Author’s Own Words features Steven L. Shrewsbury’s and Brian Keene’s KING OF THE BASTARDS

Welcome to the fourth installment of Author’s Own Words. In this installment, we are honored to feature Stephen Shrewsbury’s and Brian Keene’s King of the Bastards, including an interview with author Stephen Shrewsbury.

Review:

On a bleak coast far from his homeland, Rogan, barbarian king of Albion, finds himself surrounded by deadly threats and spectacular wonders. Tentacles rise from the sea, winged beasts cast their shadows from above, and hungry corpses emerge from dark tides. For warrior-king Rogan, survival depends on steel, speed, muscle, and cunning. Thus opens Stephen Shrewsbury’s and Brian Keene’s King of the Bastards. A thrill ride of a novel with constant action, King of the Bastards satisfies fantasy, horror, and science-fiction fans alike with its blend of sword and sorcery, supernatural terror, and slight dash of speculative technology.

At first, the novel’s narrative arc is a straight shot—shipwrecked King Rogan agrees to save a tribal village from an evil wizard that has fortified himself in a mountain redoubt. The wizard Amazarek has summoned an army of undead humans, crossbred beasts, and Croatoan, a.k.a. Meeble, and ancient demon-like being. In Shrewsbury’s mythos, Meeble is one of the terrifying and fabled “Thirteen”—a group of elder and vaguely extra-terrestrial entities whose sole purpose is to glutton themselves on the suffering that results from torturing humanity. With this striking cast of villains in place, and with Rogan’s believable (if somewhat sardonic) sympathy for the abused villagers binding them together, the novel’s main confrontation draws its raw and enticing tension.

If Lord of the Rings is a heavy-crossbow of a fantasy novel, King of the Bastards is a light yet swiftly firing recurve bow. It is every bit as accurate in piercing the reader’s heart while also nailing the bullseye of its unique stylistic place across genres. In King Rogan, Shrewsbury and Keene create a character who echoes Howard’s Conan, yet who possesses a broader sense of humor and is embroiled in a more textured and nuanced type of political intrigue.

As the novel progresses, the authors weave in their own brand of alternate history. Even as Rogan and his companions—nephew Javan, a pair of amazon-esque archers, and a good wizard from the village—fight their way to Amazarek’s fortress, the dark waters of Rogan’s personal history, the kingdom and family he left behind, begin to tie-in with his motives. These factors intensify as Rogan battles furry mutants, deals with infighting among the tribesmen, and even enjoys a rough yet tasteful erotic scene. All of these elements mix well with the greater story of King Rogan’s life and fate of his kingdom.

When the climactic battle with Amazarek and Meeble arrives, the reader holds a strong stake in what success or failure means not just for Rogan himself, but for his family and dynasty. The climactic battle (without inserting a spoiler) is also where the speculative-technology aspect of the narrative comes into play and does so with the same ease and wonder with which the political-intrigue portion was introduced.

A unique gem in the vast trove of stories with epic heroes, King of the Bastards makes a strong claim to being a true classic. For all who enjoy musing on the various ways in which genre fiction can be served, this innovative novel provides food for thought that is both rare and bloody and offers an action-packed thrill ride into the bargain.

Interview:

Where did you first get the inspiration for writing a cross-genre novel?

SS: I never put on a cap and say THIS IS HIGH FANTASY but tell a story. The way I write comes out rough & brutal, be it a horror, romance or western. If anything, life is brutal and I try to be as close to real as possible. I don’t go out of my way to get my jollies being extreme… though some may think so. Life can be horrific and that is reflected in these tales.

Aspects of Rogan’s personality clearly echo Robert E. Howard’s Conan, and yet King Rogan has a certain rugged yet playful sense of humor that is quite original. What gave rise to this and other elements of his character?

SS: Well, I’d have to guess the dark humor that resides in Keene & myself. I think it’s good to temper such tales filled with action & gore with some humor… but I really don’t ever say I NEED A JOKE HERE. It just happens. A bit of us bleeds into Rogan. Plus, once the chains are off and a character has a broken moral compass, things roll.

While certainly a full-length novel, King of the Bastards is on the lean side for a story with strong fantasy elements. Yet it carries a great deal of depth when it comes to the characters and world building. Was rapid-world building something you thought about while writing the book, or did it come about naturally?

SS: World building is an interesting term. I hear it a great deal. Not a once in any book I do am I so worried about a map or the world that I let the story or characters suffer. I’ve seen folks labor over creating a fantasy realm or world and never start a yarn. I laugh at how folks are SO obsessed with setting such places on other worlds. HEY it’s the freaking EARTH in a different era. Jeez. I set this and my Gorias novels before the flood, in a long forgotten epoch where everything was possible. Certain weapons and metals were invented and lost in that epic apocalypse. Demons walk the earth. Angels too. The rules are fluid. But yeah, the story is pretty simple in KING. A forthcoming Rogan novel is very complex, though.

