Saturday, August 13, 2016

The Alienist By Caleb Carr

The Alienist
By Caleb Carr
Copyright 1994

Caleb Carr, an historian of some renown, takes his ability to research and explain cultures of earlier times, the science of an earlier time, and a well plotted murder mystery and fold them into a riveting horror/mystery novel.

It’s 1896 and a serial killer is stalking the gay brothels of New York City. He’s abducting, mutilating, and murdering young boy prostitutes. Desperate for results and not trusting his corrupt detectives bureau, police commissioner Teddy Roosevelt assembles an unusual team to investigate the crime and identify the killer.

John Moore is a crime reporter for the New York Times and he tells the story. He is teamed with Dr. Laszlo Kreitzler, a psychologist which in the vernacular of the time were known as alienists. Kreitzler believes he can develop a psychological profile of the killer to help find him. Also joining the team are Marcus and Lucius Isaacson, a pair of brothers recently hired by Roosevelt as detectives. They utilize the new and unrecognized by courts technique of identifying suspects by fingerprints. The final member to join the team is Sara Howard, a secretary within the police department.

The team decides, with its expertise, it is going to utilize all the new police techniques to bring the killer to justice.

They don’t have to wait long to see their first victim. In lower Manhattan, a 13 year old boy, dressed as a girl while working as a prostitute, is founded murdered and mutilated. His eyes are missing. He is found in a kneeling position with his right hand chopped off and his genitals removed and placed in his mouth.

The team then learns of an earlier crime performed on another immigrant kid in lower Manhattan. They learn that this particular victim’s family learned what their son was doing on the streets and the father tried to beat him out of it. The boy ran away and took to life on the streets.

Along the way, Moore and Kreitzler and their team come up against a number of opposition groups – the groups who want to maintain the status quo in society. The gangsters who will use rabble rousing about the murders to put the establishment on their heels. Traditional cops who do not want their corruption exposed or their lack of ability. The churches of the area do not want their parishoners exposed. The monied interests – including J.P. Morgan – have an interest in assuring the investigation does not intrude upon their interests.

A little hard detective work in examining similar offenses many years before put them onto a suspect. This suspect was exposed to gore and violence by his ultra-religious father who showed him picture after picture of massacred Indians. Later, that child and his brother’s parents are found murdered. Local law enforcement assumed that the Indians had retaliated against the family. Kreitzler and Moore have their doubts.

They locate the brother of the young boy, living as a farmer in rural Massachusetts. Kreitzler and Moore talk to him and learn that the brother had been molested by a trusted friend of the family while on a hunting trip. His brother, he tells them, enjoyed torturing small animals.

With a suspect’s name in hand, the mission becomes one of finding the man they know has committed these atrocities. The forces opposed to them bring all that they have against him. Kreitzler’s maid and love of his life is murdered, driving him out of the organization. His house boy is beaten badly by those who do not want the killer exposed.

After a day working in the underworld of tenements in Lower Manhattan, they are on the trail of the man. The final confrontation happens on the man made water reservoir in Lower Manhattan where they confront the killer who has a victim in hand. The killer overpowers Kreitzler and Moore and ties them up. As he’s getting ready to kill his victim, Machine Gun Kelly’s men arrive on the scene and kill him, preventing Kreitzler from conducting the forensic psychological examination he so badly wants to conduct.

In the end, Commissioner Roosevelt is grateful for what they have done. A strong bond has formed between Kreitzler, Moore, and Sarah that promises to place them together in more similar adventures.

In The Alienist, Caleb Carr brings so many plot elements into play that the story does not fit into any particular police subgenre. It is not a procedural, although there is a lot of procedural in the story. Most of it is new and cutting edge for the time. The central, traditional element was the simple whodunit facet of the story. All of the other subplots and character developments sprung directly from the plot.

The real-life characters, embellished just a little for the purposes of the story, added a taste of historical fiction. With the time and place being Manhattan at the turn of the century, the historical elements are quite in play. Many authors will use one of these devices to tell an exciting, yet single faceted story.

Carr goes one better. He takes all of the elements of developing science, the real life players of turn of the century New York, the criminal and the nature of his crime, the nature of this victims, and created a story to be enjoyed by anyone who enjoys any of the police/mystery subgenres.

The story's climax had a bit of ex deus machinas that was a bit of a head slapper toward the end when all of the characters and their agendas arrived at the same place at the same time. But Carr sorts it out al to make it not quite as painful to read and a little easier to swallow.

The character development is good, but not great. Most of the book dealt with the plots and subplots. But we end up with a Kreitzler who has deep feelings for another woman. We have a Moore questioning his own profession as a reporter, and Sarah, questioning her role in crime detection as a woman and her relationship with Moore. All this lends itself easily to a sequel that came just a few years later.

This was a sold book from beginning to end. Well worth the time and effort invested in reading. A first rate story will keep the reader rivited while learning new and interesting facts in the history of detective work and science.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

End of Watch By Stephen King

End of Watch
Bill Hodges Trilogy Vol. 3
By Stephen King
Copyright 2016

Brady Hartsfield is locked in Lakes Region Traumatic Brain Injury Clinic. He is a vegetable. He can speak only a few words. Has just a little bit of motor control. Can barely communicate with those around him. As long as he remains in that state, he will not stand trial for attempting to blow up a rock concert.

He has found a friend in an obsolete hand-held video game system known as a Zappit. He stares at the game – particularly a fishing game – for many hours at a time. It keeps him occupied while he isn’t using newly developed telekinesis abilities to move objects around the room.

A doctor has taken a strong interest in Brady’s case. He is giving Brady experimental drugs, hoping to restore Brady’s senses. But Brady turns the tables and uses new found abilities given to him by the doctor to make the doctor part of his army of revenge.

Bill Hodges and his partner, Holly are quite successful in operating their detective agency, Finders Keepers. However, Bill has been sick lately and losing weight. Pain in his side has sent him to a doctor and he fears the diagnosis and prognosis are not going to be good.

They are invited to the scene of a murder suicide involving a mother and daughter. The daughter, completely paralyzed, had been one of Brady Hartsfield’s victims in the attack with the Mercedes Benz. While at the scene, he locates one of the Zappit game systems along with the letter Z drawn on an electrical outlet. They learn that the mother used the Zappit game quite frequently.

