Three reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #43 as the first part of a feature on Telos Publishing:-
Sam Stone’s novel THE DARKNESS WITHIN (Telos pb, 180pp, £10.99) is set on board the colony ship Freedom, fleeing a doomed Earth for a new world. There is tension between the crew and the pampered colonists in their care, with strict demarcation lines that nobody must cross. When a scientist investigating meteorite debris has an accident he brings on board the ship an alien entity, a parasite that takes control of its human hosts. Sometimes the pairing takes and an intelligent being is the result, part of a hive mind, but more often it doesn’t and the host becomes a cannibalistic monster. It’s up to Chief Engineer Madison Whitehawk and the other members of the crew to join forces with the colonists and tackle these entities.
In her introduction to the book, Stone states that “I hadn’t really written science fiction before” and it feels to me very much like a genre in which she is still finding her feet. The book might be science fiction by virtue of its setting, but the genre trappings it uses are superficial and unconvincing. While the Freedom is named an Ark or colony ship, there is very little to define the scale of the venture, with only minimal information provided as to how the colonists fill their time, where their food comes from, what propulsion method is used in the ship, how long they are supposed to take to reach their destination, why cryogenics are not used. Even less information is available regarding the reason for this mass exodus from the Earth, just a vague remark about “the Sun darkening”.
Of course all this cavilling on my part is beside the point. Stone isn’t writing from a hard SF perspective and the genre trappings she uses are mainly by way of stage scenery. At bottom this is zombies on board a spaceship, even if the Z word is never used and regardless of the fact that some of the zombies are capable of rational thought and a great deal more. Stone isn’t all that concerned by the technicalities; she just wants to fling spectacle at the page. As far as that goes the book works tolerably well, with a convincing and tense build up as the parasite spreads in a manner reminiscent of Cronenberg film Shivers, and plenty of paranoia on offer to crank up the tension as crew members wonder who has been infected and who is free. All of which builds up to the final climactic showdown, with humans and parasites battling for survival, a fight that could go either way, Stone playing her cards close to her chest throughout. Darkness doesn’t mark the entry of a major new talent into the SF genre, and is perhaps not to be taken entirely seriously except as storytelling in the horror mode and intended, first and foremost, to entertain the reader for an hour or so, on which level it works well enough.
Back in #33 I reviewed Zombies at Tiffany’s, Stone’s first book featuring redoubtable heroine Kat Lightfoot and was thoroughly charmed, not least because I’d recently watched Breakfast at Tiffany’s and could pick up on all the inside jokes Stone peppered her work with. I don’t have that advantage with the source material come inspiration for her two follow ups, but still enjoyed them very much.
KAT ON A HOT TIN AIRSHIP (Telos pb, 230pp, £12.99) hits the ground running. After a prologue that sets the scene for what comes later, we get straight into things with Kat and George Pepper taking out a nest of demons in New York’s warehouse district in 1865. Next the Lightfoot family, with Pepper tagging along for the ride, wash up in New Orleans, where Kat’s brother Henry has just married his very own southern belle, but not all is well at the Pollitt Plantation. For starters son Orlando has eyes that hint at a demonic heritage, and for seconds Henry’s marriage to Maggie seems to have taken on a rather frosty tone, with the groom inexplicably cold to his beautiful bride. Kat discovers a secret room with a prisoner that nobody else can see, and stalking the estate is the demon Callon, with an agenda rooted in the past and broken promises made by the ancestor of plantation owner Big Daddy to a voodoo priest. With all this going on Kat calls out to her inventor friend Martin who arrives aboard his airship and with extra weaponry, though it will take more than massive firepower to sort out this fine mess.
As I stated above, lack of familiarity with the Tennessee Williams play meant that I probably missed many of the nuances of the story, but regardless this is a tale that stands alone and is a lot of fun for the reader. The characters are every bit as engaging as in the previous book, especially feisty Kat who is torn between conforming to the expectations of her family and constraints imposed by society, and the needs of her role as demon slayer. It has some of the trappings of steampunk, though perhaps a more adequate comparison would be Buffy transplanted to the milieu of Wild West, a world in which our heroine and her companions are just ahead of the curve in terms of the general level of technology, giving them the necessary edge when it comes to dealing with demons, zombies etc. Such considerations aside, with its use of demons, hauntings, and voodoo this has plenty of the true grue for horror aficionados, and there is also a strong subtext regarding the betrayals of the past and how they can cause trouble in the present day, with the need for closure central to the story.
The Peter Sellers film provides the template for WHAT’S DEAD PUSSYKAT (Telos pb, 230pp, £12.99) in which, after a visit to an abandoned and allegedly cursed church, Kat finds herself hopelessly attracted to Pepper and the feeling is mutual. A wedding date is set and all concerned parties retire to a luxury hotel where they are joined by a group of beautiful women who turn out to be vampires intent on catching Pepper. All the love fever clouds the minds of Kat, Pepper and Martin, who are unable to correlate the information they each hold until it may be too late. The stage is set for a showdown with Lucia and her brood in the ruins of St. Michael’s.
Again, this is a fun read with a twisty plot that keeps springing surprises on the reader, including an interesting variation on the vampire theme and some good stuff with gargoyles. A lot of groundwork is done for future adventures, with the unresolved (on his part at least) romance between Kat and Pepper, and a final revelation about her nature that should provide some interesting times in adventures to come, plus more about the mystery of cat Holly. And, while I might not have been familiar with the source material, there were many other little touches that brought a knowing smile to my face, as with the architect Charles Addams, and the character Priscilla, a vampire with an English accent who keeps asking for her spike. It’s as fast paced and high on thrills and spills as the previous adventures, while moving the greater story arc along. I’m now wondering what other film with Cat in the title Stone could seize on next and put to her own use.
TO BE CONTINUED