First of all, I've never been a big fan of role-playing
games. I don't have anything at all against them, mind you. I only played once,
but I had a good time. However, over the years I've read and enjoyed quite a
bit of gaming-related tie-in fiction, and Dan Wells' novella THE BUTCHER OF
KHARDOV certainly falls into that category.
This is based on a game called Warmachine (I think; I got a little lost on the
publisher's website), which takes place in a universe that's a combination of
steampunk and late middle ages historical fantasy. The characters have
primitive firearms, although they still fight with swords, lances, shields,
armor, etc. But they also have giant fightin' robots powered by a combination
of steam engines and magic. Now I don't know about you, but I find that pretty
By flashing back and forth through the life of a warcaster—somebody who can
control those robots, called warjacks, with his mind—THE BUTCHER OF KHARDOV
tells the story of a notorious massacre that takes place in an otherwise minor
border skirmish between two of the countries in this universe. This is the
first thing I've read by Dan Wells, and he's got a good hand with the action
scenes, as well as characterization, and does a really good job on the setting.
Too often with game-related fiction, you almost have to be an expert on the
source game to understand what's going on, but that's not the case here. I'm
not real fond of the technique of jumping around in the timeline of a story (I
admit, I'm more of a Point A to Point B to Point C kind of guy), but it's not
too distracting here and I still got caught up in the yarn Wells is spinning.
THE BUTCHER OF KHARDOV is nominated for a Hugo Award this year in the Best
Novella category, the first piece of tie-in fiction to achieve that honor, as
far as I know. I'm not sure I'd vote for it, if I were voting, but I really did
enjoy it a lot and think it's well worth reading just as an epic fantasy
novella even if you have no interest in the game. There are quite a few stories
and novellas set in the same universe, and I plan to check them out.
We've got an actual cliffhanger cover on this issue of TOP-NOTCH, illustrating a story by Erle Stanley Gardner, the only author in this particular issue whose name I recognize. But I suspect the other stories were entertaining anyway, as I've read a number of stories originally published in TOP-NOTCH that were good. I haven't read any of Gardner's Speed Dash stories, but I ought to.
Sort of an unusual cover by H.W. Scott on this issue of WESTERN STORY, commemorating the 500th anniversary of Coronado's exploration of the American Southwest. Inside, however, is the usual top-notch line-up of authors: Luke Short, Harry F. Olmsted, Bennett Foster, S. Omar Barker, Seth Ranger (Frank Richardson Pierce), George Cory Franklin, and Harry Sinclair Drago. Mighty good reading for your dime, I suspect.
Sergeant Mike Duval's brother Johnny
dies in his arms during a battle in Korea, and his last request is that when
Mike gets back home, he'll look after Johnny's new wife and baby daughter. Mike
promises, of course, and due time he returns to Chicago to honor his pledge to
his dead brother. But things aren't quite that simple. You see, Johnny's wife
turns out to be on Death Row, awaiting execution for the robbery and murder of
a wholesale diamond dealer she picked up while working as a prostitute. And the
little girl, along with a fortune in stolen diamonds, is nowhere to be found...
This is another fast-paced, extremely hardboiled novel from veteran pulp and
paperback author Day Keene, who has become one of my favorite authors over the
years. This one was published as half of an Ace Double in 1953, and as usual,
Keene really piles the troubles on his narrator/protagonist. Mike Duval is
convinced that his sister-in-law isn't guilty of murder, and as he tries to get
to the bottom of everything he runs afoul of brutal cops, ruthless gangsters,
and assorted dames who are no better than they have to be. He's shot at, beaten
up, and has to escape from police custody to find out the truth.
It all makes for an entertaining whirlwind of a book with a decent twist at the
end and some welcome touches of humor, but overall the plot is a little thinner in this one than in most Day
Keene novels I've read. That may explain why it was published by Ace rather
than Gold Medal, where Keene was one of the stalwarts. It's probably a little
short for a Gold Medal, too. Despite that, I enjoyed DEATH HOUSE DOLL quite a
bit. It's got a great title, a good cover on the original edition, and it's
available as an e-book from Prologue Books. This one's not in the top rank of
Day Keene novels, but it's well worth reading.
This novelette from the July-August 1937 issue of TERROR TALES is a prime example of a pulp storytelling mantra I still follow myself: If you're going over the top anyway, you might as well go 'waaay over. "Revels for the Lusting Dead" is also reminiscent of 80s horror movies, with a heroine who's constantly being menaced and screaming as she runs away from one unholy threat after another. In addition to that, you've got your creepy old inn with a clerk whose description might as well be that of H.P. Lovecraft his own self, a cemetery right across the street (convenient for corpses to come out of yawning graves and lay siege to the place), naked girls in hanging cages in a crypt, a black-hooded guy with a whip... This is almost a textbook example of a Weird Menace story, and it gallops along in a highly entertaining fashion. It's well-written, too, and Zagat provides a couple of plot twists that, while not exactly jaw-dropping, are still pretty nice. I just had a great time reading this one.
The set-up of ELDERWOOD MANOR, the new novella by
Christopher Fulbright and Angeline Hawkes, is a classic one in horror fiction:
protagonist returns to his creepy, tragedy-haunted childhood home, where things
get even creepier and more dangerous.
Fulbright and Hawkes bring this tale to life with some fine writing, a brooding
sense of overpowering doom, a nice pace, and the addition of the protagonist's
four-year-old son to the mix, a character who rings absolutely true. The
setting, the Ozark Mountains in the dead of winter, is a welcome change from
some of the more traditional locales for stories like this. I also like the
fact that the protagonist doesn't make a lot of dumb decisions just to keep the
plot moving along. Some of his choices may be a little questionable, but
they're also believable given the circumstances.
