The Omen posterThis film is the apex of horror for me. It’s about an American diplomat named Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck) who gradually comes to believe that his son is the antichrist. As eerie events surrounding the child escalate, spearheaded by the mysterious governess, Mrs. Baylock (Billie Whitelaw), he eventually becomes convinced he has to take drastic measures to save the world from Satanic annihilation.

This film was made as part of the 1960s-’70s spate of what MAD magazine called “Devil Flicks”—demonic horror movies kicking off with Rosemary’s Baby and most famously represented by The Exorcist. People often call the latter one of the scariest films of all time, but in my opinion, it’s just a distasteful exercise in gross-out scenes and cheap parlor trick special effects.

The Omen isn’t like that. Oh, sure; it still involves a child who is somehow an agent of Satan, but what I like is that nothing he does is clearly supernatural. The most action we ever see Damien take is throw a tantrum when he is near a church. But even that isn’t necessarily unusual behavior for a small child.

The horrific things are what unfold around Damien—the mysterious black dogs that appear, the way other animals seem to fear the child, and of course, Mrs. Baylock, the seemingly sweet but also sinister woman who cares for the boy.

Think about the level of confidence this takes. It’s easy for a writer to make the villain a winged demon, or a hideous ogre, or some other well-worn theatrical manifestation of evil. The on-screen antagonists in The Omen are (1) a five-year-old kid (2) a quiet, polite woman and (3) some dogs. That doesn’t sound particularly scary, but they make it work—thanks in large part to Whitelaw, who was a terrific actress capable of conveying subtle menace with just a look.

Now, while the film isn’t a gore-fest, there are still some violent scenes. The most shocking is probably the suicide by hanging early on, though perhaps the impalement midway through or the decapitation or the death by plunging from a tall building close to the end are worse. But while these are powerful and disturbing, they aren’t what make the movie scary. What makes it scary is the slowly growing feeling of menace as Thorn, with the help of photographer Keith Jennings (David Warner), gradually pieces together the eerie coincidences and unsettling circumstances surrounding Damien’s birth. Starting with the scene in the obsessed priest’s apartment—wallpapered with Bible verses and newspaper clippings, like any good conspiracy theorist’s would be—there’s a part of the film that’s basically a horror road picture, culminating in what might be the creepiest revelation of all, set in an Etruscan cemetery.

And the soundtrack! I’ve talked about this before; but I can’t overstate how terrifying it is. Just the opening theme by itself is scarier than all but about a half-dozen of the horror films I’ve ever seen. It’s bone-chilling.

Now, there’s the elephant in the room: the religious themes of this film. It’s about the Antichrist, so naturally, the film is filled with references to scripture, in particular the Book of Revelation, and it tracks fairly closely with the prophecies recorded in the final book of the Bible. 

Ha! Gotcha!

Did I say “tracks fairly closely?” Sorry, no—what I meant was, hasn’t really got much of anything to do with it at all.

The main prophecy that the film wants us to believe Damien is fulfilling is this poem, which Father Brennan (Patrick Troughton) quotes to Thorn:

 When the Jews return to Zion

And a comet rips the sky

And the Holy Roman Empire rises

Then you and I must die.

From the eternal sea he rises,

Creating armies on either shore,

Turning Man against his brother

Till Man exists no more.

He says this, and then adds, almost as an aside to himself “The Book of Revelation predicted it all.” Troughton really sells this line too, like the Biblical scholar just can’t get over the uncanny way events are playing out just as scripture foretold.

He says it so convincingly that I totally believed it. It was decades before I discovered that the poem is, in fact, completely made up for the movie and has basically nothing to do with the Book of Revelation. In fairness to me, I saw The Omen for the first time as a 12-year-old kid who most certainly would never win any prizes for scripture knowledge. (And yes, I know the movie is R-rated and a 12-year-old really shouldn’t see it. But that is also exactly why 12-year-old me just had to see it!)

The only real ties the movie has to anything Biblical is the quote from Revelation 13:18 at the very end: “Let him that hath understanding count the number of the Beast, for it is the number of a man, and his number is six hundred threescore and six.” And, as we’ve just seen, Damien has the mark of the Beast on his scalp.

So, yeah. A number. That’s basically all they used from the Bible—that, and of course a bunch of religious imagery. Damien is scared of churches. A church steeple gets struck by lightning. Damien’s shadow forms an inverted cross in the opening credits. There are a bunch of references to the Christian religion and symbols, but really none of it feels integral to the plot. In principle, I think you could, without too much effort, make Damien an avatar of Nyarlathotep or some other “generic” evil instead.

You see, fiction writers love prophecies. I think it’s because it can help to give your story weight if you say it’s all the fulfillment of something foretold long ago. But you have to be careful, because if you just make up a prophecy out of nowhere, it feels contrived and silly. (Hello, Anakin Skywalker, the “Chosen One!”)  

