“Now, just a minute, Berthold,” you cry. “I thought the theme of this year’s October horror story series was Frankenstein. This appears to be a science fiction movie in which revivified monsters, hunchbacked assistants, and Gothic Romanticism are conspicuous by their absence!”

Patience, good friends. All will become clear, in time.

And you’re right, Colossus is about as far away from Gothic as you can get. It’s modern and high-tech. Or at least, what was considered modern and high-tech in 1969. And before you scoff at the antiquated hardware, remember that they put a man on the moon with tapes and punch cards.

1969! I’m reliably informed that we haven’t had that spirit here since.

Colossus is about Dr. Forbin, lead scientist on a team creating a computer network to control the US missile defense system. “Colossus,” as it is known, soon proves even more powerful than its creators expected, especially when it discovers a Soviet system similar to itself and opens a communication channel between the two machines.

Well, you can probably guess where this is heading. With complete control over both the US and USSR nuclear arsenals, Colossus begins blackmailing the superpowers into obeying its own autonomous will. Despite numerous ingenious attempts by Forbin and his team to outwit and sabotage Colossus, the film ends with humanity, and Forbin in particular, under the iron rule of a dictatorial computer overlord.

Earlier this week, Zachary Shatzer posted a humorous tweet that summarized the movie more succinctly. As far as I know, he wasn’t referring to Colossus specifically, and he couldn’t have known I was about to review it. But it is too good not to include:

It’s important to note, however, that Colossus isn’t exactly evil. In the closing scene, it explains that it is doing this because, left to their own devices, humanity will destroy itself. To survive, humans must submit to the superior intellect of artificial intelligence. In other words, it is still following its original overriding priority: preserving human life.

During one of Forbin’s weirder attempts to deceive Colossus, in which he pretends to be having an affair with another member of the science team so she can smuggle information to him, their conversation turns to the subject of Frankenstein. Forbin muses that it should be required reading for all scientists.

The theme of Colossus is exactly that: the scientist who hates his own creation. Forbin has bestowed a kind of life, and lives to regret it. Because of when it was made, there is a Cold War spin on it, but it’s the same idea: create artificial life forms, and you’ll be eternally sorry for doing so.

The concept of a scientist who hates his creation is familiar enough. Oppenheimer famously said, “Now I am become Death,” when he witnessed the destructive power of the atomic bomb he had done so much to create. There’s a similar story with Alfred Nobel. 

But, let’s be real: they were creating weapons. Not new life forms. Admittedly, Colossus is both a new form of life and a weapon, but the moral of Frankenstein is clearly in the Faustian tradition of cautionary tales about cheating death.

Are there actual examples of scientists creating life-giving innovations and being plagued with regret by it? I can’t think of an example. As my friend Pat Prescott reminded me, Asimov coined the term “Frankenstein complex,” meaning an irrational fear of scientific progress. So far, many technological and medical advances have occurred without inadvertently destroying humanity.

Of course, just because something hasn’t happened yet doesn’t mean it can’t happen. Maybe scientists just haven’t yet gotten close enough to tampering with the fundamental structures of the universe to sow the seeds of ironic destruction that Frankenstein-ian fiction suggests they shall someday bitterly reap.

Well, like the proverbial Chinese frontiersman said: “who knows?” It really is hard to derive universal principles from works of fiction, you know. Even more so when you consider H.L. Mencken’s observation that “there is always a well-known solution to every human problem—neat, plausible, and wrong.”

I have this informal rule that I don’t review books that I beta read. I don’t mind reading an ARC before its official release, but when I’ve read a book in its early stages and made comments, I feel like I shouldn’t then review it.

So, this isn’t a review, exactly. But it is a recommendation. I first read Peter Martuneac’s Mandate of Heaven over a year ago, back when the protagonist had a different name and the book had no publisher. Now it’s an Ethan Chase adventure from Evolved Publishing.

