Filler content with history – Part 2

Following on from last Friday’s entry, here are five more reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #25 as part of a feature on historical horror fiction (loosely interpreted):-

HORROR DOWN THE YEARS (continued from Friday’s post)

Translated by Judith Landry, THE DEVIL IN LOVE (Dedalus pb, 109pp, £7.99) is the latest beneficiary of Dedalus’ commendable policy of rescuing deserving works from obscurity. This novella by Jacques Cazotte, a writer who was guillotined during the French Revolution, is an early example of the devilish tempter mode of fiction, its antecedents and importance underlined by Brian Stableford in his introduction, and it doesn’t quite fit with my theme of historical horror as the setting was contemporary when the book written, but by the end of this piece the only definition we’ll have for ‘historical horror’ is stuff Pete read this month, so allow it.

While serving in the Neapolitan guard, the Spaniard Alvaro falls in with a group of cabbalists who show him how to raise Beelzebub. Monstrous at first, the demon transforms into the beguiling Biondetta, and begins her assault on his heart, on the one hand offering Alvaro everything that pride and avarice could desire, and on the other appealing to the good side of his nature by posing as an innocent who can only be saved by his love. Alvaro is won over, though he retains doubts about her intentions, and is only saved by the intervention of another female, one whose claim on his heart even Biondetta can’t negate, despite her best efforts to do so.

It all seems rather dated and clichéd by modern standards, though the case could be made that this is the prototype on which the clichés were based, and there’s still much of interest. Alvaro is essentially a good person undone by his wish to understand more of the natural world and exert control over it through knowledge. He is lured into a solipsist reality shaped by Biondetta, all the time believing that he has mastery over her, with the demon’s machinations delighting with their subtle complexity and the way in which Alvaro is torn first one way and then the other, until undone by his better instincts. There are a few moments to cause shudders as well, such as the summoning of Beelzebub in the Portico, and the final transformation with its vision of horned snails, followed by the revelation of how everything has been affected.

This is a book to read for its importance to the genre of weird fiction and value as an historical artefact, rather than for any intrinsic literary worth, but it passes the time amiably enough and won’t disappoint the reader who comes to it with realistic expectations. Dedalus are to be thanked for making it available to modern audiences, and in such an attractive package.

THE THIRD SECTION (Bantam Press pb, 477pp, £12.99) is the middle volume in Jasper Kent’s Danilov Quintet, a series that introduces vampires into Russian history with an élan that brings to mind the work of Tom Holland. The previous volumes were set in 1812 (Napoleon’s invasion) and 1825 (the ascension of Nicholas II), and there’s quite a bit of back story, but Kent manages to slot in the key facts so that readers new to the series won’t be adrift without a compass.

The Third Section brings the story forward to 1855 and the time of the Crimean War. There are three viewpoint characters. At the start of the story Dmitry Danilov is serving in the besieged city of Sebastopol and coming to terms with a one night stand with fellow officer Tyeplov. Returning to Moscow he tries to wipe out the memory of this ‘fall from grace’ through reengaging with his wife, but when this fails he falls madly in love with the beautiful prostitute Raisa. The second viewpoint character is Tamara, a respectable woman forced by circumstances to work as a ‘honey trap’ for the Third Section, the Tsar’s secret police, and madam of the brothel at which Raisa is employed. Central to Tamara’s being is the question of her identity and a search for her true parents, a quest that links her to Danilov, but also leads to the discovery of a series of vicious killings that appear to be down to the same hand even though the time scale suggests that this is not possible. And finally there is Yudin, Tamara’s superior in the Third Section and a friend of the Danilov family, somebody Dmitry looks to for advice and guidance in the absence of his exiled father. But Yudin is really a vampire, and manipulating everybody else to achieve his own ends, primarily survival when the master vampire Zmyeevich returns to resume his plan to seize control of Russia.

There are no great subtexts here, nothing a reviewer with copy to write can pin down and clearly identify as a theme, other than that old universal plainsong of betrayal, but as entertainment this book is a pure and unqualified delight. Kent wears his research lightly, but you never doubt that he knows what he’s writing about, with a real sense of momentous events unfolding in the background, matters like war and commerce, huge political changes brought about by the death of the Tsar. And yet what keeps us turning the pages is the human dimension, with each of the characters superbly drawn, soliciting our sympathy and contempt in equal measure.