The Omen’s fundamental trick is to take a prophecy that has rather a lot of cultural clout backing it up. Christian texts are so familiar to virtually everyone in the United States, Christian or not, that it gave the movie instant weight. You don’t have to be Christian to know 666 = Bad News.

I can see that Christians might be offended by this, since this film is essentially trading on their holy texts in order to give extra weight to the apocalyptic plot. And, weirdly, I can also see how non-Christians might be offended because the film seems to implicitly endorse Christianity… kinda.

I tried reading the Book of Revelation as a kid after I saw The Omen. Couldn’t make heads or tails out of it, even though I think the Biblical Beast is supposed to have lots of both. Although I think that might be a metaphor? Anyway, you see what I’m saying: I was not cut out to be a Biblical scholar.    

But getting bogged down in ecclesiastical scholasticism is just not what this movie is really about. The religious imagery is just a convenient shorthand for Good and Evil. 

The Omen is really about a child who, for various reasons, a bunch of people believe is going to destroy the world. The child himself never does anything especially out of the ordinary. And this fact lends itself nicely to my personal hobby: alternate interpretations of movies.

Come on; you knew it was coming.

Father Brennan thinks Damien is going to destroy the world and tries, in his own cryptic, abrasive way to prevent it, in the process bringing all sorts of bizarre ideas to Thorn’s attention. Mrs. Baylock thinks Damien is going to destroy the world, and is all about keeping him alive so he can do it. All of this triggers a weird and ultimately tragic series of events, but at no point does Damien deliberately do anything evil. (He does seriously injure his mother, but that is obviously orchestrated by Mrs. Baylock.)

Now, as much as I would love to argue for this being one of those unreliable narrator deals where there’s nothing supernatural going on at all, there’s just no way to make that case. There’s no rational way to account for stuff like the weird images that Jennings captures in his photographs or six Rottweilers showing up staging an ambush in an ancient cemetery. Clearly, some sort of unseen malevolent power is at work in this universe.  But is it really Damien? Or is he just an innocent kid, caught up in events beyond his control that make people around him do insane things? The film doesn’t say.

Well… okay, this film doesn’t say. But The Omen was a box office success, and that of course meant they just had to make a sequel. And so we have Damien: The Omen II.

The Omen II It's Still The Antichrist

I haven’t actually seen this film, so don’t take this to be a review of it. But I have read a summary with spoilers, and I know the basic plot of it: it follows Thorn’s brother, Richard, who gets custody of Damien after the events of the first film and…

…wait for it…

…gradually pieces together bits of evidence which ultimately lead him to believe that…

…are you ready?

…DAMIEN IS ACTUALLY THE ANTICHRIST.

Yes, the plot of the sequel is just the first one over again. Now Damien is older, and now there are different prophecies involved, but… yeah, it’s the same thing.

Watching a guy gradually come to believe that his son is probably the Antichrist was interesting the first time. Watching another a guy come to believe that the guy we already discovered is probably the Antichrist is still probably the Antichrist is boring. But when movie producers know they have a title that they think is a safe bet to sell tickets, they’ll milk it for all it’s worth.

So, yeah; the first film in the Omen series was interesting. The second seems to be just a re-hash of the first. I don’t want to comment on it beyond that, because I don’t think it’s very fair to discuss a film I haven’t seen. I’ll just conclude with the simple fact that they made a sequel to a film I loved, but it had a premise so lackluster it couldn’t convince me to see it.

The Omen III The Antichrist Now Has a Hat

Ugh. Make that two sequels.

Right then, Omen III: The Final Conflict. I’ll keep it short, as I have also not seen this film. Damien is still the Antichrist after all these years, and has now become the ambassador to Great Britain, just as Thorn once was. However, this time, after the good characters once again uncover that the Antichrist is, in fact, the Antichrist, they take decisive measures, bringing an end to “the Omen trilogy.” This is, after all, the final conflict.

Omen IV The Antichrist on Ice

ARE YOU KIDDING ME????

I can’t even follow the synopsis of this one… there are two Antichrists, I think… one of them is a girl, maybe? It seems like they did come up with a different plot for this one, replacing “people gradually realize someone is the Antichrist” with “a bunch of weird Devil-type stuff happens.” I don’t know, and I don’t care.

I want to make it very clear that I don’t have a problem with sequels as such. If you’ve created a world that is so rich it has room for more than one story in it, then by all means, tell all of those stories across multiple installments. Likewise, if you’ve created a sprawling, epic tale best told in episodic format, then sequels are completely fine. 

Neither of these things can be said about The Omen. The first film was a simple concept well-executed, with good writing, intelligent direction, and strong performances from a good cast. But that’s all it was, or needed to be. To me, the thing that proves beyond a doubt that this parade of Antichrist movies was driven by studio executives is the fact that they clearly didn’t even understand what made the first film good. 