King of the Bastards is a co-written novel. What was that process like?

SS: Fairly straightforward. We kicked around ideas and lots, what we both wanted in such a work and I slammed out portions. We swapped things back & forth. Pretty fun really.

What makes the barbarian character so much fun, as opposed to say, knights in capes and shining armor?

SS: As I said above, Rogan has some sense of personal honor, but he’s raw, rough and has lived a long time. He will say & do anything to survive and gives all he has in a battle. At times, prolly cruel, but gritty and real.

This series features books both old and new, and King of the Bastards, while a fantastic read, certainly isn’t your latest work. Would you like to tell us about any particular upcoming releases?

SS: The sequel THRONE OF THE BASTARDS is out from Apex. My horror westerns featuring my one-armed ex-rebel Joel Stuart are out from Necro Publications; MOJO HAND, LAST MAN SCREAMING and BAD MAGICK. BEYOND NIGHT (written with Eric S. Brown) is a brutal fantasy about the Lost Legion out from Crystal Lake. Rumor is there is a third Rogan novel bleeding into existence. One never knows what else I’m working on.

 

Author’s Own Words thanks Steven L. Shrewsbury for taking the time for this interview. We wish to add here that King of the Bastards co-author Brian Keene has been badly burned in an accident. A GoFundMe page has been created to help with his medical expenses. Please use the following link if you would like to donate: https://www.gofundme.com/brian-keene-burn-fund

Steven L. Shrewsbury writes in the realms of horror and sword & sorcery. His novels include Within, Philistine, Overkill, Hell Billy, Blood & Steel, Thrall, Stronger than Death, Hawg, Thoroughbred, Tormentor, Godforsaken, and the just released Born of Swords.

Brian Keene is the Bram Stoker and Grand Master award-winning, bestselling author of over forty books, including Darkness on the Edge of Town, Take the Long Way Home, Urban Gothic, Castaways, Kill Whitey, Dark Hollow, Dead Sea, and The Rising trilogy.

Carl R. Moore is the author of Slash of Crimson and Other Tales, published by Seventh Star Press.

Author’s Own Words features Daniel Dark’s KNIFE’S TELL

Welcome everyone to the second installment of our review/interview series—we’re arriving in style with a new name for the series “Author’s Own Words”—and featuring an interview with the darkly elegant and ever enigmatic Daniel Dark! Enjoy!

“What desire can be contrary to nature since it was given to man by nature itself?”

― Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason

I have written on Jack the Ripper before, when I reviewed editor Ross Lockhart’s Tales of Jack the Ripper. For convenience, I will include that review’s opening lines here, pertinent to the current task of discussing a new face of this timeless horror:

Jack the Ripper—the name claims one of our culture’s eternal enigmas, at first calling to mind images almost innocent, a magician-like figure in a top hat, almost campy enough for a neighborhood Halloween costume. Almost—because in a time when the Internet (a term itself becoming as problematic and borderline-anachronistic as “TV”) makes every image that ever existed accessible in an instant, the photos of his victims still hold their own on the shock scale. If you’re over 18 and feeling cocky, Google an image search of “Mary Jane Kelly” and you’ll get shredded faces interspersed amongst nineteenth century photos of a woman in a dress along with a few color stills from the movie From Hell. You’ll also get the infamous crime scene image of a torn apart body lying on a bed. An appetizer of organs sits next to it on a side table. You can find all this with the SafeSearch “on”.

If one reads further in the review from which the above is cut, a hydra of Ripper stories comes to light. They are all offered from Lockhart’s 2014 anthology, which shows an impressive and diverse array of interpretations of this iconic figure.

Here, however, we are taking a turn down a different path. A darker alley awaits—indeed, turn with me and mind you don’t slip on the alley’s damp stones. Slickened with what substance, we cannot say, certainly some rain, some fog, certainly something else as well. When you come along on the journey that is author Daniel Dark’s Knife’s Tell, you are entering a blur of chaos, blades, and blood, but you are also entering something too real, and too authentic, to keep that chaos at a safe distance. In his remarkable novel, Mr. Dark doesn’t want you to merely hear the Ripper’s story, he demands you live in his world, demands you taste its flavors, its sweet, its bitter, its bloody, until you cannot decide whether to flee or join the cackling glee of its ruthless poetry.