And yes, I made suggestions on the original draft. I think it was in the form of pointing out a missing comma on page 47 or something like that. Mostly, I just reveled in the terrific story Peter has created. And ever since, I’ve been eagerly waiting for the book to be widely released so I can tell you all about it.

Remember my series on ’90s action movies earlier this year, in particular The Mummy? This book has the same feel as movies like that. Imagine Indiana Jones written by Tom Clancy, and you have an idea of what Mandate of Heaven is like.

I’ve enthusiastically recommended Peter’s zombie-dystopia series His Name Was Zach in the past, despite not being a big fan of zombie or dystopia fiction generally. While I like that series a lot, I’ll admit it’s not for everyone. But this book is much more accessible. Good story enjoyers everywhere will love this one. Peter is an up-and-coming author and his work deserves to be widely read. Accordingly, you should absolutely read this book.

I am serious about this. I wouldn’t bother breaking my own rule if it weren’t important. Even if it doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, at least give it a try, as a favor to me. Authors like Peter don’t come around every day, and it’s important to support them when they do.

You can find links to buy Mandate of Heaven from a variety of booksellers here.

Oh, and if you missed my interview with Peter earlier this week, check it out here.

First things first: it’s “Fronkensteen!”

You know, I thought of another problem with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein that I neglected to mention last week: it’s absolutely humorless. Even Dracula, as reservedly Victorian as it was, had the dry wit of Van Helsing now and then. But Frankenstein has nothing funny.

Well, if you know anything about Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder, you know that will not be the case with their adaptation of the story.

The premise: Wilder plays Frederick Frankenstein, a descendant of the original mad scientist who is trying to distance himself from the bad reputation his family has acquired.

Of course, the film is really riffing on the Universal Pictures’ 1931 interpretation of Frankenstein more than the book. I didn’t bother reviewing that film, or any of the sequels, because they are all basically uninteresting. They are very different than the book, and while I didn’t like the book, I can’t really say that any of the changes the Universal films made were improvements.

Young Frankenstein, on the other hand, is absolutely an improvement. I often say that, disregarding the fact that it is a Mel Brooks comedy, and all that entails, it’s actually the best retelling of Frankenstein there is. Peter Boyle’s interpretation of The Monster is surprisingly nuanced and well-thought out. And Wilder’s Frankenstein seems more human than most of the other one-note megalomaniacal portrayals.

And, believe it or not, there are some generally creepy atmospheric scenes, despite the overall effect being played for laughs. I generally don’t like black-and-white, but Brooks uses the limited palette well.

That said, it is a comedy. It’s most definitely a comedy, and not exactly a sophisticated comedy. But you know something? The story of Frankenstein is too over-the-top to be taken entirely seriously. While it does contain serious themes about the meaning of life, the dual nature of man, and other such folderol, it can’t be tackled without a bit of levity to, er, leaven it.

You just can’t take on the great mysteries of Life, the Universe, and Everything without being able to recognize the humor in it. And that, in my opinion, is why Young Frankenstein tells the story better than both the original source material and almost all derivative works.

So, in closing… stay close to the candles. The staircase can be treacherous.

A classic ghost tale in the Gothic tradition. The protagonist becomes obsessed with the romantic legend of a ghost said to haunt Arlen Hall, and will stop at nothing to meet the specter face-to-face. But, as the cover says, be careful what you wish for…

Speaking of covers, I know we’re not supposed to judge books by them, but simply considered as a standalone artwork, is not that cover perfect? It’s practically a story in itself.

This is a super-short book; easy to read in one sitting, but it’s still highly enjoyable all the same, and a good introduction to Painter’s dark, often ironic sense of humor. Just don’t expect a sprawling novel; this is a more of a quick sketch.

As I write this review, there’s a debate raging on Twitter about whether a traditional mystery story can have supernatural elements. (The word “traditional” is doing a lot of work in that sentence.) This book is a good example of how a story can include the supernatural, yet still be resolved in a logical and consistent manner.

