Read Recently — June 2016 — The Horror! The Horror!

The Haunter of the Ring & Other Tales by Robert E. Howard; compiled and introduced by M. J Eliot

With Howard and Lovecraft being apparently in the public domain, their work is being put back into print by a variety of publishers. Since I am reviewing specific volumes with specific stories in them, and other publishers might have volumes with the same or similar titles but different selections of stories (selections ranging from some of the same to nothing in common but the title story), I think it’s worth mentioning that the volumes I am dealing with right now are published by Wordsworth Editions (of Great Britain), and edited by M. J. Eliot. If different publishers come up, I’ll make sure to mention it.

Robert E. Howard, a close friend of Howard P. Lovecraft even though the two of them never met (the internet hasn’t really changed anything except the speed of communications) and, with Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith, one of the “three musketeers of Weird Tales“, the magazine which published all three of them and did very well off of it, is probably most famous for creating Conan O’Brien, sword-wielding talk-show host who trampled the kingdoms of late-night television under his sandals–what? Oh, all right, he created Conan the Barbarian. Spoilsport. But like all pulp writers, he branched out into as many subjects as he could handle, trying to make a living wage at a penny or less a word. Mostly he wrote adventure but sometimes those shaded over into horror and sometimes he wrote explicit horror.

The first story of this volume, “In the forest of Villefore” finds our first-person narrator wandering lost through a forest in medieval France, late at night, seeking the road to the titular village. The local who offers to guide him turns out to be a werewolf. It isn’t a particularly scary story, especially since the werewolf thing is introduced pretty late . . . and the story is only a few pages long.

The next story, “Wolfshead”, is the direct sequel. Our narrator, a different man, tells the story of how he was invited by a friend to a house party at his estate in Africa, and how the horror of being locked in with a werewolf eventually takes second place to the fear of an attack by the natives . . .

“The Dreamsnake” has a man telling his friends about a serial dream he’s been having all his life . . . which, as you might guess from the title, has him being stalked by a snake which each time gets a little closer . . . and of course he screams in his sleep and his friends find him dead, looking like he’s been crushed by a giant snake! I make this sound not very interesting, I’m afraid, and that’s because it isn’t.

“The Hyena” has our narrator, a white man ranching in Africa, becoming increasingly upset with an uppity shaman who, it eventually turns out, can turn into a hyena. But not, please note, a bullet-proof hyena. The peak of horror comes when he tries to abduct the white woman our hero is interested in. This is frankly a bad story, neither horror nor adventure, and I don’t think Howard’s reputation as a writer is enhanced by re-printing it.

“Sea Curse” has a couple of fishing-village bullies getting some supernatural come-uppance. It’s a much better story than “The Hyena”, though far from Howard’s best.

“Skull-Face” is Howard ripping off Fu Manchu. The villain here, though, isn’t the yellow peril, but rather a sepulchral Egyptian who may, in fact, be an Atlantian (keep this character in mind when we get back to Lovecraft, later). Our hero is an American drug-addict who starts the story becoming the creature of our titular villain, and eventually fights his way free. Elliott, in writing about this story in the introduction, notes that Howard gives in to a bad habit of reusing names for heroes in story after story even though they are probably (or even clearly) different characters. This is a good adventure story with a background similar to horror (things from out of the depths of history, not to mention the depths of the sea, return to bedevil us–though in this case, they seem to want to run our crime cartels and rule, rather than ruin, our civilization), though not itself scary.

“The Fearsome Touch of Death” has a nervous man sitting up with a dead man (local custom) on the first night after his death. He comes to an ironic end himself.

“The Children of the Night” is a bizarre type of story that I have so far only encountered Howard writing: a story of racial memory. The narrator and his friends are gathered in someone’s study discussing racist theories (Howard, Like Lovecraft and indeed, like a lot of western white men of the time, believed in the Aryan Fallacy, and its attendant sub-fallacies involving, say, the Picts and some of the other peoples of the British isles) when one of the men introduces a strangely small flint mallet. When one, who the narrator has referred to as looking strangely Asian for a pure Anglo-Saxon, takes the mallet he accidentally (or is it accidental?) hits the narrator on the head, sending his consciousness back in time to when he (or one of his ancestors) was a man of “The Sword People”; while out raiding he and some of his friends were set upon by the “Children of the Night”, strange hardly-human (in his view) people whom the Picts had driven underground; tiny, squat people with Asiatic features, who gave rise to the myths of the fae. When he awakens from dreams of pointless slaughter he realizes why his friend looks so unusual, and plans his murder. This is a weird and unlikable tale; it might pass as adventure but it’s only horror in that it mentions Von Juntz, whose book, translated as Nameless Cults, was Howard’s contribution to the collection of weird books in the Cthulhu mythos.

There is one point here which I find myself driven to address, as it calls into question Elliott’s . . . I guess the word I want is trustworthiness as an editor. In the introduction, she mocks Howard for having a character mention reading the Necronomicon “‘in the original Greek’ when, as any Mythos addict will tell you, it was written by the Mad Arab Abdul Alhazred”. Sadly, the line she quotes continues for another, important, word: “translation”. And indeed, any Mythos addict can tell you that the first translation of the Necronomicon was from the Arabic into Greek. Stopping one word short of a full quote is not something a good editor does by accident.

Sorry, that just really pissed me off.

Von Juntz plays a more central role in “The Black Stone”, whose narrator travels into eastern Europe to see a strange monolith and the nightmarish vision it brings. Much more pure horror, and one of the better stories in this volume. Also widely printed elsewhere.

“The Thing on the Roof” has the narrator being called by an old academic enemy to get hold of an original German Nameless Cults, which he hopes will lead him to a long-lost treasure . . . but will the treasure be all he brings back?

“The Horror from the Mound” has Howard, as Lovecraft also famously would, visiting the Mound culture of the American southwest. A cowboy, driven by thoughts of treasure, plans to dig into a local mound. His neighbour, a Mexican, tries to stop him first with vague warnings and then with a long story of evil from the past. But he can’t tell the tale because of oaths he’s sworn, so he has to write it out. But he can’t write fast enough to stop the greedy American from grabbing his shovel . . . . This one’s a little disappointing in terms of what the horror actually turns out to be, but it’s a well-told tale with less racism than you’d expect.

“People of the Dark” is an oft-anthologized story, and another one like “The Children of the Night” where the narrator takes a hit on the head and finds himself re-living an important event in the life of one of his ancestors, once again involving the diminutive people of the hills. In this case, the narrator intends to kill his romantic rival, but remembers a life when the three of them (the two men and the woman they both want) met before: he an Irish reaver named Conan and they young British lovers. They fled to a cave — the very same cave where our modern-day narrator was planning his ambush — and there they ran afoul of the People of the Dark. The young lovers wound up leaping from a high ledge to their deaths in the river below rather than be taken by the People. But surely after all these centuries there is no threat left in the caves, other than the narrator himself?

“The Cairn on the Headland” is a tale that has “Latin” Ortali ignoring the “Nordic” superstitions of the people of Ireland and particularly the narrator he has blackmailed into working for him and excavating the titular cairn. There’s also a ghost, but she’s not particularly scary. Nor is the story as a whole, to be honest.