Knife’s Tell opens as would an inviting diary—a recounting of the days of an intriguing English doctor. Never mind his name, he speaks in the first person and offers every other intimate detail of his life. In the reader he confides all, his profession as a respected gynecologist, his lovely wife Elizabeth and their adoration for their two-year old son. He introduces his servant Savant (dubbed so for her precocious talent for flowery décor, and because she herself is sweet as a flower), and the governess Narcissa (who combines her talents for Victorian etiquette with the appearance of a not-so-understated vixen). He tells of taking in a street urchin he dubs “Hardwick”, whom he plans on making his laboratory assistant and protégé. He even demonstrates a certain regard for the important role his coachman Howard plays in his life.

Without unveiling too many of the sumptuous pieces of Knife’s Tell’s feast, suffice it to say that this ‘days of the life’ of a Victorian gentleman and professional offers a highly atmospheric and masterfully easy stream of consciousness style. Daniel Dark’s strength comes from his ability to deliver accurate sensual details. As this author, in addition to writing, has worked as a professional Victorian chef, few can match his ability to convey a sense of realism to a bygone era. Victorian authors themselves— Shelley, Dickens, Thackeray, the Bronte sisters—may be said to leave out details which during their time could be taken for granted, but this author of historical fiction conveys a setting to a Twenty-First Century audience in a way that brings the late Nineteenth Century to life. The recipes alone—from roast pigeon to pig’s head cheese (that’s right—the novel includes a set of full recipes for the dishes described in the story) plant the reader jarringly in another time and place.

And yet Dark’s stream of consciousness style does not lack clear signposts. There exist enough touchstones of clarity in the sequence of actions and thoughts that the story’s “treasure map” of events and symbols can be swiftly followed. Indeed, as it progresses, new sensual delights are added to the early descriptions of London’s shadows, candles, ales, banquets, and fog—for the good doctor begins experiencing multiple laudanum-soaked trysts with his servants and a mysterious noblewoman from outside the city. Sex scenes as exquisite as the soft leather interior of a smooth-riding, well-polished coach take the reader for a ride that refreshes our already more than well-represented landscape of erotic literature.

But while we are enjoying these delights, the specter of murder is never far away. Bodies begin to appear in London’s Whitechapel district. The police recruit our good doctor to help with the investigation, and thereby the reader’s lusty feast begins to be laced with episodes of blood and body parts. We understand that the doctor is on a mission that involves finding a cure for his wife’s mysterious ailment, and that he needs something from the desperate ladies of the evening swarming in London’s slums. As the novel progresses, a tension both maddening and enjoyable grows as we fear what the doctor needs for his experimental cure while at the same time sympathizing with him and rooting for his success.

In the end, of course, any novel on the topic of Jack the Ripper must give the author’s take on answering the one all-encompassing question—Who was he?

In this Dark’s success rivals both the traditional and the outlandish. To both those who would say simply that it was a local madman such as Aaron Kosminski, to Patricia Cornwell’s baroque claims that he was modernist painter Walter Sickert, Daniel Dark counters with not only neither, but that there are far deeper shadows of motive moving beneath the surface, and should we not explore those? For in Dark’s novel he simultaneously paints a highly traditional figure in top-hat and cloak, and yet at the same time creates a person who serves as an intricate symbol of the end of one era and the beginning of another, and all the pleasures and madnesses that accompany them. For the doctor of Knife’s Tell becomes an ironic Prometheus—murder is as much self-sacrifice as it is assault. He is a figure that opens a dialogue with Mary Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein about the changing meaning of the heroic and the very nature of success. Without spoiling the novel’s climax and its actual answer to who the Ripper was and his motives, I will say that readers will an experience a satisfying shock and revelation when they realize the true facts of the darkness behind the debauchery. The novel reads with all the fun and sensuality of Stoker’s Dracula, but cuts back across with an apocalyptic and merciless conclusion à la Hardy’s Tess D’Ubervilles. Knife’s Tell’s ultimately beautiful and impossible fantasy is how it binds the future and past together by slicing them apart in so many darkly dazzling pieces.

Interview with Daniel Dark:

Have you ever eaten roast pigeon, and can you really pick your teeth with the talons?

In the cooking society today it is normally called squab. Yes I have eaten it, and if you have ever had quail you have tasted something similar to it. As to the picking your teeth with a talon, after they dried you could.

What first motivated you to become a Victorian chef?

I was drawn to the era in my younger days and as such all aspects of it. When I started studying as a chef it was easy to transfer that study into my passion. I have over thirteen hundred cookbooks in my library, and a few hundred from the Victorian era. Now the new ones that I’m collecting are from the year nineteen ten or before.

When did you begin writing? Was it a conscious decision to choose the novel as a form, or did it come about another way?