Later, while Bill is at the hospital checking up on his old pal, Brady, Jerome’s younger sister is narrowly missed by a delivery truck she tried to step out in front of. Bill is there to talk to her and she tells how she got the Zappit from someone handing them out for free in exchange for completing a survey.

Soon, with Holly’s help, Bill uncovers a scheme that had all of the Zappit game systems shipped to his town after the company went bankrupt. Through Holly’s tracking, they are able to track a mysterious Mr. Z and Dr. Z to one of Brady’s old colleagues from the electronic store. From her, they learn that all the Zappits – many of which were put specifically into the hands of those who attended the concert several years before that Brady intended to blow up – are programed to hypnotize their possessors and drive them to a website to convince them to commit suicide.

Meanwhile, Brady has taken up permanent residence in the head of his doctor – Dr. Z – and has driven off into the country to watch the results of his plan. Using their resources, Bill and Holly are able to track him down to a remote, wooded location. There, they confront Brady and put an end to the insanity.

Bill admits himself to the hospital to get treatment for his cancer. But it is too late and the cancer too far advanced. Bill dies, leaving the business to his friend, Holly.

End of Watch was a fitting end to the Bill Hodges trilogy. The first book was a lot about plain old detective work and not really my cup of tea. The second had many twists and turns and subplots that kept the plot moving and would have worked as a fine stand-alone novel. However, the third is an excellent race against time against a cunning evil.

This book – and all the Bill Hodges books – are shorter than the average King book. Therefore, minor character development – for which King is so famous for – suffers some. However, where there might have been backstory, there was action. The book was seldom ponderous nor were the characters other than Bill that introspective.

The other two other main characters, Holly Gibney and Brady Hartsfield, received substantial development in the first book which may have rendered Mr. Mercedes somewhat less action driven than the other two. They didn’t develop much beyond that, but they didn’t need to. The evil Brady Hartsfield was already evil and cunning enough to set up his diabolical plan. The neurotic Holly never got better – which made her believable – but never backslid into deep neurosis when the pressure was on.

This book involved more technical research than most King books and it is apparent that King’s researchers provided him with adequate material to build a techno-thriller that worked on a technological level. King, who admits he hates research, certainly put forth the effort to learn this material so it might not be picked apart by techno-geeks.

Stephen King rolled a lot of ideas into this short novel. The concept of pure evil. The supernatural element of mind and body control. A high-tech conspiracy. The constant pain of his hero which, since his accident, has been a staple of King’s writing. The end came in an old fashioned chase through a snow storm. Congratulations on weaving so much into such an easily digestible book.

End of Watch does not work as a stand-alone novel, unlike Finders Keepers. To understand it, one must read the two earlier books. End of Watch is a fine climax to a fine trilogy and will stand as one of the better books in the King canon.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

The October Country By Ray Bradbury

The October Country
By Ray Bradbury
Copyright 1953

The Dwarf

A dwarf comes to a carnival house of mirrors every night to stand before a mirror that makes him look tall. He inquires about purchasing such a mirror. The proprietor treats it like a joke and decides to play a joke on the dwarf. The consequences are dire.

This is relatively early Bradbury. He’s established, but still having to prove himself to the pulp editors. So, much of the whimsy that has come to characterize Bradbury’s writing is not there. However, it is a strong narrative and has two strong characters and a decent climax.

The Next in Line
A couple are stuck in a small Mexican village where their car broke down. While there, they tour a mausoleum of sorts where the dead whose families can not afford burial or grave maintenance are stored. The woman is haunted to the point of exhaustion and wants to leave. But those repairs are taking so long. . .

I didn’t think this story was very well written. Yes, Bradbury makes us aware of the woman’s creeping terror. But what is the reason? The mummies? The atmosphere of the strange little town? What? Why? And the twist, such as it was, was limp.

The Watchful Poker Chip of H. Matisse

George Garvey is the world’s biggest boor, with a vanilla house, a vanilla job, and vanilla opinions on everything. He finds himself at the middle of an avant garde movement that worships the complete and totally mundane. When his popularity starts to wane, he finds sacrificing body parts and having them replaced with unusual prosthetics keeps him hip.

If there is a metaphor here, it is lost on me. The story itself wasn’t good, so Bradbury must have been striving to reveal some subtext. Perhaps it is lost on me or lost to the ages.

A man develops a horrible phobia of his own skeleton, regarding as a separate being living inside his body. He fears it, loathes it, and believes it seeks to betray him at every turn. He finally finds the right guy to help him.

This story displays Bradbury’s gift for using the English language for maximum impact. However, the maximum impact of this story was minimal because it just wasn’t a good story.

The Jar
A country bumpkin buys a jar with an oddity preserved in it from a carnival freak show. He buys it to be popular with his neighbors. His neighbors are quite curious and stop by night after night to ponder what it is in the jar. When his wife insults him by talking to the man from whom he purchased it, he puts a new item in the jar.

This is the typical Bradbury fare that so many of us fell in love with as children. It involves grotesqueries and murder. But Bradbury finds a G-rating way to present the material making it palatable, entertaining, and appropriate for children.

The Lake
A man recalls his childhood visits to a lake for vacation and one time when his 10 year old friend drowned. The body was never recovered. He returns, many years later, with his new wife to find that a lifeguard has discovered a long submerged body of a child.

This story was moody and sorrowful. Wonderfully crafted, the story exhibits Bradbury’s ability to eschew whimsy and embrace darkness and sorrow.

The Emissary
A young, disabled boy stays in touch with the world through his dog, with whom he has a psychic connection, and a neighbor woman who comes to visit him. The woman dies and his dog runs off, only to return later to gift his master.

Bradbury strived for the same moodiness as The Lake, but didn’t quite hit the mark here.

Touched with Fire

Two men make it their lives’ work to bring happiness to other people. After several test runs, they are finally ready to try their first real run. They find a woman who has an unhappy life at home and work. The men try to work their magic and fail. They are dismayed.

This was not a particularly strong story nor was it based on a strong premise. I could see that Stephen King had tapped elements of this story for his book, Insomnia.

The Small Assassin
As she is giving birth, a woman becomes convinced that her baby is trying to kill her. The new parents take their baby home and the baby keeps them up all night, leaving the wife exhausted. Then other events, such as toys left lying on stairs lead to new tragedies. The husband becomes concerned and consults the doctor.

