Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Saint Tommy, NYPD: Hell Spawn

A godly, almost saintly, detective must hunt down a demoniac serial killer in Declan Finn’s Hell Spawn, the first novel in the Saint Tommy, NYPD series. Billed as Catholic action horror, it provides a thoroughly Christian backdrop for a police thriller that straddles the line of urban fantasy.

So, how does Hell Spawn work as a Christian novel? To be honest, it’s a bit of a failure. Where’s the shoehorned salvation scene? The cutaway to souls in Hell? The ecumenical approach to doctrine? The 1990s This Present Darkness angel and spiritual warfare retreads? The sanitized approach to violence and evil? Where are the sermons?

Granted, for many readers, the absence of the above is not a failure, but a roaring success. The clichés that killed Christian publishing aren’t here. There isn’t enough room for such silliness between the two-fisted action and hard-nosed detective work. And Finn writes in a consistent and unabashedly Catholic view of the universe, instead of the nondescript non-denominational pabulum served up by a Christian publishing industry that’s almost certainly run by its enemies. Tommy Nolan acts consistent with the beliefs and practices of the faithful Catholic, albeit in a muscular manner that shows that Good doesn’t mean goody-two-shoes. That also means that Nolan faces demons in a manner consistent with Catholic practice, and not the confrontations more familiar to those influenced by Pentecostal portrayals. Think more prayer, priests, and holy water than commands, confrontations, and orders.

But most importantly, Finn is writing an adventure instead of a parable. How would a current-day saint stop a demon who is possessing serial killers? There is not time to discuss lengthy discourses on doctrine or popular passages on world-building and mythology* when Tommy is racing a serial killer intent on butchering everyone close to Tommy. And thankfully, Finn refuses the modern cliché of requiring Tommy to violate his beliefs to get the job done. The real puzzle is in how good men remain good in an evil world that the good cannot exile themselves from, not the defeat of good men to temptation or the appearance of superficial contradictions. So Tommy’s faith and goodness remain unflinching.

So does Hell Spawn‘s portrayal of evil. Serial killers murder in grisly ways that make Hannibal in Silence of the Lambs appear uncreative and pedestrian. Hell Spawn doesn’t glory and wallow in the gore, rather, it is honest that some people delight in committing terrible acts. Finn also address some of the moral evils of the time without stepping into the current swamp of Left and Right. And even more disturbingly is that the evils described in Hell Spawn take a more harrowing turn in the years after it was written, particularly with the arrogance of those who think they are getting away with crimes and the rise in gang violence. There also is no allure, no seductiveness around the dark and evil things common to contemporary urban fantasy.

But all these points are Second Things, and dependent upon one major First Thing: if the clash between the Saint of Detectives and a demoniac serial killer is actually thrilling. And while the plot relies a little too much on the current idea that a hero’s personal stake in the conflict is more important than other considerations, Tommy is a likable hero thrust into an uncommon and escalating peril. And, while the outcome may be assured, the delight is in discovering what bit of cleverness Tommy needs to pull through what is the first of many trials against Hell itself.

I was planning on reviewing the sequel, Death Cult, as Jon Mollison already reviewed Hell Spawn for the Castalia House blogBut who wants to dive into a series part way through? And, from the first page, I was hooked. Hell Spawn and Saint Tommy are welcome surprises among the glut of black leather and narcissism filling the urban fantasy landscape.

*I am loathe to call anything related to Christian doctrine mythology, but most novels that deal with the angelic and the demonic inevitably spend considerable wordcount developing arguments about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin and of what denominations and contradictory religions they might belong to, whether in Christian or secular books.

Monday, July 26, 2021

Cirsova Summer 2021

A new season brings a new edition of adventure magazine Cirsova, complete with unknown stars, feats of heroism, and quick-paced twists worth of the classic Argosy magazine. Continuing the direction set down by its fifth anniversary, the Summer volume presents a mix of old favorites and new stars, with an eye for longer tales this time. Also, the experiments with illustrations return, with work from Mongoose and Meerkat illustrator Dark Filly and newcomer UsanekoRin gracing the pages. And anchoring the volume is the second issue of the 1980s-era indie comic, Badaxe.