I have always written but in my younger years it was mainly poetry. Then after I had a stroke I wrote my first Victorian cookbook as therapy for my brain. It wasn’t until after that that I thought I could possibly write a novel.

You appear to have a very original take on the Ripper for an author so knowledgeable about traditions. How do you feel about Jack the Ripper as an iconic figure, and about “Ripperology”?

In my opinion the truth behind who or why Jack the Ripper existed will never be known. Every part of the case that we still have available has been written about. This is the reason I chose to write about a part of the case that has not been evaluated in a novel. What would cause someone to become the notorious Ripper?

Many of our images coming from the Victorian world today are those of stuffiness, uptightness, and repression. And yet your depiction of 1880’s London and Whitechapel gives it a wild, hedonistic allure. Do you feel that a Twenty-First Century audience has been missing out on the whole picture of the Victorian era, and all it has to offer?

The picture in most movies only shows part of the truth about the life in London during the late eighteen hundreds. There was a definitive stiffness in society, but there was also the underbelly that proper people didn’t speak about. The so called “unfortunates” were known and thriving in those days and people had to do whatever they could to survive.

Your novel makes the case that there may be something tragically heroic in the figure of Jack the Ripper and the Victorian ideal in general. Does the Ripper share anything with Frankenstein’s monster? Are the wages of genius, madness? And vice versa?

The fragility of the mind has always been known and the line between. Frankenstein made his man, and the public made him a monster. Likewise, in my novel, the pressures of life change the man into a monster.

Thank you, Daniel Dark!

Knife’s Tell is Daniel Dark’s debut novel. It can be purchased on Amazon.com.

Carl R. Moore is the author of Slash of Crimson and Other Tales, published by Seventh Star Press. News, information and more can be found at www.carlrmoore.com.

Review-Interview: R.J. Sullivan’s HAUNTING OBSESSION

I’m very excited to announce my new review series, Review-Interview, a combination of a book review and short interview with the book’s author. It is in part a continuation of my blog’s original “Is that an Old Book?” review series. Adding a dialogue with the author brings in an exciting new element. The first featured book is Haunting Obsession, and the interview is with its author R.J. Sullivan. Without further ado, please enjoy the first installment of Review-Interview, brought to you by Carl R. Moore and Seventh Star Press:

A gifted young computer programmer has a passion for collecting movies and memorabilia featuring his hallowed idol—the elegant and alluring Maxine Marie. His colleague and girlfriend, Loretta, tolerates his obsession, but only to a point. When Daryl pays a high price for an old rent check signed by the famous actress, not only does he push his hobby and his girlfriend too far, he also summons an entity that is beautiful and dangerous, electric and evil, arousing and voracious—the ghost made flesh of Maxine Marie herself.

In Haunting Obsession, author R.J. Sullivan crafts a novella about a supernatural love triangle that draws its power primarily from its well-wrought characters. Flawed, somewhat geeky heroes likeable for their brains and sense of humor, protagonists Daryl and Loretta come across as a couple you might know and root for. You can see the attraction between them, Loretta’s affinity for the “mind behind the Star Trek posters”, as it were, and Daryl’s understanding that the woman he loves has the right combination of brains and easy-going tolerant spirit to be long-term material.

As for the villainess who intercedes, the voluptuous Maxine Marie, while certainly drawing on imagery of 1960’s icon Marilyn Monroe, she also flickers, sparkles, and burns like the most intense of cyberpunk beauties. She echoes the uncanny fabrication-meets-flesh attributes of William Gibson’s idoru and even P.K. Dick’s replicants. Sullivan delivers a monster drawn in a prose style that contains a unique and somewhat wistful rendering of technological imagery. In Maxine Marie, the reader discovers an intoxicating mix of the futuristic and the vintage. He offers an electrifying spin on all things supernatural where scares and erotic thrills mingle in a dangerously inviting combination.

Though the novella is set in 2012, Infotech, the company where the protagonists work, comes across as palpably cutting edge for its time, lending a certain energy to the setting. Daryl’s conflicting personality elements—his talent for programming combined with his capacity for retro eros make one wonder whether talent and “tastefulness” are too often used as excuses for age-old greed, lust, and gluttony.