This is the dark, Bradbury fare that belongs in a book called The October Country. This is straight forward horror the likes of a young Stephen King could have appreciated. Great stuff from one of the masters.

The Crowd
A man is injured in a car crash and marvels at how quickly the crowd develops at the accident scene. He becomes obsessed with gawkers at auto crashes and who they are. He eventually learns the truth and joins them.

This charming story was a favorite of preteens and teens. Simple and creepy, it works at that level and can be enjoyed by adults. It was made into one the absolute best episodes of the Ray Bradbury Theater.

Jack in the Box
A boy’s existence is confined to his house and he knows nothing of the world outside. He has a mother and a teacher who seems to live in his house. He sees the outside only through his windows. But one evening, his mother is killed in an accident and the boy goes outside to confront the world for the first time.

This story was incredibly dark without being violent or macabre. The creepiness of how this boy sees simple things such as grass and sky highlights the pervasive sensory deprivation of its main character. It felt like a haunted house story without the ghost. Simply one of the finest stories I’ve ever read.

The Scythe
A desperate farmer and his family come across a farm whose previous owner if found in bed, dead, holding a single stem of wheat. With him is a scythe. The family moves in and the farmer begins to harvest wheat, using the scythe. He finds that he wields no ordinary scythe, nor is he reaping any ordinary harvest.

Like Jack in the Box, this story had a dark feeling that Bradbury creates so well. The premise is unique and interesting. The plot clicks right along and the story wraps up fabulously.

Uncle Einar
Uncle Einar is a man born with wings. One day, while flying home to Europe from a party in Missouri, Uncle Einar hits some power lines and is knocked out. A woman finds him and they soon fall in love and settle on her farm. But afraid of being seen, Uncle Einar quits flying and becomes miserable. Then, one day, his children provide a solution.

This is a child’s tale. Were it not set in our time, place, and world, it would be a fairy tale. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with the writing. But I was never a fan of fairy tales.

The Wind
A former adventurer is terrified by the wind. He believes that the weather is trying to kill him for having found the secret place from which all wind originates. He constantly calls his best friend with updates on his battle inside his home as the wind pursues him.

This is not the first story Bradbury has told about the weather being an intelligent, malevolent force. This one has a great sense of urgency and foreboding, making it an excellent read. It does not, however, measure up to the great short story, The Rainy Season from The Illustrated Man which makes one positively uncomfortable.

The Man Upstairs
A young boy watches his grandmother butcher chickens and becomes fascinated by what’s inside of animals. When a new border moves into the house who sleeps by day and works by night, he wonders if that man has the same stuff inside him that we all do. He finds out he doesn’t.

This one has the feel of the Greentown trilogy with the kid viewing older people as alien. The story is quite nondescript and the ending silly. A poor entry in this short story collection.

There Was an Old Woman
Death takes a stubborn old woman who refuses to die, leaving her soul behind to grouse about it. Determined to go on living, she goes to the funeral home to stop the mortician and reclaim her body.

I don’t mind Bradbury’s whimsy. I even enjoy it and embrace it. He tries whimsy in this story and just comes across as silly. I know this story is old. But this is a tired trope and Bradbury’s story is nothing new, original, or clever.

The Cistern
A pair of spinster sisters sit in a drab room. One sister works at her quilting. The other stares out into the rain and tells a chilling tale of a pair of dead lovers who reside in the storm sewers below the town.

This story had a somber and funereal narrative that created an appropriate mood for the reader. This and the next story, had they been more narrative and less dialogue driven, would have reminded me of H.P. Lovecraft in his Lord Dunsany phase.

Timothy is the oddball of the Elliott family (Uncle Einar’s family). He doesn’t like blood to drink, can’t fly or perform any other supernatural tricks. When his many generations of living family gather for a reunion, he wants to impress them with some ability to show he fits in. His telepathic sister plays a mean trick on him.

I’m not a fan of the Elliott family. Uncle Einar was not a particularly good story. This one had a little more emotion and a little less silliness. It worked much better than the earlier Elliott family tale.

The Wonderful Death of Dudley Stone
A fan of the writer, Dudley Stone travels to his home town to find out what happened to the great writer who suddenly disappeared from the writing scene twenty years prior. He finds Stone living a life of quiet and happy domesticity. Stone agrees to tell him of the incident that led him to quit riding and change his life.

There are a lot of stories like this about the reclusive writer everybody wants to talk to. King utilized it most recently in book 2 of his Bill Hodges trilogy, Finders Keepers. I once saw the trope employed on an episode of the sitcom, Frasier. Bradbury has no major twists or turns or anything sinister. The writer Stone just gained a new perspective on life.

Friday, July 15, 2016

The War of the Twins

The War of the Twins
Dragonlance Legends, Vol. 3
By Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickman
Copyright 1986

The War of the Twins picks up in the aftermath of the Cataclysm and the destruction of the world above. Raistlin, Caramon, and Crysania are in the Tower of High Sorcery. Raistlin establishes his dominance over the ghosts who live there and is deemed master of the tower. He sets out to find the portal to the Abyss that will allow him and Crysania to travel there. The portal has moved.

After dispatching Caramon to reconnoiter the nearby city, Raistlin goes to the library where Astinus tells him the portal has moved to the great Dwarven city of Zhaman. Raistlin knows his history and knows there is going to be a great war fought there between Hill Dwarves, the Dwarves of Tharbodin, and an army of humans under the leadership of Fistandantulas. History is repeating itself.

As they leave the city, they are ambushed by a group of ruffians led by a half ogre creature. While some of the brigands discuss what they plan to do to Crysania, Caramon decides to challenge the big man to a fight. He beats the ogre and impresses the men who were once members of the now-discredited Knights of Solamnia. They agree to join him and start to call him general.

This suits Raistlin’s purpose. To travel safely, an army is a good escort. It will also help if they have to fight to get into Zhaman. Caramon picks up many followers along the way.

Meanwhile, poor Tasslehoff Burfoot ends up in the Abyss. He finds it to be a desolate place with no jails needed because there is no place to go. While there, he meets the gnome Gnish who fixes the time travelling device and lets them escape the Abyss.

