Christmas Fear and Christmas Cheer

So, it’s that time of year again, in which bloggers either do a post on their favourite novels/short stories of the past year or spend some time looking at seasonally topical reads.  The season being Christmas, I’ve been mulling over some suggestions for you this past week.  Unfortunately, mulling isn’t writing, and I’ve found myself feeling like Clark Kent must every time Lois Lane scoops him.

In my case, the character of Lois Lane is played by one Michaela Gray, a.k.a. “The Bookaneerover at GeekPlanetOnline .  Hop on over and check out her article before I give you my list of Christmas themed reads.  I’ll wait.

And…we’re back.  At the risk of being redundant, here’s my list of Christmas tales you should check out.

1.  A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

A Christmas CarolThe obvious choice on any Christmas themed list, Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, is the story of Ebenezer Scrooge and his one night journey to redemption after a little rough handling by the spirits of Past, Present and Future.   Universally loved and a book that hasn’t really left the collective consciousness since its publication back in 1843. Now that’s a story with legs.

Beyond the cheery message that no one is beyond redemption, what I find kind of neat about Dickens’ work is that it’s totally a horror novel.  Think about it for a second.  Some poor (well, rich) old geezer tormented by a host of spirits in the dead of night in a drafty old English mansion.  That’s practically a Richard Matheson novel!. A Christmas Carol is truly a classic and deserves top billing on any Christmas themed list.

2.  I Am Scrooge (A Zombie Story for Christmas) by Adam Roberts

ZombieScroogeIt’s to my eternal shame (okay, maybe not eternal–how about transitory?) that Adam Roberts’ re-imagining of Dickens tale has sat on my shelf low this past year without being read.  It’s especially puzzling considering my continued interest in funny zombie novels.  The idea of the three ghosts teaming up with old Ebenezer to combat a hungry horde of shambling zombies and by happenstance save the world is definitely appealing to anyone with an interest in the walking dead.  I’m not sure it will have as happy an ending as the original, but I am sure there’ll be a meal somewhere along the way.  Although I doubt there’s a lot of meat on Tiny Tim, or Scrooge for that matter.

3.  Naughty:  Nine Tales of Christmas Crime by Steve Hockensmith

NaughtySteven Hockensmith is a wonderful mystery writer who’s turned his attention to Christmas themed mysteries on several (at least nine) occasions.  If you’re a fan of the genre and looking for something with a Christmas(y) feel to it, then Naughty is the book for you.  My favourite tale involves the kidnapping of a certain man in a red suit by members of the KGB and Mrs. Klaus efforts to effect his rescue.  Poisoned fruitcake, devious secret santas, and an introduction to Hannah Fox, a character I hope to meet some day in her own novel, all make this a novel that any mystery lover should invest in.  Do yourself a favour and pick it up as either an ebook or print version.  Steve is a master of both mystery and witty dialogue and I’ve had a long history of not being disappointed with his writing.

Speaking of short stories, Arthur Conan Doyle was known for writing a Christmas tale or two involving everyone’s favorite Victorian detective, Sherlock Holmes.  Honourable mention goes to The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle in which Sherlock shows considerable restraint with regards to a criminal whom he encounters at Christmas.  George Mann has also made an effort to write a series of Christmas themed stories with regards to his wonderful Newbury and Hobbes series of Steampunk detective novels, all of which can be obtained if you pick up a copy of The Casebook of Newbury and Hobbes.  Try reading Christmas Spirits if you’d like a unique take on A Christmas Carol involving a detective on an opium bender during the holidays.

I’m sure there are many more Christmas themed tales that I’m omitting in the course of this holiday post.  If you’ve got a tale or novel to add to the mix, please feel free to enlighten me in the comments, and in the meantime, enjoy yourself a merry little Christmas.

 


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Home from the Range–An interview with Steve Hockensmith

A few weeks ago I learned that Steve Hockensmith, one of my favourite writers of both mysteries and zombie fiction (yes, odd combo, I know) had released his latest novel, Cadaver In Chief.  However, it hadn’t popped up on Amazon.ca yet, (one of the curses of being America’s neglected big sister), so he was kind enough to provide a copy for me to review.  During the course of our chat, I passive aggressively (yes, that is the Canadian way) suggested maybe–you know–if I was brave enough–I’d ask him for an interview.

Unlike that redhead at work I keep mentioning to co-workers in the hopes that she might notice, Steve took the hint and ran with it.  So, free book AND an interview!    No redhead of course, unless you count the Amlingmeyer brothers…

Okay, awkward introduction aside, I give you…an interview with Steve Hockensmith, writer of the Holmes on the Range series, numerous mystery anthologies and both the prequel and sequel to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies:

Every hero or villain has an origin story, whether it’s Peter Parker and his radioactive spider or James Moriarty and his superior mind. Or, perhaps the Amlingmeyer brothers and their unfortunate experience with a flash flood. What’s you’re origin story? How did you come to decide to be a writer?