Cirsova’s Summer 2021 volume opens with the second part of Michael Tierney’s The Artomique Paradigm, the latest of his Wild Stars adventures. Wild Stars is a long and vast setting, previously told in comics. And while it takes a while for newcomers to move past the setting shock, this second set of chapters settles into a wild dash across a pirate planet. The locales are ambitious and pulpy, setting a backdrop for a plot that movies at the speed of Max Brand’s historic adventures. An internal logic to the gleefully over-the-top names reveals itself through quick asides between the inevitable setbacks and betrayals. This portion of The Artomique Paradigm ends with a masterful cliffhanger. While we are promised the conclusion in the next volume, that conclusion is still three months away.

Caroline Furlong’s “Lupus One” is a joyous homage to classic 20th-century anime, filled with mecha, monsters, gods, and alternate universes. And it is a pleasure to read something influenced by anime and manga without it becoming a mere Xerox of the original medium. No reluctant and depressed mecha pilots here. “Lupus One” transplants a class primary world fantasy like many of those found in Weird Tales, where the main character stumbles into a lost and almost legendary weirdness, into the futuristic setting of the moon. While “Lupus One” is self-contained and hints at a happy ending, plenty of hooks exist for continuation, which I hope Furlong will explore in the future. And, in a masterful stroke of editing, “Lupus One” also bridges the science fiction settings of the Moon and the Wild Stars to the fantasy worlds in the stories that follow.

Tais Teng’s “His Amber Eyes, His Pointed Smile” is a Central Asian-flavored revenge story, as little Iskander grows up wanting to avenge his mother’s abandonment by his father. Yet the path of revenge is also the path of following in his father’s footsteps. It is an earthy chinoiserie, and almost a warning of how pleasures can corrupt, wrapped up in a fairy-tale.

J. Comer’s “Sky Machine” follows the fate of the healer Sorana and her Roman compatriots as they are captured by a Scandinavian tribe. With certain death awaiting them, the Romans hatch a scheme for escape, one dependent upon the observations of the great “sky machine” of the heavens above them. It’s a more straightforward tale than the previous ones, but executed well, and the slight accent given to familiar names adds a touch of the exotic to the otherwise familiar Roman and Norse setting.

Kat and Mangos return in Jim Breyfogle’s “The King’s Game”. This time, the Mongoose and Meerkat are out seeking information. The best place for that may well be in the Regum Arena, playing an enchanted game similar to chess but only played by the rich and the powerful. Mangos’ sword is on the line, for not only must he play against the assembled worthies, but he must also play against the Meerkat herself. Breyfogle continues to mix exotic locales and unique plots for the Mongoose and Meerkat, forcing his characters to rely on their wits as much and even more so than the flashing of blades. And while Mangos is slowly gaining wisdom to match his formidable sword arm, the mysterious Kat shines again with her schemes.

Paul O’Connor’s Badaxe rounds out the Summer volume with an intervention by and an escape from the dread god Badaxe. Layers of obfuscation slowly peel away, leaving one to wonder how the all-too-female Tanree’s destiny will tie into the prophecy of the boy who will kill Badaxe. New players enter the game, ready for a final confrontation in the next volume. 

Cirsova also offers a preview of Jim Breyfogle's upcoming The Paths of Cormanorsoon to be accepting pre-orders on Kickstarter. As editor P. Alexander says:

Inspired by eastern European and Scandinavian fairytales, The Paths of Cormanor is the story of a beautiful young woman (who can turn into a cormorant), a handsome prince (who’s the seventh son of a seventh son), and more than a handful of dreadful monsters.

All in all, the Summer 2021 edition is a worthy addition to the long-running string of excellence readers have come to expect from Cirsova.

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Perry Rhodan NEO #1

 “My name is Crest da Zolral.” The alien was waiting for them by the inner hatch of the airlock. “I am an Arkonide. In your terms, I’d describe myself as the scientific leader of this expedition.”

As tensions rise in 2036 between America, Greater Russia, and China, an American moon base goes dark. NASA attempts a rescue mission by sending the Stardust, commanded by Perry Rhodan. But when Rhodan and his crew find a giant metal sphere on the far side of the moon, their problems–and those of the entire human race–grow far more complex. And getting back home is no certainty as there is a bomb hidden on the Stardust.