“Black Talons” is more mystery than horror. Who killed Jim Reynolds in his old cottage down by the sea? Who or what clawed him to death? And why? Howard usually played fair when he stooped to mysteries; he wouldn’t introduce a sudden supernatural element just to make the crime harder to figure out. On the other hand, he didn’t feel he had to give you all the clues up front, either. What I’m saying is, don’t feel bad if you can’t solve this one before the answer is given to you.

“Fangs of Gold” has a detective trailing a murderer into a swamp, only to run afoul of a feud between Voodoo priests. What makes this story stand out is how prejudiced Howard isn’t; though he won’t let a Black character be the hero, he has no problem letting one assist the white hero (albeit, her motives are purely selfish). And while the killer is Chinese, so was his victim, and the detective classifies that victim as “a fine, honest old Chinaman”, which given the early 20th century was high praise indeed.

“Names In the Black Book” is kind of hard to sum up. An “oriental” crime lord named Erlik Khan has seemingly returned from the dead and is killing those who defeated him last time. The whites are last on his list (which he has helpfully sent to one of them, as a means of psychological warfare); with the help of the Afghan warrior Khoda Khan, can they strike back?

One might expect “The Haunter of the Ring” to have something to do with a stone circle,or something like that (well, I certainly did); instead it’s a haunted ring that is apparently causing a young bride to try to kill her husband, perhaps in revenge for his look-alike great-grandfather’s murder of his wife. The ring in question once belonged to an infamous Stygian sorceror . . .

“Graveyard Rats” has a family feud come to a –heh– head, with the titular beasts playing a part. It’s not a very good story, failing totally as horror and less than interesting as a mystery.

“Black Wind Blowing” has a young woman quickly married off to a neighbour in an effort to avoid the vengeance of a secret cult . . . but instead the neighbour is just drawn into the whole mess. And who, really, is meant to be protected? It’s a weird story and of course, evil is a group of dark-skinned foreigners.

“The Fire of Asshurbanipal” has American adventurer Steve Clarney and his companion, the Afghan Yar Ali (who, in the first line of the story, is referred to as “Yar Am” (I seriously hope it’s a typo)) fighting their way through the Arabian deserts to find the titular gem in an ancient, abandoned city mentioned maybe in the Necronomicon. But they aren’t the only ones seeking the gem, and legendarily it has a guardian . . . again, we have a better adventure story than horror.

The final story is “Pigeons from Hell”, a popular tale whenever Howard’s horror is anthologized. Griswell (no first name given) and John Branner are driving across the country on vacation and arrive at an old, abandoned house somewhere in the south (if the story ever gives a state I can’t find it) from which a huge swarm of pigeons launch as they approach. They bed down in the empty living room and Griswell is awakened in the middle of the night by a low whistling sound that draws Branner upstairs; a few minutes later he comes back down carrying a hatchet with which he tries to hit Griswell but fails, probably due to having been killed with the same hatchet while he was upstairs. Griswell flees the scene, pursued by something with glowing eyes, and nearly runs right into the local sheriff. The two of them investigate and find a case of voodoo vengeance on the former owners of the house, whose spirits are locally believed to occasionally be released from hell as the titular pigeons . . . this is a better than average story, with a nice ending twist.

Overall, the collection suffers from the fact that Howard was better at writing adventure than horror, but benefits from the fact that Howard was less prejudiced than his good friend — though he still had his issues. Horror fans should certainly give Howard a look; others, even fans of Howard’s adventure tales, could safely skip it.

From a Buick 8 by Stephen King

King has never had a problem with using America’s love affair with the car as a source of horror; Christine and “Trucks” (the short story that gave rise to the film Maximum Overdrive) stand out as examples (the truth is King has no problem turning anything America is addicted to into a source of horror), and you could be excused for thinking that From a Buick 8 has the titular car stalking victims on America’s highways . . . but that isn’t the case. In fact, the car doesn’t go anywhere much past the point where it’s introduced; it spends most of the book locked in a shed outside D-Troop House of the Pennsylvania State Highway Patrol. Also, it’s not a car.

See, the story is being told to Ned Wilcox, whose father, Curtis, was a Patrolman killed by a drunk driver in the line of duty — Curtis stopped a truck with a bad tire and was hit by the drunk as he approached the truck driver (there is some similarity between Curtis’ accident and the famous one that involved his author). Ned has been working part-time around the station since his Dad’s death, and in his last summer before college he works there full-time and, passing the shed, sees the car. Sandy Dearborn, the Sergeant-in-Charge in the present, tells him the story. We move back and forth between the present, when the story is being told, and the past, 1979 and later, when the story is set.

In brief, then, the car pulls up to a gas station (manned by, in what Sandy hopes is a coincidence, the very man who a couple of decades later would kill Curtis Wilcox) and the driver heads around the back of the station to apparently use the restroom . . . and never comes back. The attendant calls the cops, thinking that the man may have fallen into the river in back of the station (said river being in flood at the time), but he is never found. The car is towed away; though it appears to be a 1964 Buick Roadmaster in mint condition a few minutes of checking reveal that it is nothing of the kind: not only not a Buick, but not even a car at all. It could not have driven up to the gas station because while it has something looking vaguely like an engine where its engine should be it isn’t hooked up right even if it had all the right parts (which it doesn’t).

The Cops store the car in a shed and look in on it every now and then. And then things start happening. Every so often, the temperature in the shed falls far more rapidly and further than the temperature outside. Sometimes there are displays of odd flashing lights (really bright lights. We see one of these displays during the story). And every now and then the trunk of the car opens and something comes out (a collection of leaves from no earthly plant. A fish from no earthly sea. A bat-like creature from no earthly cave). Usually it dies and dissolves quickly in Earth’s toxic atmosphere but once . . . And Curt Wilcox, who is sort of obsessed with the car, insists on dissecting the “bat”, which is a truly wrenching experience for Sandy, who gets roped into filming the event.

And the thing is, there is no pattern to these events. The temperature may or may not fall before a lightshow. There may or may not be a lightshow before something comes out. There’s no real way to predict; except that if the temperature drops or a lightshow starts it is dangerous to go into the shed . . . because sometimes, perhaps as a payment for the things it sends out, the car takes something — or someone — away. To what fate, no one ever learns (though we get at least one hint).

King’s dealing with two of his favourite themes in this book: one is Lovecraft, and his influence on the field of horror, because despite having almost none of Lovecraft’s tropes this is a very lovecraftian book, a story of cosmic horror . . . disguised as a car locked in a shed. There’s a very nice description of the bat creature . . . not what it looks like, but how looking at it made one of the cops feel. It’s a powerful description of the truly alien.

The other theme, dealt with most explicitly in The Colorado Kid, is that stories don’t always have a tidy theme. The kid is hoping for an explanation of his dad’s death, basically, and the car isn’t going to provide one. The things the car does are random, or follow alien logic that just doesn’t make sense to us, and you’re not going to get closure from it.

