Sunday, December 22, 2019

The Shadow: Gangdom's Doom

The Shadow cleans up Chicago in Gangdom's Doom, the fifth Shadow novella. 

Inspired by the April 1931 Chicago election, The Shadow takes on the crime empire of Nick Savoli, a thinly disguised stand-in for Al Capone. Gangland Chicago was a breeding ground for pulp stories, from Amusement, Inc. to Black Mask and a host of hero and detective pulps. But the editors thought that The Shadow needed a little more motivation to face their version of America's first celebrity gangster: The order came from on high to writer Walter Gibson: The Shadow's agent, Claude Fellows would die.

Fellows would be the first and only agent to fall in the pulps. And Gibson protested the decision. But the editors stood firm. The blow was softened as Gibson went to Bermuda, dividing his time between writing and running publicity for the magician Harry Blackstone. 

Gibson would later recount how he turned the noisy Bermuda streets, complete with the hammering riveting of construction, into scenes in side alleys of Chicago, complete with Tommy gun fire. "It gave me jitters to walk past the Bermuda building, but it helped the story."

Onto the story.

Claude Fellows has been assigned to investigate the Chicago mob. Soon after their talk, first, his contact, then Fellows himself are killed, with the latter falling in a Tommy gun drive by.

In response, The Shadow sends Harry Vincent to Chicago, where Harry works his way into the confidence of Marmosa, a gambling king. While Harry learns about the mob's organization, from kingpin Nick Savoli down to the hired killers, the same killers burst into the gambling den. The Chicago killers get into a firefight with New York thugs, including one Monk Thurman. They kill one of Marmosa’s guns before Monk Thurman drives them away. Suddenly, Thurman is of great interest to Marmosa--and to Savoli's organization. Should they hire him or kill him?

A familiar felonious face, Steve Cronin from New York, meets with Marmosa's henchmen and casts enough doubt on Thurman to convince Marmosa's goons to kill the New York gunman. But when they call a meeting with Thurman to kill him, no one shows. Confused, Cronin and Marmosa's henchman leave, unaware that, in secret, The Shadow is watching their every move.

Later, Cronin meets with mob boss Savoli, who tells him to murder Chicago's most aggressive district attorney. But before Cronin and his crew can pull the trigger on their Chicago typewriters, The Shadow appears behind them and knocks them out.

When Cronin wakes up, he crosses paths with Harry Vincent, who resolves to settle the score from earlier adventures between them. Soon after, Savoli gives Cronin a way to redeem himself from the night's failure:

Kill The Shadow.

Savoli then orders Monk Thurman to eliminate the Chicago killers who shot up Marmosa's gambling den. Monk goes out and antagonizes a set of toughs, tricking them into ambushing the killers instead of ambushing him. The toughs go into hiding. Monk Thurman claims the deed.

The killings spark a whirlwind of schemes as Savoli uses the opportunity to further cement his authority over the Chicago underworld. Monk Thurman is to be killed to appease another crime lord. That is unless he kills The Shadow first.

The Shadow is everywhere during this exchange, listening in from secret passages, cackling to himself under hidden disguises. Now he reveals himself. The Shadow interrupts a dinner between Savoli and his crime lords, defying the mob boss to his face. The Knight of Darkness pronounces judgment on Savoli for his crimes and twice over for the men who killed on his orders. The Shadow escapes, untouched a hail of bullets.

Enraged, Savoli spends days setting his murderers after The Shadow, including Monk Thurman. But they aren't the only ones watching the streets of Chicago. Harry Vincent is as well, and Cronin now suspects him to be working for The Shadow. Cronin takes his suspicions to Savoli, who hatches a plan.

Harry Vincent is captured and tortured, causing The Shadow to make his move. After rescuing his agent, The Shadow appears to be on a collision course with Monk Thurman. But Monk's efforts are seemingly spent more in fraying the fragile peace in Savoli's organization--accompanied by a familiar mocking laughter.

Savoli's empire collapses in a week of brutal gang fighting. But The Shadow is not done yet, for he still has to bring Claude Fellows' killer to justice. He distracts Savoli long enough for police to raid Savoli's hideout. In the fight, Cronin is killed, and Savoli is arrested.

Gibson does a lot to make his story easy to read. This doesn't mean simplified plots, flat prose, or childish vocabulary. Rather, he doesn't get lost in exposition or distraction and makes it so the plot can be easily followed without telegraphing future events. Additionally, Gibson has perhaps the cleanest chapter organization so far in pulpdom. Each chapter can be summarized in a sentence but tells a miniature story in its own right. Unlike the hero pulps that would follow, Gibson's prose is stylized but without all the gilt that imitators would tack onto the genre. And the tricks of the magician that Gibson was so fond of, especially misdirection, are prominent throughout the tale.

The Shadow truly owes a debt to Fantomas. Not just in the mastery of disguise, but the prose stylings are similar to those found in the French phantom villain's dime novel adventures.

Like in the Argosy stories, the villains' actions drive the story, not that of The Shadow or Harry Vincent. It's almost alien compared to these days of limited 3rd-person POV. Although in the shadows and cackles, the reader can sense The Shadow's schemes coiling around the mob occasionally striking through mistake identities and inciting mob on mob violence. It isn't like he's averse to using his automatics, but rumor had it that Street Smith did not want to ruffle the feathers of the mob by letting The Shadow cut loose.

So, did Claude Fellows need to die?

No. The Shadow already is an embodiment of vengeance, and, save for being the inciting action for The Shadow’s crusade, affected the story minimally. We never see into The Shadow’s thought, and he is such a mystery and an actor that we as the readers never get a clear glimpse into The Shadow’s thoughts and motivations. And for a series so dependent on mood and misdirection, there’s no need for such a glimpse to push the story forward. As such, Fellows’ death comes across as a cheap stunt at worst and a MacGuffin at best. Gibson was right to protest the editorial decree, but, as he was writing for hire, the decision was ultimately out of his hands.

But even with that compromise, The Shadow’s fame and sales continued to grow.

* * * * *

For all agents of the Shadow: Buy the Sanctum reprints while you still can. Sanctum's rights expire at the end of this year. Who knows what Conde Nast will do with the series, so this is the last chance for a while to get affordable copies of The Shadow.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

The Sheriff of Tonto Town

W. C. Tuttle's Henry Harrison Conroy is a lesser-known pulp character. A quick Google search finds pirate sites carrying his stories before any articles talking about him. Fortunately, there is a good intro to Sheriff Henry: 
"When we first meet Henry Harrison Conroy he's a down-at-the-heels vaudeville comedian who seems to be modeled on W.C. Fields...Just as he learns his stage career is over, he gets a letter saying he's inherited a ranch in Arizona. So to Arizona he goes."
"Along the way, Henry is elected sheriff as a joke, and turns the joke on the town by remaining in office. He knows nothing of the law, and cares less, but somehow - usually with a drink in his hand - manages to bring about some justice."
Sheriff Henry typically gets tied up in murder mysteries in Western towns, although later stories become more typically Western. In "The Sheriff of Tonto Town", "a dying man who has just discovered a rich Arizona mine" brings problems to Sheriff Henry's doorstep.

The first chapter has Sheriff Henry sorting out a card shark that stole property from a local. From his career on stage, Henry has seen more than a handful of magicians palm a card, and is wise to the card shark's game. 

