This is a textbook example of what I’d call magical realism. On the one hand, it’s a story about the mining of uranium in the Southwest, and the health effects it had on the miners.

But there’s more to this story, and Bruce weaves it together with the myths and legends of the native peoples. The meat of the tale is about people, beaten down by the materialistic and greedy society around them, learning to let go of their linear conceptions of time and to embrace a cosmic, cyclical view of life.

This all sounds a bit esoteric, I’m sure. And it is, but Bruce makes it understandable and relatable. With just a few sentences, I could empathize with his characters, and it was a pleasure to join them on what ultimately becomes a story of healing.

This book is definitely in the same mold as Bruce’s novel Oblivion, about a sort of commune built in the desert, around motifs of nature and healing. Like Tolkien and so many of the greats, Bruce loves his native landscape and deplores its destruction by modernity.

It’s funny; I think everyone knows, deep down, that there’s something wrong with the annihilation of nature to make way for more technology, more artificial and unwholesome modes of life. And yet no one can stop it. Like Leonard Cohen sang: “Everybody knows the war is over. / Everybody knows the good guys lost.”

Still, it’s never too late to heal, and the best time to start is always now. Quite apart from being a commentary on society, or an exploration of ancient legends, the book is about people coming to terms with their own mortality, and making peace with it.

This is a small book; but it contains massive ideas. I highly recommend it.

Last year, Lydia Schoch and I made an agreement that January 31 would be “Second Halloween.” Accordingly, I’m observing the day by reviewing a book appropriate for that spooky season.

And look at that cover. How, I ask you, could I possibly not read a book with that cover? Even though it is the sixth book in Boyack’s “Hat” series, and I have not read any of the others, I simply could not resist.

Fortunately, Boyack writes such that you don’t have to read the others to understand it. Maybe a few references went over my head, but I could follow it well enough. It tells the story of a musician named Lizzie, her magical talking hat, and a friend of theirs who has been revivified Frankenstein-style and needs to find medicine to stay alive.

But, finding the medicine means finding the doctor who restored him, and he has fallen into the clutches of the titular monster, the sinister-looking entity pictured above.

The book is fast-paced and action-packed. Lizzie and her friends must mow down waves of pumpkinheaded zombies to reach the Rambler in time. There are also moments of downtime when they gather clues by listening to a paranormal late-night radio show along the lines of Coast-to-Coast AM. As you can imagine, I loved these parts of the story.

This is a fun and enjoyable read for Halloween. Or, in this case, Second Halloween. Which is going to be a thing, by golly! What better way to liven up this dreary time of year?

Robert E. Howard was a popular pulp author in the 1920s and ’30s. Mostly, he is remembered today for Conan the Barbarian, but he wrote a great deal of adventure and sword-and-sorcery stories, many of which appeared in the pages of Weird Tales.

As the subtitle suggests, this book aims to tell the story of Howard’s life through a close analysis of his literary output, using quotes from Howard and his contemporaries.

Literature is a business to me–a business at which I was making an ample living when the Depression knocked the guts out of the markets. My sole desire in writing is to make a reasonable living.

So Howard himself wrote, in the early 1930s. Smith argues that in fact, Howard did have literary ambitions, but that he cloaked them with this sort of practicality.

Howard was a hard-nosed, hard-boiled kind of guy. An amateur boxer and weightlifter, he’d seen more than a little nastiness growing up and, Smith argues, his dark and violent stories reflect his upbringing.

I confess, prior to reading this book, I’d only ever read one thing by Howard: a short story called Ye College Days. It’s a dark comedy, in the vein of Ambrose Bierce, that seems to be satirizing college sports rivalries. Funny, in a macabre sort of way.

Howard, Smith repeatedly tells us, was fixated on physicality and violence in his fiction. His stories tell of fighters and warriors, struggling in mortal combat, either against one another or sometimes against otherworldly demonic entities.