The writing style is typical King, so if you haven’t liked his other books you’re not going to find this to be the one that changes your mind. On the other hand, the story is kind of atypical in that it’s quieter than most King books, if you get what I mean. Its greatest flaw is in the final section, a short chapter where something bad happens and King tries to fake us out by implying that something different, and in some ways worse, happens. And of course it’s obvious what he’s trying to do and that just makes it worse. I hated this when Guy Gavriel Kay did it in The Lions of Al-Rassan, and I hate it here.

Overall, though, this is one of King’s best books, and it’s highly recommended.

The Horror In The Museum & Other Stories: collected stories, volume two by H.P. Lovecraft; selected, and with an introduction, by M.J.Eliot

This is another Wordsworth Editions.

When last we spoke of Lovecraft (here) we discussed his racism and I mentioned that the book in question contained some of his less racist tales. We’re not so lucky this time; this volume contains one of his most disturbingly racist stories, one I (something of an aficionado for many years) was not even aware existed until quite recently. So, if you’re going to skip a volume, this might be the one you want to skip.

In addition to his racism, Lovecraft suffered from a peculiar (but sadly not rare) belief that the world owed him a living (in Lovecraft’s case, this is at least partly the result of believing he should have been an 18th century landowner (due to having lived the early part of his life on his grandfather’s farm. The old man had been well-off; but his death and the loss of his land resulted in the family trying to support itself on a slowly decreasing investment income)), Which meant that he was terrible at applying for actual work and as a result, had to support himself by writing fiction and doing editing/revisions/ghost-writing for a series of clients. He rarely charged what he was worth, and disliked chasing down the money he was owed when clients didn’t pay, so he managed a life of what might be called genteel poverty. He often inserted Cthulhu Mythos notes into what were at least nominally other people’s stories, so they were often collected into volumes such as this one.

Elliott annoys me by leaving out details such as who the co-writer (or client) was or when the story was written or published from the stories themselves; the client’s name is only given in the introduction. Where there are multiple stories by the same client, they are often broken up by other stories; dates are not given for all or even most stories. This information can be looked up, of course, but it shouldn’t have to be.

The first story, “The Green Meadows”, with Winnifred Virginia Jackson, is a short, lightweight piece, in which a notebook made of stone is found inside a meteorite. On the pages of the strange book is written, in classical greek, the short tale of a man who awakens alone on a floating island containing the titular meadow, a frightening forest, and nothing else of any interest. It’s good that it’s short, because it’s otherwise boring.

“Poetry and the Gods” with Anna Helen Crofts is another short, horror-less story. It’s about, well, poetry and the gods.

“The Crawling Chaos”, again with Jackson, has the narrator overdosing on Opium and seeing a vision of the end of the world. All three first stories are quite short and low on tension.

“The Horror at Martin’s Beach” is a collaboration with Sonia Haft Greene, from 1923. Sonia Haft Greene would shortly become Sonia Greene Lovecraft, which is probably why they never worked together again. A fishing crew, led by Capt. James Orne, kill a strange fish-like creature which they put on display on their ship. It’s of an unknown species and, though huge, is declared by experts to be juvenile. Unfortunately, the specimen and the entire ship are lost in an unexpected storm (the ship is in port at the time, Capt. Orne having given up on fishing in favour of displaying the specimen). Shortly after the ship is lost, Captain Orne is one of a large crowd of people enjoying the day at the titular beach when the lifeguards hear a strange scream; they throw out a life-preserver on a rope but find that whoever or whatever they’ve hooked is too heavy for the pair of them to pull out of the water. Several people on the shore (including Captain Orne) jump in to help pull, and then whatever’s on the other end starts pulling back. As the men are pulled into the water they find that they cannot let go of the rope . . . this is a chilling and effective piece of horror, and it’s a pity that these two never worked together again.

“Imprisoned with the Pharoahs” was ghost-written for Harry Houdini (yes, that Harry Houdini); the original typescript was lost and Mr. and Mrs Lovecraft spent their honeymoon retyping it (which at least paid for the trip). Basically, on a trip to Egypt Houdini accidentally pisses off some of the locals who send him (as the title used in the magazine puts it) “under the pyramids” to confront the mystic past of Egypt. It’s a tense story, very good even allowing for Lovecraft’s writing quirks being out in full force. Not a lot of racism, either, possibly due to Lovecraft’s affection for Egypt’s ancient civilization.

“Two Black Bottles”, with Wilfred Blanch Tallman, finds the narrator going to the small Appalachian village of Daalbergen to learn the true fate of his uncle, who he recently learned was dead. But is he? And if so, is death the worst thing that could happen to him? Not a bad little story; more weird than horrifying but that’s not a big problem for a story selling to “Weird Tales”, is it? Warning for those who are bothered by phonetically=spelled out dialect.

“The Thing In the Moonlight” is really short and really isn’t either a collaboration or even a story; a friend lifted a section from a letter Lovecraft wrote to a different friend, describing a dream he (Lovecraft) had, stuck on a framing-device, and published it after Lovecraft died.

“The Last Test” with Adolphe de Castro, is . . . weird for Lovecraft. It’s got a lot of dialogue (though Lovecraft’s stereotypical lack of dialogue is overstated), a strong(ish) female character who is as competent as any man, and a California setting (Lovecraft never went to California, though he traveled pretty widely up the US east coast whenever he had the money; as far south as Florida and as far north as Quebec City, both of which he loved). The basic story is that the Governor of California, one James Dalton (presumably no relation) hires an old friend as the new medical director of San Quentin. The friend, one Dr. Alfred Clarendon, is known to be a genius, but it’s a little hard to tell what, exactly, he’s planning to do:

[he] would soon enrich the world of medicine with an antitoxin of revolutionary importance — a basic antitoxin combating the whole febrile principle at its very source and ensuring the ultimate conquest and extirpation of fever in all its diverse forms

The story focuses on a disease called “Black Fever” but looking at the lines above one must take into account that fever per se isn’t a disease as such but a reaction by the body to disease and that saying one intends to extirpate (eliminate) “fever in all its diverse forms” is like saying that one intends to eliminate blood clotting. Lovecraft clearly has something specific in mind, but it’s really hard to guess what.

Anyway, the Doctor sets up a household with his sister, who runs the placefor him while he works his clinic with the help of a crew of reed-thin Tibetans and Surama, an Egyptian described as

a man of great intelligence and seemingly inexhaustible erudition, . . . as morbidly lean as the Tibetan servants; with swarthy, parchment-like skin drawn so tightly over his bald pate and hairless face that every line of the skull stood out in ghastly prominence . . . lustrelessly burning black eyes set with a depth which left to common visibility only a pair of dark, vacant sockets . . . he carried about an insidious atmosphere of irony or amusement, accompanied at certain moments by a deep, guttural chuckle like that of a giant turtle which has just torn to pieces some furry animal and is ambling away towards the sea.

This description caused me to put a post-it into the book contain the words, “Turtle? WTF?”. ‘Nuff said. Note the similarity of Surama’s appearance to that of Howard’s “Skull-Face” above, especially since it turns out that Surama is in fact an Atlantean pretending to be an Egyptian.

