Ten years ago today, when I was still on Blogger, I welcomed Pat Prescott as a follower. We’ve followed each other ever since, and had many interesting discussions about art, history, literature and politics, and he’s given me invaluable advice on my writing. He also taught me about the Peterloo massacre, the origin of the word “geek,” and introduced me to the wonderful film The Fifth Element.

Pat’s contribution to this blog, in the form of his many comments over the years, is incalculable. Check out his own blog, and his books. (Vander’s Magic Carpet is my personal favorite.)

Here’s to many more, Pat!

TLRFA-6

“Big ol’ storm’s rollin’ in,” Sandra noted after the thunder subsided. “Anyway, you were tellin’ us about this Eidolon thing.”

Charlie nodded importantly. “No one knows what it is. It’s invisible, but you can feel it coming, because it knocks out the power when it does. Old Doyle, the weekend guard, swears it’s a failed experiment with nanobots. He figures the nanites were given the programming of a hush-hush prototype network-distributed crime-fighting artificial intelligence they’d been working on in R&D, and they went nuts. Now they roam the factory in a swarm, killing anyone they find.”

“Uh huh. So what’s this got to do with the night you found Mr. Lurge?”

“Well, I was at my station up front, just doing my usual. I thought I heard noises back here and but figured it was just Samuel. I was looking at some, uh, pictures—security footage, that was it—when I looked up and out the window.  That’s when I saw the parking lot lights going out—first they’d flicker, and then they’d pop out. When my desk lamp started doing the same thing. I knew it had to be the Eidolon coming.”  He nodded with great seriousness.

“And you realized since it was coming across the parking lot, your best bet was to retreat into the factory,” Venus finished.

Charlie blinked a few times. “Yeah… that’s right. How’d you know?”

“We’re detectives,” said Venus.

“Oh, yeah…”

“So, Charlie, let’s all go into the factory. Ms. Darcy and I will go first, make sure the coast is clear, then you can show us where you found Mr. Lurge, and we’ll clear out, okay?”

“You’ll go first?” he said, his cocky manner starting to return. “I’ll keep watch on the rear.”

Sandra again fought the urge to roll her eyes. Some security guard, she thought to herself.

“Let’s get going,” Venus said blandly.

“Well, okay. But I’ve gotta warn you: there’s no telling what’ll show up in there. You know, there have been teams of pro ghost hunters that come to investigate this place, and you know what?”

“They were all killed by ghosts, providing hard evidence of a spirit world which somehow has still received no attention from the media?” Sandra snapped.

“Uh, no… not that.”

“Didn’t think so, actually.”

“But they recorded these freaky noises! Here,” he pulled his phone from his pocket and tapped a few times, then held the device up for Sandra and Venus to see.

On the screen was displayed green-tinted night vision footage of a bearded man standing in the beam of a strong light, throwing an eerie halo around him as he walked through what appeared to be an endless black abyss.

“They say this is where the old floor manager was burned alive by the robot’s cannons,” the man on the screen was saying. “It’s pretty spooky, I can tell you. It feels like there’s something here. We’re lucky our equipment works down here, the energies in this place can disrupt electronic devices. Our cell phones have been on the fritz since we got here.”

From his pocket, the bearded man took a small rectangular device and held it up to the air.  “Let’s see what our proprietary ectoplasmic aural spectrometer can detect.” After a few moments, he lowered the device and pressed a button on the side. It began to playback a weird series of noises which resembled badly-garbled speech, as if spoken on a radio frequency full of interference.

“Do you hear that?” He said. “It’s saying ‘get away,” isn’t it?”

He played the noise back several times: “Get away! Get away! Get away!” it said, and though still garbled, each time it seemed clearer and clearer.

“The human ear can’t detect the cries of lost souls,” the man concluded, “But our devices detect the frequencies from the planes beyond, of spirits stuck between this world and the next.”

The clip ended there, and Charlie gave a firm nod towards his phone, as if to say, “I told you so.”

“That was recorded on the factory floor just about a year ago,” he said. 

“Okay, good,” said Sandra. “Come on, enough stalling; let’s get this over with. How do you turn the lights on in here?” She stepped through the huge doorway and into the cavernous room beyond. Although in the darkness she could see only a few feet ahead, the echoing of her footsteps told her the room was vast indeed. 

“You don’t,” said Charlie.

“What?” 