Meanwhile, in Houston, John Marshall valiantly attempts to keep his children’s shelter running–and the street children away from each other’s throats. Marshall has always had an intuitive knack for reading people, but nothing prepared him for when one of his problem children suddenly teleports the two of them to Nevada Fields so that they can see the Stardust’s launch.

Thus begins Stardust, the first episode of Perry Rhodan NEO, a retelling of the world’s most popular science fiction series. Introduced to the world at WeltCon 2011, NEO updates the geopolitics and technologies from the Cold War and punchcards to a 2010 multipolar world, transistors, and information technology. Perry Rhodan NEO is published concurrently with the original Perry Rhodan series and is written by some of the same authors. Frank Borsch, the author of the first book in the Perry Rhodan: Lemuria series, revisits Rhodan’s first adventure in Stardust.

Rhodan is a veteran American astronaut of German descent who has won fame when his quick reactions saved a lunar shuttle from crashing. Who else should NASA send on a high-profile rescue mission? Rhodan is a mix between an old naval captain and a test pilot from The Right Stuff, although without all the Yeager-isms expected of such. He has an easy camaraderie with his crew akin to that of a Doc Savage or a Buck Danny, and serves as the competent leader of an equally gifted crew. As such, Rhodan’s an idealized pulp hero on a collision course with proud aliens and sinister governments–including his own.

The impending First Contact avoids the colonial mishaps that serve as the model for most science fiction. Technological sophistication is not confused for moral superiority While the American Stardust is more primitive than the Arkonides’ ship, Rhodan’s quick wits and keen insights keep him on equal footing with the humanoid Arkonides. These space invaders are a decadent people, wrapped up in the obsessions of their game worlds. Despite their mechanical sophistication, Rhodan has one bargaining chip: human medical technology that can treat the cancer wracking the body of their leader, Crest da Zolral. With that alliance secured, Rhodan must return home to a world filled with nations eager to deprive their enemies of whatever bounties Rhodan may have secured.

The second episode, Utopia Terrania, finds Rhodan and his crew in the Gobi Desert surrounded by the Chinese Army. Meanwhile, the world deals with the whispers and realizations of alien contact. While Rhodan verbally fences with the Chinese commander, the disgraced agents who told him about the bomb on Stardust are trying to reach him with information urgent to his survival. If Stardust was part pulp opera and part The Cross and the SwitchbladeUtopia Terrania is more conventional–and cynical–science fiction with a sprinkling of X-Files’ paranoia and the author’s own…fascinations. Hopefully, the third episode will bring the action back out of the bedroom into the boardroom—and the focus back to Rhodan.

Compared to The Ark of Stars, the translation is cleaner, without some of the awkwardness that plagued the 2004 Perry Rhodan release. Some of the sentence complexity has been swapped out for clarity, but those seeking a more robust prose than Perry Rhodan NEO’s publisher’s Japanese light novels will not be disappointed. 

While reimaginings have recently soured the idea of a reboot, a technical refresh of Perryvese technology is welcome, especially since 50 years has wrought modern marvels unexpected when the first series has written. However, the geopolitical update is already quaint. We may yet be heading into a multi-polar world with uneasy relations between America, Russia, and China, but ten years of popularism, nationalism, and mass immigration have eroded 2010’s cosmopolitan globalism and trust in the soft power of influence. So the utopianist assumptions of how the Perry Rhodan NEO world works ring more hollow than punchcard spaceships. Mix in Elon Musk and the commercial space revolution, and NEO is just as dated as the original series. Contemporary events, after all, move faster than those of fiction.

That said, Perry Rhodan NEO offers an alternative to space operas cluttered by Star WarsHoratio Hornblower, and Starship Troopers tropes. And it allows readers an easy entry point into the vast and nearly 3000 volume Perryverse, the world’s most popular science fiction series. Again, if Perry Rhodan NEO is successful, it may open the door to the main Perryverse returning to English audiences as well as the introduction of more European pulp series.