Of course there is medical skullduggery; is Dr. Clarendon curing the Black Fever, or creating it? (Hint: when your resurrected-Atlantian-pretending-to-be-an-Egyptian assistant says you’re going too far, you may in fact be a mad scientist) And a final confrontation that ends in Clarendon’s death and Dalton marrying his sister, Dalton’s long-lost love. It’s an okay pulp melodrama with some minor Mythos connections (don’t blink or you’ll miss them).

“The Curse of Yig” was written with/for one Zelia B. Reed. Set in Oklahoma, its narrator is looking for snake-god lore and finds a tale involving the titular god (entirely made up by Lovecraft, so far as I know). Basically a settler with a fear of snakes moves into the area and when his wife kills a few snakes to protect him from freaking out on seeing them he freaks out even more because he’s heard that Yig watches out for his children, the local rattlesnakes. Things of course go horribly, horribly wrong for them, but what and who is the half-human/half-snake-looking creature that the narrator sees in an Oklahoma asylum in 1925? A surprisingly effective story, with Native Americans on the side of the light.

“The Electric Executioner”, again with de Castro, has as its narrator an auditor/investigator for a Los Angeles-based mining company that has a number of mines in Mexico. From one of these mines a supervisor has left, taking with him all the papers from the office. Our hero immediately heads south by train, but in the dark of the night finds his private car is also occupied by a lunatic who, unsatisfied with the electric chair, has invented a new form of execution machine and intends to demonstrate it . . . on our hero. Only a vague Mythos connection again. More of an interesting story than a great one.

“The Mound”, again with Reed, takes us back to, as you might expect, the Mound-builders of Oklahoma. Our narrator is possibly the same one as in “The Curse of Yig” (he mentions an earlier incident involving “the snake-god myth”). Basically, locals living near a large Mound report two spectral figures who take turns pacing on the top of it: an old man, and a headless woman, both presumed to be Natives. People who go investigate the mound don’t find the figures, and those who dig into the mound sometimes disappear . . . and then sometimes reappear, horribly changed. Our hero goes and digs anyway, and finds an ancient manuscript allegedly written by a rogue conquistador who found a path into the Mound, and what he found underneath. Which is a series of ancient Lost Worlds, as interpreted by Lovecraft. Eventually, he decides to try to escape, which is forbidden . . . Editing error: at one point we are told “it is heedless to mention”. I suppose it is. The Mound is one of the longer stories in the collection.

“Medusa’s Coil”, again with Reed, is that story. Basic plot: narrator is driving through Southern Missouri when it starts getting dark and he realizes that he needs directions if he’s going to get where he’s going before night, so he stops at an old, overrun plantation house and eventually a very old man lets him in and tells him the story of how the house ended up as it is (as there is now no chance of him making it to town before dark). Basically, his son went to Paris to study medicine at the Sorbonne, fell in with occult influences, and met a woman (Marceline) who briefly led a small cult-group that worshiped–I think–her as the proto-Medusa, the woman around whom (in a previous incarnation, of course) the legend of Medusa formed. Her tenure leading the cult was brief because she married the son and came home with him. She was lovely, and had long black hair that she kept braided and which hung down below her knees (while braided!). While she seemed well-behaved at first, most of the servants seemed afraid of her and left. One exception was an old black woman who lived on the estate and basically worshiped the girl.

One of the son’s artist friends from Paris eventually came to visit and convinced Marceline to sit for him. This went on even while the son was away on business, though the artist seemed to be well-behaved the old man says that Marceline was basically panting for him. The old man suffered from a bad back and it was really bad one day, so he took his painkillers and went to sleep and when he awakened in the evening the house was silent and when he looks at the ceiling of his room he sees a great red stain seeping through from the room above — Marceline’s room. He breaks down the door and finds her lying dead and scalped on the floor in a puddle of blood. Bloody footprints lead away, and also some kind of broad brush-stroke-like trail that he can’t explain. He follows the trails and finds the son, looking crazed and holding a bloody machete, and the painter, dead and apparently tied up in Marceline’s braid. Son says that he sneaked back because he was suspicious that Marceline was up to something with the painter and when he saw the painting itself–he had to knock out the painter to look at it–he knew he had to kill her, so he did, chasing her back to her room and hacking her to death with the machete. Then her hair began to move on its own so he decided the smart thing to do was to set it free and when it was off it crawled off and killed the painter like a python. Then the wailing of the old black woman who basically worshiped Marceline distracts them both, and the son kills himself.

The old man buries the corpses in the basement and cleans things up before the servants get back (the son gave them the day off and sent them into town–totally a coincidence that he went on a murderous rampage while they were away) and spread the story that the three young people went away. Of course, the hair didn’t stay in the impromptu grave, but crawled out and haunted the estate, driving away the servants. It’s still out there! But the story isn’t over. The old man shows our narrator the painting, and even warped by age and moisture it still freaks him out and he shoots it, destroying it. The old man freaks out himself; the painting has been telling him secrets and he believes that if it’s destroyed Marceline is going to climb back out of the grave with her freakish hair and kill him. Our narrator makes it to his car and gets away, the house burning behind him since the old man panicked and dropped a candle when the painting was destroyed. A few miles down the road he meets another farmer, who tells him that the house he just saw burn down was burned down five or six years ago! Gasp!

Lovecraft had a habit–not indulged in all the time, by any means, but common enough to draw comment–of ending a story with the narrator observing a horror and then capping it at the end with a crowning horror, often in italics to give it emphasis. You wouldn’t think a further horror would be needed in this case, but he provides one: the painting made it plain to the observer that Marceline was black, passing for white, the whole time! Gasp again! Yes, that’s where Lovecraft went for his final, deepest horror.

The funny thing is that if you took that out, the story could work in one of two possible ways. One is the literal, cosmic horror, the stuff Lovecraft did so well elsewhere. I mean, the concept of the being whose life and powers gave rise to the myth of Medusa living among us is one of great power and a lot of things could be done with that. Of course, in order for it to be scary, the monster would have to do something, you know, monstrous . . . and marrying your white son doesn’t quite cut it. The other approach would be a sort of southern gothic, in which we mostly take Marceline’s view: young woman, bastard child of French nobility, supporting herself by running a fake cult, falls in love with one of the members, marries him and moves to his home in America. Finds herself isolated and often alone with the jealous father slowly poisoning his beloved son’s mind against her. Add in the arrival of the artist, a former member of the cult, himself jealous that Marceline chose to a) leave the cult and b) not with him, and while she hangs out with him because it’s so nice to see a friendly face, not realizing that he’s playing up the husband’s jealousy . . .

Anyway, let’s move on.

“The Trap”, written with the Rev. Dr Henry St Clair Whitehead, is set in a private school in Connecticut, where our narrator is a tutor. A student notices a strange blemish on an antique mirror that our hero picked up in the Virgin Islands, and feels like it was trying to pull his finger into it. Later, the student vanishes completely and our hero begins to dream that the kid is trying to contact him, trapped inside the mirror exactly as you might expect from that set up. This isn’t a very interesting or scary story. Dr. Whitehead died before he could get any better at it.