Henry's vaudeville roots will play out throughout the story. Already, there's a sort of verbal and slapstick interrogation of the card shark, complete with a bit of "accidental gunfire". "Das har'ar gon," replied Oscar (the jailer working for Henry), "von't stay cocked." It's the first bit of deliberate humor I've read in the pulps. And Oscar also has the thickest, most cryptic dialect in pulp, a medium already given toward thick and cryptic dialects. Pulps typically err on the side of verisimilitude over readability. Here, it's a step into cryptographic analysis.

As for the Terrible Swede with the hair trigger and impenetrable accent, Henry says: "You underestimate Oscar. Oh, I am perfectly aware that he does everything wrong. But I have a system. I tell him to do something wrong, and he will invariably do it right."

Sheriff Henry soon finds himself embroiled in a Lost Dutchman Mine-style mystery, when a dying prospector tells of a rich strike before h passes on. Not only is the location unknown, so is the matter of who will inherit the claim.

Like Max Brand's Clovelly, much of the novel so far is taken up by the schemes of the characters around the main character, not Henry's actions. Here, Jake West and Doc Sargent scheme to take the dying man's claim, foil happy couples, and hide evidence that West is a wife beater. Henry foiled a plot or two--age and treachery are great equalizers--but the villains drive the plot. Henry spends most of the book offstage. It's almost an inversion of today's storytelling, where the hero drives the plot with his decisions and the villain is the backdrop.

Henry plays up the bumbling fat sheriff, but he, Judge, and the Terrible Swede play adroitly to interfere with their plans. Granted, it's slow reading, but that's to catch up on all the wordplay in the banter. There's no handholding here, even with the humor. Pratchett reads like Carrot Top by comparison. Henry doesn't stop and mug for the camera with his humor. There are no instances where the flow of the story breaks because "we told a joke, now laugh. Please laugh at how clever we are."
But that is part of the approach of the Argosy pulps and 1920s adventure fiction: there is no hand-holding. And if you aren't versed in Western tack and saddle or 17th-century swordplay, you better have a dictionary close at hand.

No hand-holding also carries over into the plot. 

The Argosy pulp writers accomplish more in 50,000 words than most writers at 120,000. And even those who write the books of endless pages. It isn't just that today's storytelling has been influenced by publishers preaching padding to meet price points--more than one author I know has remarked that publishers are in the lumber business, not the story business--storytelling and pacing have become decompressed. And with decompression comes indulgence. 

Those wanting adventure still won’t be disappointed. There have been murders, backstabbing, several one-punch KOs, claim jumping, poisonings, sackings, and buffoonery from a sheriff too old to find a saddle, much less ride in one. Henry even walks six miles barefoot with soles full of cactus spines. Ouch. Not something most Western heroes would do, but no less a feat of endurance than that of Conan or Stark. Of course, the latter two gentlemen would have avoided the cacti...

But then Henry is supposed to be the least likely sheriff possible. An old, fat, city slicker actor with a faster mouth than a gun. Despite this mismatch of character, the sincerity necessary for pulp adventure is never harmed. "The Sheriff of Tonto Town" is a cozy adventure, a bit more soap-opera-like than most pulps, far more humorous, too; but it doesn't skimp on adventure--or carefully crafted plots.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019


Most familiar as his pen name Max Brand, the poet and incredibly successful pulp writer Frederick Schiller Faust is best known for his Westerns and creating the character of Dr. Kildare. However, Faust also wrote for Argosy, filling its pages with tales of 1600s’ fencers, swashbucklers, and swordsmen. In Clovelly, he brings knowledge of the sword and of adventure to post-Civil War England.

Clovelly is a fencing master, having studied under more than a few masters and in more than a few national styles. One sees the same disdain for bullshido in Clovelly as in many MMA fighters. In Clovelly’s own words:

"I have heard these grave professors make a mystery out of fencing; but I have learned to laugh at them." And " for tricks, I hold them not worthy..."

Clovelly as a character exemplifies a strange point to the violence in pulp fiction. As sensationalistic as the pulps are held to be, there is a remarkable reluctance to killing as there is a glee for fisticuffs. In a speech, Clovelly savages the man who doesn't have a sure sword hand, for such a man who cannot deftly use his point to madden, distract, and incapacitate his opponent must be forced to fight to kill, as he has no other options.

Brand might start Clovelly’s adventure with an erudite description of stonework, but he quickly sends Clovelly into a duel with a bully. Clovelly wins, not through a flashy display of skill, but a simple trick. He flicks his swordpoint into the bully's sword wrist. Sure, it's skill, but it's a move every slightly experienced fencer does to beginners--and it's annoying as hell until you learn to deal with it. Not quite a master stroke, but also not something to stop the story to explain.

Rather, it's the thirty seconds of David easily parrying Goliath's blows that earns Clovelly the attention from his new benefactor Lord Teynham. He is to steal a locket from a rival, one that bears the picture of Cecily, an especially lovely and virtuous lady dear to Lord Teynham. Clovelly agrees as "an empty belly is an eloquent advocate to advise desperate deeds.”

Clovelly exploits a tradition among Cavalier bodyguards to hit the rival's coach unguarded, and teaches manners to the nobility. Wits, not force, are the key to his victory. Although the gains are as dust. The locket is of an apparently faithless girl, and when Teynham wishes to further spoil Cecily’s reputation for a thousand pounds’ profit, Clovelly returns his fee for the deed and soon finds himself hounded by his employer.

At this point, the reader is only a mere 20% into the novel, and there's been duels, crimes, betrayals, and a little bit of philosophy. Brand has already proven himself to be in the highest tiers of pulp adventure writers, and there's still 190 pages of twists to go.

Instead of hiding, Clovelly further entangles himself into the web of deceit among the nobility surrounding Cecily’s now tarnished reputation. Unfortunately, the lady herself has been meeting with rakes and rogues in secret, so Clovelly’s involvement is more in outrage of “that a lady was to be damned in order that Teynham might have a thousand pounds in his pocket."

40% in, and the second 20% is notable for the lack of Clovelly. The barons scheme, for Cecily has fallen in with cads and ranters. Their solution to preserve her virtue: Wed her to Clovelly. Clovelly agrees. Not for Cecily's sake--her reputation and therefore her worth in his eyes are ruined--but because his price will be a privateer's ship to plunder the same Spanish that tortured and killed his father. But before that, he must first kill or run off his rival--who Clovelly ends up saving in the midst of a duel instead.

At the 60% point, every time Clovelly appears to indulge in a bit of counterscheming of his own, he's revealed to be true to his purpose. In this case, after a bit of a con and another duel, he's to escort his rival to Cecily, where the pious man will explain how much plunder he earns from privateering.

20%, 40%, 60%. These are not accidental reference points. Clovelly is a novel designed for serials, akin to quarters of a Dent Master Plot, with a piece of the overall story that can stand independent of the rest, yet fits in a cohesive whole. In comparison, today's serials tend not to hold up as individual chapters. They do tend to make decent reads---only after all the parts of that particular literary Triforce are collected.

After his rival disgraces himself before Cecily, Clovelly marries her, an act of no joy for him because she is ruined. Both acts enrages her father. As the newlyweds flee from brigands and armsmen, Clovelly is starting to come to terms that Cecily might actually be of sterling repute. The assassins and swordfights eventually lead Clovelly to the man who casted aspersions about his wife. The result: the clearing of Cecily's name and warming of the marital bond (and bed) was certain from the start.