The stakes of such questions turn white-hot as Daryl’s relationship with the ghost moves from fun fling to something tormented, alien, and sadistic. Daryl and Loretta must rise to the challenge to save both their relationship and their very lives. Without spoiling the blow-by-blow of the novella’s climax, we can applaud how Sullivan demonstrates how one’s talents can become one’s flaws, and how they can turn around and redeem themselves yet again. Daryl’s and Loretta’s relationship with technology proves instrumental in understanding the laws that govern the entity’s existence. It also prove useful in locating and bringing in an intriguing ally from a shadowy government agency and concocting a plan that just might overcome the power of their dazzlingly horrific tormentor. Without revealing the outcome of the plan, the result is a high-voltage horror novella well worth the price of admission. In Haunting Obsession, R. J. Sullivan delivers the best elements of a traditional ghost story, populates it with smart yet flawed characters, and renders it in a unique and tastefully tech-savvy style.

One might think of Maxine Marie as a femme fatale, and thereby a villain. And yet there’s certainly some mischief and beauty in her, as well as stated necessity for her to prey upon the living in order to maintain her existence. Any allegory here for fame and stardom in general? Was this a theme you were thinking of as you wrote?

It is certainly fair to read Maxine’s power as an analogy to fame and its addicting quality for both the fan and the object of affection. Maxine awakens in a world with more admirers than she ever likely saw in life. If fame could be quantified and turned into a magical power, then spirits such as Marilyn Monroe, Charlie Chaplin, and so many others would find themselves “supercharged” by the decades of adoration. Maxine awakens into a world where she can access that energy, and perhaps not surprising, becoming overwhelmed by it. Being caught in these forces, I think, makes Maxine a tragic character.

The idea that objects can be special and have a “soul” if you will, such as a movie star’s rent-check, plays an important role in Haunting Obsession. Where did you derive inspiration for this concept? Are you a collector?

I am a collector, to a point. However, when it comes to the rent check, I side with Loretta. The real-life inspiration came from my seeing exactly that sort of personal check-as-autograph at a souvenir shop. Yes, it was Marilyn’s and it was written to pay a utility of some sort. I suppose I was a bit naïve at the time but the whole thing creeped me out. It was clearly after she had become famous. I remember the address and phone number, still legible, and the account number. I thought it an incredible invasion of privacy. On the other hand she was, after all, long dead. So where was the harm?

But the more appalling idea to me is that this wasn’t a photo signed to a fan. It wasn’t from a public appearance. It was a necessary component to do what we all do as good citizens: pay your bills. And when she signed it, she not only had money TAKEN from her account, but someone else decades later would make money off that check. Also, that check was out there for everyone to see exactly what she paid for that particular utility on that particular date. I mean, what if it wasn’t a utility but written to her psychiatrist, or a credit card bill after a shopping spree? If I were a ghost, I’d die of embarrassment. 😊  So while I found that it crossed a line, I wanted to write about someone who had no problem with it, and how this act raised the ghost to object to being treated that way.

Several years later I was coaxed by Rodney Carlstrom (a friend of SSP) to draft a flash fiction about it. The original idea was, Daryl buys the picture, ghost appears. The end. That grew into a short story that grew into the novella that became MY obsession for four months and became Haunting Obsession.

Did you consciously weave science-fiction style elements into this supernatural tale? Is this something your writing often features?

 It wasn’t intentional, but I’m not surprised when people say this, as I do love SF.

If this novella had a soundtrack, what would it be?

Well, I would have to include “I Want to be Loved By You” in that. If you have not had a chance to see the book trailer, keyboardist and friend Jan Pulsford did a great arrangement of that and her own composition Rezonatta for it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Cj93xKP2H8

As I recall, I mention Katy Perry’s ET as Loretta’s ring tone, which says a lot about her. Since the book came out, I was struck by how much Taylor Swift’s Blank Space seems to echo what being under Maxine’s spell might be like. While it was not an intentional choice, the fact that Loretta Lynn performed Stand by Your Man has been pointed out to me. They say never deny an interpretation, lol😊

Any chance for a sequel, or will your fiction feature any of these characters in the future? Will Maxine Marie rise again?

This story introduced readers to Rebecca Burton, she is an ongoing character in several short stories (some of which are now in Darkness with a Chance of Whimsy) and in Virtual Blue. Since the book was released, Maxine frequently appears in my blogs as a sort of mascot. She’s my cryptkeeper, my foil, we’ve made some great comedy together. As a marketing tool, Maxine is an endless fount of inspiration. But as far as an official sequel, or ever appearing in another book I have no such plans.

I would be remiss if I did not mention reader Nikki Howard, who helped launch the book in spectacular fashion by cos-playing Maxine at a haunted house event and doing this after we found out if was the emcee’s birthday: https://www.facebook.com/nikki.howard.1042/videos/t.100000008181402/10152041467775424/?type=2&theater My Maxine Model Lily Monstermeat was part of my author photo, has done a “photo shoot” as Maxine, helped me create an infamous risqué cardboard standee, and did a fun send-up here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cd8uTw24nFo

Here are a couple of fun blogs featuring Maxine: http://www.ismellsheep.com/2012/09/guest-post-rj-sullivan-haunting.html

When I received the 40th Amazon book review: https://rjsullivanfiction.com/2014/08/29/elegant-ghost-maxine-marie-responds-to-hitting-40/

You get the idea.