If you’re going to make a sequel to a successful film, it’s logical to include the central character from that film. And Damien isn’t the central character of The Omen.  I mean, sure; he’s the center of the plot, but he might as well be a McGuffin as far as what he’s required to do from an acting perspective.  Which is smart, by the way. You don’t want a child actor to have to carry the movie. 

Baylock.jpg
Billie Whitelaw as Mrs. Baylock

And no, Robert Thorn isn’t the central character either. I’m sure Gregory Peck got paid the most for being in the film, but that’s just because he was Gregory Peck. The central character of The Omen is Mrs. Baylock. She’s the driving force of the whole thing.

Or, maybe more accurately, Billie Whitelaw’s character is the driving force. If they were going to make more Omen movies, they needed to bring Whitelaw back as a similar character. Or just straight-up give Mrs. Baylock the Captain Phasma treatment. But she had to come back in some form for any sequels to work. Having a sequel to The Omen without Mrs. Baylock or someone like her is like having a sequel to Star Wars without Darth Vader. It just reduces the series to an uninteresting mess.

But the original Omen will always be memorable to me. It remains the most scared I’ve ever been of a film. I first saw it on the day before Halloween, and I will never forget lying in my bed early that Halloween morning, worrying that there might be demon dogs breaking into the house. (This pales next to my mom’s experience of the film. She saw it in theaters when it originally came out, and the next morning, she stepped outside her apartment to see, standing around in the morning fog, a bunch of Rottweilers.)

So, bottom line, it will always be a favorite horror film of mine, no matter how many uninspired sequels they may have churned out. The original is good enough that it can survive that. The only thing worse than unnecessary sequels is second-rate remakes produced solely for the sake of a marketing gimmick like releasing on a specific date. 

It Never Ends This $41T

🤦

VMFAC
On Amazon and Smashwords

Available as an e-book on Amazon here and, for the first time ever, I’m experimenting with distributing using Smashwords as well. On the latter, I’ve set it up so you can choose your own price. The economist in me is fascinated by this option, and I’m very curious to see if the results of this natural experiment match my expectations. (On Amazon, meanwhile, it’s $0.99)

A bit of background: I got the idea for this story in mid-September, and since it’s obviously a seasonal tale, it was a bit of a race to finish it before Halloween. But, I had a huge amount of fun writing it.

The basic outline of the story, believe it or not, was that I wanted to write a romantic comedy. But of course, it’s a romantic comedy done my way, meaning that the chief obstacles the couple faces come in the form of conspiracies, paranormal mysteries, and a strange man operating an autumn festival in a poor rural county.

It’s 18,710 words, or slightly longer than 1NG4. As far as content, I’d say it ranges from a hard PG-13 to a mild R. There’s sex, profanity, some violence, and references to drug use, but with all that said… it’s not meant to be a dark or gritty tale. It’s really intended as a bit of fun.

The tale was heavily influenced by the Mothman legends of West Virginia, as well as the 2002 film about the same, entitled The Mothman Prophecies. Other influences include H.P. Lovecraft’s The Whisperer in Darkness, Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, the video game add-on Point Lookout, and of course, The X-Files.

Despite all this, I don’t think of it as a horror story by any stretch. It’s really my love letter to Halloween, and to autumn generally. I’ve attempted this in passing before a few times, but with this one, I was really striving hard to capture what I love about this season. And, personally, I feel I was finally successful.

A word to my beta readers: there were more of you than I’ve ever had before, and I’m very grateful for your help, especially because the first draft was in such rough shape when I sent it out. I really appreciate that you waded through all the typos and other odd glitches.

Note that I did not incorporate every suggestion that every beta reader made. Please, please, please do not take this to mean I don’t value or appreciate your feedback. I absolutely do, and I read and am appreciative of every comment that each of you made. All of your suggestions are logical and well-considered; in the end, I just have to make the story work as best I can given my vision of it, which means not every suggestion can be incorporated. But one thing I always do for everything I write is to take the feedback and use that as the foundation for new stories. I’ve already got something else in the works based on the comments I received on this one.

As always, I am incredibly thankful for the support of each and every one of my readers.

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.

Eagle AscendantThis book is a science fiction coming-of-age tale that tells the story of Robbin Haysus Nikalishin, who from an early age dreams of voyaging to the stars. Set in the 2700s, on an Earth that has been remade after a series of catastrophic wars. A new government has arisen, as well as a new set of moral precepts designed to reconcile as well as supersede the core tenets of the old religions. 

Additionally, the passage of time has gradually changed the spellings and phrasings of the English language—itself now called “Inge.” So, the United States of America has become Midammerik, India has become Ind, and so on. The spellings are clever—different enough to convey that the world has changed, but similar enough that the reader knows what’s what.