The end might have been certain, but the journey was breath-taking and full of twists, turns, and switchbacks. Brand both executes the standard tale of a besmirched woman well and does more in the pages allotted to him. It's amazing how much Brand squeezes in to a mere handful of chapters without causing whiplash. And the pacing is a marvel, too. Brand's not racing from event to event, but mixes relaxed dialogue scenes with tense action and twists. As for the prose, it is closer to Hammett than Gibson, with plenty of period vocabulary to learn. And as far as the history and culture go, it's sink or swim. As in many of the adventures of the time, the reader is expected to be familiar with the era.

Readers should reach for more of Brand's tales. Writers should analyze the structure and storytelling. Brand reels out revelations about his characters slowly, but never in a way that plays up surprise or contradicts the previous actions and motives.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Awaken Online: Ember

Ever since his wife died in an accident, elder programmer Finn Harris has been a sullen hermit. But when his daughter browbeats him into trying the new Awaken Online game, he finds himself in a new world, with new challenges, and the favor of an elemental god. What started as a simple quest to get his online passwords back from his well-meaning but mischievous daughter turned into a quest to win a brutal mages’ tournament and a kingdom. For Finn’s connection to Awaken Online runs deeper than he knows, and the elemental god’s quest reward is something he cannot ignore—the return of his wife.
Awaken Online: Ember, by Travis Bagwell, is the first in a side series to Awaken Online, a futuristic litRPG power fantasy that delves into the reasons why people pursue power. While the main series concerns itself more with evil—true evil, not edgy heroes in black or mustache-twirling villains—Ember instead examines curiosity, challenge, and obsession. This is a relief, as the main AO series is a little too good at giving agency to evil. Finn is driven by the need to tinker with and improve upon puzzles, and his puzzle is the linguistic key to Awaken Online’s magic system. And he needs to master it quickly, as he has been thrown into a meatgrinder of an Arena PvP tournament.
Finn is yet another retiree in a recent line of older, more mature, and more experienced litRPG and progression fantasy protagonists. Much of progression fantasy deals with min/maxing a set of existing rules into overwhelming advantages instead of relying on strength. While young power gamers have the drive, age and treachery have their benefits, too. A lifetime of experience offers the ability to perceive more opportunities as well as understand more ways to seize the moment than just force. However, moody widower moving heaven and earth to be reunited with his lost wife is starting to become cliché.
Bagwell manages the delicate balance between game system mechanics and story, minimizing the exposition needed to cover the myriad little progressions Finn makes as he levels up in-game. This allows more focus to be spent on the action in the duels and the various challenges that chivy Finn towards victory. That Finn will win is not in doubt—especially for those who have read the main series—but the journey is where the fun is.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

The Moon Man: The Sinister Sphere

"A figure crept into the dark room. 

"From side to side it turned its head, a head that was a perfect sphere of silver. 

"If the silent figure had any face at all, it was the face of the man in the moon!"


The Moon Man straddles the line between hero pulp and detective story. His glass globe mask certainly has the flamboyance of the hero pulps, but the Moon Man is instead a classic gentleman thief trying to outsmart his own set of nemeses as he steals from criminals to give to the poor. The Moon Man fills the fantasy of those who want restitution for the victims more than unwavering vengeance.

Like with The Whisperer, we have a chance to see the man behind the mask: Detective Stephen Thatcher. His double life is a key feature of the story. His father is the chief of police, his partner and best friend is assigned to arrest the Moon Man--and the father of his fiancee. As the Moon Man, Thatcher constantly worries that his identity will be compromised, whether by breaking his cover or by breaking the fragile glass mask. But as long as there are victims harmed by crime, he will do his best to bring justice and end their hardships.

In "The Sinister Sphere", by Frederick C. Davis, the Moon Man's latest robbery of a mere $650 is interrupted, and the masked man leaves behind a glove--and a fingerprint. Now Thatcher has to lay false trails for his friend and his father, even as he plans for his next caper. In the classic fashion of a gentleman thief, he announces his next target by letter.

Now Thatcher has to make his theft under the watchful eye of his partner, while, unbeknownst to everyone, his fiancee starts poking into his organization. Will the Moon Man escape with the money?

Of course. But he didn't expect his fiancee to try a citizen's arrest at gunpoint!

"The Sinister Sphere" is mostly a structural story, setting up the Moon Man, the glass mask gimmick, his helpers and foes, and the complex relationships of a gentleman thief hiding in the open. So the actual caper is serviceable, but nothing special. The main allure lies in whether Thatcher can juggle the deceptions needed when his very family is dedicated to the Moon Man's capture. And, in the first appearance, he is able to. But the webs of deceit will tighten around him as the series progresses.

While Davis is a Black Mask alumnus, his prose here owes more to The Shadow than the "Hemmingway" style of Hammett, perhaps written with an ear for radio or with an homage to classic gentlemen thieves like Fantomas. But the ornamentation does not get in the way of the thrill of the heist and the thrill of the chase.

All in all, "The Sinister Sphere" is a nice B-side chance of pace to the more familiar hardboiled and hero pulps.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

The Avenger: Justice, Inc.

"In the roaring heart of the crucible, steel is made. In the raging flame of tragedy, men are forged into something more than human. 

"Crime's greed turned the retired adventurer, Richard Henry Benson, into-- 

"The Avenger."


Some men are, like Doc Savage, raised from birth to fight crime. Others, like the Shadow, just want to watch the underworld burn. Benson, however, was made at the very moment when his wife and daughter vanished mid-flight from the seats next to his. Everyone thinks Benson is insane, with a brain flu that tells him he has family not his own. But cracks form in that gaslighting when a cabbie tells Benson that he remembers Benson together with his family. Suddenly, Benson, now a man of steel and gray, leaps into action.

During his treatment in the sanitorium, Benson's face was paralyzed and his complexion reduced to a ghostly pallor. Clad in gray, he looks more like a gun waiting to fire than a man. And his first taste of vengeance is three toughs trying to silence his investigations. Benson subdues the men for the police, who release the criminals hours later. But the encounter was worthwhile, for it leads him to Fergus MacMurdie, who wants to help Benson. 

MacMurdie has a special hate for mobsters, who killed his family in an insurance-racket bombing. MacMurdie recognizes a kindred spirit, and, even better for Benson, he knows that more people have vanished during similar routine flights on the same flight path. The two men decide to work together to investigate. There's just one rule: 

No Police.

Their first investigation reveals the plane and the trapdoor used to get Benson's wife and daughter off the plane. But the mechanics capture Benson. Thanks to a disguise, the crooks think Benson is a detective, and not himself. Benson escapes after they attempt to murder him. He discovers another scheme by the same gang against a millionaire. The rich man is disappeared, but not before Benson picks up another ally: Smitty, an MIT engineer fallen on hard times. With that, the core for what will become Justice, Inc. is assembled.

Benson and companions finally trace the operation to an island in the Great Lakes in a bit of a running rollercoaster of action sequences. While there, they break up the gang, rescue the millionaire, and discover the motive and method for the sky disappearances. But Benson's family is nowhere to be found. Fueled by the faintest of hopes and a burning desire to stamp out the kinds of men who robbed him of his family, Benson sets up shop with his companions in New York and becomes-- 

The Avenger!