I've become a fan of this writing duo over the past few years. Writing both
together and alone, they turn out a consistently entertaining mix of horror and
adventure fiction, and everything I've read by them has been different from
what I've read before. ELDERWOOD MANOR is another fine addition to their body
(This post originally appeared on January 12, 2010.) I’ve been trying to catch up on some older movies, and the plot of this one from 1946 sounded intriguing: a GI comes back from combat in the South Pacific with amnesia, a fact that he conceals from his doctors. Everybody tells him his name is George Taylor. When he gets back to the States he sets out to discover who George Taylor is. His only clue is a fragment of a letter from a woman who’s angry with him for breaking up with her, but he soon finds another, a letter addressed to George Taylor from someone named Larry Cravat, telling him that a bank account has been opened in his name. So the first step in finding out his true identity is to find the mysterious Larry Cravat. You see the big twist coming already, don’t you? You will if you watch the movie, too. But that won’t spoil it for you, because the fun is in watching everything play out in pure film noir fashion, as Taylor’s quest gets him involved with vicious mobsters, small-time grifters, a pretty torch singer, missing millions, and of course a murder for which the cops blame him, so he has to track down the real killer and clear his name before he can be arrested. The Gold Medal writers who came along a few years later had to have watched this and dozens of similar movies. Sporting a pencil-thin mustache that looks a little silly today, John Hodiak makes an earnest but somewhat goofy protagonist. He’s well-supported by a great cast, though, including Lloyd Nolan, Richard Conte, Sheldon Leonard (in only one scene but really fun to watch, as always), Harry Morgan (likewise), and the ubiquitous Whit Bissell. SOMEWHERE IN THE NIGHT is a pretty minor film but still entertaining. If you like noirish thrillers from the Forties and haven’t seen it, you ought to give it a try.
Like MYSTERY MONTHLY, which I wrote about several weeks ago, when I saw the digest magazine ESPIONAGE on the magazine rack at one of the local grocery stores, my first thought was that here was another market I could send some stories to. The mid-Eighties were a dry time for me as far as writing goes. I ghost-collaborated on a couple of men's adventure novels with a friend of mine. I wrote short stories and letters for the porno digests (and was damned glad to get those 40 or 50 buck sales, too). I wrote novel proposal after novel proposal in a variety of genres, all unsold and lost now, except for one or two. I was still a year or so away from getting the job writing Westerns for Book Creations Inc. that eventually allowed me to become a full-time writer. So I immediately wrote a slew of spy stories and bombarded the magazine with them. Never even came close to selling any of them, of course. They all came flying back with form rejects. I don't know if any of them were actually any good or not. They're all lost, too. But I still picked up the magazine when I found it and read the stories, and most of them were pretty good. This issue includes stories by Dan J. Marlowe, Ron Goulart, Edward D. Hoch, Michael Bracken, Bill Knox, and John Lutz. That's a top-notch line-up. The other issues I read were good, too. Several of them feature stories by Joe Lansdale. Despite its quality, the magazine lasted only a year or two, victim of the fact that even in the mid-80s, people just didn't read fiction magazines much anymore.
OUTRAGE AT BLANCO It’s True Grit meets Gran Torino in a blazingly original crime novel from Bill Crider, an Edgar and Shamus finalist and a two-time winner of the Anthony Award On a bloody day in 1887, death came to Blanco, Texas. Before the sun went down, the livery stable was torched, an outlaw gang robbed the bank, two men were killed, and young newlywed Ellie Taine was raped. One of the dead was the man who planned the robbery – the son of dying, legendary Texas Ranger Jonathan Crossland – the other was Ellie’s husband, an innocent bystander. The dead don’t know fear. Ellie is dead inside. She takes a gun and rides out after the desperadoes, cold-blooded and fearless, determined to kill the men who ruined her life. She’s joined by Jonathan Crossland, who only has days left to live… but would rather die in his saddle making amends for his son than rot in his bed. Together, Ellie and Jonathan set out on a mission of vengeance and justice, one that neither of them expects nor hopes to survive. “In the hands of Bill Crider, noir seems as atmospheric and doomful as ever,” Publisher’s Weekly "Bill Crider is one of the most unpretentious and versatile pure entertainers in the mystery field." Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine
TEXAS VIGILANTE The powerful sequel to Outrage at Blanco, Edgar & Shamus Award nominee Bill Crider’s startlingly original western crime novel Six months ago, Ellie was a newlywed, working the dry land in 1880s Texas. Then the desperados came. They raped her and killed her husband, leaving her for dead. But she hunted them down and, along the way, found an inner strength and relentless determination that no man can match. Ellie thought the killing was over…that she’d put her guns away for good to run a ranch that she’d inherited from a legendary Texas Ranger. She was wrong. A prison wagon is on its way to Huntsville when one of the prisoners, ruthless killer Angel Ware, engineers a bold escape. Now free, and blaming his sister Sue for his arrest, Angel and a gang of three other escaped murderers track her and her family down to Ellie’s ranch. Angel and his gang mount a bloody attack and take Sue’s young child with them. There’s a posse on its way, but Ellie Taine isn’t going to wait. She saddles her horse and loads her guns, prepared to enforce the only justice she can rely on...her own. “As clean and sharp as a fine Bowie knife. Crider’s prose slices through conventions and expectations,” –Booklist I read the original editions of these books and think they're excellent. They're probably my favorites of all the Westerns Bill has written and two of my favorites of his books, period. They're now available again in e-book and print editions from Brash Books. Check 'em out!