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, Perry-Rhodan.net 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.

Saturday, April 10, 2021

Strange Company

 “If you can survive Reaper Platoon in the Strange, then Ghost or Dog Platoons will get you for their own. Best to steer clear of the freaks in Voodoo, kid.”

Out on the faraway world known as Crash, a civil war brews. One side desperately wants to throw off the yoke of the Monarchs of Earth. The other just wants to preserve its power. Both sides know that it is just a matter of time before the Monarchs and their Ultra Marines show up to take direct control and strip mine Crash into a glassy wasteland. But while the farce of control continues to play out, there are plenty of opportunities for mercenaries like Strange Company to fight, die, make money, and commit war crimes before that last panicked evacuation off-world. But nothing is ever as it seems in the Strange.

Just ask Sergeant Orion, the record keeper for Strange Company. His impassioned recounting of the fall of Crash and the near destruction of Strange Company lives up to the name. And that fateful last mission, part Fall of Saigon, part Planet of the Apes, and completely under the influence of powerful hallucinogenic chemical weapons, certainly counts as Strange.

In Strange Company, Nick Cole creates a seedier counterpart to his Galaxy’s Edge series. After all, science fiction has long been obsessed with why men fight. But most of these explorations, from Heinlein to Ringo, fall in the realm of those who would defend their own lands as professional soldiers. Even Cole’s recent and riveting account of Rangers in Middle-Earth, Forgotten Ruin, examines the motivations of the elite soldier. But what of those men who fight and kill for pay? Turns out they have stories, too. Each and every one of them.

But the soldiers of the Strange Company only tell those stories when they sense death coming, and only to Sergeant Orion. Cole uses Orion as the central character of the novel, and, if there is one thing Cole does best, it is creating a singular and unmistakable voice. Orion is no exception, so the novel reads almost like an interview, like one of those rambling war stories your grandfather or uncle suddenly tells you one night over drinks while the women are out. And now that you’re old enough, none of the warts are spared. And there are plenty of warts to this motley collection of thrill-seekers, misfits, psychopaths, and not-quite-human lab experiments. So Strange Company reads like the best of John Ringo’s war stories, just without Ringo’s hang-ups and logistics obsessions.

As usual, Cole’s exquisite command of voice and action covers a thinner setting. But then all of his settings boil down to the same one: a futuristic reflection of a dystopic California run by the same so-called elites that gave the world Silicon Valley, Laurel Canyon, Jonestown, and the Biden Administration. As such, Strange Company is one of the first science fiction works to deal with the COVID and election fallout of 2020, through the eyes of the Monarchs. The psychedelic haze that lingers on the battlefield is fitting for a universe that’s all living in California, and gives a different flavor to the grimdark genre than the typical British influences. After all, American writers gave the world Catch-22 and MASH. But Strange Company offers no solutions to the grimdark present save one: accelerationism. And the wisdom of burning down an already burning wreck even faster has yet to be proven.

Come for the gripping action, stay for the gut-wrenching personal stories and utterly surprising secret history behind the Monarchs’ history. Strange Company may not be perfect, but with it, Nick Cole has usurped the title of Bard of the Fighting Man from his predecessors.

Monday, April 5, 2021

Cirsova Classics is coming

Great news regarding Cirsova and their current Kickstarter, The Cosmic Courtship:

Thanks to everyone’s support, we’ve hit our $10k goal and will be starting a Cirsova Classics imprint focused on bringing previously unscanned and uncollected Public Domain pulp works back into print in modern formats. I know that Michael and Robert are already chomping at the bit to get started on the next project. We may even be able to begin as early as this fall [roughly as soon as we get The Cosmic Courtship out the door]. Most likely the next work we get out will be the uncollected Hawthorne novel, Sara Was Judith, and with the novella A Goth From Boston as a companion volume. We’ll try to get both of those by mid-2022.

While Steeger and other imprints are doing great work bringing the adventure stories of the 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s back in print, it is exhilarating to see Cirsova pick up some of the more neglected gems in All-Story.

For more on the announcement, check out the original post from Cirsova.

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Loners and Solo Leveling

After a hundred years as a mercenary and bounty hunter, dwarf Jari Rockjaw has his eye on a quiet life of retirement on a homestead far away. But before he can buy the farm, he needs one last bounty: the head of the most infamous dwarven reiver in Labrys. But to cut through his target’s armies, Jari needs a company of fighters, not just the help of a few battle-weary friends. As the number of vengeance seekers, rogues, and castaways grow around him, Jari’s vision of retirement soon gives way to the demands of leadership. Can this reluctant mercenary captain lead his troop of Loners to riches, revenge, and retirement?