“The Man of Stone”, with Hazel Drake Heald, has to do with the discovery of a collection of strange statues in the Adirondacks, and the discovery of a strange tale of backwoods vengeance involving a love triangle, a missing sculptor and a petrification formula. Not great, but not bad either — though a small amount of dialogue in dialect that could annoy those who dislike that.

“The Horror In the Museum”, again with Heald, has for once a third-person protagonist, visiting a wax museum (of horrors!) whose figures are impressive and impressively real-looking. No, the owner isn’t waxifying people. Not people. An impressively nerve-wracking “I dare you stay in there overnight” scene is the high point of the tale, not the “I saw that coming” ending.

“Winged Death” (still Heald) is one of the dumber stories. Our villain protagonist, in Africa, murders a man he hates by sending to him in America a strange new fly, a relative of the tsetse, with a spectacularly lethal bite and a legend that if the fly survives it takes the soul of the one it killed. He ignores this, of course, and then the fly somehow gets back to Africa (one cannot help picturing it buying a ticket on an ocean liner), finds him, and starts counting down to his death. I mean, if both men had been in Africa the whole time I wouldn’t have so much trouble with this, but as it is it just kinda sticks in my craw.

“Out of the Aeons” (still Heald!) is set in a museum museum. A mummy found on a mysterious newly-risen island in the South Pacific (along with an indecipherable scroll wrapped up in a mysterious cylindre) is put on display by a Boston museum and sits quietly for decades until 1931, when a story in a trashy paper brings strange cultists and attempts to tamper with the display, attempts that eventually succeed . . . to the horror of those who tried it. Not a bad little story, but somewhat spoiled by giving the backstory of the mummy in the middle. Lovecraft thoughtfully uses Howard’s Nameless Cults as the source of the uncomfortable information.

“The Horror In The Burying Ground” (and, having recently listened to Great Big Sea, I’m now getting earworms of “General Taylor”), again with Heald, is a story of untimely death and vengeance not so much from beyond the grave as from within the grave itself. I’m torn on this one . . . kind of a twist but you can maybe see it coming.

“Till A’ The Seas”, with Robert Hayward Barlow, is a science-fiction story in which the far-future sun has swollen or drawn the Earth closer to it; the practical affect is to have dried up all the water and the last man on Earth is searching for some. Elliott refers to this tale in the introduction as a “disturbingly prescient global warming dystopian fantasy”, of which one word is actually true (“disturbingly prescient global warming dystopian fantasy” is, however, a good description of the film Soylent Green, though).

“The Disinterment”, with Duane W. Rimel, has our narrator tell us of how he got leprosy in the Philippines while tending to his brother (who also had leprosy) but didn’t realize it until he got home. He hides out in the castle home of his friend Andrews, a great doctor, who at one point in the affair makes a visit to Haiti. There, he discovers a drug that mimics death so well that if he hadn’t seen the whole process gone through he himself would have ruled a man under its influence as dead. He proposes to the narrator a plan: he will administer the drug to the narrator and have him declared dead and then later dig him up and bring him back to the castle. Now that has happened, but the narrator is strangely paralyzed from the neck down. Andrews can’t or won’t explain that, nor can he explain the strange way he’s looking at the narrator, like a successful experiment of some kind . . . any horror that might be found in this story is overwhelmed by the strange, unanswered question: what’s the point of this plan? Faking the narrator’s death won’t cure his leprosy (he knows that) so why bother? What does the narrator gain from this? The story not only doesn’t answer, it doesn’t even consider the question.

“The Diary of Alonzo Typer”, with William Lumley, is a document found in a village near the site of a collapsed mansion in the woods. The house formerly belonged to a much hated family and Typer, a kind of occult investigator, went there to find out what happened to them. He finds a strange vault in the basement, and mysterious hands materialize out of nowhere to try to attack him. He can’t flee because the house is surrounded by now-impenetrable woods, though the supplies he arranged for the delivery of are still arriving when he isn’t looking.

To some extent, this is the equivalent of a “found footage” film, but unlike a film the use of a diary limits the ability to show things like, say, giant hands appearing and dragging Typer off to the basement without making it sound really stupid. Which is a pity, because the build-up to that point is quite good.

“Within The Walls Of Eryx”, with Kenneth J Sterling is pure SF. Set on Venus, it has a prospector for energy crystals found only on Venus making his way through the hot jungles and finding a crystal in a strange, transparent maze. At first, it seems like an easy entry/exit but when he finds he can’t mark the walls . . . he’ll run out of clean water and air filters soon if he makes even a simple mistake . . . The problem of the last one is avoided here by giving the narrator a mobile transcription device (sort of a proto-tape recorder) to speak his story into. It’s a great story, bolstered by the narrator’s realization that the Venusian natives he looks down on in fact know things he does not . . .

“The Night Ocean”, again with Barlow is a story more of atmosphere than horror. A man rents a cottage near the sea and almost sees things outside his windows. Not very scary, and not the tale I would have chosen to end the volume on.

The volume as a whole is recommended only to Lovecraft completists.

Read Recently — June 2016 — I am running out of ways to express that my mind is blown

Akira volumes 3 & 4 by Katsuhiro Otomo

The military has fired SOL at Tetsuo, with, shall we say, mixed results. Kei and Kaneda escape with Akira, and take shelter in a safe-house run by a woman named Chiyoko, who turns out to effectively be the Terminator dressed like a maid. Lady Miyako, a throw-away character in the movie, here takes on a larger role: she runs a temple that is staffed by monks and minor psychics. She sends one of those psychics, a young girl named Sakaki, after Akira. Nezu, the rat-like character behind Ryu, is a follower of Miyako, but he also has his own agenda. While Nezu, Sakaki, and Kei/Kaneda/Chiyoko play a three-sided game of “who’s got the button?”, with Akira as the button, the Colonel sends his three psychics out to find Akira for him (and also for themselves; they knew him in the old days). The third volume ends with Nezu doing the stupidest thing he possibly could, Akira awakening, and on the last page of the volume, the last meeting anyone wanted to see take place, does.

At the start of volume 4, Neo-Tokyo is in the same condition old-Tokyo was in after the first Akira incident. A search-and-rescue helicopter that lands to drop off supplies and pick up injured citizens is attacked and captured by the rag-tag forces of the Greater Tokyo Empire, nominally led by Akira with Tetsuo as the power behind the throne. Actually, Akira seems to spend most of his time spacing out and Tetsuo alternates between freaking out over his inability to understand and control his own powers, partying, and trying to boost others to psychic ability; the real work of running the Empire is done by a guy with real 80s hair; I haven’t been able to find out his name. Kei and Chiyoko team up with Lady Miyako. Kaori, who in the movie was Tetsuo’s girlfriend at the school, here makes her first appearance as a girl chosen to entertain Tetsuo in an early scene; she hangs around and becomes a sort of confidant to him and Akira. One character notable by his absence is Kaneda, who was a bit too close to the “blast” last time. He makes his reappearance at the end of Volume 4. Mild T&A requires a content warning, as does the implication that the girls chosen to “party” with Tetsuo don’t really want to be there (while the actual scene is not shown, the girls’ body language as they wait is telling).