“You don’t turn the lights on. The old man took out the wiring years ago; he said he didn’t want to waste the money. During the day, enough light comes in that you can see pretty good.”

“And at night?”

“No one’s supposed to go in here at night; except for ghost hunts, and those happen in the dark anyway.”

“It’s okay,” Venus said, “Sandra; I think my eyes’ll adjust pretty well, if you want to hang back, I’ll go with him—”

Oh, so you can take the credit? Sandra thought. “I’ve got a flashlight; I’ll be fine, c’mon, let’s go.”

Sandra flicked on the beam of light and the three walked into the room. More muffled rumbling from outside indicated the storm was drawing near. Sandra flicked the beam of her light from left to right; inspecting the surroundings. Dilapidated conveyer belts and welding arms sat on the left; on the right, massive rust-covered hooks, designed for loading the finished products into government trucks, hung ominously from chains that disappeared into the blackness above. At irregularly-spaced intervals were pyramidal stacks of cardboard boxes, all labeled “Fragile” and some “Top Secret.” Every few yards, mounted about nine feet up the grey, featureless wall, were inoperative, bulb-less light fixtures, and just below these, small silver disks resembling smoke detectors. The room was cold—clearly, Lurge had not been any more willing to pay for heat than he had for light—and the total absence of the reassuring white noise found in almost all buildings made it feel even more remote and empty. 

Eventually, the narrow cone of Sandra’s flashlight fell upon something that made all three stop at once, and Charlie yelped with a noise halfway between terror and excitement as he crashed into Venus’ back. She pushed him away, and all three stared at the thing before them.

It was huge, at least 7 feet in height, and in the general build of its frame, resembled a massive ape. This was by design; it was meant to instill fear by conjuring the genetic memories of great menacing beasts. But where an ape would have had curved muscle, soft flesh, and fur, this figure was outfitted with sharp, angular points of metal—one arm terminating in a long cylinder pockmarked with holes, and the opposite limb in a serrated blade nearly two feet long. Its blocky legs were bent as if it were poised to spring upon its prey, and on its shoulders sat what, by analogy to organic bipeds, might be called its head; a silvery metal cube, covered with thin wire mesh. This appendage was small in comparison to the rest of the armored monster, and if the rest of the figure were not so manifestly intimidating, might have appeared comical.

“Wow, a genuine combat infantry bot,” Venus whispered. 

“More like fifty genuine combat infantry bots,” Sandra said, shining her light behind the figure, revealing more identical forms assembled behind it, in a long, perfectly-spaced line; soldiers standing eternal guard at their posts.

“Technically, these are assault bots,” Charlie with some self-importance. “The way you can tell is that they have more armor in the chest and shoulder areas than a standard infantry bot. These are for storming fortified positions, whereas the typical infantry bot—”

Venus and Sandra simultaneously glared at Charlie in a way that clearly communicated to him that further details regarding the different attributes and uses of war robots were not required at this time.

“Is this where you found Lurge?” 

“Er, yeah; just about. He was…” Charlie looked at the floor and held up his hands as if to measure, pointing to a spot some three yards from the clawed feet of the first robot in line. “…right about here. Well, mostly. Part of him was here. And there.” He indicated an open area a few yards away. “And some more over there.”

“So, you’re quite sure the robots did it, then?” Venus asked.

Charlie shook his head. “Well, maybe the robots pulled the trigger. But there’s no way they shoulda been on! These things are deactivated—they’re just here for tourists to see.”

“Do they have an energy source?” Venus asked.

“Well, yeah; I mean, there’s a power core in ‘em for demos. But they should never open fire. At most they’d just stomp around a little and look threatening. But that’s only if someone went to the main office and manually activated ‘em.” Charlie could tell he had their attention, and he intended to keep it as long as he could. “There’s this whole security protocol the bots have to go through—they have a voice-controlled activation system. There’s a series of questions the bots ask whoever activated ‘em.”

“So, they have voice recognition capability?” Venus asked.

Charlie nodded. “Yup. Voice samples of all key Lurge personnel on file.” There was a very long pause, and Sandra and Venus exchanged a glance. Then both of them looked at Charlie.

“Chief of Security would be key personnel, huh?” said Sandra quietly.

ForeverThis is Geoffrey Cooper’s best thriller yet, and if you’ve read my reviews of Nondisclosure and The Prize, you know that’s saying something. All his books are gripping page-turners that offer fascinating glimpses into the politics of academia. Forever includes all these signature elements, but the plot is even more layered, and consequently, the mystery even more exciting to piece together.

