Review: ‘Black Hat Jack’ by Joe R. Lansdale

Black_Hat_Jack_by_Joe_R_Lansdale_Limited_Edition_CoverAmerica’s frontier days were a ripe time for the art and tradition of storytelling. As people began to push the boundaries further west they discovered a great many new things to see and people to meet. In the absence of things like iPhones, digital cameras and the Internet, word-of-mouth ruled the day as a means of communicating what was happening in the west to the rest of the nation. There were also newspapers and dime novels, but nothing traveled quite as far and as fast as the spoken word.

More often than not, these accounts were shaped to varying degrees by the teller of the tale. Said storyteller might have been at the event in question, for example, but perhaps sought to beef up his role in what transpired. Or maybe he wasn’t there, but liked the idea of having people think he was. Out of such distortions many of our Western myths and legends were born, and many of those exaggerations live good lives as “the truth” to this day.

The idea of tall tales living on as accepted truth is something Joe Lansdale is well aware of, and he touches on it often in his new novella from Subterranean Press, Black Hat Jack. It’s the story of the famous “Second Battle of Adobe Walls,” in which a group of buffalo hunters were beset by hundreds of angry Comanche, Cheyenne and Kiowa warriors. Lansdale tells us in his “Author’s Note” that the battle really did take place, as did many of the individual acts that he relates in the book. But he also admits that he has embellished the story in much the same way many of the battle’s participants likely did themselves in the years that followed the actual event.

The book is named after a man known as Black Hat Jack, and he plays a prominent role in what transpires, but it’s narrated by Nat Love, a character based on a real African-American cowboy. Lansdale’s Nat has earned the nickname “Deadwood Dick,” a name that was first used as a character name in a series of actual dime novels published in the late 1800s and later adopted by several men, including the real Nat Love. Lansdale’s Nat asserts that he’s writing down his “real version” of events as a means of correcting misinformation perpetuated in the dime novels of his day, but freely admits that stretching the truth is a tradition among frontiersmen like himself.

That’s just one example of the way Lansdale gleefully twists truth and legend together, simultaneously commenting on, and participating in, the practice of myth making. While it’s fun to try and see where those lines blur in hindsight, you’ll be too busy reveling in Lansdale’s gifts as a storyteller to think on it too much while you’re reading the book. The battle itself is a breathless mix of action, tension and Lansdale’s trademark brand of humor. That section is followed by a bittersweet coda that illustrates the author’s remarkable range, a sadly matter-of-fact reminder that not all heroes get a hero’s reward.

In addition to the fact that Black Hat Jack will be shipping any day now from Subterranean Press, there’s more good news: this is not the first time Lansdale has written about Nat Love. You can find two stories featuring “Deadwood Dick” (“Soldierin'” and “Hide and Horns”) in his massive short story collection Bleeding Shadows. Even better news: he’s reportedly working on, or recently completed, a novel featuring the character. So, if you like Black Hat Jack, there’s more to look forward to.

In the meantime we have Black Hat Jack, and it doesn’t matter if you’re a fan of the Western genre or not – this is a story made for lovers of good storytelling. With each and every new release, Lansdale cements his legacy as a master craftsman…and that, my friends, is no exaggeration.

Review: ‘Brainquake’ by Samuel Fuller

BQBeing a bagman for an organized crime outfit would require, one would assume, nerves of steel. When you’re delivering money for the mob, you don’t want to be late, you don’t want to be light, and you damn sure don’t want to drop a package off at the wrong address. So, you may not have to be the smartest guy to be the bagman, but you want to be reliable, quick on your feet, and steady under pressure.

Paul is all of those things, except when he isn’t. Sometimes Paul has attacks – he calls them brainquakes – during which everything in his field of vision turns pink. During these attacks hallucinations mix with reality, but Paul can’t tell which is which. His reactions are swift and sometimes violent. It would be a tough situation for anyone to deal with, but it’s especially brutal for Paul, who is surrounded by the kind of people looking for any kind of weakness they can exploit.

In Samuel Fuller’s Brainquake (out this month from Hard Case Crime and Titan Books), Paul finds himself at the center of a converging group of intriguing characters, each with his or her own agenda. All of the ingredients for an engaging piece of crime fiction are present: a recently widowed mob wife; ten million dollars of missing mob money; a sadistic hitman who poses as a priest and crucifies his victims; a driven, determined police detective; and a mentally distressed bagman with strong moral center. Fuller expertly winds these threads around and around one another until the tension becomes nearly unbearable.

The novel moves at a fast clip. The emphasis is more on plot than on character, but Fuller manages to flesh out each of the main players to varying degrees. There are several standout scenes in the book – one involving a bomb in a baby carriage comes to mind, as well as another dealing with some urgent battlefield-type surgery while trying to extract some important information from a witness. Fuller’s storytelling style is lean and uncluttered, and his pacing is rapid without feeling rushed.

The author is best known as a film director, with titles like Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss and The Big Red One to his credit. He also wrote a number of novels, with Brainquake being the last one. It’s been something of a “lost novel” for Fuller fans – he published it during a self-imposed exile in France, where he retreated after a dispute over one of his films, and before now it wasn’t available in English. Kudos to Hard Case Crime‘s Charles Ardai for once again going to great lengths to uncover a valuable piece of crime fiction and sharing it with the world.