I’d like to say I developed superhuman storytelling abilities after being bitten by a radioactive writer, but my origin’s not nearly so exciting. I’ve just always been into stories and escapism. As a kid, I loved DC Comics, Doctor Who, Star Trek, Star Wars, Kolchak: The Night Stalker, The Avengers (the TV show), old movies, new movies, good movies, bad movies and books books books. I was geeky when geeky wasn’t cool, to misquote Barbara Mandrell. (Geeks love obscure pop culture references, y’know.) After college, I thought briefly about moving to L.A. to try to break into TV as a writer, but everything I’d heard about “the industry” made me think I’d hate it. Plus, I was chickenshit. So I decided to tell stories in the way that seemed right for me — in a quiet room, alone, following my instincts instead of notes from suits — and after a decade of that I managed to get a novel published. As origin stories go it’s no “Rocketed to Earth from the doomed planet Krypton…,” but what can I say? That’s how it happened.

Why mysteries?

Because I suck at science fiction. When I first got serious about writing, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to write. My favorite novelist was (and is) Kurt Vonnegut, but I don’t think you can just say, “I love that guy. I’ll do what he did.” Ain’t gonna work. So I figured it’d be best to start small, with short stories, and slowly feel my way to whatever it is I wanted to say. I focused on science fiction because I’d read a lot of it as a kid and there were several paying markets — Asimov’s, Analog and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, in particular. After three or four years of effort, I managed to sell one story to Analog and bupkis to the others. And I couldn’t even get mad at anybody for overlooking my genius because I clearly didn’t have any genius…for science fiction. The stories simply weren’t that good, and I knew it. Then, just as I was about to give up, I was bitten by a radioactive writer, and everything changed. Really! I finally got around to reading The Big Sleep, and that opened up a whole new world for me. My strengths as a writer, I think, are voice and humor and attention to the seemingly mundane details of everyday life. And that’s not what SF’s all about, so it simply wasn’t a good fit for me. Mysteries, on the other hand….

Which brings us to the Holmes on the Range series. How does one come up with the idea of a couple of cowpokes travelling around the west emulating the deducifying style of a certain Sherlock Holmes?

Ten years ago, I decided to write a Sherlock Holmes story for Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. (They have an annual Holmes tribute issue.) But I didn’t want to do a pastiche. (A) My ego’s too big for that, and (B) I know in my heart of hearts that I probably couldn’t pull one off anyway. So I had to come up with a way to tell a Holmes story that wasn’t about Holmes. Well, how do you do that? My solution: tell a story about someone who reads about Holmes and how that changes his or her life. And when I thought about the original Holmes tales and when they first appeared, I realized that America was still a pretty wild place at the time. The frontier days and Indian wars were barely behind us, and there were still cow towns and outlaws and bounty hunters and hanging judges and all that. And cowboys, of course. Say…what would they make of a guy like Holmes? Once I asked myself that, it all fell into place quickly, and I wrote the first Holmes on the Range story. Thank god Ellery Queen bought it, or who knows where I would’ve ended up?

Speaking of the Amlingmeyer brothers, I love the dynamic between Gustav and Otto.  Every great detective seems to need a sidekick, whether it’s Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin or Sherlock and Watson.  Yet Otto doesn’t necessarily seem so much a sidekick as a mutual partner.  Is Otto as much a sleuth as his brother?

Thanks for noticing that! I think because Otto’s such a goofball, some readers don’t pick up on the fact that he’s really a pretty smart, resourceful guy. He’s definitely not a sidekick in the way that S.S. Van Dine is Philo Vance’s sidekick or Capt. Hastings is Hercule Poirot’s sidekick. Van Dine and Hastings are utterly passive observers. They exist solely to provide a window onto the story. Otto isn’t just the narrator, he’s one of the heroes. He helps push the plot forward. Watson rarely did that, actually. Otto’s closer to someone else you mention: Archie Goodwin. I don’t think I’d read any Rex Stout before I wrote the first Holmes on the Range story, but Archie and Otto are definitely two of a kind. Nero Wolfe and Old Red might be the geniuses, but they’d never put any puzzles together if their right-hand guys weren’t out there gathering up all the pieces.

World’s Greatest Sleuth! takes place during the World Columbian Exposition of 1893 and features several walk throughs of the event during the course of their murder investigation.  The same novel features a pair of relatively obscure fictional detectives (King Brady and Eugene Valmont) whose heyday of popularity was the early twentieth century.  How much research goes into a Hockensmith novel?

Probably too much. Not that I do research-based info dumps the way some writers do. I think I’m pretty good at smoothly integrating the background material into the narrative. But sometimes with research I don’t know when to stop. I’m a geek, remember. Research is fun! So fun I’m always tempted to blow an extra week or two on it when it’s probably time to start writing. For four of my five Holmes on the Range novels and both my Pride and Prejudice and Zombies novels I spent at least a month on research before I started outlining the plot. I always began with the nugget of an idea — usually just a location and a general situation — then I’d let history guide me where it would. The exception is The Crack in the Lens. I went out of my way to make that one research-light. And it worked. Mostly. I probably spent two weeks on research instead of four or five. That’s one thing I’ll miss if I decide to continue the Holmes on the Range series as an indie thing. When I was getting nice advances, I could afford to spend the time on research. If I’m doing the books for myself, no dough until they start selling, it’s going to be harder to justify so many days at the library.