The two lead characters from Nondisclosure, Dr. Brad Parker and investigator Karen Richmond, are back and just as likable as ever. Their relationship is one of my favorite things about this series. There is an easy give-and-take between them that makes them feel like a believable couple.

Brad is on sabbatical, working on research at a Harvard lab, when two FBI agents–one of whom is a friend of Karen’s–approach him to ask for his help solving a case of academic espionage being carried out by one of his colleagues. He’s annoyed at having to take time away from his research so soon after having his career was temporarily-but-spectacularly derailed by the events of Nondisclosure, but as a favor to his partner, he agrees to help.

In doing so, however, he and Karen find themselves once again caught up in a complicated tangle of death and double-crossing. In addition to the spy in Brad’s lab, Karen and her friend are also investigating a disturbing string of serial murders. And in the midst of all this, Brad finds himself tempted–in more ways than one–by a fellow colleague, offering him a chance of securing lucrative private funding, as well as some other benefits.

It all builds to a dramatic and satisfying climax that forces Brad and Karen to use their respective skills to the utmost if they are to have any chance of putting the pieces together and solving both the espionage and the murders.

It’s a fast-paced story, although Cooper skillfully includes some pauses for the reader to catch their breath. The descriptions of the lovely New England locales (and restaurants) that Brad visits make it easy to picture the setting. I wished I were there; albeit in some cases, under very different circumstances than the ones Brad and Karen find themselves in!

As with Cooper’s previous books, there’s a fair amount of references to real-word medical science, and it’s done in a way that is accessible for the layman. In fact, it’s so well-written that it informs as well as entertains–I learned a few things from reading it.

If you like medical thrillers, or just thrillers in general, this is for you. And be sure and read Nondisclosure too. While this book certainly can stand on its own, it’s really best if you are familiar with Brad and Karen’s previous work together.

[Note: This review is based on an ARC of this book. Forever releases today.]

 

SechaThe Secha is an ambiguous and somewhat disturbing short science fiction story. The Secha are a race enslaved by another species known as the Bakkens. Although initially the female Secha narrating the story seems resigned to the Bakkens’ treatment of her and her species, gradually it becomes apparent that the order of things she seemingly takes for granted is anything but pleasant.

There isn’t much detailed description of the Secha, which makes their exact physiology a mystery. I liked this; it left it to the reader to imagine their characteristics. The Bakkens are described in a bit more detail, as are another species known as the Ediks.

The disturbing part comes as the Secha describes the things to which the Bakkens subject her and others of her species. It is both interesting and unsettling; and all the more so because of the ambiguity regarding just what the Secha are. 

Like some other science fiction I’ve reviewed lately, it’s short, but raises a lot of interesting questions for readers to ponder. 

BtK vs DGo ahead, say that title out loud. (Okay, maybe not if you’re in a public place.) “Billy the Kid vs. Dracula.” The words seem intrinsically strange together, and become even more bizarre when you know that William Bonney, the famous outlaw known as “Billy the Kid,” was shot to death by Sheriff Pat Garrett in 1881, 16 years before Bram Stoker published his Gothic novel of vampire horror, Dracula. 

Now it’s true, Stoker’s vampire was based on Vlad III Dracula, who lived in the 1400s and thus—if he had been an immortal vampire, which most reliable historians seem to feel he wasn’t—might have found his way into a showdown with the famous outlaw.

But as the film begins, it quickly becomes clear that these details do not matter after all, because Billy the Kid isn’t really Billy the Kid—the film apparently is set in some sort of alternate history in which Mr. Bonney abandoned his outlaw ways, did not run afoul of Sheriff Garrett, and instead became foreman at a ranch, where he is engaged to marry the young daughter of the ranch owner.

Careful students of the craft of storytelling may here ask the question, “Why did the writer choose to tell a story about Billy the Kid in which Billy the Kid does not act like Billy the Kid, but somebody else altogether different?” Careful students of the craft of storytelling are advised to take a stiff drink before going any further, because it is also worth noting that the vampire is not once referred to as Dracula throughout the entire film. 

So, it’s Billy the Kid vs. Dracula, except Billy the Kid isn’t Billy the Kid, and Dracula isn’t Dracula. All quite clear? Smashing! We proceed.