Read Recently — May 2016 — Nonfiction

The Year Without A Summer: 1816 and the volcano that darkened the world and changed history by William K. Klingman and Nicholas P. Klingman

I first heard of “the Year without a summer” in a Rasputina song (called, strangely enough, “1816, the year without a summer”:

The 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora in the Indonesia area (home, also, to Krakatoa, about which more another time) was the largest and deadliest eruption in history (largest known eruption in the last 2000 years, according to the Klingmans). The explosions (for there was more than one) were heard hundreds of miles away, mistaken for cannon blasts by nervous sailors. The eruption also threw ash for hundreds of miles and left rafts of pumice floating on the surface of the sea thousands of miles away for a long time.

It also threw sulfer dioxide gas into the high atmosphere, where it blocked out sunlight for months to come, leading to several years of colder than usual temperatures, and it is this and its physical and political effects that the Klingmans spend most of the book reporting on and analysing.

It’s well-writen, easy to understand, contains few typos (I noticed none, but I was caught up in the story so I might have missed some) and is a fascinating look at a historical event that until now I have somehow managed to miss learning about (except for through the medium of song, of course). Highly recommended.

Undeniable: evolution and the science of creation by Bill Nye; edited by Corey S. Powell

Yes, it’s that Bill Nye.

Some time back, Nye was invited to have a debate with a well-known creationist. Now, a lot of scientists (and even science popularisers) won’t bother debating creationists because it accomplishes nothing useful (the audience is preselected of believers, so they won’t change their minds; and the creationist is not required to come up with all the facts to answer any spur-of-the-moment attack by his opponent; to say nothing of the goalpost shifting) except to make the creationist in question look like someone that scientists take seriously. Still, Nye took the debate, and this book, a discussion of evolution and why scientists say it’s true, is the result.

You probably already have your own opinion on Nye, based on his show. He writes well here (and/or is well-edited; note the second credit), in a converstional style. The book is a good general introduction to the subject of evolution; there is little here that you wouldn’t encounter elsewhere if you’ve read widely on the subject before. One exception is a chapter on Genetically Modified Foods; Nye is sceptical but for the paperback edition tacks on a closing chapter in which he rather unconvincingly argues that he’s changed his mind.

Other than that my only complaint is that Nye has the bad habit of repeating certain jokes throughout the book: usually some variant of the line “If you’re like me, and I know I am”, and some off-hand remark about one of his former bosses being lower on the evolutionary scale. The first one was funny maybe twice and went downhill from there; the second was never funny, and this kind of undercuts Nye’s affable persona.

Still, if you’re looking for a beginner text on evolution, you could do worse. Recommended.

Bruce by Peter Ames Carlin

It’s a biography of Bruce Springsteen. Long, thorough, and thought-provoking. I did kind of get the feeling that while Carlin is suitably in awe of Springsteen’s enormous talent, he doesn’t think much of him as a person (though I can’t point to anything in particular which makes me think that, so don’t take that too seriously).

Recommended.

Read Recently — May 2016 — Weird

The Singular & Extraordinary tale of Mirror & Goliath by Ishbelle Bee

I’ve been trying to sum this book up, and not getting anywhere. Mirror is a girl whose grandfather locked her in a weird clock; Goliath is the policeman who rescued her and is now her companion and protector. When she is in danger, he turns into a bear. Mr Fingers is hunting for Mirror, because he wants her power. He engages his adopted son, John Loveheart, who was not born wicked, to find her.

That sums up the basic plot, and it certainly sounds weird, but it doesn’t catch the engaging strangeness that runs through the book. There is a dead egyptian princess involved as well, though in what role is hard to say at first. And of course, there’s that clock and the question of how it ended up in Mirror’s grandfather’s hands in the first place. It’s just hard to explain what’s so attractive about this book in fewer words than the author used. Still, if you’ve ever enjoyed the work of China Mieville or Grant Morrison (in comics) then you should check this one out.

Recommended.

Kraken: an anatomy by China Mieville

And speaking of that Mieville guy, here he is again. In Kraken, the setting is modern-day London, UK. Billy Harrow is a curator at the Darwin Centre, a museum of natural history. They have a lot of specimens (including some collected by Charles Darwin himself), but their prize exhibit is a giant squid, preserved in a tank, one of only a few whole specimens in the world. People come to see it from all over, and some people pay it particular attention. When he’s doing tours, as he is doing on the day the book starts, Billy sometimes notices that the ones obsessed with the squid wear peculiar, squid-like pins, as does Dane, one of the guards at the institute. But he doesn’t think anything particular about that until they get to the squid room and the beast in question is gone, tank and all.

This is, of course, impossible. To remove the squid alone would require special equipment; to remove squid and tank would need cranes. You’d need to take out walls. You can’t just stuff it under your jumper and saunter out. But someone, somehow, has removed it. A special police unit under Chief Inspector Baron takes interest in the case (and in Billy); they’re a cult-investigations unit. And there is definitely, in London, at least one cult that worships giant squids. They think the beast in the Darwin Centre’s tank is a god. They are Baron’s best guess for having taken it.

Before he can get deeper involved in the investigation Billy is kidnapped from his home by a man and boy who had themselves specially origamied into a package hand delivered to Billy’s apartment (this is a way to get around certain protections placed on the apartment by canny policewoman Kath Collingswood); these are Goss and Subby, supernatural London’s best and oldest killers for hire (they prove this by killing Billy’s friend Leon, who happens to be visiting). They take Billy to London’s current master of crime, a man who has not let being reduced to a face tattooed on another man’s back stop him from taking control of the underworld.

Billy is rescued from them by Dane, the guard with the weird pin mentioned above. Dane is one of the squid worshippers, and he wants Billy for the same reason that the Tattoo does: his church doesn’t have the squid either. And all signs point to the Apocalypse coming, the world ending. Something connected to the squid which is, after all, a god. And whoever has the god can stop what’s coming . . . or control it.

And things only get complicated from there. I haven’t touched on half the characters yet, some of whom would be spoilers since we don’t get to them until the plot — the real plot — starts to unfold. This is a London with not only sorcery, but people with knacks; supernatural gifts that they can use in strangely limited ways. Collingswood has a few knacks, for instance, and plays a bigger role in the story than I’ve even hinted at.

Since Mieville doesn’t usually set his fiction in real cities (this is the third of his books to be set in modern London) it didn’t read like his usual thing. It was like reading a slightly off-kilter Tim Powers novel (I kept waiting for time travel to pop up. And ghosts). I don’t think I can give this kind of book much higher praise.

Highly recommended.

Read Recently — May 2016 — Different Approaches to Death

Johannes Cabal the Necromancer by Jonathan L. Howard

Some time ago, Johannes Cabal sold his soul to the Devil for the knowledge and skill to make him a better necromancer. He gave it up immediately rather than wait for death. He now feels this was a mistake; not only are satanic avatars drawn to him, interfering in his work, but soullessness itself is causing problems with the necromancy, making it hard to work scientifically. He wants his soul back; Satan, on the other hand, has no real interest in giving it. It sets a bad precedent, after all. However, he is willing to make a new deal: if Cabal will get him 100 souls in a year (get 100 people to sign contracts), he will get his soul back. If he fails, he dies and of course goes directly to Hell without passing go and collecting $200. As a tool, he gets an evil carnival (well, the bones (pun intended) of one; it never really got finished but Cabal is given access to a pool of Satanic power to put it together).