 

Review: ‘Buster Voodoo’ by Mason James Cole

large_BusterVoodoo_EbookCoverDixon Green comes from a spiritual family, but not in the traditional sense. A resident of New Orleans, Louisiana, Dixon spent his childhood watching people visit his mother for things like love potions and charms of protection. To Dixon, things like that are part of everyday life, the way Mass or Communion might be for others.

That side of Dixon’s childhood may have been fairly innocuous, but there were some dark swirls thrown into the mix. Take Empty House, for instance, which was pretty much like every haunted house you can find in almost any old neighborhood, except this one was actually haunted. Dixon found that out for himself one day when he went into the house and saw terrible things, visions of a violent past playing out before him. Empty House, they said, was where all the children who’d lately gone missing in Dixon’s part of New Orleans wound up. Empty House, they said, was where Buster Voodoo took them.

Dixon knew some of those missing kids, but only in passing – until the day his sister Marie became one of them.

Buster Voodoo is the monster of Dixon Green’s childhood. Another monster, this one we all know as Hurricane Katrina, comes along in Dixon’s waning years, offering more suffering heaped upon years of fear and anger and regret. Author Mason James Cole brings both of these forces to chilling life in this, his second novel (his first, Pray to Stay Dead, has been re-released by Buster Voodoo publisher Permuted Press). It’s a book that manages to be both vivid and pitch black at the same time; alive with colorful characters and places, and crawling with impending dread.

The book jumps nimbly back-and-forth between Dixon’s past present. Dixon and his sister did manage to temporarily escape Buster Voodoo, but they didn’t exactly live happily ever after. Dixon is wiling away his days as a janitor in a run-down New Orleans amusement park, and Marie is a guest of a facility for the mentally challenged. Even now, in these places, their childhood demon is never far from them.

Hurricane Katrina arrives midway through the book, and for a while it feels like you’ve wandered into a different story, one in which supernatural concerns are swept away by the real-life horror that storm wrought on New Orleans. It’s a horror that Cole, himself a New Orleans resident, knows firsthand, and you can rest assured he’s not using it here for cheap scares or easy atmosphere. It’s tricky business to present real-life horror side-by-side with made-up horror, but Cole pulls it off. Buster Voodoo is a terrifying creation, but what he is and the things he does pale in the face of Katrina’s fury.

There’s a very human heart at the center of Buster Voodoo, and despite all the praise I could heap on Cole’s ability to write tense, nail-biting scenes of horror, it’s that self-same heart that I feel is his best achievement. Cheap shocks thrown at cardboard cutouts don’t stick with you; bad things happening to characters you’ve grown to care about are harder to shake. Buster Voodoo is rich with atmosphere and emotion, and will leave you with plenty to ponder once the last page has been turned.

Review: ‘Beware the Dark’ #2 (Special Tom Piccirilli Issue)

Beware-the-Dark-Tom-PicarilliRegular readers of Tom Piccirilli‘s work (of which there aren’t near enough, in my humble opinion) are likely aware of the accomplished author’s ongoing battle with brain cancer (complicated recently by a stroke). Piccirilli is a writer’s writer and has the reputation around the horror community of being a helluva good guy. I haven’t met the man myself, but that reputation is backed up by the deluge of support he received from writers, publishers and fans when news of his illness first spread.

Paul Fry, founder of Short, Scary Tales Publications, was largely unaware of Piccirilli’s work, but when he saw the support the writer was receiving he decided to check it out. He was evidently impressed
with what he saw, as he’s devoted the second issue of his magazine Beware the Dark to Piccirilli – an issue highlighted by three new stories and a nonfiction piece by Piccirilli himself.

Piccirilli’s stories (“At the Mercy of Angry Angels,” “Waste of the Good Stuff” and “How Some of Us Sleep”) work together as a good overview of the themes that run through most of his work; independently, they work as damn fine stories. “Sleep” is particularly powerful, turning a story of astral projection into a touching tale about family, love and sacrifice.

It’s Piccirilli’s nonfiction piece that truly stands out, however. “Meet the Black” is an essay he wrote before – and after – his brain surgery, and it’s as open and honest and raw a look at a man confronting his own mortality and legacy as you’re ever likely to see.

Fry fills out the issue with several tributes to Piccirilli and his work from authors like Jack Ketchum and Norman Partridge. There’s plenty of non-Piccirilli work as well, including an interview with Joe Lansdale, fiction by Edward Lee, T.T. Zuma and Eric Red, and illustrations by Keith Minnion, Alex McVey and others. There’s also the first in a series of columns by Ray Garton called “Writers You Should Be Reading” – I wrote a similar column (by which I mean a column exactly like this, with the same title!) for the late, lamented FEARnet, and I look forward to seeing how my tastes and choices match up with Garton’s.

All in all, Beware the Dark #2 is a darkly beautiful package. It’s not overly-designed (a real problem with some genre publications, particularly horror publications), the copy is presented in clean, easy-to-read fashion, and the contents are well worth the twelve bucks it costs in the U.S.