Personally, I think the Holmes on the Range series would be well suited to television, much as say, the Murdoch Mysteries.  Have you ever talked with anyone about adapting them?

Yeah, there was talk, once upon a time. And I suppose there’s still a remote chance it’ll happen. It’s pretty unlikely, though, which is too bad. I agree with you: It could be a really fun TV show. Maybe if I’d started writing the series in 1964, that would’ve happened. But anything Western-ish is a tough sell these days. The genre’s seen as old-fashioned and it’s expensive and it’s rarely done well anymore. But hey — keep hope alive. Longmire seems to be doing well, Hell on Wheels got picked up for a second season, and Sherlock Holmes and mystery shows have never been more popular. So lightning could strike. Pray for rain.

One thing I’ve noticed over the course of your career is that the hallmark of any Hockensmith novel isn’t so much the storyline (although they are great), but rather the witty dialogue, whether it’s banter between the brothers Amlingmeyer or that of Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy as they fend off the affections of various undead dandies.  Does the banter come naturally?

Why thank you, sir! I do think dialogue is a strength of mine, and it’s one of the things I enjoy writing the most. Nothing stops me dead faster than trying to capture the look of someone’s house or clothes or face. Descriptive writing is torture for me. Maybe that’s because of all the hours and hours I spent as a kid watching old movies on TV. When I’m writing a book, it’s as though one of those films is playing in my head and I’m just trying to transcribe it. So the dialogue and action is relatively easy. Finding words to describe the heroine’s hairdo — that’s hard. It might also go back to the moment when I really embraced the mystery genre, though I didn’t realize that’s what I was doing at the time. A few years before I read The Big Sleep, when I was still in college, I was lucky enough to stumble across the Thin Man movies in the local library. Man, I watched those things over and over and over. I still pull them out every year or so and watch them again. Not all of them are great movies, yet I always get immense satisfaction from watching Nick and Nora do what they do. Ooo! I just remembered! I had the same reaction to the Peter Ustinov Hercule Poirot movies of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, too. So if you break down the DNA of the Holmes on the Range books, it’s less Western and Arthur Conan Doyle than you might assume at first glance. Those are in there, but the books wouldn’t be what they are without Shadow of the Thin Man and Death on the Nile and Evil Under the Sun, too. And to return (finally) to your original question: Those are all films with wonderful, witty dialogue. Coincidence? I think not!

Speaking of Dawn of the Dreadfuls and its counterpart, Dreadfully Ever After, how is it that you went from cowboy mysteries of the old West to Elizabethan debutants fighting undead hordes with crazy ninja skills? Did Quirk Books approach you regarding a prequel to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies?  How did that relationship come about?

Long story short (or as short as I can make it): Word got out that Quirk Books needed someone to write another PPZ book and my editor at Minotaur gave my agent a heads up (god bless him) and she threw my hat in the ring and I managed to get the gig. I think what won over Jason Rekulak, my editor at Quirk, was that I’d written funny historicals that mashed unlikely genres together. He also seemed to appreciate that I made no attempt whatsoever to copy Jane Austen’s style. Who could pull that off? If you tried to fake the feel of a mashup book I think you’d end up with something like Shock Treatment — the sequel to The Rocky Horror Picture Show no one watches or remembers anymore. You can’t set out to be a wacky cult favorite. You just have to tell your story in whatever style you think works best. So that’s what I did.

Since the release of Dreadfully Ever After and World’s Greatest Sleuth!, you seem to have gone the route of self-publishing and ebooks.  Is it an easier medium to work in?

Yes and no. The lull in books from traditional publishers wasn’t entirely of my choosing. To be honest, it’s been a crappy couple years. I’ve had several projects blow up on the launch pad. It’s been a combination of bad luck and lack of direction on my part. I’ve done waaaaaaaaay too much ping-ponging around trying to figure out what to do with myself. The ebooks have been gratifying in that they’re finished and they’re available and I think they’re great. Man alive, I love the print editions of Cadaver in Chief and Naughty! The designer I used, Rick Forgus, is a genius. Those books look beautiful. I’m very, very proud of them. On the other hand, marketing an indie book remains a chore and, frankly, a mystery to me. I was saying to my wife the other day, “I know how to write books. I just don’t know how to sell them.” Unfortunately, if you don’t have that second skill, there are going to be times when the first one doesn’t seem to mean much.

Anything you miss about working with a publisher?

Oh, sure. Free booze at conventions. Getting big boxes of beautifully printed books delivered to my door. Help with marketing and promotion. Insightful editorial input. (I’m lucky: I’ve worked with three editors and I liked and respected them all. That’s a track record some writers I know would envy.) I think it’s the free booze I’ll miss the most…and I’m only partially kidding about that. It’s extremely validating when a publisher buys you a gin and tonic. You feel like you’re in, you made it, you’re real. Of course, you’re a real writer without the free G&Ts, but that can be hard to remember sometimes.

I’ve had a book outline sitting in a drawer for what seems like forever due to both laziness and insecurity. Any advice for amateur authors hoping to break into the field?