My suggestion is to pick this one up along with some other short Halloween stories, and read all of them on one of these dark October evenings, when the wind is howling and the leaves are rustling, and the rain is lashing at the windows, and there are strange lights in the mist but you can’t remember the neighbors putting out any decorations yet…

This is a fascinating, and at times challenging, sci-fi book. It tells the story of Beryl, a post-human entity–effectively, a god, or at least a titan–sentenced to be trapped on Earth in a sickly human body as punishment for his crimes against the post-human order.  The nature of these crimes is not apparent until later in the book, but it’s clear they strike against everything their culture values.

Wandering the nearly-desolated planet, Beryl eventually comes into contact with a woman named Fife, who has been happily living in a virtual reality pod for what amounts to innumerable “in-game” lifespans, honing her skills in all manner of simulations. When they finally meet “IRL” Fife is everything Beryl is not: plucky, optimistic, and competent. Beryl regards her as an “airhead gamer,” but reluctantly joins her “party,” seeing it as his best bet for escaping a planet he loathes.

Gathering two more lost individuals and one spaceship, they manage to depart the Earth, but doing so quickly draws the attention of the psst-humans who exiled Beryl in the first place. Unable to escape their godlike powers, he is forced to confront his past and try to find a way to atone for many mistakes.

It’s an interesting book about humanity and mortality. The most relatable and likable character is Fife, who never stops working to bring out the best in everyone she meets. I have to admit; I’d have preferred she be the protagonist over the often-morose Beryl. Still, she plays a pivotal part in the story all the same.

Now, I know this will sound a bit rich coming from me, the man who hates description and has been repeatedly and justifiably knocked for not including enough of it. But, I felt the book needed more description. Not a lot more, as that would bog things down, but just a little more to ground the reader in the world. Beryl and the other post-humans’ perceptions of reality are so alien as to be hard to comprehend. (It reminded me a bit of the visions of Paul Atreides in Dune.)

Still, I am the last guy to put down a book because it doesn’t have much description, so this isn’t a major criticism. If you like trippy, challenging sci-fi that encourages you to think about the nature of humanity, this is a good book to read. And especially if you are a gamer, as many of Fife’s observations from the world of simulations will feel familiar to veteran players of RPGs. Gamers and sci-fi fans should definitely give this one a try.

There are times when, as a reviewer, I feel unequal to the task. Actually, most times really. Basically, my critical style is just my flimsy pastiche of more talented critics whose work I enjoy.

But then there are times when I simply can’t even attempt to write what I imagine they would write. And with this book, I find myself imagining what Richard Armour could make out of it. He of The Classics Reclassified fame would be just the one to take this on.

If you have not read Classics Reclassified and can’t easily get your hands on a copy, you can at least read Armour’s quotes on Goodreads, which includes some of the gems.

Anyway, on to Frankenstein. You all know the story: mad scientist creates monster in laboratory. It turns out to have been a bad idea. Missing from the story are many of the tropes later created by Hollywood. There is no hunchbacked assistant to the scientist, there is no mix-up with the subject’s brains, and the monster is not destroyed by a mob with pitchforks and torches.

Basically, the executive summary is that, having created the monster, Victor Frankenstein feels really, really bad about it. The monster wanders off on his own and gradually teaches himself spoken and written language, and begins to resent his creator for bringing an abomination such as himself into the world. He then begins a quest of murderous revenge against Frankenstein, attacking those dearest to him in order to make the scientist feel as miserable as his creation.

In broad outlines, this is a decent enough plot, I suppose. But as you may have guessed by now, I did not really like it.

The first reason is that the writing is just too florid. I mean, look at this:

“The hour of my weakness is past, and the period of your power is arrived. Your threats cannot move me to do an act of wickedness; but they confirm me in a resolution of not creating you a companion in vice. Shall I, in cool blood, set loose upon the earth a dæmon, whose delight is in death and wretchedness. Begone! I am firm, and your words will only exasperate my rage.”

That’s dialogue. Frankenstein says it to the monster during one of their many futile interviews.

The whole book is like that. And look, I’ve long been a defender of the slower, more leisurely pace of older books. I don’t mind an author taking their time. What I mind is repetitiveness.