The Avenger succeeds at being the third of a power trio of heroes where The Whisperer failed in that, while both are inspired by Doc and The Shadow, The Avenger is not copying either the way the Whisperer did. The personal stakes are also higher and relatable in The Avenger, and, while Benson does take a few lumps in the course of learning his new trade, he isn't getting jobbed out to every henchman, so he stays strong in the readers' eyes, unlike Wildcat Gordon. And, those few lumps Benson gets, he immediately gets payback for, as well.

The difference comes down to relatability, and what fosters it. The Avenger shows that common experience, that of the sorrow of losing a loved one, matters more than looking like the audience, the way The Whisperer's Wildcat Gordon and his folksiness attempted to.

The Avenger was born out of a need to fill the demand for more Doc Savage and Shadow stories. Try as Dent and Gibson might, two stories a month was about the limit of the production pipeline. So a third hero pulp was created, with significant input from Dent and Gibson. The two-fisted action and the aversion to murder are straight from Doc Savage, while the imposing visage and penchant for misdirection and disguise are from the Shadow. But it's pulp veteran Paul Ernst that makes Benson's quest for his family a real page-turner.

Successful in weird fiction, detective fiction, science fiction and more, Ernst concentrates on telling a compelling story without feeling the need to copy Dent or Gibson's word choice and style. The familiar tag waving of Dent and Gibson's refrain of...The Shadow! aren't here. As such, The Avenger is a solid introduction to the hero pulps, especially for those current-day readers unused to the heavier styles of the Man of Bronze or the Knight of Darkness.

Friday, November 15, 2019

Amusement, Inc.

What if Doc Savage and bros. took on the mob with actual bullets? Let's find out in Theodore Tinsley's "Amusement, Inc."

The back story of "Amusement, Inc." is as interesting as their tales. Few people would actually believe that six millionaires would band together to fund an attempt to clean out the crime from a major city. It makes for great fiction, but unbelievable newsprint, yet, in the months before "Amusement, Inc." and Black Aces appeared on the stands, one such organization, The Secret Six, was revealed in Chicago as instrumental in bringing down Al Capone. Of these millionaires, Eliot Ness said:
"These six men were gambling with their lives, unarmed, to accomplish what three thousand police and three hundred prohibition agents had failed miserably to accomplish: The liquidation of a criminal combine which paid off in dollars to the greedy and death to the too-greedy or incorruptible."
That "Amusement, Inc." would use this story should come as no surprise. Chicago's crime scene and the longing of its citizens for justice left a lasting mark on the pulps--"Words do not count—deeds are their own explanation." And justice in the pulps was swift, violent, and final, as befitting the cries of a populace near their breaking point with violent crime.

Tinsley uses his version of the Secret Six as the money behind the muscle that will be known as Amusement, Inc. 
"I'm offering you danger and death to play with by day and night." 
How's that for a job offer? But crime is everywhere. One murder attempt later, and Major John Lacy is brought before the Emergency Council of six millionaires trying to clean up the city. Out of this meeting, a secret society grows, and the front organization: Amusement, Inc. To staff his amusement, Lacy draws upon the old soldiers' network to assemble a squad from his old unit--and an armory's worth of weapons.

Amusement, Inc. will need all the guns, too, as one of the Emergency Council's banks is targeted by arsonists for having the gall to refuse a racketeer's loan demand. These "torch bugs" are wanted dead...just dead. Alive is not an option.
"I'm not cop, you fool--I'm a death warrant! You'll talk fast to me or you'll burn in your own grease!"
Just a reminder that Major Lacy, for all his incorruptible strengths, is not John Law, nor is he paid to deal kindly with torch bugs and other thugs. Leaning on the rats compels them to give up the name and location of the racketeer who ordered the blaze. A few bullets later, and the first blow against crime is struck.

It's a pity that the bank burned down, though.

Certain pulp heroes like Doc Savage might instead chose rehabilitation, but the men of Amusement, Inc. are there for adventure--and vengeance.

"Amusement, Inc." is the pulp equivalent of an action movie, running from murder attempt to city chase, from explosion to gunfight. There's little investigation here, just action. And if you want to survive a gang war, you'd better have a gang of your own.

Like the rest of Black Mask's alumni, Tinsley's prose still sounds contemporary nearly a century later. The characterization is a bit scant, but this isn't about the men of Amusement, Inc., it's about the criminals terrorizing the cities getting their just and violent end. Amusement, Inc. is just the instrument of destruction.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Interplanetary Graveyard and Horror on the Links

Edmond "World Wrecker" Hamilton spins a tale of space-bound graverobbers in "Interplanetary Graveyard."

With the famous last words for soldiers and sailors, "I'm going to marry her tomorrow," Mark Raymond goes on leave after a long space freighter voyage. As expected, the surprise is on Mark, who is unaware that Ardra was "taken to the Moon"--now a cemetery world--while he was gone. Even though his rival for Ardra's hand, Burke Ullman, has dropped a meteor shower of snide hints at Mark.

Grief-stricken, Mark decided to sneak into the lunar necropolis, an act forbidden on all but a few official days. Slinking through the crypts of the moon, Mark soon finds his girl Ardra's grave, freshly disturbed and empty. Mark follows the clues and finds Ardra's body--drugged, not dead--in the spaceship of the man he beat out for Ardra's hand.

Burke taunts Mark with "I am going to revivify Ardra. I am going to give you the satisfaction of seeing her in my arms. And then I am going to give you the red drug." This red drug will doom Mark to an unrousable slumber. One ensuing struggle and the villain is done in by his own scheme. The ending is too traumatic to quite be happily ever after, but Mark's certainly making good on his promise to marry Ardra.

The similarities to a Caribbean zombie story are striking, both in the use of drugs to feign death and in the intended drug-fueled servitude. The religious aspect of this kind of zombie story is not present, which is to be expected in a science fiction retelling.

The prose here, in 1940--on the eve of war, paper shortages, and Congressional censure of the pulps--is that transparent Black Mask style that will be later erroneously called "Hemingway". It's odd that the pulps have a reputation for purple prose. Some genres courted it, generally the more Gothic influenced-including the hero pulps. Hamilton, out on the edges of respectable science fiction, yet in the mass market's cross-hairs, chooses the more accessible style.

"Interplanetary Graveyard" is short, sweet, and lacks screwdrivers. Compare to "The Iron God", it is grounded in human passions instead of intellectual conceits, yet grounded science produces believable methods and settings to the clash between suitors. Hamilton certainly raises the reputation of the science fiction entries in this month's pulp survey.


"The Horror on the Links", by Seabury Quinn, introduces the adventures of the French occult detective, Jules de Grandin. De Grandin is a step on the progression from Semi-Dual, one of the earliest--if not *the* first--occult detective, to the weird menace of Marvel and beyond. (The Pulp Super Fan has an excellent introduction to Semi-Dual, whose Argosy stories we will see soon.) Seabury Quinn's Jules de Grandin stories were a cornerstone of Weird Tales throughout the Farnsworth Wright era. Today, however, he is overshadowed by Howard, Lovecraft, and Clark Ashton Smith.
"Physicians’ sleep is like a park—public property." With that lamentation, Dr. Trowbridge is summoned to treat the long gashed wounds of Paul Maitland, who, in his delirium, cries out about an ape-thing chasing him. Meanwhile:
"Almost entirely denuded of clothing, marred by a score of terrible wounds, her face battered nearly past recognition and her neck broken, the body of pretty Sarah Humphreys, was found lying in one of the bunkers of the dub’s golf course this morning."
Sarah's wounds are similar to Paul's/ Dr. Trowbridge, as Paul Maitland's physician is drawn into the investigation, headed by Sergeant Costello, and assisted by a criminologist, Jules de Grandin. De Grandin's renown in the scientific world is such that Trowbridge recognizes his work.