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Sailor's Grudge

Robert E. Howard is best known for his sword and sorcery tales, and his heroes Conan and Krull. But Howard wrote more stories of Sailor Stevie Costigan than any other of his heroes with the exception of Conan. Costigan was a sailor in the Pacific, hot-headed, quick with his hands, and the fiercest boxer on the seas. Accompanied by his bulldog Mike, Costigan moves from port to port and ring to ring, avenging slights and proving naysayers wrong. Unfortunately, this means that Costigan takes lumps that a few moments’ hesitation may have prevented, something the old salt good-naturedly admits.

In “Sailor’s Grudge”. Steve Costigan’s troubles start where most sailors’ do, on shore, and this time in California. A chance meeting with a little blonde flirt named Marjory puts Steve’s heart into a flutter. When he finds a man named Bert browbeating Marjory for fancying a sailor, Costigan enrages. Not only will no man get between Costigan and his current fancy, Steve pegs the man as a fellow sailor. The ensuing grudge will take Costigan into Hollywood, where he assaults a Bert lookalike that turns out to be a famous actor, one to whom Bert is a stunt double in a boxing movie. Costigan muscles his way onto set, aiming to settle his grudge in the ring, recorded by the movie’s director. But will this production have a happy ending?

Not when Steve learns the real connection between Marjory and Bert.

Costigan retells this misadventure knowing that the joke is on him, and that this white knight was tilting at windmills of his own devising. Howard nails the voice convincingly and appropriately for a lighter tale than the Gothic-tinged fantasy he is better known for. Better yet, he does it subtlely, using a few choice words here and there instead of the thick and occasionally unreadable accents many of his contemporaries used in the name of “realism”. The result is a quick, even friendly read that speeds the reader along to the highlight–the fight.

The fighting is painted in broad strokes. Technical, as an experienced boxer might, but with an eye towards how the fight fits in Steve’s attempts at courtship. Verisimilitude is the name of the game. Just enough boxing jargon to preserve Costigan’s expertise in the ring, but not so much that it turns into the Dreaded Checklist of Action or to stall the story’s narration. The punches mentioned move the story forward, not to wallow in technique, and each punch moves Steve closer to the realization that he doesn’t have a puncher’s chance with Marjory.

While Conan and Solomon Kane are classics of the fantasy genre, Costigan’s voice and the approachable nature of his adventures make his tales my current favorite of Howard’s works.

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

John Sinclair: Demon Hunter

On a cold November night, a grieving father picks up his hunting rifle and shoots his only daughter in the head. The police are mystified. Why was the girl even at the house? Why wasn’t she at the mortuary, awaiting her burial? After all, Mary Winston had been declared dead two days earlier. When John Sinclair goes to Scotland to investigate the gruesome murder, he finds a town in the grip of fear.

1973 introduced John Sinclair, Demon Hunter, to German audiences. Sinclair is a Scotland Yard investigator with ties to King Solomon, Henry Sinclair, and Knight Templar Hector de Valois. He also has a penchant for finding undead and other monsters. A weekly pulp serial penned almost exclusively by “Jason Dark”, John Sinclair: Demon Hunter quickly established a reputation for inventive plots and a rich vocabulary. In 2015, the series was rebooted for English audiences, with twelve ebook episodes written by Gabriel Conroy. J-Novel Club is re-releasing this latter series as part of their new pulp fiction imprint.

In “Curse of the Undead”, the first of Sinclair’s English adventures, we find the inspector in 1977, with a stint in the British Army and a lifetime of occult strangeness under his belt, including a personal history with a monster known as the Gaunt Man. But while he does everything in his power to forget what he has seen, a new case is thrust upon him. A string of bloody maulings center around Argyle Castle, now newly owned by a Dr. Ivan Orgoff. Some claim the doctor is actually a necromancer. It is up to Scotland Yard’s Special Division to determine the truth.

“The Devil is in Middlesburgh. He’s punishing us for what we did that night…”

John Sinclair has a droll wit, but fails to fit nicely into extreme credulousness or skepticism. Sinclair follows the clues he finds to their logical conclusion, even if that means supernatural origin, but he does not seek to reject or embrace the supernatural or paranormal akin. The impartial rigor of the investigation is preserved. And when the investigation turns into action, Sinclair proves himself as skilled with his Baretta as he is with observation. In many ways, John Sinclair occupies the middle ground between Weird Tales‘ occult detectives and Larry Correia’s Monster Hunters, incorporating the better parts of each while leaving behind the excesses. While Sinclair is capable in a small fight, even he can be overwhelmed. Fortunately, the cavalry is on call. More correctly, an entire British Army armoured brigade trained to fight the undead and the supernatural, and, more importantly, trained to restore order when all Hell breaks loose.