The Army of Fistandantilus moves south toward the dwarven city. Meanwhile, the dwarves are trying to form an allegiance with their cousin Hill Dwarves to stop the human invasion. The bullheadedness of the respective leaders makes it impossible. The Hill Dwarves leave the negotiations and prepare for war against their cousins as food and gold supplies dwindle for both.

The Hill Dwarves join Caramon’s army and the group attacks Pax Tharkas, the fortress outside the Dwarf kingdom. With the help of the treacherous and traitorous Dark Dwarves, Caramon and his forces are able to secure the fortress.

The Dwarven hero, Kharas, leads a mission into Pax Tharkas to assassinate Raistlin. Kharas approaches Raistlin and delivers a dagger blow deep into Raistlin’s bow. Raistlin was defenseless because a Kender and a gnome show up in the middle of the struggle and distract Raistlin. Raistlin is taken to a chamber for his wounds to be assessed. Tasslehoff and Gnish are jailed.

Crysania is able to heal Raistlin. Meanwhile, Tas and Gnish both fall ill with a debilitating and killing disease in the dungeons. Raistlin is eager to talk to Tas and learn from his experiences. He goes to the dungeons and is able to save Tas. However, he lets Gnish die.

With the information he has from Tasslehoff about the Abyss, Raistlin is ready to access the portal and Crysania is ready to accompany him. They head there, with Caramon and Tasslehoff providing cover. Raistlin directs Caramon to return to his own time and resume his life. Caramon has resolved to do just that and let his brother go off on his quest for godhood alone. Then the group is attacked by rebellious dark dwarves. Raistlin and Crysania enter the portal. Tasslehoff activates the time travelling device to send them home. The explosion that results throws both groups off track of their desired destination.

The book ends up there as Raistlin and Crysania embark on their search for the Dark Queen Takhasis. Caramon and Tasslehoff will pick up their lives at home before the whole adventure started.

This book was like many second books in a trilogy. The characters are already introduced and developed. The plot has been put in motion. Now, the plot has to advance substantially to allow the third book to steadily bring about the climax. War of the Twins fulfills all those roles adequately.

One character develops substantially in this book and that is Caramon. Through the first entire trilogy and the first book of this second trilogy, Caramon has always been a bit of a muscle-bound doofus. He’s bound to his brother and endures his emotional abuse stoically, never letting it alter his loyalty.

Caramon climbs a steep slope in his character arc. He emerges as a leader as he builds and leads the Army of Fistandantulus. He plans logistics, supply lines, troop placements, and training. All this he does without soliciting advice from his brother.

He is also finally able to separate his fate from his brother. He accepts he can not, nor does he want to follow his brother into the Abyss. Raistlin’s dreams are beyond him. He resolves to take Tas and go home to live out his life with his wife.

Raistlin is revealed as fallible. He is susceptible to love. He constantly has to fight his feelings for Crysania to keep his eyes on his prize. He also makes a critical mistake that almost costs him his life when he loses his spell when Tas and Gnish arrive. We also see that it is not only dark thoughts and goals Raistlin harbors. When he allows Gnish to die, we see he is indeed, evil.

Tas is Tas is Tas and while he did develop emotional complexity in the first trilogy. However, he’s the same character now that he was at the beginning of the first book and, in fact, plays but a minor role in War of the Twins.

What this novel lacked was a great deal of action. The war, treachery, and double dealing were all interesting and the interactions on and off the battlefield were complex. However, the march, as they often are, was boring. The novel really lagged in the middle before arriving at the battle.

Like all second novels in a trilogy, it ended with a cliffhanger that indicated something is going to go wrong with either Raistlin and Crysania or Tas and Caramon.

The book served its purpose as part of the trilogy. Raistlin is in his final pursuit of the Queen. Caramon is on his way home with Tas. Something has gone wrong. It moved the plot along and developed the characters. Now, on to the Test of the Twins and the final installment.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

The Fireman By Joe Hill

The Fireman
By Joe Hill
Copyright 2016

Fire in the form of Spontaneous Human Combustion is taking over the earth. People everywhere are bursting into flames with just moments notice. The precursor of the event is a golden skin rash called Dragonscale. Society slowly falls into hell.

Amidst the chaos is a nurse Harper Grayson. She cares for the ill at work for many hours a day before returning to her home she shares with her boyfriend, Jakob. Harper compares herself to Mary Poppins with her unbridled positive attitude. Jakob is a bit more dour and is concerned about her work at the hospital and becoming infected. He makes a pact with her. If they become infected, they will not burst into flames as so many others have. They will end it with pills she will steal from the hospital.

One day at work, with the afflicted coming in in lines, a fireman brings a small boy to the front of the line and insists that he be treated first. The hospital security is about to toss him when Harper steps in and defuses the situation. The boy is afflicted, as is the fireman. The fireman leaves the boy in the care of the hospital.

Soon, Harper finds Dragonscale’s telltale marks on her arms. She also finds out she’s pregnant. Jakob is distraught and Harper does her best to keep it under control. But when the hospital where she works burns down, there’s nothing left for her to do except spend time with her husband at home except when he’s out working for the city road crews.

Harper decides that, no matter what, she is going to try to have her baby. She is not going through with the death pact. Jakob has different ideas and comes home to end it for them both. When a fight ensues, Harper escapes into the woods behind their house. There, she finds that same fireman who came into her hospital weeks before. He rescues her and delivers to a place called Camp Wyndham.

Camp Wyndham is a remote summer camp where people afflicted have come to hide from the incineration squads that now roam the streets. At first, Camp Wyndham seems idyllic with people caring for each other, standing guard, and providing food. They commune and sing songs which allows them to enter The Bright which is a sort of collective emotional state that brings piece and keeps the horrible effects of the disease at bay.

Things start to deteriorate at Camp Wyndham when Harper and the Fireman undertake a mission to rescue two men pinned down by an incineration crew near the local municipal complex. They are joined by the camp’s leader, Father Storey. The Fireman uses his ability to channel Dragonscale into creating great pyrotechnic displays to distract the crew and Harper rescues the men. However somebody bashes Father Storey over the head and sends him into a coma.