Upon questioning, Paul says he was attacked by a hairy ape near the golf course. An examination of Sarah's body confirms the unlikely story. 
"It's terrible--"  
"But certainly, One does not look to see the beautiful in the morgue. I ask for what you see, not for your aesthetic impressions."
Meanwhile, another of Dr. Trowbridge's patients, a Mr. Manly, was shot out by the same country club. De Grandin, struck by the coincidence, goes digging through the trash and discovers a shirt belonging to Manly with gorilla hair on the inside. But how to reconcile the all-too-human Manly with the ape that attacked Paul and Sarah? Or, more importantly, should Dr. Trowbridge even entertain de Grandin's apparent fancy?

The result takes a hard turn into the strange, with the sudden appearance of a mad scientist previously only known to Jules de Grandin. It's enough to make a man appreciate the rules of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. Except for Rule #2: No supernatural/preternatural causes. This is from Weird Tales, after all.

Rule #9 is also out; Dr. Trowbridge is certainly above my station in wit, vocabulary, and observation. Have a dictionary ready. De Grandin's future assistant, Dr. Trowbridge, serves as the narrator, and he's quite fond of the more elevated English of French and Latin origin.

Returning to the case, and the strange man-ape: 
"You start, you stare. You say to yourself, 'This de Grandin he is crazy like the April-fish!'" 
Any man hunting a man-ape-thing at night by himself has to be a little mad. As for Mr. Manly's identity, history, and fate, I'll save for the reader to discover. This is a Weird Tales story, after all, and the twist should be respected.

"Horror on the Links" is more a English detective story than an American Black Mask story, and I found it helpful to know what kind of mystery Quinn was playing theme-and-variation upon. It is inspired by Agatha Christie's "The Murder on the Links", although the polite rules of the style are disrupted for a sensational tale of mad science and revenge befitting Weird Tales. The story is dense with description and plot, requiring the need to flip back and reread every few pages, something I haven't needed in Wellman's occult detective tales of John Thunstone or the Black Mask hard-boiled adventures.

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of "Horror on the Links" is Quinn's tendency to follow the climax of the story with long passages of exposition. It's yet another cheat in the game of the English-style detective mystery, set out in part in the introduction to Dashiell Hammet's "Arson Plus":
This is a detective story you’ll have a hard time solving before the end. Form your ideas of the outcome as you go along and then see how near you guessed it.
De Grandin hides all his cards--and most of the clues--until after the very end. The result is something that's not quite a mystery and not quite a campfire ghost story that relies on sensationalism for its initial hook. It doesn't fit into the expectations of readers trained by centuries of five-act and three-act structure, nor into the four rounds of trouble in the emerging pulp master formula. It takes getting used to, so it works, but it isn't a style or format I'd recommend imitating.

But, like many of the authors from the 1920s section of this survey of pulp, I will be reading more.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

The Lair of the Grimalkin

For five years, from 1943-1948, Richard Shaver exploded on the scene with his Shaver Mystery, an X-Files-like set of mysteries fille with secret worlds and hidden cavern cities, much to the frustration of science fiction fans. During this time, Amazing's circulation swelled to nearly 200,000 per issue. (Weird Tales and Astounding averaged 50,000) Meanwhile, SF fandom tried to cancel Shaver through boycott and letter-writing campaigns, creating an ugly tradition that still carries on to today. 1948, Amazing stopped publishing the Shaver Mystery, for reason unclear, and Shaver spent many years chasing after the success he once had.

"The Lair of the Grimalkin" is one such attempt, a sword & planet tale on Venus. Here, Venus is a green Hell here, teaming with a mix of life and chemicals that limit Earthmen to small sections of the planet. But the lush life covers vast mineral wealth, so men repeatedly set forth into the jungles. They just don't come back.

Tempted by riches and the verdant hellscape, Hal has a line on a massive deposit of platinum in the well-named Swamp of Despair, and the story begins with preparations for an expedition that's most likely doomed.

Then, deep in the Venusian Amazon, Hal finds the rarest flower on the planet--a human woman surviving where explorers never did. Her jungle home is threatened by the Grimalkin, a kind of dragon, so Hal decides to play St. George.

But things aren't as they seem, as a failed attempt at killing the alien Great One lands them in captivity, alongside the girl, in a Venusian village. Shaver doesn't bother filing serial numbers off of dragon myths here, so Hal and his companions have to escape--or be dinner. The resulting fight rages across Venus, back to the Earthman domes before the dragon finally is slain, and Hal earns his babies ever after ending.

I was expecting dreck from Shaver, as his memory is quite maligned. This wasn't bad. Frankly, The Lair of the Grimalkin holds up better as a story than Williamson's The Iron God. There's more humanity to this transplanted jungle adventure, for one. Shaver has imagination, to be sure, but he needs an editor. The folksy style doesn't lend itself well to the exposition needed for worldbuilding and Shaver's fascination with making up his own language.

For a man who is derided for his fascination with the paranormal, Shaver's chemistry is surprisingly crunchy. More than one compound and ore that sounded like blatant unobtanium actually exist with the compositions Shaver describes.

There are massive "Lost City of Z" vibes here, which shouldn't be a surprise as pulp was smitten with the real-life adventures of Colonel Percy Fawcett, who inspired elements of the adventure pulps, hero pulps, and the weird pulps.

As a result, I would love to see what Shaver might have done in an Argosy-style adventure. He had the formula and the verisimilitude. But the paranormal and the pseudoscientific were instead his fascination--and his reputation among the "notables" of science fiction fandom suffered for it.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

The Iron God and Cardigan: Death Alley

Jack Williamson's career in science fiction is long and distinguished, starting with his first story, sold to Hugo Gernsback in 1928, and enduring into the 21st century. He is perhaps best known for his Legion of Space. And, to be fair, I wish my introduction to him was there.

Instead, curiosity got the better of me when I saw "The Iron God" in SFFAudio's Public Domain files. The combination of dive bombers attacking a metal giant and a science fiction story published in Marvel was too much to pass up.

Unfortunately, time has not been kind to "The Iron God", as its hopeful optimism, mad science, and star child tropes have been ground into dust over the resulting seventy and more years of science fiction magazines, books, and drive-in movies have copied the same themes and plot elements. And the sea change that accompanied post-modernism shifted views about science away from the path to a rosier dawn towards the leading suspect of who will kill our tomorrows. From that vantage point, the clumsy attempt of a mad scientist to create a New Man who would not heed the Old Lies serve more as a warning against secret kings than a reproach of a species that kills what it doesn't understand.

That said, the reason "The Iron God" does not shine has more to do with the dross that followed it than it's own faults. At best, it is average. Really, the radioplay of the doomed dive bombers is the highlight.

Pulp fiction's fascination with Colonel Percy Fawcett continues, as the mad scientist father of the Iron God disappears into the South American jungles. However, it has changed from men of action and science like Doc Savage into brilliant lab rats content with mere moral victories.

I'll try Williamson again, as his presence inspired and shaped much of traditional science fiction since before the Campbelline Age. But this time, I'll stick closer to the beaten path


Black Mask alumni Frederick Nebel's Jack Cardigan was one of the main reasons behind the success of the legendary Dime Detective Magazine. Cardigan first appeared in, "Death Alley."