This is in contrast to Howard’s friend and fellow pulp author, H.P. Lovecraft. Howard and Lovecraft corresponded frequently, and Lovecraft’s brand of weird fiction influenced some of Howard’s works.

HPL and REH had their share of disagreements, too, including one over a fairly abstract philosophical point about whether it is better to live in the comfortable regulation of civilization, or the liberated wilds of barbarism.

My favorite parts of the book are the ones about Lovecraft and Howard’s relationship, as they debate and discuss ideas while critiquing each other’s fiction. Unlike Howard, Lovecraft was a quiet, scholarly, would-be aristocrat who had probably never even been in a fistfight, and his characters are much the same; as bookish as Howard’s were barbaric.

The entire Weird Tales community strikes me as a forerunner of internet fandoms and forums. Fans could and did write to Weird Tales, seemingly usually to complain about something. Today, we know Robert Bloch as the author of Psycho, but once upon a time he was a teenaged kid writing angry letters to Farnsworth Wright, the editor.

Speaking of Farnsworth Wright, here’s his take on the readership of his magazine:

While we have many quick-witted and intelligent readers, we also have many whose intelligence is rudimentary.

This is the problem with having a wide readership. Not that Weird Tales was necessarily a blockbuster success, since financial difficulties seem to have been a recurring theme.  On the other hand, at one point we are told that in 1928, Howard:

…earned $186 from his writing, sufficient for him to no longer require other means to support himself and to help with his family’s expenses.

I looked up estimates of the purchasing power of $186 in 1928. Seems it’s equivalent to about $3,000 in today’s dollars, so I’m guessing this was monthly income.

A dream come true, to most of us self-published authors! Imagine if we all made $3K a month. Howard was clearly making a decent living, at least before the depression.

But let’s try to zero in on the specifics of the pulp publishing business. Weird Tales pays Howard $186 a month for his stories. Why? Presumably because they think his stories sell magazines. Of course, since each issue contains stories by multiple authors, there’s no way to precisely know how many sales are due to the presence of a Howard story. But he did have a tendency to be favored with having his story illustrated on the cover. (A fact that annoyed Bloch.)

About those cover illustrations… most of Howard’s tales were illustrated for WT by a woman named Margaret Brundage.  A quick sample of her oeuvre on Wikipedia left me thinking, “More like Margaret Bondage, am I right?” Ms. Brundage’s covers frequently depicted naked women in various sorts of peril, which many Weird Tales contributors were keenly aware of when writing their stories.

Smith writes that Howard “wrote from experience and with a deep respect for history, and the best Conan stories are melancholy with the sharp memories of greater days gone before.” Perhaps, and yet I can’t help wondering if the reason his stories sold was because of the titillating covers that usually accompanied them.

This is a pretty bleak conclusion for anyone looking to draw writerly insights from Howard’s career. Whatever qualities his fiction may have had, was it popular because it provided a basis for many a teenager’s fantasy? If so, what hope is there for authors in a world that also contains DeviantArt?

However, I take a more optimistic view. We still read the Weird Tales authors today, and enjoy the worlds they were able to conjure. The quality of their writing does matter after all!

Imagine if you could tell Howard, or Lovecraft, or any of the others, that in the year 2023, we’d be using a global communications network to discuss their works. I would imagine they’d be delighted.

As I see it, the ironic thing about the pulp community of the 1930s was that they were not thinking big enough. If they had known the future, would they have been grousing over whose story got the cover illustration? No! These trivial concerns melt away when you consider the influence their ideas would one day have in popular culture.

Part of the reason that the words of these authors live on is the community they created. I’ve written before about how Lovecraft’s correspondence with Bloch helped shape one of his best stories. One wonders what they might have done if they’d had the internet at their disposal.

Comes the cynic’s reply: probably waste it by arguing over petty nonsense. A forum is only as good as its members. While I obviously have a great deal of respect for some of their work, there’s no denying most of the major figures at Weird Tales were, well, weird. (Especially Lovecraft. His eccentricities, both the harmlessly amusing ones and the kind of appalling ones, come through clearly in this book.)

