Filler content with Bachman, Koontz, Dodds, and Kikuchi

Four reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #4:-

BLAZE BY RICHARD BACHMAN

(Hodder paperback, 352pp, £6.99)

Richard Bachman is Stephen King, just in case there’s anyone left who doesn’t know that. Oh, and Joe Hill is his son, though we’re still not sure if either of them was on the grassy knoll.

The eponymous hero of this novel, Clayton Blaisdell Jr, is a giant of a man, but not quite all there, as the saying is. The most successful years of Blaze’s adult life were those when con artist George Rackley took him under his wing and used Blaze in his criminal schemes. But George is dead now, nothing more than a voice in Blaze’s head, guiding him past the traps that lay in wait as Blaze attempts to bring off the pair’s dream of a big payday by kidnapping a millionaire’s baby. Of course the simple-minded Blaze never really stands a chance, and the hard nosed FBI agent in charge of the case doesn’t intend to give him one.

In his introduction to the book King explains that it is a trunk novel, written many years before and thought lost, only now seeing the light of day. He also, doing the reviewer’s work for him, identifies it as a homage to Of Mice and Men with Blaze as the Lennie Small character and Rackley as his mentor George Milton, though there the resemblance ends as Rackley, at least posthumously, is not as benevolent, and Blaze learning to operate independently and resist what the voice of Rackley tells him to do is one of the main plot arcs.

Along the way King fills in much of Blaze’s back story, the act of parental brutality that unhinged his mind, the abuse from teachers and others that led him to where he is now, and the rare moments of kindness and joy, such as an excursion to Boston and an idyllic summer on a farm, but none of it fated to last, that give Blaze the hope of happiness and then cruelly snatch it away. Only with George does he find some self-worth, the little man never looking down on him, always treating him with respect and showing him how to make his way in the world. The idyllic quality of these last memories suggests that the voice Blaze hears is not that of George at all, but his own evil genius.

The prose here is nothing special, but it powers the story along its character driven route, with King in an uncharacteristically unsentimental mood. He has sympathy for Blaze, shows us in minute detail how he got to be the person he is, but offers no attempt to pardon or condone the crimes that he commits. If the book has a message, it’s simply that if individuals are denied kindness and those chances most of us take for granted, then nothing good will come of it. Blaze is, regardless of his actions, a good man, one without a scrap of meanness in him, which cannot be said of his pursuers, however in the right they may feel themselves to be, and underlying it all is the old saw about but for the grace of God there go I. This is not King at his best (well, if that were the case it probably wouldn’t be published under the Bachman byline), but it is King in a reflective mood, telling a story with a heart and telling it well.

THE DARKEST EVENING OF THE YEAR BY DEAN KOONTZ

(Harper Collins hardback, 357pp, £17.99)

It’s a tale of two couples. In the blue corner we have Amy Redwing, who devotes her life to finding good homes for abused dogs, and her significant other, the architect Brian McCarthy, and in the red corner are their polar opposites, ruthless crime baron Harrow and his consort, the deranged Moongirl. The links between the two pairings stretch back into the past, and as far as the latter couple are concerned there’s unfinished business needs taking care of, the kind for which an out of the way spot where nobody can hear you scream is ideal, and they have just the right bait to require Amy and Brian’s attendance. But there’s a wild card in the deck. Brian has started to have psychic flashes and all the evidence indicates they’re somehow connected to Nickie, a beautiful golden retriever Amy has just rescued from a drunken owner, a dog with strange abilities and who may be able to turn the tide in their favour.

This is pretty much typical Koontz, with an intriguing story and a ferociously paced narrative, short chapters and terse language driving it relentlessly forward, but there’s also a leaning towards sentimentality, seen most obviously in all the stuff involving dogs, so you can almost picture the author going dewy eyed as he tapped at the keyboard. The supernatural elements seem very much like a plot convenience, one that the book would have worked just as well without, and the final twist is a particular bone of contention, with no real purpose other than to let Nickie play dogus ex machina and provide the requisite happy endings all round.

Dogs aside, the meat of the story lies with those two couples, and if the Devil doesn’t have all the best tunes he can certainly pitch the most intriguing characters. Amy is a good person and Brian is a good person and that’s pretty much all that needs to be said. The tension between Harrow and Moongirl though is palpable, so that every time the action shifts to them the reader has no idea of what might happen. Harrow, regardless of his inclinations to bloody murder, is the more in control of the pair, but having constantly to guard against showing a moment’s weakness, fascinated by his partner in the way that a moth is drawn to the flame. Moongirl is a chilling creation, fond of tormenting Hope, her handicapped daughter, getting her kicks out of burning property with the owners still inside, unable to have sex without the lights off: Koontz gives her enough kinks for a whole mental ward, but they are just window dressing, quirks of character with no real attempt to get at the psychology behind them. On the latter score, more is done with Billy Pilgrim, Harrow’s lieutenant, who always names himself after Vonnegut characters and justifies his actions with a philosophy of cynicism and blackly comedic take on the human condition.

On balance the good here outweighs the bad and so, recommended I guess, but not if you’re a cat person.