Danilov is the innocent abroad, someone who attempts to do well, a brave and principled man, and yet undone by his willingness to believe in others, at the end betraying his family trust and becoming something terrible. He is, quite literally, a fool for love. Contrarily, though she is younger, Tamara is more worldly wise thanks to the life she has led, somebody who has been forced to do things her younger self would have recoiled from. Tragedy has made her careless of the common or garden mores that dictate the behaviour of others, and you sense that on some level in searching so diligently for her true family, regardless of the pain it causes those who raised her, she is also seeking redemption of a kind. And then there is Yudin, a Moriarty figure, the spider at the centre of the web who works his spell on the others, a monster but also a frightened man who is desperate to save himself from the nightmare he fears is to come. Yudin’s redeeming feature is his curiosity, a love of knowledge that he has carried over into his vampire state: even as he tortures and torments his victims Yudin notes down his observations of how, vampire and human alike, they respond. He is the mad, amoral scientist as vampire, and a powerful evocation of evil, and yet such is Kent’s skill that there are moments when he almost seems sympathetic, someone we could identify with.

The interplay between these three characters provides the backbone of the book, but it’s a story that is packed with incident and colour, the twists and turns of the plot never ceasing to delight and surprise. There are some magnificent and inventive horror set pieces, such as Yudin’s attempt to destroy a nest of vampires he perceives as a threat and the horrific death of Raisa, but they fit effortlessly into the greater picture, seeming to arise naturally out of the narrative flow, and with promise of even more and better things to come. Hand in glove with this is imagery that wouldn’t have been out of place in the more lurid works of the Marquis De Sade, with the doors of Yudin’s cellar thrown wide open to reveal truly horrific sights. And Kent gives us one of the most compelling portraits of what it would be like to be a vampire yet committed to the page, with the creature’s link to its humanity completely broken, every other aspect of the personality convincingly subordinate to the lust for blood, and yet also perhaps a tinge of regret, recognition that something has been lost as well as gained in crossing over.

History and vampires agree with each other, as Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, to name just one author operating in this subgenre, has demonstrated on many occasions, but Kent is taking things to a whole new level and I recommend his work unreservedly. He even attempts an explanation for all that nonsense about vampires and mirrors.

While Anne Perry’s work might more accurately be classified as crime fiction, any sampling of ‘horror in history’ needs a representative from the age of Victoria, a time when human life was cheap and the wages of sin were offset by the excesses of a draconian justice system. With its murky fogs and paedophile ring, brutal murders and gaslight chic, ACCEPTABLE LOSS (Headline pb, 440pp, £7.99) has more than enough of both atmosphere and evil to offer something to all but the most pernickety of horror purists.

The seventeenth and latest volume in the Inspector William Monk series, the novel begins with the discovery of a dead body washed up by the Thames, that of small time criminal Mickey Parfitt. The trail leads Monk to a floating brothel catering to paedophiles, and ties in to a previous case. Evidence points to man about town Rupert Cardew as the killer, but Monk is not convinced and, with Cardew’s help, he finds a more credible suspect, for both the brains behind the paedophile operation and the killer of Mickey Parfitt, only this brings him into conflict with his friend and ally the brilliant barrister Oliver Rathbone, who happens to be his suspect’s son-in-law, and obliged by family ties to defend the man. Monk’s career and reputation are now at stake.

It’s been a while since I last read any of Perry’s novels of Victorian detection, though they once used to be a staple of my literary diet, but I’m happy to report that she hasn’t lost her touch. While taking its title from Monk, the series is more appropriately regarded as a three hander, with Rathbone and Monk’s wife Hester as the other two leads (and yes, there was at one point a lovers’ triangle of sorts between these three). Monk is nothing like the Victorian detective template we have courtesy of Conan Doyle and his pipe smoking creation. Rather, he is a believer in good, old fashioned police work, questioning suspects and putting two and two together to make four, never guilty of the brilliant leaps of logic and intuition that dominate elsewhere. Holmes would probably patronisingly dismiss him as a plodder of the Lestrade school, but whatever his shortcomings, Monk gets results, and at times that’s the only thing to save him from the wrath of the higher ups whose toes he’s trod on. Contrarily, Rathbone comes from the upper echelons of society and is generally regarded as one of the leading lights of his profession, the man you call for when the case seems hopeless. It’s a shared sense of justice that binds the two men, though circumstances on occasion, as here, see them forced to take opposing sides, with no guarantee as to which will triumph. Hester, a former nurse who served in the Crimea under Florence Nightingale and now runs the Victorian equivalent of a safe house for abused women, is the glue that holds the two men together when all else fails, guided by an almost intuitive sense of what is right, and willingness to act while others are still blathering on about their principles.