As for Howard himself, his own story ended in a rather sad way, the details of which I won’t discuss because they have little bearing on his literary work. All I’ll say is that it would have been interesting to see what he might have produced had he lived to write for a full natural lifetime. Stephen King called much of Howard’s work “puerile.” Smith contests this accusation vigorously, and rightly so, but he never brings up what I consider the most obvious objection: Howard died at the age of 30, and so never could produce more mature works.

After reading this book, I decided to give another of Howard’s stories a try. I read Wolfshead, because Smith seemed to think it’s one of his best early stories.

It’s not bad, I have to say. Of course, for multiple reasons, it is shocking to the sensibilities of modern readers. But it’s got a good atmosphere; a creepy castle in some remote jungle, a cast of interesting characters, and a memorable narrative voice.

Looking through Howard’s works on Wikisource led me to The Battle That Ended The Century, which is a humorous in-joke story, allegedly by Lovecraft, packed with references to various members of the Weird Tales crowd, including Howard, or as he is called in the story, “Two-Gun Bob.”. My favorite line:

[T]he eminent magazine-cover anatomist Mrs. M. Blunderage portrayed the battlers as a pair of spirited nudes behind a thin veil of conveniently curling tobacco-smoke.

Can’t you just picture the sort of scene that’s being described? I bet when you started reading this review, you had no idea who Margaret Brundage was, and now you are able to appreciate inside jokes about her art style that were originally intended for a specific group of writers in the 1930s.

Such is the power of a writing community! Here we are, nearly a century later, and still reading their words. Would anyone in 1936 have dared imagine that the contributors of this strange little pulp would still be remembered? And what will people in 2110 remember about 2023, I wonder? An interesting question to ponder, indeed. But for today, I have gone on too long already.

Spies! Teenage hackers! Nuclear secrets! And above all else, 1990s nostalgia!

All these things are in Phillip McCollum’s short story A Nuclear Family. I can’t really explain how they all fit together without spoiling the whole deal, but what I can do is praise McCollum’s gift for telling a tale. Remember, this is a man who once wrote 52 short stories in a year.

The same blend of teenage tech culture and mysterious goings-on uncovered by the youth of California that formed the theme of McCollum’s The Almost-Apocalypse of Apple Valley are present, but in a more potent, concentrated form. McCollum’s skill at concisely telling a good story is on full display, as is his way with words:

“I was way past wondering if what we’d done was a smart thing–it wasn’t. The question, now, was did we do the dumb thing smartly?”

A question familiar to anyone who has ever been a teenager, I’m sure.

A Nuclear Family is a gripping and suspenseful short story, that keeps you off balance from the start and doesn’t let up. It’s like a Hitchcock movie, updated to the ’90s and in literary form. A Phillip McCollum Special, through and through.

You want vintage sci-fi? You don’t get much more vintage than this, a book written sometime in the 2nd century.

Of course, whether it’s really sci-fi is debatable. “Science” as a concept was very different then. So, while the story does indeed include elements such as a war between the armies of the Moon and those of the Sun, fighting over the contested territory of Venus, it’s not really using space travel in the way we might think of it.

It’s not hard sci-fi. No one will confuse it with Andy Weir’s books. So let’s compromise and call it more of a Space Opera. Still, it has battles with giant spiders fighting over the moon. I say it counts for our purposes.

Then again, I’m not the one whose opinion matters here. That would be up to the showrunners behind Vintage Sci-Fi Month. Obviously, I can only hope that they agree that this fits the bill, despite its lack of the modern scientific mindset.

So much for the “science” aspect. Now for the fiction. Despite the name, the author admits early on that it’s all made it up. It is, he says, in the tradition of “the poets, historians and philosophers of old, who have written much that smacks of miracles and fables.”