Cleverly, the book is framed as an official biography written to commemorate Nikalishin, but with the twist that the notes at the beginning suggest the officials who commissioned it are less than pleased with how the author has chosen to depict the subject.

Nikalishin’s life is driven by his determination and unrelenting desire to be a spaceship captain. He studies physics from some of the best professors in the world, and also attends a military academy, all in order to prepare himself for the job of starship captain. He and his good friend Kolm MaGilligoody rise swiftly through the ranks, ultimately joining an experimental program known as SkyPiercer.

Nikalishin’s other interests besides space travel include birdwatching and, of course, sex. He has many romantic encounters with various women he meets throughout his remarkable rise to worldwide fame as a daring space explorer. Some of the relationships last, some don’t, but all of them influence him in one way or another. The romance sub-plots are well done and always are both integral to the plot and right for the characters.

Now, make no mistake, while the book has strong characters and a great plot, it’s not simply an epic space opera. That is, it’s not one of these affairs where space travel is taken as an unexplained fact-of-life to be explained by hand-waving. This is a “hard” science fiction book, and there is plenty of in-depth discussion about the quantum physics involved with making interstellar jumps. But it never feels heavy-handed or dry; indeed, the discussions about physics punctuated by Nikalishin arguing with his professors are quite enjoyable.

That’s the thing that dazzled me most: how alive and organic the whole world of the book feels. It would have been so easy to make it the literary equivalent of a video game on rails: Robbin Nikalishin meets character X who gives him Y so he can advance to the next stage and ultimately be a space hero.

But Taylor didn’t take the easy way. She did the hard, meticulous work of world-building and fleshing out all the supporting characters. I’m in awe of how every character, from Nikalishin’s mother to his best friend to his lovers and even down to the ship’s janitor, are fully-realized and well-described. This isn’t a book, it’s a whole universe rendered in prose.

Oh, and I haven’t even touched on how much I love the depiction of religion. Kolm and his family follow a strain of religion clearly descended from Irish Catholicism. They don’t even fully understand some of the meaning of the symbols and terms of the rituals, but they follow them even so, and it brings them spiritual comfort. I loved the way this was handled—neither stridently preachy nor cloyingly condescending; it felt real.

Now we’re at the part of the review where I typically mention typos in indie books. I know from reading Taylor’s blog that she self-edits her books, and that’s typically verboten for indie authors. Do you know how many typos I found in this book?

Two.

That’s right, two typos in the whole thing. I don’t have a word count for this book, but I know Amazon estimates the length at 510 pages. My longest book is 308 pages, and it was about 67,000 words, so approximately 217 words per page. If that’s the same here, that means Taylor wrote about 110,670 words, self-edited, and came out with only two minor errors. 

That’s insanely good. In the novel, the characters have to make precise calculations, correct down to like the millionth decimal place, before attempting an interstellar jump, or they risk disaster. Taylor obviously has a knack for care and precision that makes her fit to serve aboard one of her own starships! 

If you can’t tell already, I absolutely loved this book and I can’t recommend it highly enough. Taylor built a fascinating world, populated it with rich, believable characters, and told a brilliantly paced story about them. This is sci-fi at its best.

Now, I want to talk a little bit about something somewhat spoiler-y. It’s not giving away too much, as it concerns something that happens less than a quarter of the way into the book, but it has ramifications for the rest of the story. Feel free to skip this if you want to go in completely unspoiled.

Nikalishin’s parents divorce when he is a young boy after his father physically abuses him and his mother, Sterling. Sterling raises her son on her own, and makes every effort to see that he achieves his dream of becoming a starship captain.  

At some point, in his late teens, Robbin learns that Sterling has been working as an escort for wealthy men in order to pay for her son to attend the schools and take the classes he needs. Robbin is horrified by this revelation, and ever afterward, his relationship with his mother becomes strained. He feels, somehow, that everything he achieves and his relationship with her are irrevocably tainted. They have a falling out, and later a semi-reconciliation, but he can never quite achieve a healthy relationship with her, even when he leaves to risk his life on dangerous space missions.

This made me dislike Robbin. He seemed quite ungrateful towards his mother, after everything she’d done for him. He even, for lack of a better term, slut-shames her at one point, which is ludicrous given that he himself seemingly sleeps with every other woman he meets. (More than one character calls him out on his hypocrisy, but he doesn’t seem to take it to heart.)

In a way, his initial feelings are kind of understandable. We get it, Robbin; you had to think about your mother sleeping with someone, and it grossed you out. But after that moment of revulsion, an adult should realize that parents are just people, and that these are the kinds of situations that happen in life, and then get past it. After all, as Sterling repeatedly tells her son, she did it for him.

Even as a world-renowned heroic starship captain, Robbin Nikalishin really is profoundly childish in many ways. He has extremely limited ability to understand the feelings of women. He’s stunned to discover one of his acquaintances is a lesbian. He doesn’t mind it, per se, he just acts like the concept is completely new to him. 