This is a tale for jazz and bourbon. Cardigan's partner is dead--done in by drive-by--and the case is apparently closed. Only Cardigan believes otherwise. It doesn't take long for Cardigan, P. I. to find trouble, both with the crooks and with the law. Said trouble sends the rest of his private detective office into the hospital. After all, St. Louis is a rough city--and a blissful change from New York or Chicago.

The familiar hand of Lester Dent's Master Formula can be felt guiding events. Cardigan gets dropped into one peril after another, and not all he can fight his way out of. The murders of the detectives cross over with a spot of trouble that a newly widowed heiress finds herself in, drawn together into one final standoff, and a public gunfight.

"Death Alley" truly is a perfect four-chapter execution of Dent's formula, awash in gin, whiskey, and tobacco smoke. Compared to the more adventurous Race Williams, Cardigan actually has to rely on some proper sleuthing--and an ability to ferret out connections as tenuous as smoke. It isn't noir, Cardigan is never tempted and is instead vengeance personified as he searches for the killer, but you can see it from here.

There's something about Black Mask writers that, even when riddled by slang now long out of date, their prose has a freshness to it that the 1930s hero pulps and 40s science fiction lack. Even when the hard-boiled stories are dated, they aren't. Nebel is no exception. That's not to say that I didn't have to rely on a dictionary a click or so away for a couple terms. But in the end, with the required and satisfying twist, I want to see this done on the silver screen in proper black and white.

Monday, November 4, 2019

The Whisperer; Six Pyramids of Death

Out of the foggy night steps a ghostly figure in gray -- The Whisperer! His super-silenced automatics spitting blue flame, he hurls a hissing challenge to the Law and lawless alike! And hot on his crooked trail, legendary lawman Wildcat Gordon!

In "The Six Pyramids of Death", Commissioner James "Wildcat" Gordon starts sneaking around a countess's house in the guise of The Whisperer, a vigilante in the same ominous mode as The Shadow. While searching for evidence that would convict the countess, The Whisperer gets mired in a net of bad luck--and frequent blows to the back of his head. For when he wakes up, he observes a secret meeting as cutthroats argue over six golden pyramids. But as the pyramids start disappearing, the cutthroats start dying. While The Whisperer is caught in a web of death, Commissioner Gordon must also fen off the machinations of his hostile mayor.

Billed as the most violent series Street & Smith ever published, The Whisperer wears its homage to The Shadow on its sleeve. Everything in that classic formula is present, from the ominous atmosphere to the brooding in the shadows, a radio-friendly calling card, and the twin automatics. Even the cadence of the story matches The Shadow, including the refrain of "For the man watching from the hiding place was The Whisperer."  Unfortunately, when assembling that classic formula, something broke along the way, as the sum is decidedly less than the parts.

Wildcat Gordon turns into The Whisperer through the addition of dental plates that build out his jaw. The catch is, they also affect his voice, reducing it to the whisper that gives his alter-ego his name. A novel solution to the quandary facing any vigilante trying to hide his identity--and one more convincing than the Moon Man's--but it undermines the ominous mystery of The Whisperer with weakness. Worse still, The Whisperer gets knocked out on a regular basis in this story. While it gives Gordon personal stakes in bringing the criminals to justice--or a grave, for the murderers--With how many times someone has snuck up on and decked the Whisperer, it's a wonder he still has a secret identity...or a life.

On top of that, the mood whiplash continues, replacing the dark, brooding ominous man of shadows with the folksy, good old boy commissioner. Knowing too much about the man behind the mask does undermine the story. Why not a folksy good old boy? Because, at least in fiction, most good old boys settle matters directly, without all the theatrics and sophistication a man of the shadows must use. But what is believable is the violence.

As for six pyramids of death, which have been an afterthought not just in this review, but in the story, a more classic example of a MacGuffin will be hard to find. There's no mystery here, just a lure to get the gunmen shooting at each other, and the reason for their existence is a disappointing capstone to such a violent treasure hunt.

For writers, the prose of The Whisperer is an object lesson. As Lester Dent says, wave those tags. Not only does it give readers quirks that identify characters, but they also allow writers to use more than full names and pronouns to refer to their characters. This is especially helpful in action scenes, where the constant usage of a character's full name brings The Whisperer's fights too close to the dreaded checklist.

The sum total is that in "The Six Pyramids of Death", The Whisperer misses the mark of the hero pulps. As such, he is more notable as being one of the many inspirations swept up into the plagiaristic Batman than for his own adventures.

Friday, November 1, 2019

Knights of the Open Palm

The June 1923 issue of Black Mask was notable, not only for its anti-Klu Klux Klan theme, but also for the appearance of the first hard-boiled detective, Carroll John Daly's Race Williams. Per pulp expert Robert Sampson,
"that strains the definition of detective. A hired adventurer who may occasionally detect if he blunders into a clue the size of a bathtub and painted bright pink. He has little use for clues, even less for chains of reasoning." 
Indeed, many of Willaims' first cases owe more to adventure pulps than the long already storied detective genre. But to listen to Race Williams describe himself:
“I’m what you might call a middleman – just a halfway house between the cops and the crooks. I do a little honest shooting once in a while – just in the way of business, but I never bumped off a guy who didn’t need it..."
And in his first adventure, "Knights of the Open Palm", plenty of hooded goons need a little honest shooting. Race Williams is paid to retrieve a son held by the local chapter. The result is part infiltration of a secret society and part Western in hard-boiled clothes--the classic Man from Nowhere who wanders into a town run by a mob of crooks and toughs. But when the Klan tries to intimidate Race Williams, he stands firm and intimidates them back.

No Western--or two-fisted detective story--would be complete without a shootout. It's hard not to imagine this as Tombstone in 1920s Ohio. And, at the end, the white hat, er, Race Williams rescues the kidnapped boy and inspires the town to rise up against the Klan. After all, it is tough for a gang to intimidate people when a newcomer just killed four goons. There's no rabble-rousing on Race's part, just a tough man showing the powerlessness of bullies.

From the first, it is blatantly obvious is that there's no love here for the Klan, but not for the same reasons they're shunned today. Here, they're treated like racketeers and mobsters, a danger to both black and white. The Klan is revealed to be hucksters. "And you got'a have ten dollars--thought if you've got the ten the rest of it can be straightened out." "It" being the race and religion "requirements" to join this "esteemed" organization. The reason why the criminality is emphasized over race? There are a lot of sticky fingers underneath those robes when it comes time for intimidation, which attracts certain types of goons by the trainload.

While some of the slang is dated, the first-person narration is straightforward and current, lacking the "purple prose" that many people knock the pulps for. As far as lessons, the moral here, that hatred breeds criminality, is one that we're likely to relearn the hard way.

Monday, October 28, 2019

In Another World with CEOs

Here's a pair of reviews dealing with the unlikely mix of business and otherworldly fantasy. For those who prefer their fantasy to be more adrenaline-fueled than cutthroat cozy, expect a surprise soon.

In Andrew Karevik's  CivCEO, Charles Morris, a forcibly retired CEO, is spirited away by mistake to another world. Abandoned to his own devices, yet gifted with the same skills as an otherworldly champion, Charles settles into the the role of mayor for a small village. But when the villagers discover Charles lacks the blessing of their goddess, they give him an ultimatum: improve the prosperity of the village in a month or die. Now Charles must draw on fifty years of business skills to grow his village--and keep away from the gallows pole.

