Three more reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #3:-
NO-MAN AND OTHER TALES BY TONY RICHARDS
(Pendragon paperback, 335pp, £9.99)
The latest title from Welsh publisher Pendragon consists of four novellas, two of them previously unpublished, from a writer who has appeared regularly in our predecessor, The Third Alternative, as well as a host of other genre magazines, and with a common theme of be careful what you wish for because your wishes may be granted.
Title story ‘No-Man’ starts with a young boy discovering an alien presence inside an old air-raid shelter at the back of his school. The eponymous No-Man is friendly and able to grant wishes. He makes everybody like Tom, and over the years helps him with his studies and then his career. There is a price, in that Tom can’t help wondering how much of his success is down to his own efforts, but all the same he can’t stop himself pushing for more. It’s only with the really powerful emotions that No-Man has trouble fine tuning things; he can make a woman love Tom, but the cost is she no longer actually likes him, the weaker emotion overwhelmed by the stronger. It’s a double-edged sword that results in severe complications. There’s an intriguing idea at work here, showing that however strange we may seem to aliens and vice versa, we’re still pretty odd to each other as well, and that there are consequences when we try to force other people to feel about us in a particular way. Richards is excellent at identifying all the possibilities of this fraught scenario and mining them in such a credible way that we can immediately empathise with Tom and his philosophy of “Where’s the harm?” and believe that we might act similarly even while knowing that what he is doing is wrong. I have one tiny complaint to do with the actual writing. In this story, and to a lesser degree in those that follow, there’s a tendency to split lines so that what might more naturally run as a sentence becomes question and answer (e.g. “Tom? Was by nature a quiet and thoughtful type…”). I’m not sure if this is a misjudged stylistic effect or simply a series of typos thrown up in the printing process, but I am certain that I found it irritating.
Second story ‘Postcards From Teri’ is a ghost story in which a man is haunted by the predatory spirit of his old lover, the postcards she mailed him from abroad acting as touchstones for dreams that seem compellingly real. It is the finest in the collection, and I reviewed it at length when it was originally published as a standalone novella by Tartarus. Rather than repeat myself I will post the original review to the TTA website at www.ttapress.com
Reading the other previously published story, ‘Under the Ice’, there will probably come a moment when you realise that it is yet another variation on that old favourite The Monkey’s Paw. David moves to Helsinki to be with the beautiful Krista, when his twin brother, her then lover, accidentally falls overboard from a ferry. The tragedy always haunts him though, and so when a magical artifact falls into his hands he wishes for Bobby to come back, which he does, only as a violent zombie whose behaviour casts doubt on Krista’s role in their shared past. Similarities to Paw aside, and those magical elements and the happy ever after ending they empower are the only weak part of the narrative, this is a gripping story, one that builds well, with each step along the way following on surely from the previous one, once you accept the given of supernatural interference. Richards deftly portrays the central ménage a trois, and is equally competent at capturing the feel of Helsinki on the page, with subtle touches of atmosphere and nuances that make it all credible.
Last story and the longest, ‘A Black Glass Slipper’ is a Cinderella fable for modern times in which Owen is beguiled by Eva, an obscenely expensive call girl, and decides to rescue her from the Russian gangster who ‘owns’ her. His attempt to involve the law fails, as does his plan to offer money, while Eva herself tells him that she is not interested, though of course Owen refuses to accept this, believing she wants to love him but is afraid. In desperation he seeks outside help of a satanic provenance, but fate has another cruel twist in store. I have mixed feelings about all this. It’s eminently readable and engaging, being at one and the same time the most promising story and also the one that disappoints the greatest. As a tale of obsession and self-delusion it works very well, with believable action and convincing emotions, as Owen is drawn in against his own wishes, unable to help himself, and the coldness of Eva comes over well, the indifference she has had to adopt simply to survive. It is an unsettling picture of the way in which humans can become brutalised, but then Richards introduces the satanic element and turns the story on its head. The two plot strands don’t really gel, with the supernatural stuff seeming not so much to arise naturally out of the story but as a clumsy deus ex machina introduced simply to provide the desired resolution. The subtext for me is that sometimes the horror of real life is enough; you don’t need the devil and all his tricks.