The story is a parody of famous Ancient Greek myths, including, of course, the works of Homer. Which is probably why the book is full of fantastic and bizarre things; it seems Lucian was trying to conjure the most insane and impossible ideas he could. For example, he tells us that the denizens of the moon “carry their children in the calf of the leg instead of the belly… it seems to me that the term ‘belly of the leg’ came to us Greeks from there.”

Okay, so probably this joke made sense in the original Greek. Unfortunately, I can’t read Greek. But my mother can. So I asked her about it, and she didn’t know either. 🤷

The tone of the whole thing reminds me a lot of Mark Twain, when he was poking fun at supernatural and fantasy tropes.  There are a lot of references to Homer, as well as Herodotus, Aristophanes, and so on; mostly making fun of how outlandish the mythology is.

Despite its age, this book feels surprisingly fresh. Obviously, a lot of credit has to go to the translator in a case like this, and Harmon’s translation makes for a fun, breezy read that doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Oh, and also there is a brief mention of something called “Pumpkin pirates”; that is, pirates who sail around in hollowed-out pumpkins. Given that pumpkins are not native to Greece, and Lucian couldn’t have known about them, it seems likely that these are actually melons. (Interestingly, the Greek word for melon is apparently the root of the word “pumpkin”.)

As you might imagine, given my own tastes, I love the idea of pumpkin pirates. This book is worth reading just for that concept.

A clever blending of two genres: pulp sci-fi adventure and hardboiled detective mystery, this book tells the story of private investigator Travis Barrett, who is hired to solve the disappearance of a wealthy businessman’s son. His client is the businessman’s daughter, Tina “Trouble” Tate.

Together, the two of them head for Mercury, pursued by the businessman’s goons, Hammerhand and Slick. (Two classic henchmen who have a highly enjoyable dynamic, by the way.) In addition to these two thugs, Travis is also running from something else: his own troubled past. Isn’t every noir detective worth his salt haunted by something? I certainly would never engage the services of one who wasn’t.

Travis and Trouble, together with a host of colorful allies, and at least one person who might be called a “frenemy,” work to uncover the mystery of Tina’s brother and uncover the secrets of the Tate corporation.

The book is fast-paced, with lots of snappy banter and exciting action scenes. It was originally published on Vella, and that’s probably why it’s so pulse-pounding and punchy, with lots of drama and suspense.

If you’ve read Vogel’s other books, his familiar knack for harkening back to adventure yarns of yore is here in force. This book isn’t massively innovative, but it’s not supposed to be. It’s supposed to make you nostalgic for the Golden Age of pulp, and it does exactly that.

I don’t know what else I can say, folks. If my reviews of all Shatzer’s other books haven’t convinced you to try them, I don’t see how this one can.

So I won’t review it as I normally would. Instead, I’ll try some different approaches…

***

Review by an Academic Literary Critic

A Cozy Christmas Murder (Z. Shazter, 2021) satirizes 21st-century capitalism in its portrayal of the independent bookstore operator Roberta Smith and her cat, Mr. Bigfluff, who together represent Messianic figures who protect the town of Quaintville from the avaricious motivations of a criminal who symbolizes the profiteering of the wealthiest classes, while at the same time indulging in a pastiche of various pre-post-modernist textual norms. Smith’s friends, Jeannie and Sheriff James, symbolize conflicting modes of sexuality in a petit-bourgeois milieu…

Review by someone who has only read one very specific type of book

I couldn’t follow this story at all. The characters were not wizards, but seemed to all be non-magical people. I kept waiting for something about a prophecy to explain the plot, but there was nothing. Also, the family bloodlines and lineages were left unexplained, so I couldn’t easily categorize the characters.

Review by someone who is too easily offended

The protagonist of this book is a woman. Are they trying to say that men can’t solve mysteries? Do they want our young boys to grow up believing themselves to be incapable of logic and reasoning? Also, why do they only mention Christmas? Are they suggesting that all the other holidays should be illegal? If so, that is offensive and wrong. 

