6WH: Season’s Readings

Alright, so we’re a few days past Halloween, but I never got to the books I read during the spooky season, though I did get to ruminate on the Intersection of Horror and Science Fiction (in preparation for Vintage Science Fiction Month). Well, better late than never, and it’s not like there’s a bad time for scary stories, right?

  • Necroscope by Brian Lumley – Yet another magical Harry (who predates both Harrys Potter and Dresden), Harry Keogh can talk to dead people. As he grows up, he befriends the dead and learns much about life from them. His teachers are suspicious at Harry’s ability to suddenly become an expert, but do their best to encourage Harry’s talents. Eventually Harry learns of his mother’s death at the hands of a Soviet spy and hatches a plan for revenge, which ultimately embroils him into a conflict between the British ESPionage service (get it? ESP stands for extra-sensory perception but are also the first three letters in the word espionage! This is one of those simultaneously dumb but also endearing qualities that neatly encapsulates this book’s charms.) and their Soviet counterparts. Speaking of which, Boris Dragosani is a Soviet Necromancer. While Harry can speak with the dead, Boris can gain information from a dead body by mutilating its remains. He gained this power from a long-imprisoned vampire, Thibor Ferenczy. Together, they have plans for, well, let’s just say world conquest. Alright, from the short description here, I think you can gather that this is an exposition-heavy book. As these things go, Lumley is pretty solid at it and as a longtime SF reader, long bouts of exposition aren’t entirely unwelcome, but it does get to be a bit longwinded here, and there are plenty of tangents that might not be strictly necessary. And once you get past that sort of bald exposition, you’re left with vampires, Cold-War era espionage and spies, armies of the dead, and even wacky explorations of time and space in the form of the “Möbius Continuum”. It’s fun, is what I’m saying, if not particularly rigorous. It’s also creepy, and at time verges on a Lovecraftian take on vampires, which is neat. It’s shlocky and goofy, but a whole lot of fun and a good thing to read during the Halloween season. I read this as a teenager and remembered enjoying it, and it largely lives up to my memory, which is probably a good sign, and it made me want to read the next book in the series.
  • Necroscope II: Vamphyri! by Brian Lumley – The spirit of Harry Keogh lives on in his son, Harry Jr. He can still speak with the dead and roam the Continuum, but only when his son is asleep. Harry learns that the vampire Thibor Ferenczy had infected a pregnant woman before he died, thus resulting in a sorta lesser vampire. Yulian Bodescu retains many vampiric abilities and slowly explores them as he grows up. Harry must thus learn more about Vampires, so he speaks with Faethor Ferenczy, the vampire who made Thibor, and gets a lot of the history of vampires. But of course Faethor is just as much of a master manipulator as Thibor, and Harry doesn’t know if he can trust anything he learns. Meanwhile, the Soviets are rebuilding their operation and team up with the Brits to quash the threat posed by Yulian Bodescu. So yeah, you wouldn’t think that there’d be much more exposition after the first book but… this book is also pretty exposition heavy. A large portion of it functions as a sorta prequel and origin story for Thibor Ferenczy, which isn’t quite as interesting as the book wants you to believe. We learn a lot more about what vampires are and how they function, which is neat enough, I guess, but sometimes these things operate better with more vague descriptions. In general, I had less fun with this book, but it held a similar cheesy appeal. I will probably pick up the third book next year, but I wanted to get a little more variety in my bookish diet this year…
  • The Wolf’s Hour by Robert R. McCammon – Michael Gallatin is a master spy who comes out of retirement for one last mission during WWII. Oh, and did I mention that he’s a werewolf? There are essentially two narratives here, one of Gallatin and his attempt to uncover and stop a secret Nazi Operation called Iron Fist. The other is the story of a young boy named Mikhail Gallatinov, a young boy who learns of his werewolf powers when his parents are killed during the Russian Revolution. He falls in with a pack of other werewolves who help him learn to control his powers. So this isn’t quite the super-pulpy story it sounds like and the novel contains distressingly little werewolf action. However, what is there is great. McCammon isn’t a great prose stylist, but he writes action well, even if there aren’t werewolves involved (but even better when there are!) The novel is overlong, which messes with the pacing a bit, but is generally pretty interesting. I liked it better than Swan Song, which felt a little too schlocky. Someday, perhaps, I’ll find that McCammon novel that has just the right proportions and isn’t 200 pages too long. Still, this was a pretty good seasonally appropriate read, and the werewolf action that is there is great.