Like, Frankenstein tells us at the beginning of Volume II:

The blood flowed freely in my veins, but a weight of despair and remorse pressed on my heart, which nothing could remove. Sleep fled from my eyes; I wandered like an evil spirit, for I had committed deeds of mischief beyond description horrible, and more, much more, (I persuaded myself) was yet behind. Yet my heart overflowed with kindness, and the love of virtue. I had begun life with benevolent intentions, and thirsted for the moment when I should put them in practice, and make myself useful to my fellow-beings. Now all was blasted: instead of that serenity of conscience, which allowed me to look back upon the past with self-satisfaction, and from thence to gather promise of new hopes, I was seized by remorse and the sense of guilt, which hurried me away to a hell of intense tortures, such as no language can describe.

We got it, you’re sad. So is there any need to remind us in Volume III?

My father was enraptured on finding me freed from the vexations of a criminal charge, that I was again allowed to breathe the fresh atmosphere, and allowed to return to my native country. I did not participate in these feelings; for to me the walls of a dungeon or a palace were alike hateful. The cup of life was poisoned for ever; and although the sun shone upon me, as upon the happy and gay of heart, I saw around me nothing but a dense and frightful darkness, penetrated by no light but the glimmer of two eyes that glared upon me.

I am once again asking you: was Amanda McKittrick Ros really that bad? Or at least, was she so much worse than this? This prose is purple, melodramatic, overwrought, and any other pejorative term for ornate writing you care to employ.

But that’s not a fatal flaw. Writing styles change, and I try to be forgiving and understanding. While we might view these 19th century paragraphs as overly verbose, the writers of the 19th century would probably see us as childishly simplistic and crude in our language. Who is right? Who can say?

No, my problem with this book boils down to something much more serious: Victor Frankenstein is a moron.

I’m going to spoil a pretty major element of the third and final volume, so if you want to be surprised by the book, quit reading now.

The monster demands that Frankenstein make him a mate, and says he will visit the doctor again on the day of his wedding. (The monster, by the way, seemingly has the power to appear and vanish at will, possessing superhuman strength and speed. He is, as we gamers would say, OP as hell.)

Frankenstein nonetheless goes ahead with his marriage, figuring that, if worst comes to worst, the monster will kill him on the day of his wedding. Remember that to date, the monster has already killed Frankenstein’s younger brother and his best friend, as well as framing a friend for the former crime. And yet no other possibility occurs to Frankenstein. He does not provide in his calculations for any other contingency than that the monster will kill him on his wedding day, despite the monster not explicitly saying that.

Can you guess what happens? Well, I’ll leave it to you to put two and two together. Here’s where I’m most reminded of an Armour quote, which I have adapted slightly: “He doesn’t stop to think. He doesn’t even start to think.”

Besides this, Frankenstein is useless, whiny, self-pitying, and melodramatic. He makes Bella Swan look like a Heinlein hero by comparison. He refuses to take responsibility for problems caused by his own arrogance, and then moans and cries about how miserable he is all the time. We’re told repeatedly how awesome he supposedly is, but the way I see it, the dude is a train wreck.

And perhaps the most irritating thing of all is that the book does explore some interesting themes, but it does so in such a ham-fisted way that I couldn’t help but shake my head at the execution, rather than pondering the ideas. Stealing again from Armour describing symbolism: “The monster stands for something. Frankenstein stands for something. The reader has to stand for quite a bit, too.”

Yet, the book is influential. And despite all my criticisms, I can understand why it is influential. In fact, it is a critic’s dream, because it contains all sorts of motifs, philosophies, and references to other texts. It is as though it had been written so that students can produce essays about it.

It deals with timeless and, dare I say it, deathless themes. So it’s no wonder it captured the imaginations of generations despite being, by most technical measures, pretty bad. And in her defense, Shelley was only 19 when she wrote it. When I think about what I wrote when I was 19, it was pretty bad, too. And I can’t say that any of mine inspired countless derivative works. At least, I hope not.

