Saturday, June 25, 2011

Book Reviews-Necroscope, Hannibal, Twelve and more

by Brian Lumley
The British author Brian Lumley may well be one of the best horror/sci-fi authors you've never heard of. In today's world literary and screen vampires are largely tortured Romantic heartthrobs who brood endlessly about their existence to sappy teen girls or they're omnisexual degenerates who flash fangs at Goths of indeterminate gender. However there is another concept of vampire: that of a soulless, evil monster, something that kills humans to live in a sort of "undeath". This sort of creature isn't to be found dancing the tango in Buenos Aires and has little interest in finding his missing love from centuries before. Instead it only appears human, a disguise which it sheds upon feeding or great anger. This is the sort of vampire that inhabits Lumley's world.

The book was first in a long series. The book is set in the UK during the eighties. It starts out telling the tale of a boy Harry Keogh, who proves to have extraordinary mathematical skills, of a genius level. After he grows older and a tragedy occurs in his life, he develops more esoteric powers-including but not limited to teleportation to anywhere in the universe (via physics-not magic), and the ability to willingly communicate with the dead. This means that not only are the dead (The Great Majority), eager to "talk" to him but the most skilled among the dead -the world's great inventors, musicians, scientists are able to share the knowledge and studies which they've continued to pursue after their death. Just like Neo in The Matrix, Harry can download knowledge and skills from the entirety of human existence. Harry comes to the attention of UK's E-Branch, a group of paranormals working for the state. He joins them but it soon become obvious that his powers are still growing and will far outstrip anyone elses. 

Meanwhile, in Russia's version of E-Branch, another man is discovering that he too has extra human powers. Unlike Harry's ability to talk to the dead, Boris Dragosani's ability is to rip information from the dead, mostly via bodily mutilation. Unlike Harry, he is hated and feared by the dead. In his travels, Dragonsani is drawn to an ancient grave in Romania where nothing grows. As it turns out this is the grave of the vampire, Thibor Ferenczy, who was "killed" centuries ago but isn't truly dead. Thibor has a lot of things to tell Boris and secret plans for Boris...

This is a really good book. Lumley combines traditional old school vampire myths with biological horror and sci-fi. Lumley's vampires are driven by their leeches inside which "kill" the human body and rework it to their own purposes. All of this is described in oozing detail.  I loved this book. Lumley is an UK military veteran and has a wealth of knowledge about military and intelligence organizations as well as the people and geography of Eastern Europe. He's very heavily influenced by HP Lovecraft but Lumley's characters are more action oriented and actually LIKE women.

Johnny Porno
by Charlie Stella.
This book details a number of stories around the grimy criminal underworld in 1973 New York. Although the book occurs almost entirely in NYC the author doesn't hand hold. Locations and neighborhoods are named via streets and subway stops for the most part, not "THIS IS QUEENS" or "THIS IS BROOKLYN". For the non-New Yorker this may be initially disorienting but I got over it quickly enough. For the New Yorker who knows these areas or how they were in 1973 this will be no problem at all.

The primary story in the book, although they are all interrelated, is that of John Albano, a down on his luck laborer whose sense of honor and quick fists have gotten him kicked out of the union and unable to consistently make rent, let alone pay alimony and child support to his shrewish ex-wife, Nancy. Albano takes a job picking up cash from distributors showing adult movies after the previous person who had that job was permanently demoted by the Mob. Albano knows his way around the life (as does Stella) and promises himself he can keep the Mob at arms' length. Of course things don't work out entirely as Albano plans.

This isn't just a mob book, although the mob plays a major role, so much as it is a book about small time criminals, guys just trying to make a living and cops playing both sides of the fence. Everyone in the story is hustling to make a buck. With the exception of an FBI agent who I didn't quite get, the character's motivations all make perfect sense for the limited lives that they have. This book is quite sleazy. I mean that in a good way. It's the written equivalent of a nasty Funkadelic riff. Stella turns everything up to 11 and you can almost smell the Lysol used to clean up the no-tell motels, strip clubs and bars where much of the action takes place.  

Stella loves his characters but he also has fun with them. In one hilarious scene a bigoted dimwit can't stand to listen to the vocalizations in Soul Makossa but is just fine with similar nonsensical lyrics in Shambala.
There is room for a sequel so let's see if he wants to revisit some of these characters. Stella has gotten a lot of comparisons to Westlake , Higgins or Leonard. Those are fair. I would also add Ridley and possibly even Goines. Again, this is a profane book so if that's not your cup of tea, be forewarned. I thought the book worthwhile.

by Thomas Harris
I liked the movie with Julianne Moore and Anthony Hopkins and decided to finally read the book. The movie was largely faithful to the story BUT it made a few rather shocking changes near the end, primarily for commercial considerations in my view. The book had a different audience and having enjoyed both versions I wish the film had had the guts to stick to the author's original grim viewpoint.