The camp is taken over by Father Storey’s daughter, Carol. Without a doctor, Harper is charged with the care of Father Storey. She is watched day and night by Carol’s lieutenants but still manages to sneak away to meet with the Fireman. They and a few others plot to leave Camp Wyndham and head for a place known as Martha Quinn Island (named for THAT Martha Quinn) where there is care for the sick, food, educational facilities, and civilization.

Before they can leave, they are betrayed. Father Storey dies and it is revealed that he was murdered and Harper is framed. As the camp is about to mete out the ultimate justice to Harper, the Fireman, and their coconspirators, they are attacked by an incineration crew led by the infamous shock jock, The Marlboro Man and Jakob. Harper, the Fireman, and a couple others escape the inferno and head for Martha Quinn Island.

They make their way across the scorched Maine landscape. This part of America is destroyed and most vestiges of society are gone. Still, they are helped along the way by people who leave out food and water. Meanwhile, Jakob pursues them relentlessly.

They finally have their showdown with Jakob and then make their way to the reception center for Martha Quinn Island. There, they find the ultimate betrayal.

There was a lot to like about The Fireman and I was entranced by this novel for about the first three quarters of it. Then, Hill start rushing his plot, and it sort of fell apart.

Camp Wyndham’s political and social dynamics were fascinating and kudos to Joe Hill for conjuring a multi-layered society where everybody’s motives are hinted at, but revealed in a surprising fashion. I felt there was something sinister going on in Camp Wyndham. It all seemed so innocent and pure on the surface and I thought perhaps I was seeing sinister intent where there was none. That kept me turning pages.

It falls apart after the escape from Camp Wyndham. The journey across Maine could have been so much more. I love writers who can bring a post apocalypse alive with vivid imagery and action. Hill never really develops that. The characters move and move and move. There are a series of actions written without feeling. There is no interaction with outside characters who could elaborate on what happened there. They do not visit any cities or towns that tell the story of the breakdown of society in the wake of the fires that scorched Maine. There was so much story left on the table here it hurt the novel badly.

The climax and twist were not telegraphed, but were easily guessed because it all seemed too good to be true. Again, it all seemed rushed. Captured, escaped, and rescued all quite quickly. We never learned anything about Martha Quinn Island’s development or why the pretense was developed. The villains were not developed. Their motives never explained. Again, a lot of story left on the table that could have added another rich layer to this novel.

Harper is a wonderful character. Hill develops her marvelously. You root for her. But the Fireman, for whom the novel is named, is rather one dimensional. There is no backstory to speak of. He does what he does because he needs to do it for the plot. He’s not developed as heroic, anti-heroic, noble, or anything. He’s just a tool to move the plot. This is the chief failure of the novel and a bitter disappointment.

Hill does doff his cap to a few who influenced him. The name, Camp Wyndham, is an obvious tribute to John Wyndham who authored Day of the Triffids – one of the great post-apocalyptic novels of all time. The Fireman, when it’s good, resembles Day of the Triffids. There is also a cat named Truffaut. This is a more veiled acknowledgement of Ray Bradbury who authored the best book about burning. Francois Truffaut directed the movie adaptation of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. But why Martha Quinn? I guess only Joe Hill knows.

In anticipation of the book’s release, many were hoping for something similar to Stephen King’s The Stand. The Fireman is not in the same league as that book. King put as much effort into the single character, The Trashcan Man’s journey, as Hill did into the entire final third of his novel. King also provided a rich tapestry of post apocalyptic America. He explored its sociology, theology, and underpinned his tragedy with subplots and vignettes. Hill does none of that.

The Fireman
was not a bad reading experience. I was riveted the first two thirds of the book and really enjoyed trying to figure out what was going on behind the scenes of Camp Wyndham. After that, it was quite unsatisfying and a letdown. It was a good story, but it could have been so much more.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

The Wolf’s Hour By Robert McCammon

The Wolf’s Hour
By Robert McCammon
Copyright 1989

What is a lycanthrope in the eyes of God?

Michael Gallatin, British spy and Russian werewolf. He reconciles his dual existence to become a hero of D-day.

The Wolf’s Hour tells two tales. It tells the story of spy Michael Gallatin infiltrating the upper echelons of the Nazi command to gather intelligence about a possible counter operation to thwart the D-Day invasion and the story of young Michael Gallatin who is bitten by a werewolf as a child and becomes a werewolf.

Mikhail Gallatinov is the young son of a Russian general loyal to the Tsar. One day, while his family is on a picnic in the Russian countryside, the Bolsheviks catch up with his family and assassinate all but Michael who is off in the woods. After the attack, the soldiers and Michael are attacked by wolves. The wolf spares his life and he is taken to a remote castle where he soon joins a small pack of lycanthropes who live there in secret.

Michael is raised by this pack, learning to hunt and learning all that he will need to eventually function in normal society including languages, mathematics, and history. Eventually, the Russian soldiers catch up with the pack and all of Michael’s new family is slaughtered. He escapes and makes his way to Great Britain.

Many years later, with his name changed to Gallatin, he is a retired British spy, having earned hero status in Libya during the desert campaign. While there, his lover is murdered by a German spy. Heartbroken, he retreats to his English castle.

He is approached by the British and Americans about infiltrating the German command to learn more about a possible attempt to thwart the D-day invasion. He parachutes into occupied France and, with the help of the French resistance, makes his way to Berlin. There, he is invited to a private club popular with the German high command, posing as a German baron and lover of a popular German film star who is part of the resistance.

With information provided by a French spy named Adam who tells him about an operation called “Iron Fist” he seeks out a German artist who assisted in the project, a chemical plant owner who makes deadly gas, and the man who assassinated his lover a few years prior.

Michael learns that the artist was hired to paint bullet holes on an aircraft. He also painted a caricature of Hitler on the plane, much in the style of American and British aviators paint the noses of their planes. He also learns that the Germans are developing a new, potent gas for an unknown purpose. Gallatin eventually puts it all together. The Germans plan to fly a plane disguised as a wounded American bomber to London where they plan to drop their horrible gas, killing the English in a most horrid way.

Before he can counter the Germans, he is captured and placed aboard a train by the man who murdered his lover in Libya. He is forced to run a deadly gauntlet of traps through the plane why the skilled hunter stalks him. Gallatin outwits him and escapes. He returns to Berlin and he and his fellow spies make their way to the remote island where the gas is being developed.