Frankenstein did, though, and it is to these that we will be turning our attention this month. Mary Shelley’s creation, like Frankenstein’s, has taken on a life of its own, for good or for ill.

This is like a Hallmark Christmas romance, but for Halloween. This, in my opinion, is exactly what the world needs. Halloween is associated with horror fiction, and rightly so, but there is no reason for it to be exclusively the holiday of horror.

There’s nothing wrong with horror. I like horror. (Slasher stories I could do without.) But a Halloween story need not be a horror story by definition. Halloween is a holiday with room for all sorts of stories.

Did you know that ghost stories used to be a Christmas tradition? It’s true, though nowadays the only surviving relic of that custom is A Christmas Carol.  And if the Victorians could tell ghost stories at Christmas, why can’t we tell romance stories at Halloween?

This story has black cats, costumes, and a classic boy-meets-girl love story. Does it reinvent the romance genre? No, but it doesn’t need to. When you read a story like this, you want the feeling of familiar coziness you get sipping warm cider on a brisk October evening, looking at the sun setting over a pumpkin patch.

Or something like that. Experienced Halloween aficionados will no doubt have their own ideal atmosphere to conjure the required mood. Something Whiskered This Way Comes is a perfect, non-scary way to get into the holiday spirit.

Books require a higher level of investment from the audience than, say, movies do. As readers, we have to do some of the work of imagining things for ourselves. I think it’s accurate to say that while you and I may read the same book, we don’t necessarily read the same story. Your way of envisioning it will not quite match mine, much the way a computer program may be handled differently by different compilers.

This subjectivity is a key element of the written word as a medium for fiction. A really good book takes full advantage of this curious feature, inviting the reader to use their imagination to fill in details, or even to come up with their own interpretations of the entire story.

Fatal Rounds is just such a book. The central character, Liza Larkin, is a pathology resident at a hospital in Massachusetts. She has chosen the hospital specifically because she has become suspicious of one of the hospital’s surgeons, Dr. Donovan, who attended her father’s funeral, much to the horror of Liza’s schizophrenic mother.

Liza’s obsessive investigation of Dr. Donovan brings her into possession of evidence that implicates him in a number of deaths. Her highly atypical mind gives her an unusual ability to concentrate on her goal, and she becomes fixated on bringing Donovan to justice.

That’s the basic plot of the book. But the real meat of Fatal Rounds is in subtle details and ambiguities. It’s not so much about what happens as it is the reader’s interpretation of what happens. That’s why I don’t want to talk too much about specifics; lest I color your reading of the book with my own views.

No joke, this book reminded me of one of my favorite works of fiction of all time, “The Repairer of Reputations” by Robert W. Chambers. If you’ve read that story, you probably can see what I mean. If you haven’t… well, let’s just say Fatal Rounds is a great demonstration of the philosophy of fiction that I acquired from reading “Repairer of Reputations.”

This book is a great medical thriller, but more than that, it’s just a flat-out great story, and I highly recommend it to anyone, even if medical thrillers aren’t a genre you typically read. It gives you some things to chew on long after you close the book.

Another fast-paced thriller from Geoffrey Cooper, the fifth in the series. This time Brad Parker and Karen Richmond are drawn into investigating a sex trafficking ring with connections to a major medical institute.

Strictly speaking, you can read this book without reading any of the previous Brad and Karen books. But, unlike the others, I have to say I think you shouldn’t. The way the characters develop is an important element of this book. So, I don’t think it’s possible to fully enjoy this story without already being familiar with the dynamic between the two leads.

And Brad and Karen really are likable characters. It’s always a pleasure to open a new book in the series, because they are an excellent team, besides being a cute couple romantically. <Insert “name a more iconic duo” meme.>

And so if you have read the other books in the series, you’ll be glad to know that this one is just as enjoyable as the rest. I highly recommend this series to anyone who enjoys thrillers. It’s action-packed and interesting. Check it out if you haven’t done so already.