I’ve got a standard line that always sounds flip, but believe me — it isn’t. Here it is: Keep writing bad stuff until you’re writing good stuff. That’s pretty brief as secrets to success go, but I can make it even briefer: Keep writing. Or in your case, start writing, then don’t stop. The number-one thing every writer needs in order to succeed is perseverance. After that, you need talent and skill (two different things) and luck. But without the perseverance, everything else is meaningless. The other advice I give is to start small, like I did, with short stories. That was how I turned raw talent into honed skills. It was how I established myself as a professional, too. The agent who ended up selling Holmes on the Range to Minotaur found me via a story in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. She approached me! Imagine that! You never know what will lead to what. But it always starts at the same place. A keyboard. Write!

Fans of your blog always seem to be mentioning their affection for Hannah Fox, featured in several of your shorter works.  Any chance we’ll see more of this Nancy Drew with attitude?

Hannah actually pops up in my contribution to an upcoming anthology, so fans will get a chance to see what’s become of her. I have a whole book about her in a drawer — she was the star of the still-unpublished novel I wrote before Holmes on the Range. I keep thinking I’ll pull that book out again and rewrite it, since I still like the idea and I’ve gained (I hope) a lot more skill and smarts over the years. Hannah’s definitely alive in my mind. Whether she breaks out into the real world again (or at least the world of stories and books) remains to be seen.

I haven’t yet had a chance to read your latest work, Cadaver in Chief. Tell us how that came about.

I was waiting to hear back from an editor about a potential project and I thought to myself, “God, I hate sitting on my ass. I bet I could write and publish an ebook before I get an answer on this other thing.” So I set out to do it. And because I wanted to do it so fast, so now, I thought that should be reflected in the book. I wanted it to be a ripped-from-the-headlines kind of thing. Super-zeitgeisty. Which is why it ended up being about political manipulation and cultural disruption and the collapse of traditional media. Oh, and zombies! Can’t get more zeitgeisty than that, right? It was a ton of fun to write — it’s as much a mystery and a satire as it is horror — and I think it turned out really well. Plus, I won the race! I did finish before I got an answer, which is another reason to love indie publishing. You can react to trends really, really quickly. Of course, even if you do you’ve still got to figure out the goddamn marketing. Sigh.

I certainly couldn’t end the interview without asking about Gustav and Otto and the chance of further adventures.  When we last left them, they were looking at a bright future and I for one would like a glimpse into that.  After all, nobody fell off a cliff or anything….

I deliberately left the boys in a happy place at the end of World’s Greatest Sleuth! because I wasn’t sure we’d ever see them again. Things were obviously winding down with Minotaur — the series never took off the way they’d hoped — and I was feeling burned out and disappointed. Those books were really, really hard to write, all of them, yet at the end of the day what did I have to show for all that work? (Other than five books I was proud of and some nice cash I was grateful for, of course.) That’s still a question I wrestle with. As much as I’d like to see Big Red and Old Red ride again, I’m not going to write a book about them just for me and 100 other people. That would be too painful, and dammit — I simply can’t afford it. The thing that gives me hope is that the Holmes on the Range short story collection I put out, Dear Mr. Holmes, keeps selling and selling at a very satisfying clip. So we’ll see. At the moment, I’m leaning toward giving it a try. The movie’s already running in my head. I know what happens to the guys next. Maybe I’ll start transcribing soon.

Fingers crossed that the Amlingmeyer brothers ride again!  If you’re not familiar with Steve Hockensmith’s works, I’d suggest you start with Holmes on the Range. It’s a delightful mystery and a great introduction to what you can expect from a Hockensmith novel.  Of course, Cadaver in Chief is on sale now, so if you’re sick of the presidential race yet want some political intrigue (and maybe see a politician or two get their faces eaten off), maybe you should start there.

Steve maintains a blog at the aptly named Steve Hockensmith’s blog, a.k.a. Stevehockensmith.com where he ruminates on all things mystery and, well, whatever meets his fancy.  Check it out!

Ex Heroes–Peter Clines

“If we do this, if you want my help with it, it isn’t some stupid selection process where we pick and choose a few hundred who we decide are worth it.  We just save everyone we can.”

 St. George, a.k.a. ‘”he Dragon”, a.k.a. George Bailey (seriously?), is an ex-hero.  Just a year before, he was the darling of humanity, saving the innocent from the not so innocent of Los Angeles and making headlines everywhere he went.  Whether rescuing a woman from being raped in an alley, smacking around some gang bangers on the prowl, or attempting to deal with a strange biological outbreak that re-animates the dead, he was the best at what he did.  And what he did was be a hero.  Invulnerable, invincible, the result of a freak lab accident, the Dragon kept the city from falling into anarchy, aided by a cadre of fellow super-humans, all of whom developed their powers in the recent past.

There was Gorgon, whose gaze would tap the life force of others and convert it into super strength.  Zzap, a cripple, confined to a wheelchair, capable of becoming a being of pure energy, blessed with all the powers of a God.  Imagine the Sun with a personality.   Cerberus–a girl and her power armor.  The Regenerator—I think that one would be self explanatory.  And then there was Stealth, the supermodel vigilante, combining genius level intelligence with supermodel level sensuality.  