CivCEO is a variation of the growing dungeon builder genre of litRPG fantasy, bringing the management and building aspects above ground and into the light of day. Like many a dungeon builder and litRPG, CivCEO is exposition-heavy as it explains Charles' various strategies for trade and development, albeit without abusing statistics sheets. Unlike said litRPGs, CivCEO does not get swept up into epic world-changing events over the horizon. Instead, it settles in among a cozier setting of Charles' village and its nearby neighbors. And it's this coziness, combined with Charles' goal of making sure that both sides of a deal come out ahead, that gives CivCEO its charm.

Light novels are admittedly wish-fulfillment literature, often shaped around the race for power, respect, and popularity. Middle-Aged Businessman, Arise in Another World!, by Sai Sumimori, upends the usual light novel formula by appealing to a different set of wishes. The main character, Onigawara Shouzou, starts as a successful head of his household with a happy and adoring wife and three loving, well-behaved daughters. Instead of being a burned-out salaryman, Shouzou owns his own home, enjoying the benefits of being a measured risk-taker, a mentor to his employees, an trusted adviser to his bosses. And that’s all before the cosmic accident that sends Shouzou and his family to another world.

Upfront, Middle-Aged Businessman is a gimmick series, with average writing. Like most gimmick light novels, the main character goes a little too readily from success to success and stock situation to stock situation, so it is not a particularly deep work. The appeal is in the novelty. And a happy middle-aged man fulfilled through his work and his adoring family is quite the novel concept for a light novel. Not that this is aimed at middle-aged men, but at the teen and young adult crowd. Actual young adults who could use an example of what life as a middle-aged man should be, not the salaryman burnouts and disaffected, alienated teens who are flooding the genre.

Volume one established the isekai portal fantasy premise, with Shouzou choosing what is best for his family instead of adventuring. He establishes a guild, adds value to it to be competitive in a cutthroat market, and, through his experience in the real world, earns respect and success from his coworkers and the new world’s society.

Volume two focuses more on mentoring. And this time, Shouzou has more of a challenge. Here, he must mentor a lazy, fat failure of a prince into being a man. His advice–mostly given through example, action, and carefully arranged encounters–sounds familiar to certain corners of the internet. Work hard, lift heavy weights, talk to a pretty girl, stop living for approval of other people. Care about yourself and try to improve every day. And it works. Which is the most novel idea of this series. There have been plenty of anime/manga/light novel attempts to motivate boys like the prince into more productive members of society. This is the first time I’ve seen them get actual useful and practical advice. Most previous attempts have the same effect as throwing a whiskey bottle at a recovering alcoholic.

Unfortunately, novelty only lasts so long. This is an otherwise unremarkable story caught up in as many standard light novel conventions as the otherworld fantasy setting allows a man and his family. And by the end of the second book, the welcome is growing a bit thin. But portrayals of happy families are rare enough in the medium that the first book is worth a read by light novel fans.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Detective Fiction

I recently had the chance to contribute to a list of (mostly) 1970s and before crime and detective fiction, to include a healthy leavening of pulp and dime novel stories. Below is the final version of said list, mixing classics such as Arsene Lupin and Raffles with a host of Black Mask authors and a smattering of admittedly guilty pleasures such as The Destroyer, Kinky Friedman, and Fletch.

I'm looking forward to reading many of these in an upcoming project...

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Valerian and Laureline: Shingouzlooz Inc.

2010’s The Time Opener saw Valerian and Laureline’s forty-plus year search across space and time for the missing Earth come to an end. Soon after, Pierre Christin and artist Jean-Claude Mézières opened up their universe to a select few writers and artists, to write adventures from the time-travelling couple’s past–or perhaps even their future. Shingouzlooz Inc., by Wilfrid Lupano and Mathieu Lauffray, is the first to appear before English-speaking audiences, reuniting Valerian and Laureline with the series’ stool-pigeon troublemakers, the Shingouz.
Once again, the Shingouz run towards Laureline to make everything better, interrupting Valerian’s important negotiations with galactic bankers in the process. This time, the Shingouz somehow managed to gain ownership over the Earth, only to lose it in a poker game to the notorious Sha-oo, the Desiccator of Worlds. Sha-oo has designs on the Earth’s oceans, as well as special plans for Laureline. While Valerian struggles with quantum commodities and finance, it is up to Laureline to save Earth–if she doesn’t strangle the Shingouz first.
Shingouzlooz Inc. contains all of the whimsy and humor of the core Valerian and Laureline series, and none of its subtlety. While some of this comes from extending the normal couple pages of Shingouz cameo into a book length story, much of the humor relies on puns, including the elusive quantuna fish and glaringly obvious foretelling in the Shingouz’s unsuccessful holding company–Shingouzlooz, Inc.. But the same lack of subtlety affects the story as well. Valerian and Laureline has never shied away from social issues, but Christin and Mézières show the effects of masculinity, femininity, greed, and corruption throughout the graphic novels and without resorting to lecture. Lupano instead uses a snide reference to ocean pollution to save the Earth’s seas and lets Laureline rant about colonialism like an ingenue on her way to university.
Perhaps the biggest loss, however, is Laureline’s most potent weapon–her charm. Her role has been to show that persuasion is preferable to action. In Shingouzlooz Inc., Laureline is angry enough to use Valerian’s direct methods exclusively. Granted, the loss of Earth to Sha-oo through such dubious circumstances as a poker game has everyone violently upset, but Sha-oo’s plans to recover his losses in acquiring Earth include selling thousands of limited edition Laureline waifu clones throughout the galaxy. So Laureline’s sudden bouts of violence are understandable. Meanwhile, and just as uncharacteristically, Valerian uses persuasion to bargain his way into securing the funds needed on his assignment.
If Lauffray’s Long John Silver (reviewed here) was a book of vivid reds and inky shadows, he imbues each page and panel of Shingouzlooz Inc. with brilliant blues–as befitting such an ocean-centric book. The character designs combine the classic look established by Mézières with the costuming and actors from the Valerian movie (reviewed here) into a more realistic look without resorting to the heavy linework found in Long John Silver. The result is an evocative homage to the classic series while still remaining distinct. I look forward to more works by Mathieu Lauffray.
At its heart, Shingouzlooz Inc. is a fanservice book. Not just in the alluring poses of the Laureline clones, each taken from panels of Christin and Mézières’ years of work, but in the art and story itself. Among the treats for fans of the comic book are the return of beloved characters, artistic homages to favorite scenes of the past, and the Laurelines’ outfits. Meanwhile, the character designs and Laureline’s sudden action girl turn are designed to appeal to fans of the Valerian movie. While the intertwining paths of Valerian and Laureline through Shingouzlooz Inc. are accessible to newcomers, fans will get more out of the resonances and references.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