Loners, by D. B. Bray and Wahida Clark, may be touted as “a humorous action adventure”, but, make no mistake, the humor comes straight from the gallows. Jari’s tale swings far away from the humor of a Discworld, choosing instead the grim of a grim dark fantasy. But Loners is grim-dark with heart, focusing on the nobility of comradeship as the bonds between Jari and his mercenaries are tested and grow stronger. Hard fighting and harder perils are punctuated by soldiery banter, and the revolving door of hirings and deaths never reduces the characters to faceless names. Bray and Clark might be too fond of the rogue and hidden prince trope, but the main weakness is that Jari and the Loners are swept along by the tide of subquests from set piece to set piece, instead of active participants in their story. But the grim adventures with gold under the grime do not fall into excess, and provide a satisfying tour of an embattled yet hopeful perseverance.

E-rank hunter Jinwoo Sung may be the unluckiest hunter in all of Korea. Certainly, he is the weakest and most pitied. But when a group hunt through a rare and lethal dungeon leaves Jinwoo bleeding out, a strange voice gives him a choice and a second chance. Jinwoo now finds himself revived, with a host of new and daily quests, a stat sheet, and a sudden boost of power as he gains levels. But what will this once weak hunter do with his new-found strength? Find riches? Settle scores? Get the girl? And what new rivals might emerge from the shadows?

When released in English, Chugong’s Solo Leveling arrived with fanfare in light novel circles. Honestly, it’s hard to see why. Solo Leveling is an average litRPG in an oversaturated light novel and litRPG market. And average just is not good enough. Solo Leveling does balance the interruptions caused by stat sheets quite well, as, unlike most litRPG heroes, Jinwoo is more concerned with what power can get him instead of exploring the intricacies of the ruleset thrust upon him. As such, Solo Leveling serves as an illustration of the difference between power fantasies and progression fantasies. In some ways, the use of power for an end instead of as a means humanizes Jinwoo more than his Western counterparts, who are caught up in munchkinning their way through their stories. But the naked thirst for power and what it can seize can be cause for a shower, even if Jinwoo does not take his pursuit into the hedonistic excess so common in power fantasy.

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Dungeon Duel and Conquest

 March’s quick reviews cast a critical eye on Dungeon Duel, by eden Hudson and James Hunter, and Conquest: Icelandia, by Jean-Luc Isitin and Zivorad Radivojevic.

Roark van Graf’s struggles have taken him from a deposed noble fighting against a tyrant to the basest cannon-fodder in an MMO to lord of a mighty alliance of dungeons. But the tyrant’s forces have followed him through the portal into the game world. As players and NPCs line up on either side of Graf’s rebellion, the struggle spills out into our world. The tyrant has found a way to coerce the developers into nerfing Roark and his allies. Now Roark must move to save his followers across three worlds, before the tyrant–and the developers–end them all.

eden Hudson and James Hunter continue their genre-blending Rogue Dungeon series in Dungeon Duel. Here, they combine isekai portal fantasy, litRPG progression fantasy, dungeon maker fantasy, and a heavy dollop of epic fantasy into a whirlwind of trolls and angels fighting across fantastical, virtual, and present-day worlds. In that, Hudson and Hunter have solved the problem facing most dungeon makers: what to do when the hero conquers everything around him. The clever melding of the three worlds gives MMO gamers the ultimate fantasy: the ability to access their characters’ skills in real life. But even that fantasy has a price. With the stakes ramping up, the series’ goofy humor takes a back seat, and what first appeared to be the final volume spills out into more lands, pages, and books to come. As the final clash between Roark and the tyrant approaches, there are hopes that the Rogue Dungeon series can do what few have done–deliver a satisfying ending.

After a cataclysm has reduced humanity to five resettlement fleets, the first fleet comes across the habitable planet of Icelandia. After thawing to a disturbing number of new medical treatments, Oberleutnant Kirsten Konig leads the first contact expedition to the native tribes. But strange visions plague her, visions Konig believes are tied to the planet. As the resettlement plans fall victim to strange sabotages and alien raids, Konig finds herself in the middle of the winds of conspiracy, winds that tie the fate of the first fleet to fate of Konig’s daughter.

Written by Jean-Luc Isitin and drawn by Zivorad Radivojevic, Conquest: Icelandia is the first tale of the doomed resettlement fleets. It opens with an intriguing take on suspended animation and the recovery from it before diving into conspiracies and secret histories that show that humanity has yet to leave its destructive tendencies behind. Konig might be a glamorous fanservice fatale of a strong female character, but she avoids the waifish schoolgirl clichés. Her motivation is grounded in the most understandable and dangerous of desires, one noticeably absent from most practitioners of pixie-fu: the protection of her child. Radivojevic’s depiction of the resettlement fleet might be grounded in the same influence as Avatar, filled with powerful and boxy machine suits instead of sleek mecha. And Konig’s troop are drawn in a muscular, larger-than-life fashion. But the overall tone is melancholy, and the sequels defeatist and punishing.  At least Icelandia has the brief glimpse of hope amidst its setbacks, which elevates its moody warnings beyond crushing defeat.