He also has an incredibly bad temper. He is sometimes justified, but even then, he tends to explode in rage at the slightest provocation. Admittedly, the primary antagonist, who does not appear until relatively late in the book, is quite infuriating. But Capt. Nikalishin gets bent out of shape when someone so much as mispronounces his surname. I was rooting for him, but there were still times when I wanted to sock him right in the belly of his beloved military uniform and tell him to grow the hell up.

To be clear, none of this is a complaint about the writing. Quite the opposite, in fact. It’s a credit to Taylor that she was able to craft such a complete character, that a reader could both cheer on and simultaneously find extremely irritating. Too many writers make their heroes one-dimensional cardboard cut-outs, or worse, heroes with one painfully obvious flaw tacked-on just to make them Not Perfect. Capt. Nikalishin is a flawed hero, and better still, he’s flawed in the way that real heroic figures often are. Think about the philosopher Carlyle and his so-called “great men,” who often were impulsive, emotional and obsessed with crafting their own image as flawless paragons. Nikalishin is what I suspect a real-life “great man” is like—which is to say, quite maddening to know personally.

And of course, I should stress that this is only part one of the series. The book ends with an absolutely epic cliffhanger, and I’m eagerly looking forward to finding out how things develop from here.  

It’s funny: even though I like writing sci-fi adventures, most of the indie books I’ve reviewed have not been in that genre. I haven’t consciously avoided them; that’s just how it’s worked out. Audrey Driscoll recommended this to me, and I’m so grateful that she did. It was fun to read a book in roughly the same genre as I primarily write—especially one as marvelous as this one. I’m guessing that if you enjoyed my novel The Directorate, you are very likely going to love this book. It’s a brilliantly thought-out and well-executed science-fiction epic.  

As one indie sci-fi author to another: Ms. Taylor, my hat’s off to you. This is a really great novel, and for me, it ranks right up there with the best by the likes of Asimov, Clarke, and the other All-Time Greats of science fiction. 

Galaxy of Fear was a series of horror-themed Star Wars books for children published in the late ‘90s. I was a huge Star Wars fan as a kid, so as you can imagine, I gobbled them up. I’m not sure if these were the first horror books I ever read, but they were the first ones I remember reading, so they always have a special place in my heart. 

The books follow the adventures of Tash and Zak Arranda, two children orphaned after the destruction of the planet Alderaan, now under the care of their “uncle”—a scientist named Hoole, who is a member of a species of shape-shifters known as Shi’idos.

Gof1-eatenaliveBook #1

Eaten Alive

This book is told from Tash’s perspective. She, Zak and Hoole crash-land on a planet called D’vouran, after it mysteriously pulls them out of hyperspace. The population of the planet is friendly enough, although Tash has the canonical “bad feeling” about it. She encounters a mad wandering beggar who warns her about people disappearing. In the fine tradition of Zadok Allen from The Shadow over Innsmouth, he turns out to be on to something with his dire warnings. 

I’m going to try not to spoil these books, even though they are over twenty years old and in many cases, kind of give away what the horror is going to be by their titles, covers, etc. Let’s just say the name of the planet is significant. And, since I’m summarizing the series, I have no choice but spoil the fact that Tash, Zak and Hoole ultimately survive, thanks to an assist from the heroes of the original trilogy, which leads us into more horror hijinks with…

Gof2-citydeadBook #2

City of the Dead

This one is told from Zak’s perspective. He is haunted by a recurring nightmare of the corpses of his late parents tapping at his window. The trio is dropped off on a planet reassuringly named “Necropolis.” Zak befriends another boy who lives on the planet, who tells him about the supposed curse of Sycorax, a witch who lived there long ago, and a dare that involves entering a cemetery at night. Soon after, strange things begin happening, and Zak becomes convinced that the dead are returning from their graves.

This book is, by far, my favorite in the series. I love the setting; a whole morbid planet, gloomily obsessed with death. I love the eerie holographic cover. And I love the fact that my man Boba Fett gets to be the character-from-the-movies-who-saves-the-day-with-his-cameo-appearance this time.

All right, so I’m not doing great at not spoiling this, but I can’t help it! I will say that every book (for that matter, every chapter) ends with a cliffhanger that suggests all is not well. Often, this is not followed up on in the next book, and that’s clearly the case here. This has led me to develop my own completely preposterous fan theory regarding these books, but more on that later. For now, it’s on to…

Book #3PlanetPlagueCover

Planet Plague

The good news is, this book is told from Tash’s perspective. I like her better than Zak. The bad news is, the guest star character from the movies is Wedge Antilles. Wedge Antilles seems to be the character who gets shoehorned in whenever Expanded Universe writers need a rebel pilot, but can’t have Luke. I find him boring in all his appearances.