I did say ex-heroes though, didn’t I? 

What happens to a hero when all he (or she) has vowed to protect is gone?  When the situation goes from bad to worse (to worst) and it’s no longer a matter of keeping humanity safe, but rather keeping humanity alive?  And what could possibly bring such a situation to pass? Peter Clines’ EX-HEROES answers those questions with one answer. 

Yep, you guessed it…the answer is Zombies.

Bouncing back and forth between the times before and after the zombie apocalypse, EX-HEROES chronicles the exploits of those few super heroes that have managed to survive (they’re not the only “ex-heroes” in this story), trying to maintain a small enclave of humanity that remains uninfected.   Day by day they struggle against the hordes of undead clogging the streets of Los Angeles, ever watchful for the appearance of their undead brethren.  Dead superheroes have no control over their powers, but they have them nonetheless.

At the same time, several of their members are trying both to trace the source of the outbreak and to find a cure (or at least a vaccine) for those who are left.  They’ve known for some time that if you die—you turn.  What they don’t know is that one of them has intimate knowledge of how the outbreak began.  Complicating their search is the competition, a loose coalition of former gangs united under the aegis of “The Seventeens” who have fought tooth and nail with the heroes for the spoils of a dead civilization.  So far, it’s a dead heat.

When my copy of EX-HEROES arrived in the mail, I got a little worried.  Wrapped in an almost amateurishly bound trade paperback, it appeared as though I had been snookered into reading another author’s self-publication.  Thank God I got beyond that.  What I found inside was a first rate blend of apocalyptic zombie fiction, combined with some good old fashioned super-heroism. 

When I say old fashioned, I don’t mean to imply that the heroes are black and white cookie cutter caricatures—they’re real people, simply blessed with extraordinary abilities.  As is the fashion these days, the lines between good and evil are blurred, and no character is without flaw.  Whether it’s Stealth’s lack of empathy, or the Regenerator’s apparent cowardice, Clines treats his superheroes as flawed beings–much like the rest of us.  Hell, some of them aren’t even likeable—but then who said superheroes had to be nice?

Of course, like every good zombie novel, there’s a twist, which I’ll leave you to get to on your own. 

Once you’re done with this zombies vs. superheroes mash-up, never fear.  The fun continues in Cline’s sequel, Ex-Patriots.

Sherlock Holmes and the Zombie Problem–Nick S. Thomas

“It is with a heavy heart that I take up my pen to write these the last words in which I shall ever record the singular gifts by which my friend Sherlock Holmes was distinguished.”~Dr John Watson.

 

 

 

 

Zombies are the least of the problems encountered in Sherlock Holmes and the Zombie Problem by author Nick S. Thomas.  Bad writing can usually be overcome by a decent plot, but sometimes you run into stuff like this:

“Shocked and in fear I stumbled to my feet and withdrew across the room, two more shots rang out from Holmes’ gun, one hitting the attacker in the shoulder, the other missing, it had no effect.”

 or this:

 “I ripped the cabinet open, taking up my recently purchased rifle, a wonder I now was pleased to have purchased just a few months before, an 1881 model Marlin under lever rifle, kept for this very type of situation which I had hoped to never face but prepared for anyway.”

Let me just say that if you’re not willing to write proper sentences, then I am not willing to read your book. 

It’s a shame really, as the idea of Sherlock Holmes fighting a Zombie horde unleashed upon him by the nefarious James Moriarty is something I’m totally on-board with.  A great idea, but in this case so poorly executed that (for the first time ever) I could not finish the novel. 

That’s how bad it is. 

If you can’t write a page without a run on sentence, then I would suggest either a refresher course in grammar, finding a half decent editor–or a career change.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dreadfully Ever After- Steve Hockensmith

Darling, you’ve lost weight!

“You can have your precious honor or you can have your precious Darcy.  One or the other must be set upon the pyre. Which it shall be I leave to you.” ~Lady Catherine De Bourgh.

Traditionally, the hallmark of a great play is the three act structure, and every novel must have a beginning, a middle, and an end (unless you’re into crappy stream-of consciousness).  However, when the material cannot be sufficiently covered over the course of a novel, writers seem drawn to the idea of a trilogy.   Recently, Stieg Larsson’s  Millenium Trilogy has enthralled readers, and while not originally published as a trilogy, few would think of The Lord of the Rings otherwise.  So, when Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (apologies to Jane) took off up the charts, what better way to bookend his work than to transform it into a trilogy?

The prequel, P & P & Z: Dawn of the Dreadfuls was a delightful introduction to the Bennett clan, a wittily crafted back story to the events of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and a nifty explanation of how things came to be the way they are in the “Z-land” that is Regency England.  Or Dreadful England, whichever you prefer.  And yet, one must wonder what happened to Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam Darcy after they conquered his pride and her prejudice.  Did they settle down in wedded bliss, marred only by the occasional ninja attack or Dreadful invasion?  Was Elizabeth able to content herself with the domestic life, forbidden from practicing her martial arts by the conventions of polite society?  Well wonder no more, because the answer lies in the sequel, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dreadfully Ever After.