 

Haunting Obsession is part of a loose trilogy of paranormal thrillers. R.J. Sullivan has also released a short story collection (Darkness with a Chance of Whimsy) and the first book of a new SF spaceship adventure series, Commanding the Red Lotus—all released through Seventh Star Press. Learn more at http://www.rjsullivanfiction.com/

Carl R. Moore is the author of Slash of Crimson and Other Tales, published by Seventh Star Press. News, information and more can be found at www.carlrmoore.com.

On the Works of Tom Piccirilli

Feeling a bit nostalgic for the end of summer, I find myself full of strangely clear memories tonight. Call it the end of summer, the only end of summer 2017 there will ever be. My kids are of a certain age, coming up on the end of childhood and the beginning of teen years (well for the older one, at least). I tend to be precise in my measurements of time. I call the last day of summer August 31st for those in the northeast and I call the last day of childhood the day before you turn thirteen. So I find myself reflecting on how it’s been the best of the times, worst of times, the year my collection was published, and the year I am realizing how much things have changed in the last decade (cue Led Zeppelin’s “Ten Years Gone”). One of the items welling up in the waning of summer is reflection on the passing of one of my favorite novelists, a writer who I consider one of the finest novelists America has ever produced—Tom Piccirilli. Though he passed away in the summer of 2015, his works endure. I had hoped that he would reach a popularity level similar to George R. R. Martin and J. K. Rowling someday so that I might see some of his works become movies or a television series. I was particularly fond of works where he combined horror and crime-noir (though he eventually appeared to focus more on straight-ahead crime noir in his later works), and can’t say enough what an inspiration his writing has been to me. I once wrote a review of his work which he kindly responded to. The review is pasted below. I never expect an author to respond to a book review. In truth, book reviewing is an obscure art. It makes my day when a reader says they found a review I wrote helpful. This happens fairly often. It’s just an amazing feeling when an author responds. I don’t think this is something that really should be expected or happen often. Authors are few and readers are many and I am, in fact, fond of some traditional structures when it comes to art. I guess I’d compare it to getting a buy-back at a bar—fantastic when you’re poured a free beer, but you never ask. I did not know Tom Piccirilli personally, but from folks I’ve met at conventions who knew him, I’ve gathered he was a generous personality. His note was not long, but he had good things to say about the below review. And so, let’s remember this amazing author and his work tonight. I hope my words from way back in 2009 concerning his writing and his books below will be enjoyed and maybe offer some insight into why I continue to consider him to be one of our finest. Continue reading

Neil Gaiman’s AMERICAN GODS as Horror Novel

Spoiler warning—this review discusses themes from the novel and TV show American Gods in a manner best enjoyed by those who’ve already read the book and/or seen the series.

I first read Neil Gaiman sometime in the early aughts, I think it might have been 2002. The novel was titled Neverwhere, and I didn’t know it had been a TV series. I had just picked it up as a random fantasy novel as I often did back then and started reading away. I found it so-so—I couldn’t relate at all to the main character, but sort of liked the villains, and was pleasantly surprised at not being able to guess the traitor. So it was all right.

I was travelling on a Greyhound bus, coming down from Maine to New York City, and having run out of reading material, decided I might as well try to take in the chapter stuffed in the back that came from another of his novels, something called American Gods. I read about Shadow, a man about to be released from prison and full of all the excitement and apprehension that goes with it. I, too, felt like I was about to embark on a journey into the unknown. Along with that feeling I also noticed that the prose itself in this novel had a grittier texture, like those styles called ‘realism’ and ‘surrealism’ had been mixed together. I decided I was going to give this author another try, and picked up a copy of American Gods when I arrived in New York.

On one level, we can describe this novel’s story arc in very simple terms. A mysterious con-man hires an ex-convict to travel the United States to help him in his quest to become the king of all the con-artists… But no, says a reader, it’s that they are gods, Mr. Wednesday is Odin, Mr. Nancy is Anansi. Yes, they are gods, but they are gods involved in, for better or for worse, type of popularity contest which feeds their very existence. And so I place emphasis first on the themes of cons and games of deception because the story’s arc (as well as America’s) can be said to be about travelling and the necessarily tricks required to survive on the road.