Also, the threat in this book is just not as scary as the first two. Arguably, a plague bio-weapon should be a more realistic concept, but then you see the cover, which basically has the Flemoid King on it, and you go, nah, actually it isn’t that realistic. 

This book does get some points for establishing that it is not a coincidence that the Arrandas and Hoole keep getting drawn into these bizarre and horrifying situations, for introducing them to the overall antagonist of the plot arc, who has the awesome name of “Borborygmous Gog,” another Shi’ido who once worked with Uncle Hoole, and for introducing me to the word “ziggurat,” which is fun to say.

Still, I think this is one of the weaker books. Maybe things will get better in…

TheNightmareMachineCoverBook #4

The Nightmare Machine

It’s back to Zak’s perspective for this one. Which actually works, because they go to Hologram Fun World, a sort of virtual reality amusement park. It somehow seems right for an immature boy to tell this story. The big attraction at Hologram Fun World is “The Nightmare Machine”—a V.R. chamber that shows you your worst fear. A sort of Orwellian Room 101 that you have to pay to enter. I’m surprised Disney hasn’t built one yet. 

But—wouldn’t you know it!—something goes horribly wrong with the simulation, and it doesn’t end when it’s supposed to. And once again, we find the hidden hand of Gog working behind the scenes to torment Zak and Tash. 

I love the concept here—the bending of reality itself is a great vehicle for horror. How can Zak ever really be sure he’s woken up? City of the Dead is still my favorite in this series, but this one has a really great concept. Also, the celebrity guest is Lando Calrissian. Gotta love Lando.

So, with the amusement park from hell behind us, we proceed to…

Book #5GhostoftheJediCover

Ghost of the Jedi

This is back to Tash’s perspective, and Tash is obsessed with the Jedi. It’s kind of suggested she might be Force-sensitive. She’s been chatting with somebody on what basically amounts to an internet chat room.

Ok… let me pause and explain to you young people… a chat room was sort of like if you had a whole site that was just the comments section. A forum basically, before all of it got jazzed up and called “social media.”

Anyway, Tash’s internet friend, whom I’ll call Master Guccifer because that’s better than his actual handle, turns out not to be entirely on the level. Unfortunately, Tash only discovers this after agreeing to go to an abandoned space station which Master Guccifer has convinced her holds a lot of Jedi secrets.

Is it too much of a spoiler to say that Gog is, once again, pulling all the strings here? No, I don’t think it is. The first five books have all been part of the “Gog” arc—or maybe more accurately, the “Starscream” arc, because that’s the name of Gog’s project. 

I do like this tale for two reasons: first, the atmosphere of the space station/library is pretty creepy, and second, because it actually teaches kids a valuable lesson: don’t trust what random weirdos you find on the internet are telling you, even if they claim to be well-read.

Oh, wait a minute. I just essentially told you not to trust me, didn’t I? Shoot. 

Well, you have to at least stick with me to see where all this is going! After all, we’re about to finally unravel the mystery of Project Starscream in…

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Army of Terror

The Arrandas and Hoole arrive on the planet Kiva, a desolate world, haunted by shadows—ghostly presences, ultimately revealed to be the victims of a failed project Gog had been working on. 

Also on the planet, they find an adorable, cuddly creature which says “Eppon.” Deciding that he must be saying his name (like a pokémon) Tash takes Eppon as a sort of pet. Eppon is an adorable, cute little creature who seems like he couldn’t hurt a fly.

But Eppon grows. Particularly, when the rebels guarding him mysteriously die, he grows. Finally, it is revealed that he is Gog’s ultimate creation—Eppon is a mispronunciation of “weapon,” and he is meant to be a monster that will, I guess, go around killing people. It seems like a lot of trouble to go through when there are wild wampas running around Hoth that could do as well. I’m honestly not sure why the Empire bankrolled this project. 

And there are more revelations in store! Uncle Hoole (whose first name is “Mammon”)  was Gog’s colleague in the disastrous project that created the shadowy ghost-presences. The creatures have been seeking their revenge upon Hoole, but then realize it was actually Gog who destroyed their planet, and accordingly, decide to kill him instead. 

Okay, I know I’ve poked a lot of fun at these books, and they aren’t really supposed to be taken seriously—they’re pulp sci-fi horror for kids, after all. I’m told they’re a knock-off of Goosebumps. Having not read Goosebumps, I wouldn’t know about that. 

But all that being said, I like these ideas. I like that “Eppon” is how the little creature misunderstands his name. I like that he is ultimately shown to be as much a victim of Gog’s madness as much as anyone else is. And I love how Uncle Hoole has been seeking redemption for his role in the vast tragedy that destroyed the planet. (In a way, it’s a forerunner of the central theme of Knights of the Old Republic II, the greatest Star Wars story of them all, in which the destruction of Malachor V by the Mass Shadow Generator still haunts all the characters.) 