It is a time of hopeful optimism, for the Regency is to become a Monarchy again.  The madness of King George III has abated, and his re-coronation is anticipated by aristocracy and peasantry alike.  For Elizabeth Bennett, it should be a happy time, married to a man she loves, living a life of relative comfort…yet something is amiss.  Born and bred a warrior, she finds herself unable to indulge in her necrocidal urges, restrained by the sense and sensibility that must be adhered to as the wife of a nobleman.  Decapitating Dreadfuls just isn’t accepted as a skill set  a married women may practice.  Darcy understands her discontent, but finds himself unable to lighten the mood, and Elizabeth spends many a day roaming the moors in hopes of a lethal (not for her) encounter.

Yet when that encounter comes, it is Darcy who is delivered the fatal blow, the death sentence that accompanies even the slightest nibble from the recently re-animated.  Under the threat of losing the man who means everything to her, thoughts of discontent with her position in life vanish, and lead to a bargain with her personal nemesis…her aunt (through marriage), the lady Catherine De Bourgh.  It is to Darcy’s fortune, but Elizabeth’s misfortune, that her oldest enemy might hold the key to his survival in the form of, if not a cure, a stopgap until one can be found.  Elizabeth must swallow her pride and overcome her prejudice if she is to save her soul mate.

Of course, there is a price.  Catherine De Bourgh is a lady in name only, and suggests a course of action that might save Darcy, yet humble Elizabeth.  In London there is a doctor working on a cure for the Dreadful scourge, but he will not readily give up his secrets.  Subterfuge and seduction are the route to Darcy’s salvation, by way of  treachery and deception, shame and ignoble acts for Elizabeth and her family. And while they are gone, no one would expect lady De Bourgh to be idle, nor her daughter Anne.  Treachery abounds.  So off to London Elizabeth goes, in the guise of a wealthy (new money that is) spinster and accompanied by her uncouth father and sister (Hello Kitty!)

A word about London in the time of the Dreadfuls.  It is a place of walls, a fortress city, subdivided into fortified districts, tied together only by the amazing sewer system that winds its way under the city.  A place of dandies and fops, Dreadful races (literally…it does not pay to be Irish unless you can outrun a zombie) and Bedlam, both literal and figurative.  In this “hospital”, residing in the sinister section twelve central, is the cure they seek, and with the help of a daring plan, sisterly love and a few ninjas, they must breach its walls if there is any hope of obtaining the cure.

 

The irony of this novel is that it is not so much the story of Elizabeth and Darcy as it is the coming of age of her younger sister Kitty, historically characterized as a boy hungry air head, and the humanization of her elder sister, the ever sanctimonious and bookish Mary.  Away from the influence of the truly vacuous Lydia, Kitty is able to assert her own character, that of a young woman who looks at life in a light-hearted way, yet has an underlying sense of, well…sense.  As for Mary, once parted from her precious books and challenged by a mysterious protector as she attempts (on her own) to discover the secrets of Bedlam, her sharp edges are softened (unlike her blades) and she develops a softer touch.  For both Kitty and Mary, romance appears when least expected.

The author also introduces a variety of  antagonists for the Bennetts, from the  Monty Pythonesque Angus MacFarquhar, a mirthless scientist capable of hideous depravity (and considerable racism) in his quixotic quest to cure the land of their “troubles,” to the treacherous, yet troubled Nezu, leader of Catherine Debourgh’s ninjas.  And then there is the mysterious beggar in a box, an agent with an agenda of his own.

What I always love about a Hockensmith novel is not so much the storylines (they are great!) but rather the approach to language.  Witticisms and double entendre’s abound, and make for a smart, yet hilarious take on an otherwise somber subject.  Death and mayhem are infused with a sense of both the ludicrous and hilarious, and there were many moments when I chuckled out loud at either the banter or the situations the characters find themselves in.  My biggest complaint (probably the only one) is that the novel is not longer.  I could have read another hundred pages of the exploits of the Bennetts before coming to the conclusion and it was with a sense of both satisfaction and regret that I finally put down the book.  Like a great trilogy, it has a sense of completeness, but also leaves open the possibility of further adventures.

Steve himself speculated on the subject in a nice little interview over at Daemon’s books back in April.

And, like all Quirk Classics, it has its own  trailer:

 

 
*bloggers note:  In my short time as a reviewer, I’ve discovered that advanced copies of new novels are hard to come by up here in the great white North (yes, folks, Canada).  Publishing houses and promotional blogs simply won’t ship across the border, and for the life of me, I don’t know why.  When he saw me moaning on the subject, Steve stepped up and sent a copy for review, for which I thank him.    However, life got in the way and I have finally posted much later than expected, for which I apologize. 
 
My penance?  Downloading a copy of Naughty: Nine tales of Christmas Crime, which, when I think about it, really wasn’t any sort of punishment at all.  Trust me.
 
He also maintains a blog at stevehockensmith.com that is well worth a visit.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith

“Of all the weapons she had commanded, Elizabeth knew the least of love; and of all the weapons in the world, love was the most dangerous.”