Once there, they launch an attack on the plant and are able to destroy it. But the shipment of gas has already departed, on its way to a Dutch airfield where it will be placed on the disguised bomber and delivered to London on the eve of D-Day.

The group travels to the remote airfield and confront the Nazis. The plane takes off and Michael and his friends pursue it in a German aircraft. An air battle ensues and Gallatin and his friends are able to eventually take down the aircraft and save London and the Allied invasion.

The Wolf’s Hour followed Swan Song in McCammon’s library and is a worthy successor. In Swan Song, McCammon perfected the art of creating memorable and unusual characters with Sister being one of the strongest characters I’ve ever read in genre fiction. Michael Gallatin is similarly strong.

Going into The Wolf’s Hour, I was anticipating a character who was torn apart and guilt-ridden over his duel existence. Instead, McCammon turned the cliché on its head.

McCammon’s werewolves are noble creatures who are persecuted and forced to live in isolation. They live and love as humans. They are educated and refined. The adult Michael Gallatin is far from guilt-ridden. He embraces who and what he is and uses it to his advantage. That is far removed from Larry Talbot and his tortured existence.

McCammon makes Gallatin into a Bond type superhero without allowing the trope to devolve into a foolish cliché. He sleeps with no less than four women in the novel. He reduces them all to putty in his hands. Along the way, McCammon shows us he has a real knack for writing effective erotica. Much like Bond, Gallatin escapes many impossible situations by outwitting his adversaries. The only thing Gallatin lacked was the Bond collection of fancy automobiles and gadgets.

The split narrative is employed effectively and enhances both timelines. Mikhail Gallatinov is developed as a young man of valor, honor and education and a wolf of cunning and great hunting skill. Michael Gallatin is developed as a loyal Englishman dedicated to helping win the war while also being the gallant hero seeking to avenge his murdered lover.

But The Wolf’s Hour is not a character study. It is a spy story blended with a horror novel, although the horror really plays a secondary role only used to enhance the spy story. Coming in at over 600 pages, the story seldom lags and the plot moves nicely. Like most McCammon books, the story relies on expansive geography, moving all over Europe. It does not quite rise to the level of splatterpunk a la Jack Ketchum, but McCammon shows he can be quite graphic in describing gore and violence.

The book’s one glaring weakness is at the end. The scene with Winston Churchill was just a tiny bit of overkill when the novel could have been effectively terminated several pages earlier. As a matter of personal taste, I like novels with short chapters. The Wolf’s Hour’s chapters were quite long. More frequent breaks are a better way to tell a long story.

The Wolf’s Hour
was another step in the evolution of McCammon as a writer. In this book, he is moving away from the horror and supernatural genres into more mainstream writing. The Wolf’s Hour is primarily a spy novel. McCammon would continue to move in this direction with the publication of Mine, Boy’s Life, and Gone South.

The Wolf’s Hour does not quite achieve the epic status of Swan Song which is one of the finest pieces of genre fiction I’ve ever read. But it does stand as one of the top three books McCammon has written and is a fine and worthy entry into the werewolf subgenre, well worth reading for both horror and spy novel fans.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

The Howling Man By Charles Beaumont

The Howling Man
By Charles Beaumont
Copyright 1992

Introduction by Roger Anker
Editor Roger Anker provides a brief biography of the short but prolific life of Charles Beaumont. Born Charles Nutt, he changed his name because of people making fun of him. He overcame a stunted education to become a prolific writer of screenplays, novels, short stories and teleplays. He was part of the “California School” of writers that included Richard Matheson, Ray Bradbury, Rod Serling, and William F. Nolan. His life was cut tragically short when he developed Alzheimer’s Disease in his late 30s. He died in 1967.

Miss Gentibelle
(introduced by Ray Bradbury)
Young Robert is raised by his harsh and demanding mother to believe he is a girl. He is enraged when he learns the truth about his gender from the gardener. The gardener leaves, promising to return with the authorities. Robert, however, has to take matters into his own hands.

This story is quite simple. The main character – the boy with mommy issues – is used over and over again in horror fiction. The plot is simple and straight forward. But, what makes the reading worthwhile is not always the tale itself, but the teller and how he tells it and Beaumont tells this trite little tale quite wonderfully.

The Vanishing Man

Mr. Minchell, an accounting clerk at a big city agency, notices that nobody notices him. He is invisible. Store clerks don’t notice him and neither does his family. At first, he laments this development. But then, he decides to fulfill a childhood ambition.

Beaumont relies on an often employed subtext of the 1950s – that of the diminished stature of the working person – mostly male clerical workers. As the postwar boom raged and companies became larger and larger, the worker began to feel smaller and smaller. This was the subtext behind Richard Matheson’s The Shrinking Man. Here, the emphasis is more on age than social standing as the man approaches 50 with his dreams unfulfilled. It was an ok story that mimicked the writing style of Franz Kafka.

A Place of Meeting

A group of people gather in a clearing and report on their search efforts. One by one, each report the area of the earth they were assigned to search is dead – with no life of any kind left. The group then resolves to return to the ground and wait for the next evolution of man to emerge again and take part in society.

The premise, in my reading experience, was original. I knew the story was a short one and was wondering where it was headed right up until the next to last paragraph. Great idea well executed.

The Devil You Say (introduced by Howard Browne)
A former reporter and newspaper publisher tells his fellow reporters of his experience of owning a small town newspaper where his business partner was Satan himself. Satan broke the most amazing stories.

This was Beaumont’s first sold story and it is wonderful. The camp is exceptional. The narrative well paced, and the end is suitably sad. Fans of the Twilight Zone will recognize this story as the basis for the episode The Printer’s Devil.

Free Dirt (Introduced by Dennis Etchison)
A man obsessed with getting things for free, learns of free dirt being given away by a cemetery. He is determined to take advantage and hauls it all home to create a garden in his back yard to get free vegetables. His vegetables grow and he devours them in one meal with unlikely results.

This one didn’t have much appeal to me. It has the flavor of a Twilight Zone script, but the twist at the end was flat and not well delivered.

Song for a Lady
A newlywed couple decides to book passage for their honeymoon cruise aboard the Lady Anne – a dilapidated old steamer making its last transatlantic voyage. When they board, they are met with hostility by the passengers who are all old. Eventually, the passengers warm to the young couple, but surprise them at the end of their voyage.