Review: ‘Piercing the Darkness’ edited by Craig Cook

PTDCOverDuring his final semester at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, Craig Cook took part in a service project working with some underprivileged students. While helping the kids work on their own short stories, he discovered in them a real thirst for the kind of knowledge that can only come through reading. In himself, he discovered an intense desire to help them, and others like them, have access to the knowledge they craved.

This desire led him to put together Piercing the Darkness, a fully loaded anthology benefiting the Children’s Literacy Initiative. With the weight of such a worthy cause behind him, Cook has assembled a stunning lineup of talent, with many of them contributing brand-new stories. 400 pages from the cream of the horror crop for less than twenty bucks, with all proceeds going to help create a new generation of readers? That’s what we call a”no-brainer” in these parts, my friends.

Still, it wouldn’t be a proper review if I didn’t talk about a few of the stories. The difficulty here was in picking the ones to rave about. Do I talk about “Husband of Kellie” by T.T. Zuma, a zombie story with a wicked punch of an ending? Do I mention Kealan Patrick Burke’s “Haven,” a quietly devastating tale of a man who returns to his childhood home to be reunited with the part of him that never left? I definetely can’t leave out “Searching” by Monica J. O’Rourke, a short piece about a young girl convinced that her real dad is a prince coming to rescue her, not the uninterested jerk that she lives with. (And do I tell how that one nearly brought me to tears?) How much do I say about the stories by Brian Keene and Joe Lansdale and Christopher Golden and Gary Braunbeck and Jonathan Maberry and Jack Ketchum – or do I need to say anything at all, since (for me, at least) their names alone are all that needs to be said?

I think the best way to approach this review, probably, is to keep it short and sweet. So, I’ll just say this: I believe in the cause Craig Cook is trying to help, and I believe in the gift these writers have in telling compelling, thought-provoking, and at times out-right terrifying stories. So yes, I believe Piercing the Darkness is a book that’s well worth your time and your money.

Review: ‘Jamais Vu’ Issue Two (Spring 2014)

Jamais-Vu-Issue-2In only its second issue, Jamais Vu: The Journal of Strange Among the Familiar has established itself as a quality publication with an editorial team that knows how to balance meaty nonfiction features with top-notch fiction selections.

I’m a fiction lover first and foremost, so that’s usually what I go to first when I start reading a magazine or journal. Jamais Vu hooked me early with its strong lineup:

  • “The Long Lonely Empty Road” by Billie Sue Mosiman, which takes a tried-and-true plot (a serial killer hunting the backroads for stranded travellers) and twists it into an engaging guessing game for the reader.
  • “Valedictorian” by Steven Wolf, a sad post-apocalyptic tale in which a couple of young survivors strive for the illusion of normalcy in a shattered world.
  • “Oldies” by Jack Ketchum, an uncharacteristically “quiet” horror tale from the normally visceral author, which tracks one woman’s terror as reality begins to slip away from her.
  • “Functionality” by Lucy Snyder, an unsettling look at how even the most benign technology – in this case, something used for healing – can be horribly misused.
  • “Karmic Interventions” by William D. Carl, a dark comedy about what happens when two people with less-than-lucky track records take one last chance on love.

In addition to these short stories, there’s a lengthy excerpt from Brad Carter’s Sasquatch novel The Big Man of Barlow. Sasquatch also figures into a the interview with the director of the Sasquatch/found footage film Willow Creek, Bobcat Goldthwaite. The nonfiction selection is rounded out by an interview with prolific author Jonathan Maberry, a column by Harlan Ellison, and plenty more.

Editor Paul Anderson has put together an eclectic mix of content that’s a solid blend of the familiar and the new. Jamais Vu is off to a good start; here’s hoping we all support it so that it reaches its full potential as a valuable contributor to the genre.

Review: ‘Deep Like the River’ by Tim Waggoner

DeepRiverAs Deep Like the River opens, a woman named Alie is marking a particularly tough anniversary. Alie’s sister, Carin, thought a day canoeing down Little Clearwater River might provide some
peace of mind – or, at the very least, a distraction from the unpleasant memories they’re both dealing with. Unfortunately, Alie has a much longer journey she needs to complete, and Carin is quickly drawn into an escalating series of horrifying events, beginning with a shocking discovery on a sandbar.

Tim Waggoner‘s new novella, out now from Dark Regions Press, details the surreal path Alie follows as she tries to come to grips with her own dangerously fractured psyche. How and why she came to be in this state is best left for the author to reveal in his own time and his own way, and he does so in typically elegant fashion. While the broad points of the story are nothing groundbreaking, Deep Like the River is more about the journey than the destination.

Along their way down the river, Alie and Carin encounter many things – serpents, great winged beasts, and a frighteningly empty-eyed mother-son duo among them – that may or may not be real. Waggoner is not interested in doling out easy answers – not for Alie, not for Carin, and certainly not for the reader. The result is an evocative, thought provoking story that, like the Little Clearwater itself, will surprise you greatly with its depth.