This is, first and foremost, a detective story, and as far as that goes it provides the reader with a solid and engaging story, but the real appeal of the book lies in its depiction of Victorian society and the moral dilemmas that confront Monk and the others at the story’s resolution. Perry has obviously done her research, as shown by countless details of the characters’ daily lives and the wealth of backdrop that she provides, flitting effortlessly from the houses of the rich and well to do to the establishments of whores and petty crooks and the desperate urban poor, detailing all with equal conviction. What shocks perhaps the most to modern sensibilities, is the low regard in which the police are held, forced to come in by the tradesman’s entrance and attend on the whims of the gentry. In the rarefied circles in which Monk stalks his prey, scandal or the threat of scandal is every bit as odious as crime itself. For Monk, taking in the wrong man for questioning is an act that could have serious repercussions, both for himself and his suspect, while some people are above suspicion, simply by virtue of their social standing, and those who expose crime can find themselves held in lower regard by their peers than those who commit it (Cardew is reviled not just for giving in to his paedophile urges but for surrendering those who have done the same).

Another aspect of the book that left me feeling somewhat taken aback, was the court case, with its barristers accorded almost superstar status and the outcome of the trial hanging on how they perform every bit as much as it does on any issue of right or wrong. It’s a sobering thought, that justice is simply a matter of theatre and spectacle, the Victorian equivalent of Rome’s gladiatorial games, and not something that we are entirely free of yet. And, as the story races to its conclusion, Perry hands out moral dilemmas all round, with Monk and his allies realising that their actions may shake the very foundations of society, and that, while his methods were wrong, the man behind the paedophile ring might have had noble motives of his own, blackmailing bad men to do good things. For Rathbone these matters are even more acute, with the knowledge that his marriage is at stake and, in a final mocking twist, the legacy of a loaded gun, one which he can use but at a terrible cost to himself. It’s a powerful book, and one that gives the reader plenty of food for thought along with all the thrills and spills we expect from such fare.

Robert Davis will probably be most familiar to readers of Black Static from his World Horror competition winning story that appeared back in issue #23 (Ed – actually the writer who appeared in Black Static was Robert Davies – I was misinformed). His novel A LUST FOR LEAD (Swordworks pb, 293pp, £7.99) takes us to the year 1887 and America’s Old West in a story that deftly melds gunfighter mystique with supernatural creations reminiscent of Barker’s Cenobites.

Retired gunfighter Shane Ennis (imagine William Munny from Unforgiven, but with a lot more attitude) is abducted by old nemesis Castor Buchanan and taken to the isolated ghost town of Covenant to fight in a tournament with fifteen other quick draw experts, including Chastity, a little girl with the mind of a sociopath and a machinelike detachment and precision when it comes to killing. A black magician and a demon have joined forces to stage this tournament, intended to lure out of hiding the Fastest Guns, fighters of the past who have been transfigured into the otherworldly beings known as Cordites and who wish to have Shane join their ranks. But as the tournament continues it becomes apparent that almost everyone involved has an agenda of their own, with treachery and betrayal high on the menu, while the Fastest Guns bide their time and hatch their own plans.

There’s nothing strikingly original here – imagine a hybrid of Hellraiser and Sharon Stone vehicle The Quick and The Dead – but it is an entertaining read with more than its fair share of larger than life characters and an attempt at creating an all American mythology that ties in to our fascination with legendary figures like Billie the Kid and Doc Halliday, taking their appeal and twisting it through a supernatural dimension. If the Fastest Guns bring to mind Barker’s Cenobites, then Ennis could easily pass for Frank, a man who has cheated them in the past and who they wish to have back among them. Given the probable fate of his soul, Shane’s reluctance to give in is understandable.

The characters are fully drawn, each with a distinguishing trait, and Davis is to be commended for taking the time to give all the competing gunfighters separate personalities instead of inflicting a job lot of stereotypes from Shreddies R’Us on the reader. From a female gunfighter seeking revenge on the man who killed her lover through to an Indian shaman seeing visions, a dapper gentleman killer with a ruthless streak and a Mexican bandit with manners to match his quick draw, all of the sixteen have something of interest.  Central is the rivalry between Ennis, an amoral killer who has developed a conscience a little late in life and is now regretting much of his past, and old rival Buchanan, a man with a grudge biting him so hard that he is prepared to throw away just about everything else to settle the score. While neither man is exactly a power broker on the Covenant stage, each of them manages to work within that structure and manipulate events to their own ends, with mixed results, and their scheming helps to put flesh on the bones of the plot that Davis has thrown together. The gun fights are edge of the seat stuff, with nobody quite sure which way each conflict will go, and given enough of individuality so that they don’t all just fade into each other, while the intervention of the Fastest Guns is both timely and convincing, with treachery and surprise denouements all round. My only real complaint is that the ending feels like a letdown, as if we have gone through all this high drama only to end up little further forward than where we started from. It has about it the feel of a first volume in a series, and certainly there’s enough mileage in these characters and the setting to make that desirable. I hope I’m right, as there’s unfinished business at the end of this novel, like a tumbleweed bowling down the dusty streets of a ghost town.

ISIS UNBOUND (Dark Regions Press pb, 205pp, $16.95), Allyson Bird’s first novel, might more accurately be considered alternative history or even steampunk than horror, but hey, it has zombies.