The film begins with the vampire, (played by John Carradine who portrayed Dracula well in the surprisingly decent film House of Dracula) descending upon a family of German immigrants traveling by wagon in the American west. He bites the young daughter of the group, but is warded off at the sight of a crucifix.

Later, the nameless vampire comes upon a stagecoach, carrying wealthy travelers towards their ranch, where, he learns, their beautiful niece Elizabeth resides. He is much taken with a picture of young Elizabeth shown to him by the travelers. When the coach stops for an evening, the vampire attacks a young Native American woman camped nearby, sparking the rage of the rest of the tribe. They assume it to be the work of the stage coach’s occupants and retaliate by killing them—allowing the vampire to assume the identity of the ranch owner and Elizabeth’s uncle, Mr. Underhill.

Meanwhile, William Bonney and young Elizabeth are playfully shooting tin cans and flirting with each other, much to the annoyance of the previous foreman, who watches jealously from afar. Apparently, being foreman also entails being Elizabeth’s lover, since apparently Billy took both positions from him at the same time.

Realizing that Elizabeth’s uncle Mr. Underhill is due to arrive in town soon, Billy rides off to meet him at the saloon. He arrives just after the vampire, posing as Underhill, has come to the saloon and taken a room. Moments later, the immigrant family arrives, still shaken by the earlier vampire attack, and are horrified when their daughter recognizes “Underhill” as the vampire who attacked her. However, he is somehow able to convince them that he is not a vampire, and, as a gesture of goodwill, allows them to take his room for the evening while he follows Billy to the Underhill ranch.

But of course, this is all a diabolical trick, and the vampire returns that night to finish the job on the poor immigrants’ daughter. Meanwhile, Billy and Elizabeth ponder the idea that there is something odd about her uncle, although what it is they can’t quite put their fingers on…

Dracula

What could it be?

So, after much riding back and forth, Billy getting into a brawl with the ex-foreman, and the old immigrant woman’s attempt to keep the vampire away failing, Elizabeth is carried off into a makeshift lair the vampire has created in an abandoned mine. Billy rides there furiously, ignoring the town doctor’s advice that to defeat the vampire, he must drive a stake through his heart. Instead, in typical outlaw fashion, he tries to gun him down with his revolver. But the bullets have no effect. 

Okay, look: I know it’s absurd to complain about logic in a film called Billy the Kid vs. Dracula. But I can’t help myself. Bullets are just fast-moving, miniature stakes, right? So why shouldn’t they work on the vampire? Now, you might say, “Well, they didn’t hit his heart, so it didn’t work.” I could buy that… except that then Billy throws his gun at the vampire and hits him in the face and knocks him down!

Seriously, what is this? If being hit with bullets didn’t hurt him, why should being hit with a much slower-moving hunk of metal? I know, you all are thinking I’m being Comic Book Guy at this point, but I have a reason for talking about this, and it’s not because I’m one of those people who is going to go off and start a petition demanding that Billy the Kid vs. Dracula  be remade with proper consultation of a period firearms expert and a close-quarters combat specialist.

The reason is because it’s an important lesson for anyone who writes fiction: there are bound to be illogical things in any work of fiction. That’s a given. If there weren’t, it wouldn’t be fiction. But the important thing is that the logic must be internally consistent. We get to make up our own rules for our fictional worlds, but they must never conflict with each other. 

All right now, where was I? Oh, yes! So, Billy then stabs the vampire through the heart with the doctor’s stake, and releases Elizabeth from the spell the creature placed on her. He then carries her out of the mine, in the words of Wikipedia, “presumably to live happily ever after.” I love that use of “presumably.” Like, we think they’re going to live happily ever after, but who knows? It could be they’ll realize that they’re just two very different people who happened to get involved in this weird vampire business, gradually grow apart, and eventually come to the point where they argue over petty things like who should do the dishes before finally realizing that they need to go their separate ways.

So we’re 1,097 words into this review and you’re wondering, “Berthold, why are you even writing about this random lousy 55-year-old movie?” 

The reason is very simple: I’m fascinated by the Weird Western genre. I like westerns for the desolate desert landscapes and their frequent use of themes of loneliness and revenge, and of course, weird supernatural horror was my first love in fiction, and the combination of the two will always interest me. And so while I’ve made a huge amount of fun of the film, it’s nonetheless, in its own odd way, significant as one of the first Weird Western films. 