For those who haven't seen the movie or read the book, don't worry I'm not going to spoil either ending.  The story is that the infamous serial killer "Hannibal the Cannibal" has escaped to Italy where he makes a living as an art historian. Meanwhile the woman that he "loves" as much as someone like him can love anyone, FBI agent Clarice Starling, is involved in a shootout with a fugitive that goes bad. Her supervisors are suspicious of her involvement with and knowledge of Dr. Lector and have been looking for a reason to kick her out of the FBI.

They are prevented from doing this by Mason Verger, a bisexual child molester who is one of Lector's only surviving victims. Verger is the billionaire head of a food company and has devoted extreme resources to locating Dr. Lector and slowly and painfully killing him. To this end he is aided by Paul Krendler, a corrupt Justice Department official who sexually harasses Clarice and is resentful that she never gave in, as well as Rinaldo Pazzi, an Italian policeman with money problems who thinks he may have found Lector.

Harris delights in describing Lector's appreciation of the finest things in life-art, food, music. This is juxtaposed with Lector's amoral views on human life. In some respects Lector is a monster with a heart. Most of the people he kills are truly bad people. But Lector is still shown to have zero regard for the normal decencies of human existence. If he follows them it's only because he temporarily finds them convenient. As I mentioned the ending was quite different from the movie and some important characters were non-existent in the movie.

All The Lucky Ones are Dead
by Gar Anthony Haywood
This story is about the adventures of Aaron Gunner, a Black private investigator in modern day Los Angeles. He gets drawn into the investigation of the suicide of a rap star, CE Digga Jones as well as the kidnapping of a black conservative libertarian woman radio personality, Sparkle Johnson. Gunner hates Sparkle Johnson (the character appears to be modeled after Larry Elder) but business is business.

As it turns out the suicide may have not been suicide. However there are plenty of people, from the LAPD to the rapper's family to the FBI who would strongly prefer that Gunner stop asking questions, and who have no issue making their feelings known physically, should it come to that. But Gunner's not the sort of man to back down even when a few car bombs go off.
There are also a few conspiracy theorists who insist that the rapper is still alive and that this is all a hoax.
This was a fun story. Unlike a lot of mystery stories, it's not written in first person. I enjoyed the story and learned a few things about LA. Pretty quick reading too. Haywood is a good author and if you can find this book you will like it. He's written quite a bit. He has said that part of his reason for writing the Gunner character was that there were no legitimate black male characters in lead positions in that genre. He's certainly made up for that.

by Jasper Kent
This book is set in 1812 Russia during the French invasion. Things look very grim for the Russians. Moscow is about to fall. A group of Russian "Special Forces" soldiers have had one of their comrades, Dmitry, arrive back in Russia with 12 men from Eastern Europe, Wallachia mostly, who claim that they can turn the tide of the war to help their fellow Slavs.
These 12 men are led by a tall widow's peaked man who calls himself "The Son of the Serpent" and speaks of having fought Turks for decades. The Russians think the fellow might be insane, especially when he introduces his 12 followers as his disciples and gives them the names of Jesus' Apostles. But beggars can't be choosers and the Russians are desperate to try anything-especially since the 12 men will fight for free. The Russians call these men The Oprichniki, after the grim enforcers of Ivan the Terrible's reign. The Son of The Serpent leaves.

The story is told in first person by Captain Aleksei Danilov. Obviously he becomes suspicious when The Oprichniki only agree to fight at night and will take no Russian along with them on their missions. But as French bodies pile up and strange plagues break out among the French, Danilov's superior officers don't care how the French are being killed, only that they are being killed.
Of course Danilov has not survived as a guerilla soldier by being stupid and quite soon he discovers the true nature of the 12 "men" that the Russians have invited into their country. He has some decisions to make as to whether his first loyalty lies to Mother Russia or to all of humanity.

I wanted to like this book more than I did. But the big secret is far too obvious. It could have been done a little better so that the character wouldn't believe what he was seeing. There's also a bit too much time wasted on subplot with a prostitute with a heart of gold. This book is a nice corrective to the romance stories masquerading as horror novels but other than that it was just ok. Nice idea but execution didn't quite grab me.
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