A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #34:-
UNDER COVER OF NIGHT
Flesh & Blood Press pb, 167pp, US$16
There’s something wonderfully nostalgic about this first collection from New Jersey writer Sangiovanni, a hint of shared experience, formative years spent in front of the television watching old B-movies with stop motion effects by Harryhausen and series like Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, reading books by Bradbury, Clark Ashton Smith and Robert E. Howard, memories of a far simpler time when all you had to do with the monsters was find a gun big enough to shoot them, not deal with Science 101 or fret about the bog creature’s motivation.
In ‘The Amazing Morpheus’ there is a magician who has learned the secret of how to make dreams take on solid substance and uses this gift in his cabaret act. An old man, he comes out of retirement for one final performance, and of course things go fugazi big time, the cue for some major league monster shenanigans with solid footnotes of wry humour in the build-up. Shades of Alien to the opening of ‘The Ossibus’, as astronauts find an abandoned spacecraft on an uncharted planet, but Sangiovanni tops Ripley and co with an even nastier menace and some great characterisation. In ‘Skincatchers’ homicide detective Nick Brannigan finds a ruthless cult murdering innocents on the streets of Sulphur City. Well, not on his beat they won’t, but what Brannigan uncovers is a whole lot stranger than anything Marlow had to deal with, another race coexisting with mankind and following its own hidden agenda. With a transparent plot and a less than effective Baroque prose style, fantasy ‘Three Days’ can lay claim to being the weakest piece in the collection, though still with its moments as the Greater and Lesser Evils escape from the realm of Drikall and invade Arcana. And ‘Dust Shadows of the Dead’ is easily the most sinister, laying on a genuinely unsettling atmosphere as a rock star moves into an old mansion and learns the bloody secret of a strange picture window. Imagine a Robert Aickman story reworked by Stephen King and you’ve got it (and yes, the story probably would’ve have been better if King had kept his mitts off of it, but that’s not the point). We’re back in space and the far future for ‘Mists of Wynth’, the crew of a spaceship coping with both a corrosive mist entity and a shape shifting alien criminal, while ‘Who Wants to be a Survivor’ comes back to the present with a Blair Witch style jolt, as police try to unravel the mystery of six people who were taken to a desert island for a reality TV show and then disappeared without trace, their video diary revealing a story of madness and an ancient curse lingering into the present day, with boundaries between the two strands neatly blurred.
Okay, there’s nothing conceptually striking here and this ain’t serious literature like what the more po faced critics want us all to OD on. Sangiovannia writes to entertain, but does so with real skill. Her command of action scenes is masterly, effortlessly cranking up the tension and excitement. She has a flair for characterisation, giving us both humans and aliens who are fully rounded and as interesting as the stories in which they find themselves, and you are not going to want to meet her monsters. Add to that a sense of humour and a mix and match eclecticism with regard to genre boundaries and you have a winning formula. Her work may, all things considered, be a little simplistic, but like the big man used to say about Richard Laymon, you’re going to have fun with anything that she writes. Go get it.