As the story unfolds, it slips into a kind of Kerouac’s-On-The-Road-meets-grown-up-Wizard-of-Oz feel.  Shadow’s and Mr. Wednesday’s travels meander, and in this way, the narrative does not overtly move in the five-act script style from inciting incident to climax. The two characters move from state to state, pulling small swindles and meeting a smorgasbord of gods new and old. They are pursued by characters like Technology Boy and shadowy government power-hounds known as the Black Hats. All the while, much of the tension focuses on Shadow’s relationship with Wednesday, his reluctant admiration for him and curiosity about his identity. At the same time, he deals with the still lit flame for his deceased and adulterous wife, Laura. Due to a misplaced gift of a magic coin from Shadow himself, Laura returns from the dead to both haunt and help Shadow on his quest, and becomes a kind of parallel companion who contrasts Wednesday in her ironic sort of loyalty and visceral love.

With these elements in place, the story builds into an increased yet steady rhythm that lasts for much of the middle part of the narrative. Gaiman weaves anecdotes about Celtic and African gods and embeds them like short stories contained within the broader arc. They appear as colorful distractions, but also serve to build the understanding of how gods, when worshipped sincerely and by many, grow in power. This dynamic is improved when a given god’s attributes are part of the worshipping—a war god thrives on slaying, a love god on erotic acts, a storm god on lightning.

In allowing for this meandering path to build the narrative’s tension, Gaiman takes great risk. Particularly in our time, when the instant is everything, when we are ostensibly supposed to seize audiences before they know they’ve been seized, this kind of spiral-web might come across as possibly swollen. The story’s strands appear to strain under America’s vastness, its specific and exceptional place in time and geography of the history of the world’s cultures (Gaiman himself addresses the difficulty of seeing this vastness all at once in his essay How Dare You? wherein he touches on how to write about topics of such a size). It would seem on a certain level that the narrative’s spiral-path helps handle the apparent paradoxes of American diversity and unity. Such is reflected by the presence of very distinct gods who share common needs. The relativity of time and place, size and significance, moves to center stage, and we begin to glimpse how gods from the old world can take on new attributes, how the large can become small, and vice-versa.

I’ll digress into my own experience, by way of example. I am originally a New Englander, born in Connecticut, whisked to Maine before I was one-year-old, where I then lived until I was 25. Although I’ve been to both Europe and Asia, I have also travelled around a lot just within New England. What? Isn’t that an absurd concept, “travelling around” within that tiny place called New England? But yes, that’s what I mean—I’ve paddled through spartan New Hampshire with its bills-paid-on-time farmsteads and rivers clean as the barrels of well-oiled rifles. I’ve hitchhiked through Vermont where they distill music like moonshine, even if the bills might not get paid on time (whether the cash is kept under a mattress or in several money-market accounts). I’ve rolled along the coast of Maine countless days and nights, where icy horrors-that-must-not-be-named well up from the ocean and can be packed and sold for $21.99 a pound (some in flash frozen filets, others in paperback, hardcover, and e-book). I’ve sped down the highways of Massachusetts, where ale’s an art-form and disrespect for the Sox might still get you hung as a witch. I’ve bussed through Rhode Island where a talent for poetry is almost as good as a talent for tattoos, and of course, I’ve attended grad school in Connecticut, where you can’t buy beer at gas stations and besides, it’s after ten o’clock. New England has its own vastness, its states able to birth their gods, along with the accompanying distinctions and similarities.

But even with this relative nature of culture being recognized, underneath, American Gods knows well America’s very specific position in its history, one that is both idyllic and horrific. If we think the meandering trip is mere sight-seeing, if we find the weaving of the web dazzling but empty, we are watching only the hand that is offering us the feint. Because the story’s other hand has been reaching straight for the jugular…

About halfway through the story, Shadow reaches Lakeside, a quiet town in northern Wisconsin. He meets some friendly locals such as old-timer Hinzelmann and police officer Chad Mulligan who invite him to enjoy the small town life. The town, its pub, its peaceful library, all of its charms function as a kind of ‘eye’ in the novel’s storm. The physical distance these Wisconsin scenes have from where the cons and conflicts take place mirrors the narrative distance this ‘eye’ ostensibly has from the coming plot climax.

We must be careful here, lest we lose sight of the web through the strands. We discover the novel’s true ruse when there is no turning back, that America is a beautiful, but dangerous place. We can see its forest and mountains, taste its food and witness its roadside attractions. But we should keep an awareness of its distinct personality and power, and, among the conflicts of its gods vying for attention and survival, the inevitable blood that will be drawn. The blood will often run where you least expect it—aw look at that clown, he’s so funny, and he’s great with kids! Mr. Gacy, can I get your number? My friend’s got a four-year-old with a birthday coming up… …dude, check out McVeigh’s car, hilarious, dude, a beat-up old Marquis. Have fun on your road trip, man…

So we see how America’s web feeds very real spiders, and how American Gods is a novel which can be quite accurately placed in the horror genre. It does not deny America its paradoxes or sugarcoat its history, but does offer insights into how gods and the futures they occupy can be re-sculpted again and again.