ONCE BITTEN, TWICE SHY BY JENNIFER RARDIN
(Orbit paperback, 290pp, £6.99)
Jaz Parks is a CIA operative and the assistant to their top assassin Vayl, who just happens to be a several hundred year old vampire out of Romania. A former vampire slayer, who lost her team and is riddled with guilt as a result, Jaz’s job is to watch Vayl’s back, sniff out other vampires for him and generally make his life easy. The two are sent to investigate a plastic surgeon suspected of raising funds for a terrorist group connected to The Raptor, a vampire who is the arch nemesis of democracy (think Osama, with fangs). Things are much worse than expected though, with the bad guys plotting to unleash a demon from another dimension and a plague that will wipe out mankind. There are other complications too, not the least of which are Vayl’s former wife showing up and a traitor in the ranks of the CIA, while we also get some unsettling revelations about Jaz’s past.
This is horror lite, or paranormal romance, or whatever you want to call it; Bond meets Dracula according to the back cover blurb. I’d have gone more for True Lies post the Jamie Lee character’s conversion to secret agent, though Vayl is nowhere near as scary as the Governor of California. Jaz is an easy to like character, good at what she does and caring towards her family, agonising over mistakes she feels she may have made and wisecracking with the best of them (her penchant for wrecking cars is a running joke). She and Vayl have a good rapport, with the hint of a chemistry that promises interesting times ahead, while his enigmatic master act is intriguing without being so far out there as to repel.
After a slow start the book picks up speed and delivers the goods, with an exciting story packed with larger than life characters, technical wizardry and supernatural grace notes. The plot has more than its fair share of ups and downs for Jaz and Vayl (well, actually a lot more downs), with some knockdown fights along the way to a suitably enthralling and momentous final battle between the forces of dark and light, one in which it could easily go either way. Last but not least, what we learn of Jaz’s past sets up some intriguing puzzles to be resolved in future volumes.
It’s not compulsive reading, or even horror really, but I had a good time with this and expect I will with more from Rardin.
FIREFLY RAIN BY RICHARD DANSKY
(Wizards of the Coast hardback, 384pp, $25.95)
His business failed, Jacob Logan returns to the small town of Maryfield in North Carolina and takes up residence in the family homestead. It’s a bittersweet return for him, bringing back memories of how he deserted his parents and betrayed their dreams to pursue his own. But things are not right. The fireflies, which Jacob’s mother said were angels sent to guide dead souls to heaven, will not come onto Logan land, and handyman Carl Powell keeps dropping dark hints about the house and his family. Matters escalate as Jacob sees signs that the house is haunted, while his car is stolen by a strange figure. It seems that certain prominent citizens have a vested interest in seeing Jacob remain in Maryfield, and will resort to anything to make that happen, be it violence or hand picking a bride for him. Restless spirits are on the wing and Jacob must get to the bottom of it all, or see people he cares about get hurt.
There’s good and bad to this book, if I’m allowed such an obvious statement. Dansky provides plenty of solid effects, with the sense of a haunting put over well, objects moved and doors shut, strange sounds at night and sudden changes in temperature, the whole nine yards of spectral manifestation in fact. The mysterious actions of Jacob’s car, which is stolen by a party unknown much to the indifference or bafflement of the police, but keeps turning up at the most inopportune moments to tease and torment him, along with Jacob’s visions and savage, inexplicable attacks by his neighbour’s dog all add to the building tension. It culminates in a final push to force him to take the necessary action to resolve matters or die in the attempt, which brings on a tour de force resolution to the book, a standoff against the forces not so much of darkness as those of desperation and the human longing for peace. All of this is to the good, but outweighed by the problems I had with the story.
I didn’t find Jacob particularly likable or care what happened to him (or the rest of his family either for that matter). He came over as a self-absorbed jerk, which made it impossible to sympathise over his troubles; curiosity was the best I could manage. The only engaging characters were librarian Adrienne, the honey trap element of the story, and feisty, go getter Jenna, Jacob’s city friend who comes to help him out and ends up with her life in peril. There are too many red herrings, such as Jacob’s various altercations with police officer Hanratty and his suspicions as to her past, while the idea at back of it all, the explanation for all that happens here, is simply risible. There are so many hints of much bigger things going on in the text, but the book just doesn’t deliver on them, as if the author had written himself into a corner and then couldn’t see a more rational way out of his character’s dilemma. Ultimately Firefly Rain is like one of those Hollywood blockbusters where all the money went on sfx, with only pennies over for script and casting.