  • Darker Than You Think by Jack Williamson – Journalist Will Barbee is set to cover the return of a scientific expedition to Mongolia. Led by Barbee’s former mentor Dr. Mondrick, the expedition has indicated that they’ve made a discovery that will “change everything”. But before Mondrick can explain, he suddenly drops dead of a heart attack. All appearances point to a natural death, but Barbee suspects his new colleague, the exotic and strangely alluring redhead April Bell may have something to do with it. As Barbee starts to dig into the story, he learns of witches and werewolves and even gets taken in by some dreams that feel all too realistic. The mysteries eventually resolve into a question: Who is the Child of the Night? Barbee may not want to know the answer. Old school fantasy with a science fictional bent, attempting to put some rigor and explanation around what makes witches and werewolves tick, touching on probability, quantum theory, genetic engineering, and selective breeding. It gets a bit repetitive and Barbee seems a bit dense and unwilling to confront the obvious explanation for the strange events happening in the story, but it’s entertaining enough and I like the SFnal explanations, even if they feel a bit old-fashioned at this point. It’s perhaps not as spooky as most stories hitting these topics (and maybe the SF explanations undercut that aspect of the story), but it’s suitably mysterious and the ending is pretty great.
  • Gil’s All Fright Diner by A. Lee Martinez – Duke and Earl are just passing through town in their pickup when they stop at a diner… which gets attacked by zombies. The diner’s owner offers to pay them to resolve the little zombie problem she’s been having, which makes sense because Duke is a werewolf and Earl is a vampire. So they set about learning who is summoning these zombies and to what end. Along the way, Earl falls in love with a ghost that’s haunting the local graveyard. Short and sweet, this is a fun little horror comedy that sorta mashes up Joe Lansdale’s Hap and Leonard stories with traditional supernatural tales and a dash of Lovecraftian terror. I wouldn’t say that it has a particularly high joke density, but its funny when it wants to be, gory and creepy when it needs it, and it’s all packaged together well.
  • Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror by Jason Zinoman – You’ve gotta love subtitles, and this one pretty much explains what the book is all about. At its best, it’s a sorta Easy Riders, Raging Bulls style exploration of New Hollywood with a focus on horror filmmakers like George Romero, John Carpenter, Dan O’Bannon, Brian De Palma, and Wes Craven. What it covers, it does well, but it ultimately feels a bit shallow and too narrowly focused on the late 60s and 70s horror classics. When it gets to the mid-80s, Zinoman sorta provides a quick summary of the next 30 years, all in one chapter. It would have been nice to have seen a little more depth, even in the 70s era that the book focuses on. While you do need to hit those big rocks of horror (i.e. The Exorcist, The Last House on the Left, Halloween, etc…) and Zinoman is able to spend some time on influences ranging from Alfred Hitchcock to Mario Bava, mostly he’s covering well tread ground. He does a good job covering the classics, to be sure, and there were a few tidbits that were new to me and made those sections worthwhile, but the best parts of the book are when he’s covering more obscure movies, like Carpenter and O’Bannon’s Dark Star or some of De Palma’s less famous efforts. Of course, what I’m complaining about here is a sin of omission. What’s there is great… I just wanted more of it! And perhaps there’s room for Zinoman to expand on his premises with a deeper dive into 80s and 90s horror (and heck, let’s expand on the 00s too). This book is well worth reading for fans, and you’ll certainly get some insight into how and why horror evolved the way it did. Again, I just wish it kept going…

And that puts the last nail in the coffin of the Six Weeks of Halloween. Already anticipating next year’s marathon. In the meantime, we’ll return to the 1978 project and catching up on 2019 movies, not to mention our usual blend of topics…

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