The whole arc is at times silly, at times a bit groan-worthy, and definitely too filled with Original Trilogy characters wearing sandwich boards to remind us that yes, this is totally a Star Wars book. But for all that, it’s a satisfying story, with some scary concepts, and good characters. Yes, Zak is kind of one-dimensional, but Tash and Uncle Hoole are interesting, and even grow a bit over the series. And I didn’t even mention the dry, professorial droid DV-9, who serves as the children’s  caretaker when Hoole is away. He’s less annoying than C-3P0, that’s for sure. 

Now, because this is Star Wars, we can’t just quit while we’re ahead and be content with a nice satisfying story, and as a result, there are six more books after the “Gog “ or “Starscream” or whatever-you-want-to-call-it arc ended.  

These books aren’t as good. Now it’s just the Arrandas and Hoole roaming around at random and somehow getting involved in more bizarre and horrific things—but this time there is no reason for it. Maybe it’s just me, but if the same three characters are going to keep having adventures, I like it to be for some discernible reason. Just having them keep happening to stumble into brain-transplant experiments or infestations of billions of insects or whatever the hell Spore is doesn’t work for me.

Although to be fair, the cover of The Swarm is pretty awesome:

TheSwarmCover

There are more cameos too, including Jabba the Hutt, Admiral Thrawn, Boba Fett (again), Darth Vader (again) Yoda, and Dash Rendar.

Remember what I said about Star Wars writers using Wedge Antilles as a poor man’s Luke? Well, Dash Rendar is the same thing for Han Solo. And I get it: we all like the idea of a roguish smuggler with a dark past. But Rendar never worked for me—he just screamed “We wanted to have this be Han Solo, but we can’t, so we made up this guy, who flies a similar ship, acts a similar way, and basically does all the same stuff as Han Solo would do.” I liked Shadows of the Empire—both the game and the book—but Dash Rendar was definitely a weak point. The part where Xizor tries to seduce Princess Leia was the highlight of the book, and the space battle at the end was the highlight of the game.

Anyway, what was I talking about? Oh, right—so the random weird stuff cycle of Galaxy of Fear; it isn’t as good. But there are a few interesting things, even so. In particular, book #11 Clones. I forget all the details now, but somehow or other, there’s this place churning out evil clones of people for some reason. For perspective, even Darth Vader has an evil clone. Think about that.

This is interesting given that only a few years later, George Lucas would make Attack of the Clones, where we learn that all the stormtroopers are clones. I realize that continuity isn’t a priority in this universe, but I would have thought Lucas would have at least bothered to tell whoever was in charge of content control, “Hey, I have it in mind to do something with clones in a future movie. Tell people not to use that in any spin-off stories.”

Oh, well. It’s Star Wars. If there’s one thing you can say unequivocally about Star Wars, it’s that none of it makes any sense whatsoever. At this point, it really has become a modern mythology, with various mangled versions that spring from the same set of ideas, but diverge in wildly contradictory ways. Future anthropologists may someday try to piece the whole mess together in an effort to understand the beliefs of 20th and 21st-century humans.

But while it may not have made sense, Galaxy of Fear was a lot of fun for an 8-year-old kid discovering he liked horror and sci-fi.

Now then, I promised you a totally preposterous fan theory. There is one way the second half of the series could be made to work; a way that would explain why all this stuff keeps happening to Zak and Tash, even after the defeat of Gog and everything else: what if Zak has been trapped in the Nightmare Machine the entire time?  

TheRavenThis is a collection of ten short stories, many of which are inspired by myths, fairy-tales, folk-lore and poetry. Sort of like Angela Carter’s retellings of well-known stories, Spicer cleverly re-invents these classic tales, telling them in a new way or from a new perspective. All the stories are enjoyable and interesting. My favorites were the poignant “Stranger at the Crossroads,” and the delightful “An Unlikely Friendship.” 

Because these are short stories, I don’t want to discuss them in detail because it may give too much away. Lydia Schoch’s review discusses the two tales I have mentioned above, and she’s much better at reviewing without spoiling than I am. I encourage reading her review—it was what first brought this book to my attention, and I’m glad, because it’s a very enjoyable read, especially for the autumn and winter months. If you enjoy subtle horror, fantasy or paranormal stories, this book is for you.

After reading this collection, I was eager to read more of Spicer’s work. And I also started reading her blog, which is a real delight—check it out; she has written tons of excellent posts on a wide variety of topics, including various writerly matters and book reviews. 

WitchWhen I was a kid, my dad would tell me stories while I would play on my swing-set. Most of his stories were funny, but I remember some were scary—I recall in particular one about a vampire that he told me at sunset one evening. Our house was across the street from a cemetery, and my dad took full advantage of this fact for his tale.