Review by That Guy; you know the one…

⭐️

To be clear, I love the book itself. The characters are funny and engaging, and the whole thing is a delightful send-up of cozy mysteries. However, I’m only giving it one star because Amazon delivered it three minutes late to my houseboat in the middle of a Category 5 hurricane.

Review by someone whose keyboard only has the letter “h”

hhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh

Review by someone who is overly nostalgic

They don’t write books like this anymore. I say that because this book was written in the past, which is not the present, and therefore by definition is not being written now. You couldn’t write a book like this today. People would say it had already been written, and in a way, they’d be correct. Because we can only move through Time in one direction. Still, if you want to pretend that it isn’t now but the past, then you should read this book in your near future!

***

Yuck, what was in that eggnog?

Anyway, I hope you enjoyed this silliness. Definitely give Shatzer’s books a try if you haven’t already. Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and to all a good night!

“A Steampunk Conspiracy Christmas story!” What magical words! How could anyone not read something with such a subtitle? What does this world need, if not more Steampunk Conspiracy Christmas stories?

This one is a quick read, telling the story of a girl who has purchased lights for her orphanage’s Christmas tree. A series of chance encounters lead her to more than she bargained for, including an encounter with some rather shady characters who are mixed up in the holiday business.

The story is very short, and as a result, there isn’t as much world-building as one typically expects from a steampunk story. Aside from a few touches here and there, it was most a standard Victorian-esque setting.

I did like the hints of a totalitarian government assigning people to jobs, as this carried just enough hints of dystopia to make it interesting, without overwhelming the rest of the story.

All told, this is more of a quick sketch than a fully-fleshed out tale. But still, it’s a tantalizing glimpse of what could be. Perhaps, we may dare to hope, it presages the dawn of a whole genre of Christmas steampunk conspiracy stories. Imagine bookshelves stocked with seasonal tales of this type. Imagine a whole channel, like the Hallmark channel, but dedicated to films in this genre. I could go on, but you get the idea.

The story of why I read this book begins with a tweet. The author asked what people thought of the cover.

I have to say, I don’t love the cover. Not that it’s bad; because it isn’t. Rather, it just looks like every other cover out there. I feel like a lot of books have faces on the cover, and small wonder, because the eye is instinctively drawn to human faces. The problem is, book marketers have learned this.

But I was impressed that the author was even asking about this. And so I decided, why not pick the book up and give it a try?

I didn’t expect to like it. Early on, it felt like the sort of book I’d put aside and not re-open, as it begins by introducing us to the rather irritating Isabella Jaramillo, a rich, famous, and altogether spoiled professional time traveler. She has the world at her fingertips, and yet she’s rude, angry, and greedy.

But something made me keep going. I got interested as Isabella’s equally unlikable husband decided to strand her in the past as an act of revenge. Isabella started having to make her own way in a world totally alien to her.

The characters of the medieval town to which she is exiled all felt extremely real, too. The characters were well-written and nuanced, and none of them felt flat or clichéd. I felt like I could understand and sympathize with them, even the antagonists. They are a different people, shaped by the harshness of the time and place they were born into, but still complicated and human. And slowly, Isabella starts to be shaped by it, too.

Then the book shifted back to the future and the time-traveler organization, where Isabella’s father Alfredo is frantically trying to find out what’s become of his daughter. But he too has a murky past, and slowly it becomes clear that there are many conflicting agendas at play. The past, or perhaps I should say the pasts, begin to catch up with the powerful men who play at being Gods.

McTiernan displays a wonderful skill at knowing just when to switch from what plot thread to another, keeping the reader hooked on every development, waiting to see what happened next. In other words, by the time I was a third of the way in, the book had totally won me over, and I couldn’t wait to find out what happened next.

In last week’s book review, I mentioned the harshness of life as a medieval peasant, contrasted with the ease of our modern age. Well, this book demonstrates exactly that, as Isabella is forced to cast aside all the privileges and luxuries she once enjoyed and survive in brutal and unforgiving circumstances.