“Curse of the Undead” heightens the horror, and not just in a period setting where instant communication is rare compared to today. Rather, it relies on the time-old method of telling, not showing. While Conroy does not shy away from violence and gore, he does not revel in describing it. Rather, he quickly tells what happened and then uses character reactions to heighten the horror of the off-screen events. For nothing is scarier than what the reader can imagine, and the indirect approach is a classic technique of true horror. And there are plenty of horrors when the dead rise once more.

But perhaps the greatest achievement of “Curse of the Undead” is Conroy’s ability to tell what’s essentially a zombie story without resorting to the bloated, distended, and rotting corpus of Hollywood zombie movie clichés, or the “perhaps humans are the real monsters” social commentary. What we get is a tense pulp thriller that is as much a clash between heroes and villains as it is a disaster movie. And while the heroes aren’t sure that good exists, they’ve seen Evil, and they act decisively to try to foil it. Because someone has to.

Even when the world is no longer rational.

Or, more likely, because the world is no longer rational.

Having now read the other three episodes in the first book, my enthusiasm is a bit dampened. Here are my quick notes on the remaining stories.

Ep 2, "Lord of Death", takes Sinclair to a common pulp horror setting, Aztec ruins, gods, and atrocities. It starts to unite Sinclair with what will later become his team. Good, quick heroic pulp horror that unfortunately starts playing an unearned skeptic card with Sinclair.

Sinclair, by this time, has already seen enough Wrong and supernatural to have certain illusions stripped away. But here he's plunged backwards in character development because tropes... or something. The effect rang hollow.

Ep 3, "Dr. Satanos", felt like showering in sewage. Not sure if it is because this evil was 100% natural man's depravity instead of supernatural monster, or if the author reveled too much in the depravity. Much of the off-screen horror technique was abandoned here.

Ep 4, "A Feast of Blood", gets more Gothic, combining Poe and vampires for an excellent monster mash. Sinclair starts shedding the unearned skepticism and the continued slow burn of who he really is intensifies. Who is this "Son of Light?"

The scene with the cross not working because "You are not a believer" was eye-rolling, as it is a common trope these days, but then the Bible has "Jesus I know, and Paul I know, but who are you?" so, it works? Maybe? Still way too many current-day tropes.

But then this version of John Sinclair is an English-language reboot written by an American, and it reads like American pulp horror, not German. The mood is different.

Sunday, May 9, 2021

The Cosmic Courtship

Love at first sight turns into a love that transcends the cosmos in Julian Hawthorne’s lost pulp romance, The Cosmic Courtship. 1917’s Argosy saw the introduction of Jack Paladin, nephew of a famous explorer, and his attempt to win the hand of the brilliant Miriam Mayne. But when Miriam goes missing, Jack sets out to find her. Even if that means beaming himself to the ringed world of Saturn to retrieve her from a sorcerous space tyrant. The result is a strange, redemptively Christian mix of romance and raygun romance that presages C. S. Lewis’s better-known Out of the Silent Planet. But where Lewis’s Ransom tries desperately to prevent another fall, Paladin and his Saturnian allies seek to redeem and restore those who are lost.

Editor P. Alexander, who is bringing The Cosmic Courtship back into print, describes Hawthorne’s background:

While most are at least somewhat familiar with Nathaniel Hawthorne as one of the great American authors, less well known is that his son,  Julian Hawthorne, was an incredibly prolific writer in his own right. Julian wrote on a wide variety of subjects, ranging from literary analysis of his father’s works to poetry to period romances and adventures. Late in his career, Julian even dabbled in the emerging genre of Science Fiction [Hugo Gernsback had only recently coined the awkward term “Scientifiction” when this story was first published.]