Of course, a soulless necromancer would not likely be a good candidate for a showman and Johannes Cabal, who doesn’t understand people at all, is an even worse choice than most. He needs help: an outgoing, social type who will be able to figure out what people will want to see. Fortunately, he knows someone who will fit the bill: his brother Horst. Unfortunately, Horst has spent the last eight years locked in a tomb in a remote graveyard, after Johannes panicked and fled the scene, leaving Horst locked in with an ancient vampire. That kind of thing can change a man. Into a vampire, for example. It can also make him a bit angry at the man who left him there and didn’t come back for eight years! Fortunately, Horst is a decent guy at heart and loves his brother enough to not want him to go to Hell.

For most of the next year Johannes gathers his victims from people who were likely going to Hell on their own (Horst occasionally nudges things in that direction as needed), but as the year ticks down to one final night with two souls still to go, will Johannes step over the edge and take the souls of someone good? Especially as the brothers find themselves in a town that seems lacking in their kind of people . . .

This book has a dark, but not grim, sense of humour. It’s never “laugh-out-loud”, but I did smile a lot. It would be easy to write Johannes Cabal off as a worthless, evil man, but there are hints throughout the story that he isn’t bad, per se, just unable to understand other people. His love for his brother is certainly there, especially towards the end. He could be evil, but . . . he could also turn aside from that track (pun intended).

Anyway, I really did enjoy this one, but it’s not for everyone. Cautiously recommended.

Sabriel by Garth Nix

This is a re-read, but not one I’ve written up before.

Sabriel lives in the kingdom of Ancelstierre, attending Wyverly College, “for young ladies of Quality”, not far from the Wall dividing Acelstierre from the Old Kingdom. The further away from the Old Kingdom you get, the less magic works. The result is that most of Ancelstierre is at about the tech level of our world (and to tell the truth, I think it is sort of our world, albeit under different conditions. Sabriel’s school uniform has Roman numberals, for instance, and the school name is printed in faux gothic lettering. It’s a different history, obviously, with different physics in some places, and possibly slightly different geography, though maybe not. There isn’t enough detail to figure it all out and it doesn’t really matter, anyway), while the Old Kingdom is basically medieval. Of course, when the wind is from the Old Kingdom, tech doesn’t work and those parts of Ancelstierre closest to the wall go back to medieval as well.

Sabriel’s father, known as Abhorsen, brought her out of the Old Kingdom when she was five, and arranged for her to attend Wyverly. He’s a necromancer, but not a Free Magic user (magic in this series is divided between Charter — safe for humans — and Free — not safe at all. In the Old Kingdom, places are kept safe from Free Magic by Charter stones, which are standing stones with Charter marks on them. And of course humans have Charter marks on them as well, or else they won’t be allowed into civilization. Necromancers can raise, bind, and destroy the dead, through the use of magic bells and by stepping into death and negotiating the river — and gates — therein); he binds the dead (and the Dead) and keeps people safe.

The story begins with a sending from Abhorsen, a dead creature bringing his sword and bells to Sabriel at Wyverly. Either he’s dead, in which case she is the new Abhorsen, or he lives but is trapped in death. Either way, Sabriel must go to the Old Kingdom and find out.

But there is a darkness at large in the Old Kingdom; a major returned Dead with an army of lesser shadows, breaking Charter Stones and unleashing more dead on the people. Before Sabriel can even reach her father’s house she is pursued by a Mordicant, a powerful dead spirit, and nearly killed.

At the house, she gains the aid of one of her father’s helpers, a Free Magic spirit in the shape of a cat, calling itself Mogget. Together, and with the aid of the warrior calling himself Touchstone, they must find and rescue Abhorsen, defeat the dark power, and save the Old Kingdom. Should be a walk in the park, right?

Nix is a brilliant writer, and this book is a strong beginning to a great series. Sabriel is a great hero, powerful but unprepared for what is thrust upon her, facing an even more powerful enemy with uncertain allies (Mogget cannot be trusted except with the collar that binds him; Touchstone is bothered by old memories of his part in the dark events of the past). It is, overall, a dark book, but not without hope or heroism.

Highly recommended.

Read Recently — May 2016 — Famous Fantasists

The Alloy Of Law: a Mistborn novel by Brandon Sanderson

This is not just a sequel to Sanderson’s Mistborn; it’s a sequel to the entire Mistborn trilogy (and the first of another series of novels; two sequels are already out). Set centuries (at least) after the events of the trilogy, those events have faded into myth and legend, and even religion (and I’ve realized that I never read the last two books of the trilogy, so I’m not sure how to interpret the popular interpretations mentioned in this book. On the other hand, those events aren’t really relevant to the action in this book, so I don’t think it’s necessary to have read any of them to read this one.

When we first meet Waxilium Ladrian, he is hunting a serial killer through an abandoned town in The Roughs, the frontier of civilization outside of the Elendel Basin. He’s the closest thing to legal authority in the area, though whether he has actual legal authority isn’t clear (or, really, important to the story). He guards the nearby towns with the help of his deputy, Wayne, and his lover, Lessie, one of whom survives the encounter with the psycho. Wax blames himself, as well he might, under the circumstances.

When next we see Wax, he’s back in the city of Elendel, playing Lord Ladrian, a role he had no intention of taking on some time ago when he received the news that his uncle, the former Lord Ladrian, had died. But, for obvious reasons, he couldn’t stay out in the Roughs, and there was no point in coming back to the city and not taking up the job. But he can’t keep his mind off of crime, either, being particularly interested in a group of railway thieves who have turned from simple robbery to hostage-taking (though the robberies may be simple they are completely mysterious–no one can figure out how they do them. The mystery of the hostage-takings is in the why). The interest turns more than academic when the same robbers invade a party that Wax is attending and seize his fiancee (he doesn’t love her, nor even like her much, and vice-versa, but their families need the marriage for their various reasons). Fortunately, his former deputy Wayne has shown up to pester him and helps with the investigation, as does his fiancee’s cousin Marasi, who is a criminology student at the university. Between Wax’s detective brilliance and gunfighting skills, Wayne’s disguise mastery, and Marasi’s knowledge, they should be quite a team. But will it be enough?

One thing Sanderson does that’s interesting here is advance the technology of the world. Where most fantasy worlds seem to stay locked in a permanent middle ages forever, the Mistborn world has moved to steam power and gunpowder; roughly the middle/late eighteenth century CE of our world. Allomancy remains a factor too: Wax can push or pull on ferrous metals as well as alter his own weight (pushing against a well-anchored metal larger than he is, such as the steel girders in a building or the tracks of a railway and making himself lighter he can almost fly, while increasing his own weight and pushing against a steel-jacketed bullet he can accelerate it once it leaves his gun and take out opponents who thought they were safely behind cover), while Wayne can create bubbles of faster time in which he can quickly change disguises, as well as heal himself rapidly from any injury.