Reading The Witch Under the Mountain, by the incomparable Noah Goats and his daughters writing as “Audrey N. Allison,” brought back those happy memories. It’s about two young girls and their father, who tells them a tale of an evil witch buried under Temple Mountain—which just happens to be where they are going camping the next night.

The two girls—delightfully named Audball and Ally-cat—are both excited and nervous about the trip, but as more and more elements of their father’s story are verified before their eyes, their fear grows, even while their father remains stubbornly oblivious to all of it.

Soon, it becomes clear that he has fallen under the spell of the evil witch, and it’s up to Audball and Allycat to save him—even if it means confronting dangers like ghosts, bears and walking skeletons.

The Witch Under the Mountain is, of course, a book for children; so the horror is kept at a level acceptable to an eight-to-twelve year old. Even so, it’s effective. There’s no setting I like more than a desert at night with hints of supernatural presences, and that’s exactly what this story delivers. There’s even a scene where the trio is trapped in an old abandoned cabin at night. I love things like that. 

There’s something about scary stories aimed at children—they never completely lose their punch. I think it’s because fear is an unusual kind of emotion that unlike say, love, doesn’t evolve as we get older. The dark is always scary, whether you’re five years old or five hundred, because you don’t know what’s in it. 

A good way to find the essence of something is to imagine explaining it to a child, and that’s why horror tales for children and about children work so well. Even in this tale, which is told with a generous side of Goats-ian humor, the classic tropes of curses and monsters in the night still make for a good atmosphere. My favorite scary stories usually have an element of fun to them—people like to be scared. I’m not sure precisely what biological or evolutionary reason there is for this trait, but it’s undeniable.

The real star of this book, though, is the illustrations. They are simple, black-and-white drawings that look sort of like charcoal sketches. They are simple, but effective and atmospheric. The cover gives you a good idea of the style—it’s stark and memorable. My only complaint was that there weren’t more of these illustrations—that’s how much I enjoyed them!

If you have young children, or if you just want to entertain the young child that lives in all of us, this book is perfect for the Halloween season.

VanderImagine this: a story about a brilliant scientist in Albuquerque who is mad at the world, and uses his intelligence to get back at it.

Yeah, yeah, I know; you’re probably thinking, “That’s an outline of the show Breaking Bad.” And yes, that is true. It’s also the outline of Vander’s Magic Carpet, which my great blogger friend Pat Prescott wrote in the late 1980s, almost 20 years before Walter White ever appeared on television.  

Not that I mean to say they are the same thing, because there are some very significant differences. Notably, Eugene Vanders is a considerably more likable character than White. And his method of “making the system pay” as he puts it, turns out to be very novel indeed. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Prof. Vanders is working away at an idea one evening when his home is raided by police in a drug raid. When they find no evidence to convict him, they plant some of their own, as part of an ongoing program of framing people that is being conducted by corrupt officers.

Vanders’ wife and daughter are traumatized by the attack, and eventually both die as a consequence—his daughter by suicide, his wife at the hands of another corrupt member of the justice system. 

Vanders finds that he is not the only victim of this perversion of the justice system: he’s in prison with two other men framed in the same way. Together, they begin working on a plan to expose the men who put them there—and to revolutionize society while they’re at it.

Prof. Vanders has come up with a plan to build flying cars. Once out of prison, he begins selling his technology to government agencies, along with the help of his released fellow inmates. And gradually, he also buys, threatens, and persuades his way into avenging his family, all while building his empire and starting a new family, as well.

And yes, he makes the system pay. He makes a good on the threat he makes to the judge who sentences him near the beginning of the book that he will “make Billy the Kid look like a boy scout,” too. And the way he does it is very clever. But I won’t spoil it here.

I love the themes of this book—a genius scientist out to settle old scores, corrupt government officials harming those they are meant to protect, and in the background, explorations of ideas about society, morality, and economics. 

My favorite character is probably Stanley Wade, the former High School teacher framed in the same way as Vanders, who ends up serving as his right-hand man while he builds his company. He had been a history teacher, and as such is always suggesting historical parallels. You know I love that.

Now, there are some technical issues in terms of typos with this book—understandably, given how hard editing and version control must have been back when it was first written. It was Pat’s first novel, and first novels are almost always technically rough. Plus, it’s just hard to edit your own work. (I should know–just the other day I found a typo in one of my books that I’d already read over about a hundred times.) 

Also, there were a few sequences that, while quite good, seemed to go by too quickly. For instance, at one point a certain character from someone’s past returns to threaten their new life. This is a great concept, but the whole sequence passes so quickly I felt like there wasn’t time for the tension to adequately build.

But these issues aside, I really enjoyed the themes of this book, and I liked how the political and economic ideas were interwoven with the plot.

And to follow up on my earlier point, I think if any entertainment people out there are reading this, there’s great material here for a film or series. I don’t know if Pat’s willing to sell the adaptation rights, but if he is, someone should approach him about it.

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.)