 It’s always a crapshoot to re-envision a classic.  For every Pride and Prejudice starring Keira Knightly, there’s a Starship Troopers starring Casper van Diem.  It’s even more of a crapshoot to take the original author’s vision and totally turn it on its head.  So, it was with much curiosity that I picked up a copy of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (Jane Austen and Seth Grahame Smith: copyright 2009, Quirk Books) Seth Grahame-Smith’s take on the seminal tale of the five Bennett sisters and their search for love and security in 18th century England.  It certainly takes a large amount of pride to assume oneself capable of taking a classic romance, mashing in a few zombies and some kick ass eastern fighting styles, and bringing forth what could only be described as a horrifying romance that captures the original author’s intent…but Seth Grahame-Smith was apparently the man for the job.

I imagine that anyone with a passing interest in literature has at least heard of the tale of the Bennett sisters, specifically Elizabeth, and her interactions with the mercurial Mr. Darcy.  One has an overabundance of pride, and the other finds the man’s pride so odious that she develops such a prejudice (yes, I know, hence the title) against him that the reader is left wondering how these two so obviously unsuited lovers can possibly get together. (Full disclosure–Pride and Prejudice  has been on my “to read” list for pretty much ever)  From what I gather on the subject, the original novel is a damning expose of 18th century convention and the wall between social classes, and even within them.  This version has a little fun with it.

So, let’s start with a short synopsis and go from there:

It’s been a few years since the events of Dawn of the Dreadfuls and the Bennett sisters have followed in their father’s footsteps, each of them travelling to the Orient to learn the ways of the Shaolin monks, a decidedly unladylike  action made necessary by the resurrection of the Dreadful menace, which has only gotten worse since the events of the prequel.  England is in a state of perpetual siege at the hands of the undead. London has become a walled fortress and travel around the countryside (unless it’s the dead of Winter–note to reader–the undead freeze) is a perilous affair.  However, life must go on, and the matriarch of the Bennett family is always on the lookout for possible suitors for her daughters.  With the re-habitation of Netherfield Park by the handsome (and very rich) Mr. Bingley, Mrs. Bennett sees a chance to both assure a future of comfort for her eldest daughter Jane, and by extension, the Bennetts.  When Jane endeavours to visit the Bingley’s and falls ill, Elizabeth is sent to watch over her recovery and during the course of the vigil, interacts with Fitzwilliam Darcy, whom she already has developed a grudge against, based on her initial observations at a local ball.

It’s hate at first sight, tempered by a certain appreciation of his martial qualities–ie.  he kills Zombies.  Elizabeth has devoted herself to a life of protecting her family and friends from the undead menace, telling herself that her duty allows no time for love, yet finds herself curiously drawn to Darcy.  However, events, as they often do in romance novels, conspire to keep the lovebirds apart.  The lies of Darcy’s childhood friend George Wickham influence Elizabeth greatly, as does Darcy’s treacherous (or so it seems) behaviour in coming between Jane and Charles Bingley.

All right, I’m already bored.  Suffice it to say that the reimagination of Austen’s work stays true to the original storyline, within limits.  However, Smith manages to seamlessly blend the horrific elements into the storyline, and adds a certain amount of bawdy humour that I doubt was in the original (not that Austen wasn’t a wit, it’s just that his additions are crude enough that I cannot believe Austen would have thought of them).

Examples abound of Smith’s somewhat bawdy additions to the original storyline.  When Elizabeth asks Mr. Darcy his opinion on the subject of balls (the formal dances), he responds with:

“…I may observe that private balls are much pleasanter than public ones.”

Elizabeth’s reply:

“On the contrary, I find that balls are much more enjoyable when they cease to remain private.”

Zoinks!  Double entendre anyone?

Later, when Elizabeth is entertaining Lady Catherine Debourgh and company with a demonstration of her nimbleness, walking about on her hands and finally supporting her weight on one finger, Lady Catherine observes to Darcy:

“Miss Bennet would make a fine showing of Leopard’s Claw if she practiced more, and could have the advantage of a Japanese master.  She has a very good notion of fingering.”

Darcy’s response:

“That she does.”

Ahem…cough, cough…Jane Austen would blush.

Let’s not forget Elizabeth’s younger sisters, the boy crazy Lydia and her easily influenced sister Kitty.  When the local militia regiment decamps from the area, they are disconsolate, Lydia whining that:

Only think what a miserable summer else we shall have!  With hardly any balls to be had in Meryton!”

To which Elizabeth cannot refrain from thinking:

“Yes…a summer with so few balls would be miserable indeed for a girl who thinks of little else.”

Anyway, I think you see where I’m going.  Smith has managed to channel Austen’s wit and brand it with his own (somewhat less delicate) sense of humour.

He also manages to change the essential character of Elizabeth’s relationship with lady Catherine.  In the original, lady Catherine looks down on the Bennetts as lower class and Elizabeth specifically as not worthy of her nephew’s attentions due to her diminished social status.  In this version, that is coupled with her disdain for Elizabeth’s training, shunning her Chinese training in the Shaolin ways as inferior to that of the Japanese, whose ninjitsu arts she is heavily influenced by.  She eventually goes so far as to sick her house ninjas on Elizabeth in a desperate attempt to foil their eventual union.