Knowing the nature of Beaumont’s writing from repeated viewings of the Twilight Zone, where this story was headed would not have been a surprise even had I not seen the Twilight Zone episode he penned based on this story. Nonetheless, it was a well told story with a romantic ending of sorts. I wish I could have read it before seeing the Twilight Zone adaptation.

Last Rites (Introduced by Richard Matheson)
A priest rushes to the house of his friend who is bedridden and clearly dying. The priest urgently wants to call a doctor. His friend will not hear of it. His friend asks the priest: Can an artificial man who has felt joy, sorrow, pain and pleasure, have a soul? If so, will the priest administer last rites to that artificial man?

This question is one often pondered by science fiction writers. Isaac Asimov did it with Bicentennial Man and Brian Aldiss with Super Toys Last all Summer Long. This story does not riff on the trope in any original manner. But it was well written and does ask deeply spiritual questions. An okay story, but not one of Beaumont’s best.

The Howling Man (introduced by Harlan Ellison)
A young American backpacks across rural Germany when he falls ill. In a state of delirium, he is taken into a monastery by a group of reclusive monks. As he recovers, he hears a constant wailing of a man nearby which the monks will not acknowledge exists. He finally makes his way to where a man is being held in a cell. The monks claim he is the devil. The man claims the monks are insane.

An absolutely brilliant story told in an old, gothic style of first person narrative. I used to eat this stuff up as a kid and the joy hasn’t gone out of the experience in my later years. Fans of the Twilight Zone will recognize this story as one Beaumont adapted for the small screen and made it one of the best episodes of that stellar series.

The Dark Music
A puritanical teacher who is fighting a winning battle to keep sex education out of her school, is enchanted by mysterious music she hears one day while on a field trip in the woods. As she leads her puritanical life fights for her puritanical values, she is drawn to that woods again and again full of lustful heat.

This story didn’t work for me. I got the allegory. But I just didn’t care about the main character. She wasn’t sympathetic or tragic. The end was unsatisfying.

The Magic Man (introduced by Charles E. Fritch)
A magician and peddler of patent medicines arrives in his favorite town to do his show. The residents of the town love him and look forward to seeing his performance. As he tells his tales of adventure and performs his feats of wonder, the audience begs to know how it is done. Since he knows he’s dying and this may well be his last performance, he reveals his secrets. Instead of loving him for it, the audience leaves disappointed.

How much I like a story teller’s mainstream stories is a true gauge of how much I like a story teller. I don’t like mainstream short fiction. I do love this story. No tricks with the language. No lofty prose. Just a man telling a good story about an interesting character and conveying a subtext that contains a lesson we all learn as children: knowing how a trick is done ruins them magic.

Fair Lady (introduced by George Clayton Johnson)
A doughty, older school teacher lives out her loveless existence in a boarding house room. One day, she boards a bus and is immediately attracted to the bus driver. Over a period of three years, she rides the bus daily and falls in love with him – all while having just the briefest of daily conversations with him. Then one day, she boards and he is not there.

This is a mainstream love story with feints at literary prose. The story is solid. Beaumont is able to tap the reader’s emotions by making the emotions of the character familiar to them. This story is not to my taste. But I can see why Johnson liked it.

A Point of Honor
A young man is about to be initiated into a street gang. To complete the initiation, he must murder the manager of a local theater. He contemplates the importance of the gang in his life, his personal honor, and his fear as he waits for his victim.

To this point, I have sounded very much like a Charles Beaumont fanboy. He has been worthy of the praise I have heaped upon him so far. In this story, it’s a swing and a miss. It’s a character study that left me saying, so what?

The Hunger (introduced by Richard Christian Anderson)
A woman lives with her two widowed sisters in a small town. They all live in fear – and a little excitement – of a serial rapist and killer who is stalking the area. The woman becomes convinced that if she can meet him and seduce him, she can change him.

This story had great character development and the split narrative worked wonderfully. It had a great climax but a not so thrilling ending.

Black Country (introduced by Ray Russell)
A black jazz musician takes on a white female singer and a white male saxophone player. He eventually takes the woman as a lover and the sax player as an apprentice trumpet player. When cancer ravages his body and he can no longer play, he kills himself. But he’s passed something along – something very important to him – to his apprentice.

It’s easy to ascertain from this story that Beaumont was a fan of jazz and blues. Ray Russell points out that this story was almost musical in its composition. It did have a rhythm in its prose. While it’s a better entry into the bewitched jazz musician subgenre than Richard Matheson’s entry, it is dated.

Gentlemen, Please Sit (introduced by Frank M. Robinson)
A drone is invited to a private club by his boss. The club, located in a desolate part of town, is a comedy club dedicated to preserving old humor that is considered racist or offensive in today’s society. The man does not find it too terribly funny. The next day, he regrets his reaction.

As a story, this entry was rather pedestrian. However, it does provide some commentary that is still relevant today about political correctness and how it curbs and reduces comedy.

The Jungle
An urban planner and his dying wife are the last residents of a modern city built in the jungles of Africa. The man confronts a local witch doctor who explains to him the natives’ culture is different, but not inferior and they did not need to be modernized or eradicated by the white man.

This story lacked a real climax. The twist wasn’t all that shocking. It did contain some interesting insights into the importance of indigenous culture as a bonding agent to keep people civilized. Twilight Zone fans will recognize the title. Beaumont incorporated some of the ideas from this story into his script for that episode.

The New People (introduced by Saul David)
A middle-aged professional couple move into a neighborhood inhabited by other middle-aged professional couples. The man is not entirely happy while his wife is giddy with excitement. They invite their new neighbors over. One man – a Hollywood screenwriter – tells his new neighbor that he is in danger and that he must move or suffer horrible consequences. He shows him why.

I don’t know if this story predates Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby. But it relies on the same trope: there are evil Satanists living in our midst. While Levin’s social commentary was more about the decline of Christianity in the 1960s, Beaumont speaks more to the search for excitement and adventure in middle age.

Perchance to Dream
A man walks into a psychiatrist’s office exhausted and sleep deprived. He tells the psychiatrist that if he goes to sleep, he will die in his dream. He then relates the detail of the dream that will lead up to his death.

Having seen the Twilight Zone episode of the same name, I was not surprised by the twist ending. That does not diminish the quality of the story. The straight forward narrative builds toward the exciting climax at just the right pace.