It is hard not to compare Hawthorne’s interplanetary adventures to those later adventures of the Inklings. The prose is elevated and aspirational, ornate without being purple, and a far cry from the simplifications of the Black Mask style to be born ten years later. Hawthorne sets out to explore love, both romantic and compassionate, and places it in an otherworldly realm that cleaves closer to fairy tales than the unimaginative sciences of Hugo Gernsback. It becomes difficult to not draw parallels between The Cosmic Courtship and Lewis’s Malacandra and Tolkien’s Samwise Gamgee, as examples of an unfallen Christian cosmic kingdom and steadfast, sacrificial friendship have fallen out of favor.

Hawthorne’s tale of a love-spanning worlds is among the brightest of the noblebright stories, highly aspirational and pure in motive and archetype, unmarred by baser desire or concern. Mirrors are common throughout the tale, as is fitting, since Hawthorne uses the reflections in his story to present what each of us should be. Paladin is brave, disciplined, decisive, and committed to his love. Miriam is beautiful, clever, and unwavering in her devotion, even when worlds are promised to her by her captor. Paladin’s crippled servant Jim may be unsophisticated, but his loyalty is absolute and pushes him to braveries beyond those of his master’s. And the Saturnians are just yet tempered by mercy, ever seeking to restore those lost to their passions and desires to the One from Whom all love flows.

Hawthorne’s imagination also is unbound by the later conventions of fantasy. While the high prose and the aspirational heroes only add to the fairy tale nature, the strange creatures, clothes woven from actual fire, lost civilizations, and angels visiting unaware add to the palpable sense of wonder shining from the tale. In many ways, The Cosmic Courtship is the fulfillment of Jeffro Johnson’s assertion of the essentially Christian roots of fantasy.

Fortunately, The Cosmic Courtship has been recovered from obscurity by Cirsova Publishing. A wildly successful Kickstarter is in its final days, with a wider public release to follow. This success ensures not only that The Cosmic Courtship will be available to wider audiences once again, but that the rest of Julian Hawthorne’s pulp romances will join it.

Thanks to Cirsova Publishing for the advance copy.

Saturday, April 24, 2021

Perry Rhodan NEO English version announced

 Year 2036: Humanity is in a crisis. Overpopulation, climate change and terrorism are increasing the risk of war around the world. In this situation, the American astronaut Perry Rhodan is sent to the moon with three comrades – there he surprisingly meets human-like aliens…

On April 9th, announced that they have partnered with J-Novel Club to bring the reimagined Perry Rhodan NEO series to English audiences. Additionally, J Novel Club will be releasing stories of demon hunter John Sinclair and occult investigator Jessica Bannister under the imprint of J-Novel Pulp. This represents a new effort to bring long-running European pulp serials to English audiences.

The Castalia House Blog has discussed Perry Rhodan before, specifically the ACE paperbacks and the Lemuria arc. Both arcs represent the briefest glimpses into the 50-year old serial sometimes nicknamed the Perryverse, as well as the majority of what has made its way to English audiences from Germany. That the most successful science fiction book series in history has such a minimal exposure in English is criminal. But 50 years of continuous lore surrounding the first man on the moon and his galactic adventures is a daunting hurdle, especially when publishers fear that the Cold War fears and punchcard technology may not resound with today’s resurgence of China and digital streaming. So, in 2011, Perry Rhodan was reimagined into the alternate universe now known as Perry Rhodan NEO. Both Perry Rhodan serials continue to this day.

Perry Rhodan NEO moves the initial point of contact with the greater galaxy from 1961 to 2036, and redefines the near future geopolitical setting and technology to a level more familiar to 21st century audiences. More importantly, it represents a new introduction to Perry Rhodan and a way for new readers to get in on the ground floor of the Perry Rhodan “Neoverse” instead of tackling fifty years of continuity all at once. Hopefully, if J-Novel Club’s venture is successful, it may open the door to the main Perryverse returning to English audiences as well as the introduction of more European pulp series. To appeal to a wider audience, the J-Novel Club version will use the illustrations from the 2017 Japanese light novel version.

Currently, J-Novel Pulp is offering an introductory preview of the first chapters of Perry Rhodan NEO, as well as John Sinclair and Jessica Bannister. Subscriptions are available to read chapters online, with weekly releases planned. But for those who want to read the first book, Stardust, in one shot, it will be released to the usual ebook platforms on June 8th, 2021. Expect a review soon after, as well as one of horror icon John Sinclair.