell Shadows by James Lovegrove
We’re sticking with the Cthulhu mythology for the fourteenth day of Occultober, but this time we’re throwing into the mix the most rational detective to ever grace the pages of literature.
Sherlock Holmes is renowned for his keen analytical mind and his amazing powers of deductive reasoning. He’s a detective totally grounded in the physical world. So, what would he do if he was confronted by a mystery not of this world? More to the point, what would he do if confronted by the mind-bending otherworldly entities of H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythologies?
If your first thought was—Holmes would either die quickly or go insane—this would not be a good novel for you. But if you think instead that after eliminating the impossible, he would turn to other explanations, no matter how improbable, then you are going to enjoy this book.
Lovegrove suggests that a significant portion of Sherlock Holmes’ career was spent protecting the world from the entities that humans weren’t meant to know, and this first novel was a compelling and exciting testament to that idea. I’d like to see more.
|Posted by Gilbert Stack on October 13, 2021 at 6:15 AM|
Occultober Day 13 The Trellborg Monstrosities by John Houlihan
Things Man Was Not Meant to Know return for the thirteenth day of Occultober as I feature a novel H.P. Lovecraft fans are going to want to read.
Toward the end of World War II, British intelligence learns that the Nazis are messing with Eldritch powers somewhere in remote Norway. Nazis make an excellent villain in these sorts of powers because, let’s face it, they are an example of the human equivalent of Things Man Was Not Meant to Know.
Fearing that whatever the Nazis were up to could impact the war (which is finally moving in the Allies’ direction), the British send a team in with a civilian expert to eliminate the threat. The novel is a first-person account by the major who led the mission and we watch him slowly come to grips with the fact that the world has supernatural elements in it.
On one level, the novel reads like any WW2 covert operations story. The team has to infiltrate enemy held territory in great secrecy, and the occupying Nazi troops are a tremendous threat. But on another level, there is this growing understanding that things are not right and not normal, and when they finally learn what’s going on the novel pops into high gear as the British soldiers desperately try to stop the Nazis from releasing a force that could turn the tide of the war. It’s exciting from beginning to end, and the feel of the book is very much as if Lovecraft was writing it himself.
|Posted by Gilbert Stack on October 12, 2021 at 7:05 AM|
Occultober Day 12 Black Dawn by Nathan Ameye
Video games have long experimented with the horror genre, so it’s not surprising that the Literary Role-Playing Game subgenre does the same. I was quite skeptical of the whole LitRPG concept when I first heard of it despite the fact that in college I wrote a novella (unpublished) that fits squarely into the category. Now I read a ton of them and many are very well done. My favorites tend to be those in which the experiences in the game world help the characters face and resolve their problems in the real world. Black Dawn takes that concept to the extreme by making the real world become the game world.
The premise of the story is that aliens screw with earth’s physics to make them follow game mechanics—a process that kills the vast majority of earth’s population. The suggestion is that five or six thousand years ago, this is how the world functioned and for some reason that stopped. Now it’s back and demons have begun to populate the world. Three friends are camping when the event happens and they manage to survive character creation and their first encounter with a demon. Then they set about finding out what’s happened to their town.
Okay, so the premise is definitely weak, but how else are you going to get game mechanics into modern day earth. On the positive side, this is an action-packed, fast-moving adventure which is frankly lots of fun. It mixes the need for the heroes to combine solid real-world tactics with game strategies. It captured and held my interest throughout the novel. The only thing I didn’t like is that dice are actually rolled when the characters try and use their skills. While it’s true that dice are rolled in RPGs, my friends and I always saw that as an approximation of the chance that our characters could perform an action. If we were actually trying to perform said action instead of pretending to while we sat around a table, the dice would be unnecessary. We would succeed or fail. I thought the dice were just a little too much RPG in the LitRPG, but other than that, I loved the book.
|Posted by Gilbert Stack on October 11, 2021 at 7:00 AM|
Occultober Day 11: Monster Aces by Jim Beard, et. al.
The modern urban fantasy genre is mostly grounded in the world of today, but a few authors like Jim Beard and his colleagues have created fantastic adventures grounded in the 1920s when the genre opening works of the pulp masters were first being written creating a sort of historical fiction urban fantasy.
The two volumes of Monster Aces brings together a multitude of capable authors sharing a group of adventurers who have dedicated their lives to destroying monsters that most people don’t believe exist. The series reminds me a lot of Doc Savage and his crew. There is no scientific genius among the Monster Aces, but they each have their specialty and the camaraderie between the men and one woman works well.
The stories cover many of the classic monsters (sometimes with a twist) and frankly interesting situations. We also see the authors play with historical figures like Gilgamesh and Ponce de Leon. There’s always something to enjoy in these pages.