The Crooked Man

In a dystopian future, gay people are open and outed with their sexuality while heterosexuals are considered deviant and are hunted by vice squads. A man goes to a gay bar hoping to meet the woman whom he loves. When they meet, they are immediately tagged as deviants.

For the time in which this was written, this story was quite progressive. It predates the Stonewall Riots and the start of gay liberation. Today, its progressivism is blunted by its depicture of any kind of consensual sexuality between adults as deviant. As a story, the metaphor is too heavy handed and plot nominal.

Blood Brothers
A vampire goes to a psychiatrist to complain about his state. He is ill-equipped to be a vampire and hates his life. But he has an unlikely tie to the psychiatrist.

This story was a little tongue in cheek and suited for a younger audience. But it was well paced and as hard as I tried to guess the twist, I honestly did not see it coming. Of course, Beaumont cheated just a little by not giving any clues.

A Death in the Country (introduced by William F. Nolan)

This is a story of a 1950s vintage stock car racer who goes from town to town, racing the local and collecting purses to fund his trip to the next town. When he arrives at the fair grounds and pulls into the pit, he meets a nice young man driving a hot new car while he drives an older car in need of an engine rebuild. He’s determined to show at least third to collect some money. Still, he admires the kid’s enthusiasm and the support of his young girlfriend. But, when they hit the tracks, war is war.

This is a character study and I’m not a fan of character studies. However, I like the backdrop of the old stock car scene for the character and I like stock car drivers of that area. Beaumont was an authority on auto racing and brought that expertise to this story to make it work nicely.

The Music of the Yellow Brass
A young, desperate bullfighter finally stands on the precipice of greatness when he is awarded the opportunity to engage a notorious bull in a highly billed contest. He is wined and dined the night before the big show. But the day he is to go out and fight, he learns that his manager sold him out. He goes forward to fight anyway.

This is an oft employed trope of the longshot getting his shot at the bigtime. From Rocky to the Twilight Zone episode, The Big Tall Wish, they are all the same. This one is no different and does not distinguish itself.

Night Ride
A jazz band picks up a new piano player with a gift for translating misery into beautiful and soulful blues. When that young piano player catches the fancy of a young girl, the band leader becomes concerned. He takes drastic action with horrible consequences.

It is obvious that Beaumont was fascinated by jazz and blues and the venues that featured that music in the 1950s and 60s. Not being fascinated with that music, I find these stories rather dull. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with this story. It’s just not to my taste.

The Intruder, Chapter 10 (introduced by Roger Corman)
A rabble rouser arrives in a small southern town to preach against integration of schools. The man builds toward a fever pitch, then disappears just as a black family drives through town. Stirred up and angry, the mob confronts the family, destroys the car, and comes close to killing them before the law arrives. A local lawyer tries to get the sheriff to make an arrest. But the sheriff isn’t interested.

This is a chapter from Beaumont’s novel that he adapted for a screenplay to be directed by Roger Corman. The movie got made on a shoestring budget. It received critical acclaim, but did not do well at the box office. Most consider it Corman’s finest work.

Mourning Song
(introduced by Jerry Sohl)
In an unnamed town in an undefined time, the residents fear when old Solomon comes to town. He is an elderly man with a bird on his shoulder and no eyes. He carries with him a guitar. When he stops and plays in front of your home, death is coming for you or your loved ones. One young boy refuses to believe that Solomon has any special powers. He goes in believing that into adulthood.

The writing in this story reminded me so much of John Wyndham in Chrysalids. Obviously, the stories are quite different. But the narrative voice and the main character bear a striking resemblance to each other. This was a beautifully told story that came up just a bit abrupt.

To Hell with Claude (introduced by Chad Oliver)
Claude is king of the world and master of the universe. He is vexed to find out the perfect world he created combining European feudalism with southern plantation culture has been infected with literature – the root of all subversion. He travels to Miskatonic University posing as a freshman student and enrolls to go undercover and find the purveyors of the befouling words.

This story was rather silly. I’ve seen several authors take great literature and figures from literature and incorporate them into stories to make statements about the importance of stories. The point is usually made, but the stories aren’t particularly enjoyable.

Appointment with Eddie

The world’s most famous entertainer wants an appointment with a hole in the wall barber in New York City. He’s desperate for that appointment and acts as if it’s a life or death matter. His agent tries to get him that appointment with Eddie the Barber who charges one dollar for a haircut. Despite his shop being empty, Eddie says he doesn’t have an opening and doesn’t know when he’ll have an opening. The entertainer is distraught to the point of suicide. His agent learns from other entertainers that you’re not really a success until Eddie agrees to cut your hair.

This was a well told story with a strong narrative voice. But the subtext is important here and Beaumont, being an entertainer of sorts, knows what he is talking about. Stephen King once said he knew he’d made it when Playboy published him. Beaumont, a charter member of Playboy’s distinguished stable of writers, may have been writing about the affirmation he got from Playboy or some other publication.

The Crime of Willie Washington

Willie Washington is a black man who works on a railroad in an undetermined time in the past. One night, Willie stabs a man in a fit of anger and worries he has killed him. When the man lives and Willie is not arrested, he figures he’s got away with a crime. Later, he is arrested and tried for the rape and murder of a white woman of which he is innocent. He relies on his faith as the state tries three times to execute him. When he is eventually set free, his faith is tested by tough circumstances.

On the surface, one might expect this to be an examination of racism in the criminal justice system. It is not. Although Willie is black, the story is more about faith and how it is tested and how it can remain strong or waiver in even the strongest believers.

The Man with the Crooked Nose
A bookseller has an employee who shuffles about silently, attending to his duties. He does not speak since he does not know English, but sings beautifully. One day, a portly man with a crooked nose walks in and destroys the silent man’s demeanor.

This story has one of those nebulous endings that drive me crazy. I guess if an author leaves you wanting more, he’s written a well told story.

The Carnival
A young boy is paralyzed in a car vs. bike accident. For three years, he sits and mopes in his wheel chair. His father takes him to a carnival to stimulate his imagination. He sees the boy born without arms and legs and his imagination is stimulated.

This was a really weak note to end an otherwise stellar collection of short stories. Lots of imagery, very little substance.