Mark Anthony and Cleopatra were victorious at the Battle of Actium, thanks to the intervention of Isis, and the Romano-Egyptian Empire has survived down to the present day, with a little help from the deity. But in the year 1890 things are looking tricky, with the empire weakened by plagues and Isis not having appeared to the reigning Cleopatra. In the city of Manceastre the dead walk the streets, their souls having failed to cross over into the afterlife, while Governor Clovis ruthlessly suppresses any hint of discontent, even as he experiments on his own people and plots the overthrow of Cleopatra. Eighteen year old Ella and ten year old Loli, the daughters of Chief Embalmer Ptolemy Child, are at the centre of the action, learning that Nepythys has killed her sister Isis, and this is why the dead remain as zombies. It’s up to them to help put things right, and save the empire from the machinations of Clovis and Nepythys.

There is much to enjoy about this strikingly original novel, but there are also problems. For starters, while Bird has worked out many of the implications of her invented history, giving us a world that is both familiar but also strangely different to our own, she seems to have missed the hugely obvious matter of dates, with references to 41BC, 16 February 1890 and the 1900s. Far from conquering, the ‘pale Galilean’ has been completely expunged from the historical equation, and so the use of such dating sticks out like a sore thumb. Another problem is down to perspective. Daniel Mills put shifting perspective to good use in Revenants, with each scene told from the viewpoint of a different character, but here Bird often changes viewpoint in the middle of a scene, even in the middle of a paragraph, the point of view swinging back and forth like a metronome on occasion. This may be intentional, but the impression is of an author who can’t really decide which character’s head she wants to be in. Then there are incidents of needless repetition. On p77 ‘The ship canal had frozen… …so very quickly’ and then two paragraphs later ‘It usually took weeks for the ship canal to freeze… …miraculously it had only taken a short while’. On p132 Swin ‘fled the temple’ and then in the next paragraph ‘he rose to leave, followed by another paragraph and ‘He left quickly’. Word redundancy is an issue too, as with ‘and silently slipped to his death without a sound’ or ‘All poisons were used, including arsenic, used in massive quantities’. I don’t mean to suggest that all the book is badly written – mostly it isn’t – but there are enough slips like these to make the reader wonder exactly what is going on. At times it all seems rather rambling and made up on the hoof, rather than carefully reworked and edited.

If the books falls down somewhat in the execution, it is remarkable for the author’s imagination and vision. Bird unerringly identifies the essential elements in Romano-Egyptian culture to make her alternative history convincing, a world in which there are steam tanks and elevated walkways, zombies and body snatchers, gladiatorial games and religious ceremonies, where undreamt of wealth rubs shoulders with unimaginable poverty, and with Isis as its presiding spirit. It is a creation in which an obsession with death and the afterlife has devalued human existence to the point where life is only a trial run for what is to come. For the horror aficionado there are gut churning scenes, as when Ella and Loli remove an unborn child from its dead mother, and the latter adopts it as a doll, or when a young priestess is attacked by snakes in the temple of Isis. And patiently waiting in the wings are the gods and goddesses of ancient Egypt, deities who have their own plans for fledgling mankind, schemes in which our interests count for little.

Then there is the characterisation, which is rich throughout, with Ella and Loli the most memorable with one exception, the former the responsible older sister, but with a penchant for opium and fixation on a married man (to her credit Bird does not give us a sugar and spice heroine, but a very fallible young woman), and Loli as the, far from, stereotypical teenage brat, growing in stature as the book progresses and she undertakes adventures that would give any ordinary child pause. Sisterhood and its significance is at the heart of this book. Cleopatra’s empire is built on sandy ground, her path to power cleared by the murder of her sister, and in a similar manner it is undone when the rivalry and resentment felt by Nepythys toward Isis boils over into murder. Ella and Loli offer a valuable counterpoint, their relationship far from perfect, but underscored with love and containing enough lebensraum and mutual respect to work. The most memorable character is the evil Clovis, who at times veers close to the moustache twirling bad guy of Victorian melodrama, but always retains this extra element of something truly decadent and odious, the ruler as mad scientist and torturer. While these three stand out, there are plenty of other memorable characters, including the painter Swin and his wife Sophia, the distant Ptolemy Child and ‘colourmen’ Sleeward, philanderer with a soft side Aulus and, not least, Cleopatra herself. Bird fleshes them all out with admirable skill.

The book really comes into its own with the final chapters, when conflicts human and divine all race towards a denouement, and with the revelation of the true nature of the cosmos, and the implications of that for mankind. It’s a powerful ending for an original and thought provoking novel, one that rewards the effort of reading. But it could have been so much better if Bird had the prose chops to match her imagination and vision.

(TO BE CONTINUED)

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