BONE MACHINES BY JOHN DODDS

(Bright Spark paperback, 284pp, £7.99)

To get the bad stuff out of the way first, this is the worst case of proofreading I have ever seen, so bad that I e-mailed the author to enquire if I’d been sent an uncorrected proof copy by mistake. There’s repeated confusion over names, the most annoying instance a scene in which police are discussing the case, with the killer’s name first substituted for that of the detective in charge and then for the forensics expert. Elsewhere words are added or missed from sentences, or simply misspelled, so that we get phrases like ‘to choke of the detective’s air supply’ and ‘involuntarily as his scrambled for purchase’. Typos unfortunately seem to be a given of the publishing industry, even at TTA where we do our best to eliminate them, but the level of carelessness here is appalling and the cumulative effect of all these tiny errors is to continually pitch the reader out of the narrative. John Dodds tells me that the problem is to be addressed in any further print run, but all the same caveat lector.

From a plot point of view, it’s the tale of a mad artist, a horror/crime pedigree that stretches back via John Connolly and Jose Carlos Somoza to innocent days of yore when Vincent Price went doolally in a wax museum. Dodds’ Chapman brothers’ wannabe is abducting young women from the streets of Glasgow, and for journalist Ray Bissett things get personal when his daughter Caroline goes missing. Ray has a past with Kendrick, the detective in charge of the case, and so manages to get himself seconded to the investigation, and the race is on in deadly earnest to find Caroline before she becomes a component in somebody’s masterpiece.

Allowing for the lack of originality, Dodds makes a good fist of portraying the mad artist and making him seem believable, albeit the story’s main twist became obvious long before the actual reveal. The plot holds the interest with some credible developments and convincing depiction of police procedure, if you can accept the idea of Ray being allowed the kind of access he gets here, and it did seem to hinge on a flimsy pretext, a red herring of a plot strand having to do with an MP with sticky fingers. Neither Ray nor Kendrick seemed particularly likable characters, though this in its way helped to make them more credible, with the feisty Caroline and sexy scientist Isla much more engaging. The weak spot is the prose which, even allowing for the typos, is littered with phrases that just don’t seem to have been thought out or cause the reader to do a double take, such as having somebody stare acquisitively where inquisitively would have made more sense in context or describing the back of a head as ‘almost as impassive as the front’. The writing here gets the job done, certainly, but it’s not very elegant. On the front cover blurb, Michael Moorcock gives Dodds his seal of approval (‘one of the most promising new writers I have read’) and I’ve had cause to praise his work on other occasions, but if his talent is to realise its potential he needs to work a lot harder than appears to be the case here, to show a novel the same attention he would a shorter work, and he needs an editor who’ll care enough to make him do that.

DARK WARS BY HIDEYUKI KIKUCHI

(Del Rey paperback, 272pp, $9.95)

J-Horror is flavour of the month in La La Land, with Hollywood studios queuing up to find suitable Japanese properties and make them over for western audiences, usually sacrificing the very elements that made those films so effective in the first place. Anyway, it’s nice to see that the traffic isn’t all one way, as witness this novel from the creator of Vampire Hunter D, which comes with the subtitle The Tale of the Meiji Dracula (Meiji refers to the period 1868-1912 when Japan underwent an intensive programme of modernisation).

The pretext for Dracula’s visit to Japan in 1880 is contrived in the extreme. A samurai warrior was transported back in time and space to feudal Transylvania, where he fought alongside Dracula against the Turks. Dracula is visiting to inform his family of the man’s fate. Yes, well…

Early on at least there is little attempt by Kikuchi to make the material his own. The Count’s arrival in Japan, by night and aboard a deserted ship, has Made in Whitby stamped all over it. Similarly he has a Renfieldesque cat’s paw to work his will on and hides out in a supposedly haunted mansion. The forces arrayed against him include a Van Helsing clone, who has the necessary knowledge of vampires, and two young ladies, one of whom gets turned by Dracula and the other who valiantly resists. Only the names and setting have been changed.

Of course, the setting is central. Over the years critics have made much of a socio-economic interpretation of Dracula, the bloodsucker representing the inroads of foreign competition into British markets, and there’s something of that here, with the Count’s arrival at a time of change in Japanese society, when the country was opening itself up to foreign influences, and his superiority in combat seeming to epitomise this Europeanization. One of the most memorable scenes in the novel is a ball held by a prominent politician, at which Japanese women are seen to dress in the latest Parisian couture and dance Viennese waltzes, with those who cling to the traditions of their country regarded as hopelessly gauche and backward looking. And yet it is these very traditions, embodied in the figure of the young swordsman Daigo, who adheres to outmoded ideas of personal honour, that provide the will and discipline to resist the vampire, where European prowess cannot.

The picture of a society undergoing monumental changes is at the heart of this book, as one way of life is replaced by another, and also the suspicion that the baby may have been thrown out with the bathwater. Kikuchi’s appeal is not in the way he depicts the fight against Dracula, even when the story moves, as it inevitably must, from the merely derivative to more novel fare, giving us sword fights and martial arts spectacles that are entirely alien to Stoker’s seminal text (though not to more modern exemplars, such as Blade). Rather it lies in the significance he invests that struggle with and the way he portrays a culture in turmoil, the clash of ideas and competing philosophies. Whether he does enough to raise the story above its obvious antecedents is debatable, as at the end I still had the feeling that I had read something rather slight, a prototype for a significant book rather than the thing itself, with the story rushing headlong to its conclusion when a slower, more reflective pace might have better served.

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