I mentioned the title at the beginning because I honestly think that a competent storyteller could make something interesting out of that. Make Billy the Kid be honest-to-God Billy the freakin’ Kid, the ruthless outlaw who boldly escaped from a New Mexico Jail, and have him encounter a vampire while on the run from the law, somewhere in the gorgeous New Mexico landscape. A skilled writer could spin all kinds of compelling yarns about death, murder and revenge out of that.

But, instead we got a move that shows a vampire strutting around in daylight! For shame!

That’s okay, though. They say that once you invite the vampire in, your fate is as good as sealed. And since early Weird Westerns invited the vampires west, it’s paved the way for all sorts of interesting stories to follow.

Mark Paxson has a great post about the challenges indie authors face when it comes to attracting readers. (Side note: that new Kevin Brennan book that Mark references sounds like a good one. I reviewed Brennan’s Fascination earlier this year and will certainly read this one at some point.)

I hope to write more about this topic soon, but I don’t have time at the moment. So just go read Mark’s post. And maybe pick up Eternity Began Tomorrow. And also some of Mark’s books while you’re there. (If you’re not sure where to start, go for The Marfa Lights.)

 

NondisclosureNondisclosure is a terrific, fast-paced thriller. When a student at Boston Technological Institute is assaulted, Dr. Brad Parker and investigator Karen Richmond are assigned to work together to find the perpetrator. But what they uncover is a confusing, sometimes seemingly contradictory set of facts. When the crimes escalate further, they find themselves struggling to unravel a web of corruption concealed by the political machinations of academia.

As is generally the case when I review thrillers, I’ll refrain from discussing too much of the plot, other than to say it is well-constructed and fast-moving. Fans of Cooper’s first novel The Prize will instantly recognize and enjoy the same engrossing writing style. The two lead characters are both very likable, and the story takes them on plenty of twists and turns along the way.

I highly recommend this book to fans of thrillers–not just medical ones, although there is plenty of interesting medical science interwoven with the plot. But even someone like me, with next to no knowledge of medicine, chemistry etc. will appreciate this gripping tale. 

And that’s not even the best part. What really stands out about the book is its theme. It shines a light on how corruption can happen even in institutions that we normally think of as forthright, honorable, and respectable. As the old adage says, “power corrupts,” and this is no less true of power wielded by people in science and education than anyone else. This is best illustrated by Richmond’s line to Dr. Parker: “You’ve got a lot to learn about how big institutions work. Why do you think universities have their own police forces?”

A word about the book’s subject matter: As many readers know, I don’t like reading stories that involve violence against women, and  so I was a little nervous going into this. But while Nondisclosure does indeed contain some very dark scenes of exactly that, Cooper avoids making it even remotely lurid or sensational, unlike many thrillers. It is not played for shock value, but simply as a horrible consequence of what can happen when people entrusted with moral authority choose to protect themselves and their own interests instead of doing their duty.

[Note: This review is based on an ARC of this book. Nondisclosure releases on July 15, 2019, but you can pre-order it now.]

I’m reading Gordon Corrigan’s history of the Hundred Years’ War, A Great and Glorious Adventure. I enjoyed his history of the battle of Waterloo and this book is more of the same–lots of historical details, plenty of witty footnotes, (this being the best) and a gleefully pro-English bias.

But that’s not what I’m here to talk about. I want to talk about the book’s cover:

AGAGA.jpg

From a design perspective, it’s perfectly fine. I might have gone for an older-looking font for the title and author’s name, but that’s not a big deal.

But let’s look closer at that painting on the cover:

1024px-Steuben_-_Bataille_de_Poitiers

According to Wikipedia, this is a painting by Charles de Steuben, entitled Bataille de Poitiers en octobre 732. (“The Battle of Poitiers in October 732.”) It depicts the victory of Charles Martel and the Franks over the Umayyad Caliphate.

This is a fascinating battle, but it doesn’t have anything to do with the Hundred Years’ War, which didn’t start until May of 1337. So what’s going on here?

Well, there was also a Battle of Poitiers during the Hundred Years’ War. In fact, this is the more famous Battle of Poitiers, and the Franks vs. Umayyads one is more commonly known as the Battle of Tours. I’ve written about this confusion before.

I’m thinking what happened here is that somebody searched for an image for “Battle of Poitiers,” found this, and was impressed by how sharp it looks. I can’t blame them; how were they to know there were two Battles of Poitiers?