So often, when I read books about the past, they make one of two errors: either they make the past just like the present, only with the thinnest veneer of Middle Ages clichés ill-concealing a modern sensibility, or else they paint the past as miserable and unenlightened, a world of nothing but ignorant stock-characters.

I’m happy to report this book avoids both pitfalls. The people of the past feel real; both in terms of being different from ourselves in terms of values and beliefs, while at the same time having a core of humanity that makes them relatable.

The book is both science-fiction and historical fiction; both an alternate future with some dystopian elements as well a good old-fashioned adventure/romance. It’s also brimming with interesting religious themes, though I’m probably the wrong person to analyze those.

I started off thinking I’d hate this book and wouldn’t finish it, and by the end, I loved it and couldn’t wait to see what happens next. It does end on a bit of a cliffhanger, so you should know that not all the questions it raises will be answered in this volume, but it’s still a fantastic story.

From Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offences (1895):

There are nineteen rules governing literary art in domain of romantic fiction — some say twenty-two. In “Deerslayer,” Cooper violated eighteen of them. These eighteen require:

1. That a tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere. But the “Deerslayer” tale accomplishes nothing and arrives in air.
2. They require that the episodes in a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale, and shall help to develop it. But as the “Deerslayer” tale is not a tale, and accomplishes nothing and arrives nowhere, the episodes have no rightful place in the work, since there was nothing for them to develop.
3. They require that the personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others. But this detail has often been overlooked in the “Deerslayer” tale.
4. They require that the personages in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit a sufficient excuse for being there. But this detail also has been overlooked in the “Deerslayer” tale.
5. They require that when the personages of a tale deal in conversation, the talk shall sound like human talk, and be talk such as human beings would be likely to talk in the given circumstances, and have a discoverable meaning, also a discoverable purpose, and a show of relevancy, and remain in the neighborhood of the subject at hand, and be interesting to the reader, and help out the tale, and stop when the people cannot think of anything more to say. But this requirement has been ignored from the beginning of the “Deerslayer” tale to the end of it.
6. They require that when the author describes the character of a personage in the tale, the conduct and conversation of that personage shall justify said description. But this law gets little or no attention in the “Deerslayer” tale, as Natty Bumppo’s case will amply prove.
[I omit rule 7 from this list, as it contains language which may shock modern readers–B.G.]
8. They require that crass stupidities shall not be played upon the reader as “the craft of the woodsman, the delicate art of the forest,” by either the author or the people in the tale. But this rule is persistently violated in the “Deerslayer” tale.
9. They require that the personages of a tale shall confine themselves to possibilities and let miracles alone; or, if they venture a miracle, the author must so plausibly set it forth as to make it look possible and reasonable. But these rules are not respected in the “Deerslayer” tale.
10. They require that the author shall make the reader feel a deep interest in the personages of his tale and in their fate; and that he shall make the reader love the good people in the tale and hate the bad ones. But the reader of the “Deerslayer” tale dislikes the good people in it, is indifferent to the others, and wishes they would all get drowned together.
11. They require that the characters in a tale shall be so clearly defined that the reader can tell beforehand what each will do in a given emergency. But in the “Deerslayer” tale, this rule is vacated.

In addition to these large rules, there are some little ones. These require that the author shall:

12. Say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it.
13. Use the right word, not its second cousin.
14. Eschew surplusage.
15. Not omit necessary details.
16. Avoid slovenliness of form.
17. Use good grammar.
18. Employ a simple and straightforward style.

Even these seven are coldly and persistently violated in the “Deerslayer” tale.

Obviously, ol’ Samuel Clemens is not acting in good faith. He has devised these rules specifically in order to ensure that Deerslayer will be in violation of them. I suspect nearly all other purported rules for writers are created through a similar process. Probably not with the same degree of venom as motivated Twain, but in the sense of being designed to fit pre-existing books, and not as independent criteria.

Still, Twain’s essay is hilarious. I’d be honored if someone hated my books this much!