The Last Ancestor

Alexander Hellene’s The Last Ancestor follows the last remnant of Christianity in the galaxy, now on the alien planet of Yxakh. Refugees from persecution on Earth, the survivors of the long flight across the stars. But they are not alone on their new home. A lizard-like race nicknamed the Growlers shares the planet, and  their rulers have found Christianity as much of a threat as the rulers of Earth did. Only human technology and bravery keep an uneasy peace.
But while proximity breeds conflict, it also fosters curiosity. Garrett has forged a friendship with a Growler youth named Ghryxa over countless dives into caves and crash sites. What they encounter below the surface of Yxakh will carry Garrett into the Growlers’ Forbidden City and into the presence of the High Lord. A single world may doom humanity to extermination–or save it.
Action is the heart of The Last Ancestor, as ravenous lizardmen, Growler bullies, thrashing mega-predators, and even human police stand in the way of Garrett’s fateful appointment before the High Lord. Bravery takes many guises along the way: trickery, bluff, gunfire, grappling, and even escape. Although there is a philosophical question at the heart of the clash of cultures, it is not debate, but courageous and even rash action which settles the matter. It is one matter to profess faith, and another to wed it to deeds. And the action in The Last Ancestor is swift and perilous enough to bear the momentousness needed to perhaps sway the enraged and powerful. And, even more tellingly, The Last Ancestor does not shy away from the costs–both to Garrett and to the human settlement on Yxakh.
For The Last Ancestor was written out of frustration with Christian fiction steeped in weak protagonists, heavy-handed messages, surrenders to passivity, and unearned happy endings. And the response, like those of Vaughn Heppner and John C. Wright, is to marry decisive action and honest belief with coming-of-age stories. Alexander Hellene is but the first in a sudden wave of authors to move a masculine and deeds-based Christianity into science fiction, and he does so without falling into the cliches of either genre. For one, it is a relief to read of a clash of civilizations written without resorting to First Contact tropes.
The Last Ancestor calls to mind Jack Vance’s The Last Castle, both in the threat to humanity and in the ever-present mysteries that are but an arm’s reach away. The viewpoint, however is from the threatened oppressed, instead of the threatened oppressor, and the result draws more from the accounts of the lives of saints than the thin triumphalisms of previous Christian fiction and the faith in rational science.
But all that makes for pleasant ruminations in the hours after reading the very real story of a young man diving headfirst into mighty deeds as he tries to do right by his family, his friends, his people, and his God.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Tower of the Bear, Heart of Winter, and Eden

Fenton Wood’s Yankee Republic series returns in Tower of the Bear, sending radio engineer Philo Hergenschmidt into the depths of the sea, across the amber waves of grain, and into legends half-remembered to search for the secrets of an impossible metal alloy.
Tower of the Bear continues to create a world where all the legends and tall tales of Philo’s boyhood are not only true, but even stranger than he previously imagined. Science fiction typically pays lip service to the much-vaunted sense of wonder, but Philo breathes it in with every page, whether racing Russians to the bottom of the Arctic Sea with Captain Nemo, delving the secrets of a Library of Everything, or following in an exiled tyrant’s footsteps into the Indian Nations of the West. Yet Philo–and the whole of the Yankee Republic series–deftly navigates the opposing demands of wonder and practicality, and his hard-won radio skills only add to the grandeur of the legends he walks among in an America that never was–but should have been.

In Nick Horth’s novella, Heart of Winter, aelven corsair Arika Zenthe’s unsuccessful bid to kill her pirate king father places her as his pawn instead. Now she must find the Heart of Winter, an ancient magical artifact with the power to destroy cities, before the poison in her veins kills her, knowing full well that if she succeeds, her father will sacrifice her to extend his life by centuries.
Heart of Winter is a Warhammer novella set in the Age of Sigmar campaign. Like most media tie-in fiction, it is a serviceable example of its genre, in this case, a rogue’s form of heroic fantasy. It also means that the stories cannot rock the boat of the greater setting, which denies Arika of the permanent and satisfying end of a final confrontation with her father. However, what sets Heart of Winter ahead of its pack of ten Warhammer novellas is the imaginative beginning where a fleet of pirates attempt to storm the pirate king’s flagship. This terror of the seas is built on, around, and in the sides of a leviathan, and the action does not shy away from using the organic setting of the monster’s hide, mouth, and viscera without resorting to gore porn.

Vaughn Heppner’s Eden closes out the first trilogy of the Lost Civilizations series with holy warrior Joash trying to escape from Nephilim captivity. But the crafty sons of fallen angels trick him instead into helping him find the last relic from Heaven on Earth, believed to be the only way the giants can defeat the angel guarding Eden. Meanwhile, the Elonite armies, led by the Seraph Lord Uriah, pursue the Nephilim in a desperate attempt to keep the brutal giants from eating from the Tree of Life and proclaiming themselves as gods over the Earth.
Not every test a hero faces is one of strength or arms. Here, Joash’s wits, endurance, and will are tested, first by the Nephilim captors, and then again by the purifying aura of Heaven radiated by the relic. Even though the clashes of wits and philosophy between Joash and the might makes right beliefs of the Nephilim occasionally–and uncharacteristically–grow tin-eared, Joash’s feats of endurance rival those found in classic sword and sorcery. Heppner never undermines the verisimilitude of the pre-Flood era with modern detatchment or judgements. But strength of arms is not neglected either. The Elonites and the Nephilim clash in a battle worthy of song. And throughout all is woven the legend of the zealous Elonite Lod, dread foe to the sons of the fallen angels. For the fight for Eden is but one cataclysm that might befall the pre-Flood world, and Lod marches to prevent the next.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019


After their harrowing escape from the giants and First Born of Jotunheim, Joash and the Elonite warriors wait off-shore for a message from the wandering Lod, whose visions may hold the key to understanding the sudden moves of the Nephilim and their children. But the First Born are still hunting for the Elonites with all their servants. Now Joash must evade the roving patrols of giant pterodactyls, vampiric Gibborim, and even fleets of pirates as the Lord of the Elonites waits for a message that may never come. And then the giants rouse a legendary sea serpent to pursue the Elonites on sea…
While Leviathan might be the second in the now eight book Lost Civilizations series, it is the middle book of a trilogy featuring Joash’s adventures as a Seraph, a holy warrior for Elohim, and the mood follows the classic form of the trilogy. Leviathan is darker, moodier, and more perilous than its predecessor, Giants . Not only do the nets of the brutal Nephilim tighten around the Elonites, but the plans of the First Born are also laid bare. The children of the Fallen Ones aim to challenge even the angels to rule the world forever. Even as hope dies, mighty deeds still await for the Elonites, with Joash’s hunt of a giant pterodactyl a highlight in this more somber book. For faith in Elohim is not a passive one, and Joash and his Seraphs are called to fight evil, not endure it.
Also of interest are the first steps towards the impending clash of zealous Lod and vicious Red Cain. At this early stage, it seems to be a confrontation between Solomon Kane and Conan.
Leviathan serves as an excellent example of heroic fantasy and religious-milieu fiction. It is ironic that independent publishing, not traditional, has freed writers from word bloat, and heroic fantasy thrives in shorter novels compared to the doorstoppers of epic fantasy. The Lost Civilizations series focuses on the moment, revealing only the backstory and worldbuilding needed by its characters at this time and hinting at deeper lore. The perils and mighty deeds of heroic fantasy are more important to holding the reader’s attention, and the majority of the pages are spent on these. That focus also steers Leviathan away from the twin shoals of Biblical and religious fiction–preaching and passivity. Yes, the Elonites are men and women of faith, but the surrender and wait for God’s will stories of 90s Christian genre fiction are nowhere to be found. In the best traditions of heroic fantasy and its pulp forebears, Joash and the Elonites are decisive, eager to marry word and deed, and willing to endure the consequences of those decisions, even if it means chasing demon-spawn to the gates of Eden itself.
I eagerly look forward to reading Eden, the conclusion of this trilogy.