It is in this spirit of re-sculpting and reinventing that Shadow thwarts the disguised horrors with his own version of a disguised strength. When it becomes clear that the battle of the gods is a trick, a con put in motion by Odin and Loki to make a blood sacrifice of gods for gods, Shadow gains respect not through overt battle but by making his own very specific sort of blood sacrifice to Odin (i.e., by offering himself). And when we learn that Lakeside has been sacrificing children to Hinzelmann the kobold all along, that small town America sups handsomely on blood, Shadow does not confront the devourer alone, but together with the town native Chad Mulligan. We see in Shadow a unique ability to handle oversight and deception, an original way to confront masks and disguises. For we learn through him that the antonym of strength is not gentleness, and that patience is not a synonym for weak. He shows instead that, when confronting the many faces of the monstrous, if you weave a mask of your own, you have some say in how the eyes see.

Carl R. Moore is the author of Slash of Crimson and Other Tales, published by Seventh Star Press.

TODAY IS THE DAY: SLASH OF CRIMSON AND OTHER TALES AVAILABLE IN PAPERBACK AND E-BOOK

TODAY IS THE DAY: SLASH OF CRIMSON AND OTHER TALES AVAILABLE IN PAPERBACK AND E-BOOK! Thank you to everyone who has shown interest in this book. I think the most exciting thing about publishing this collection is the amazing people who I have worked with, the editors, publishers, artists, and fellow writers who have gotten involved and invested their time and believed in it. In truth, I think we’ve put together a really fun read—if you’re engaged in summer travels, or looking for something new to read or replace the TV for a change, I invite you to try these stories out. The title piece makes a great beach-read as it’s set in a city by the sea. The second novella, the all new TORN FROM THE DEVIL’S CHEST, is my first story that takes place in upstate New York and would be excellent for adding a dash of thrill and creepiness to a camping trip. Together with the six short stories, the collection is a full 80,000 words, and is set in the CRIMES OF HEAVEN AND HELL world, a setting in which I hope to be publishing more works in the future.

I want to offer particular thanks once more my editor Margie Colton, as her work on the text itself has really helped the stories come alive and distill the style to what it’s truly meant to be. There are many other folks to whom I owe gratitude and whose names are listed in the acknowledgements, but most of all I thank readers who pick up a copy and enjoy the stories themselves. Like any craftsperson, the true spark and satisfaction lies in that first taste of the product and the pleasure it imbues.

The link to the Amazon page is below. For those of you who like to crack the spine of a fresh paperback and take in the printed page, the collection is available in trade paperback. For those with e-readers, the Kindle version is also now available for immediate download.

Thanks again to all who have taken an interest—and for those who do pick up a copy, enjoy the wild ride! –Carl R. Moore

Click linked images below to purchase:

Front.Cover

Back.Cover

SLASH OF CRIMSON AND OTHER TALES AVAILABLE FOR PRE-ORDER ON AMAZON.COM

In follow up to my post on the SLASH OF CRIMSON AND OTHER TALES cover, I wanted to respond more specifically to those who asked when the book will be on sale, and in what form. I also wanted to give a little background on the content of this new release.

First, for those of you with Kindles and Kindle apps, the collection can currently be pre-ordered on Amazon by clicking the link attached to this post:

Pre-orders are extra-appreciated because they will all register the first day the book is officially available, July 21st, so the more there are that day, the more exposure the book’s launch will receive. July 21st is also when paperback editions will be available for online order. I do not yet have details on bookstore distribution, but will certainly follow up again when I do. For those who were aware of an earlier published incarnation of the title novella, I would like to add that the version within this collection is an expanded version, a “director’s cut”, if you will, edited by the amazing Margaret L. Colton. I think those who give it a fresh read will enjoy the new details.

Also, there is a whole new, never before released novella, TORN FROM THE DEVIL’S CHEST, which is one of my first pieces set predominantly in upstate New York. Together with the six short stories, the collection is a full 80,000 words, enough to provide hours of beach, woods, poolside reading over the summer. All the stories are set in the CRIMES OF HEAVEN AND HELL world and make a great prologue for a series I hope will have more installments, including full-length novels, following soon. A heartfelt thanks to all who have taken an interest, and for those who pick up a copy, enjoy the wild ride! –Carl R. Moore