Overall I enjoyed this one a lot. It’s got fast action and enough of a mystery to satisfy, and I enjoyed the characterization. I’m a little unsure about the beginning; not every motivational death is a fridging but this one might be. Anyway, if you can get past that, it’s a fun book with an interesting background and a different magic system that’s spelled out clearly enough in the text that you don’t need the references at the end.

Recommended.

Blood Red: Elemental Masters book nine by Mercedes Lackey

Lackey updates her Elemental Masters series to include Little Red Riding Hood. Of course, this being Lackey, she’s not so little, at least not by the end. The classic story occurs in the prologue: little Rosamund is an Earth master and so can’t handle the pollution in the typical city of whatever date this is (because Lackey manages once again to get through 313 pages without ever once having someone mention the date (talk about fantasy!)) and so has to be raised in the countryside, near the Black Forest, where a woman she calls Grandmother (but who isn’t her actual grandmother) is teaching her Earth magic. On the day in question, Rosa leaves her parents in the bucolic little German village full of liberal, accepting peasants curiously free of religious intolerance (talk about — wait, I did that one already) and heads into the forest, where she encounters a friendly stranger who she finds curiously unlikeable. After leaving him, she makes her way to Grandma’s house, where Grandma has been of course murdered and replaced by a werewolf, who does not make a very convincing grandmother. Rosa manages to lock herself in the closet and scream for help through the earth, and is rescued by foresters who are part of a brotherhood of earth mages who hunt evil. They take Rosa away with them (with her parents’ and her own permission) and raise her to be one of them.

When next we see Rosamund, she’s an adult and a hunter, and is in Transylvania, hunting a vampire (no, not him) who’s been bedevilling a small village, with a local werewolf to help him. With that accomplished, she takes a souvenir (a satanic medallion that no one in the area recognizes but which the werewolf had been wearing) and heads for home. Her train is stopped just outside of Vienna, though, and a fellow passenger, a water mage who recognizes her as an earth master, asks for her help. It seems that he had been in the city investigating an evil air master on behalf of the local white lodge, and while he thought he had hidden his presence well and gotten away clean, it seems the air master has followed him, stopped the train by using lightning to knock down a tree on the tracks, and now is coming to kill the water mage, unless Rosamund can help.

Of course, she can and with the air master disposed of, Rosamund gets invited to stay with the Graf von Stahldorf in Munich. The Graf is a huntmaster (though there isn’t much hunting in Munich; he also coordinates things for the surrounding countryside) and while Rosamund’s stay involves new clothes, comfortable bedding and big parties, the Graf knows trouble is coming and Rosamund could be what is needed to take care of it . . .

Considering this is a book about a werewolf hunter, it is surprisingly light on both action and werewolves, though it does eventually pick up on that front. Rosamund is Lackey’s usual . . . I don’t want to call her a Mary Sue, exactly, because this is, after all, her story and anyway, I’m starting to think I don’t believe in Mary Sues, at least outside of fanfic. But she’s very competent (which is fine) and gets everything she wants (which can also be fine . . . and Rosamund does pay for it all) . . . I guess the best thing to call her is a typical Lackey hero and let it go at that. I liked her, and I liked the other good guys, and disliked the villains, though not necessarily for the reasons Lackey wanted me to. The action was good; there was a bit in a cave that quite took me back to Skyrim (which isn’t hard to do, since I’ve been playing the game back to back for the last year) and that’s a good thing. And you don’t need to have read any of the other Elemental Masters to make sense of this one, though if you have, it will make more sense. And of course, if you have read the others, you will probably read this one.

Mildly recommended.

Re-read Recently — April 2016 — Insert “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” line about witches here

Good Omens: the nice and accurate prophecies of Agnes Nutter, witch by Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman

A re-read, obviously.

The basic premise is that the popular Christian/Hollywood reading of the Bible is one-hundred percent correct: the earth was created in 4004 BCE and will be destroyed in a conflict between Heaven and Hell started off by a child of Satan known as the Anti-Christ (see Fred Clarke at the Slacktivist blog at Patheos for a thorough fisking of this concept). Heaven and Hell both have permanent agents on Earth; Heaven has the angel Aziraphale, who once held a flaming sword at the gates to a garden (but not for very long; the first couple looked cold and it seemed to be due to rain so he gave them the sword), while Hell has Crowley, who used to be called Crawley, who was a serpent in that garden. Hanging out together for almost 6000 years has made the two of them almost friends; they get together and talk regularly and occasionally help each other out (Crowley has to do some tempting across town, so while he’s there he does something divine for Aziraphale so he doesn’t have to go out, for example). It doesn’t hurt that Crowley is described as an angel who “did not so much fall as saunter gently downward”. They both very much enjoy Earth as it is.

But they won’t get to do so for much longer: it’s time for Armageddon. The Anti-Christ has been born, and the world has less than two decades to live. The baby is to be given to the US Ambassador to Britain, swapped for his own baby and raised to a life of power and influence, before pulling the final trigger.

At least, that’s the plan. But, due to a failure of communication (a particularly ironic failure of communication, considering who’s doing the communicating), the antichrist ends up being given to a Mr. Young, a cost accountant from the village of Tadfield, where he is raised as Adam Young, typical young (chuckle) scallywag, leader of a small gang (in the “Our Gang” sense, not in the criminal sense) known locally as “The Them”, or just plain “Them”.

This means that Crowley and Aziraphale spend a decade working on educating the wrong child, since they were trying to undercut the apocalypse while looking like they were helping, and now he’s going to come into his power and they probably can’t find him in time! Despairing, Crowley turns to Hell’s greatest agents on earth: the Witchfinder Army! And Aziraphale turns to his own agents, Heaven’s best: the Witchfinder Army!

Of course, the Witchfinder Army has come down a bit in the world. It still looks good on paper, but actually it’s just two people these days: Witchfinder Sergeant Shadwell (who has no idea who he works for, and has never found a witch in his career) and Witchfinder Private Newton Pulsifer (who is the opposite of a technical genius)(1). Mind you, the person most likely to find Adam isn’t any of them; it’s Anathema Device, whose family is descended from one Agnes Nutter, the most accurate of those 16th/17th century witches and prophets who published their visions of the future. Only one copy of Agnes’ book survived, and it’s held by the Device family, who have been interpreting it and living by it for the intervening centuries. Anathema is kind of a professional descendant, but she has good guidance from Agnes and she lives in Tadfield.

Surely, not even the Anti-Christ can stand against the forces arrayed against him. Right? Right?

While Gaiman has nothing against tragedy and horror, he does have a sense of humour, and as the book was co-written by Pratchett you can be pretty sure it doesn’t get too grim (I could tell you were worried). A great deal of the fun of second and subsequent readings of this book is figuring out who wrote which parts; the book flows together very well so it’s mostly hard to tell. Anyway, the end result is a fun read, and highly recommended.

(1) This seems to stem from a reading of the word “general” in the phrase “witchfinder general Matthew Hopkins” as meaning “leader of an army” as opposed to “opposite of specific”, which is how I read it. Mind you, someone told me later that “general” in the sense of “leader of an army” was in fact derived from the other sense, so there you go. English, right?