All in all this revised imagining of a perennial classic works, spicing up the original tale of romance with a healthy dose of both horror and the absurd, and (I would think) attracts a new audience that would likely never be exposed to the original without the addition of those horrific elements.  It’s definitely worth a read, and with the addition of both a prequel and sequel by the equally talented Steve Hockensmith, there’s plenty more for the reader to enjoy.

 

 

 

Monster Hunter Vendetta-Larry Correia

“When Monsters have nightmares, they’re dreaming about us.”  MHI Company Handbook

When we last met with Owen Zavasta Pitt, he was still reeling from the discovery that the world as he knew it was not the world as it is.  Monsters are real, the government has a black ops division of the F.B.I. that deals with them, and after a nasty run in with his manager at work (who was also a recent convert to lycanthropy), Pitt discovers that the life of an accountant may not be for him.   Monster Hunter-yes; middle management drone-no.

Fast forward a year, and we find Owen in a state of relative contentment.  He’s managed to save the World at least once, met (and courted) the girl of his dreams, and does a job that he loves for a salary that makes life quite comfortable.  Everything should be gravy, right?

Well, not so much.

You see, during the course of saving the world from the evil forces of another dimension, Owen attracted the attention of an elder God.  Apparently, destroying the artifact that would allow it to enter our dimension and slaying a multitude of its acolytes merits attention, as did the tactical nuclear weapon delivered into its posterior, courtesy of the U. S. government.  Owen’s not to blame for that, but someone’s got to take the fall, and the Old One (picture Lovecraft’s Cthulu) has decided Owen shall be the one.  Ironic that a bounty hunter should have his own bounty. 

Owen is blissfully unaware of  either the nuke or the bounty, contentedly hunting down chupacabras  and keeping the Mexican Riviera safe for both the locals and drunken Spring break kids.  So, it comes as a surprise to him when he gets a knock on the door, and then a subsequent knock on the head, from a mysterious Englishman, a shadowman of sorts, who remains incorporeal in the shade, but packs a real punch in the light of day.  Nor does it help that he’s brought a truckload of Zombies with him and released them on the resort’s party-goers.

Fast forward a couple of hours and poor Owen is stuck in a Mexican prison accused of multiple murder and disavowed by his own government.  If that’s not enough, while there, he gets a visit from his in-laws.  At the best of times that can be a pain in the neck, but when your in-laws are also Vampires of the nastiest sort, metaphor and reality can become mixed up.  Lucky for him though, they subscribe to the adage that, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” and have come to Owen with a proposition. 

The Englishman is a necromancer, and being Undead themselves, they don’t really want to become enthralled to him, hence, a truce and an alliance.  However, Owen has a problem being allied with the Undead, subscribing to the less known adage that, “the enemy of my enemy is sometimes also my enemy,” so that idea is a no go. 

You really don’t want to say “no” to Owen’s mother in law.  You. Really. Don’t.

Okay, Evil necromancer on one side, Evil Undead on the other.  Should be enough to deal with, right?

Aha, let’s not forget about the United States government.

Yep, that’s right, that same government that ticked off the Elder God.  Specifically, the Monster Control Bureau, a subsidiary of the Department of Justice and royal pain in the ass under the leadership of one Agent Myers, himself a former MHI alumni (with a grudge).  They’ve been following the movements of the shadowman and his cult organization, “The Sanctified Church of the Temporary Mortal Condition,” and now want to use Owen as bait to draw out their leader.  With that, the stage is set for a rollicking story full of non-stop action as Owen and his compatriots try to thwart the plans of the Death Cult, deal with a government agency that would rather see them disbanded, and as a byproduct of stopping the shadowman, keep him alive. 

 There are a lot of things to love in a Correia novel.  His writing is both witty and so fast paced that you don’t want to put the book down for any reason while you’re reading it, and feel a sense of dissatisfaction when you get to the end and realize it’s over.  His take on the supernatural is both quirky and refreshing, taking accepted mythology and turning it on its head.  In the first novel, we’re introduced to the Trailer Park Elves; this time around, it’s a gang of garden Gnomes.  And I do mean, “Gang.”  (If those THUG LIFE tats don’t tip it off, the sawed off shotguns and turf wars will.)  Fans of his first novel also get several questions answered, such as:

  • What’s the deal with Agent Franks? (and really, shame on me for not figuring it out earlier)
  • Why the animosity between Agent Myers and Earl Harbinger, and what does it have to do with one Martin Hood?
  • What’s the reason for Owen’s dad training him from birth to be a survivalist?
  • Who is Mr. Trash Bags, anyway?

Honestly, the Monster Hunter series reminds me a lot of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, with Owen playing a role very similar to Harry Dresden, the difference being that while Owen is a bounty hunter, Harry is a detective.   Both series are thoroughly enjoyable and a great addition to the genre.  It’s going to kill me to wait until July of this year for the release of the third book of the series, Monster Hunter AlphaIn the meantime, if you’d like to keep abreast of Larry’s writing projects (and other interesting stuff), he maintains a blog at Monster Hunter Nation that you can check out.

(p.s. Want to read about the Trailer Park Elve’s?  Larry’s got a nice little story about them over at Baen Books)