[Since I’m talking about vampire fiction this month, it seemed right to include this review, which I originally published in 2019, of a weird western film that claimed to pit one of the most famous outlaws of the American west against the legendary vampire.–BG, 10/16/2021]

Go 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.

[Audio version of this post below.]

This is a fast-paced thriller. It starts out as a police procedural muder mystery set in the near future, when technology has begun to dominate our lives even more than it does today; a world where the sky is thick with drones and almost all cars are operated by AI.

Officer Dan Harper and his partner Domingo “Dom” Delgado are investigating a body found at an abandoned quarry. Despite all their high-tech police gadgetry, they are unable to ID the victim, even with the help of Dan’s ex-girlfriend, Dr. Natasha Hendrickson, a forensic pathologist.

Returning to the crime scene, Dan and Dom find themselves in a shootout with a gang of mysterious thugs who seem to appear out of nowhere. After sustaining injuries in the fight, the two officers are sent to the hospital. However, another attack, this time by a huge drone gunship, makes them realize that they have stumbled on to something big.

From there begins a globe-trotting adventure in which the two officers flee from their mysterious pursuers while trying to figure out who is behind it all. Gradually, they uncover an incredible conspiracy and a powerful technology that is controlled by power-hungry maniacs.

The book is gripping and suspenseful. I won’t give away too much about the technology, but let’s just say that the nature of it means nowhere is truly safe. The action scenes are frequent and thrilling, but there is also plenty of time for character development, especially when Dan and Natasha are forced to work together again.

Lurking underneath all the shootouts and chases, though, is a thought-provoking take on how technology changes us, and changes society. The surveillance state it has created, the way we’ve become dependent upon it for almsot everything, and most of all how its unforeseen consequences can shape our very minds. This is a thriller that leaves you with things to ponder after you close the book.

In summary, it’s really, really good. The blending of old-fashioned police work with advanced technology reminded me of one of my favorite mystery novels, Surreality, and the plot is full of twists and turns. It’s a longish book, but I quickly found I couldn’t put it down. It mixes philosophical musings on scientific ethics with pulse-pounding action very nicely.

Pick it up. Heck, maybe even go ahead and get the paperback version… you’ll understand why after you read it. 🙂

[Audio version of this post available below.]

This is military sci-fi blended with horror. It has a bit of Starship Troopers, a bit of Doom, a bit of Aliens, and is altogether an intense experience. It’s a short story, only about a 20 minute read, but is it ever action-packed.

The main character is Lyn, a mercenary who is part of a team trying to evacuate colonists from the titular planet. The planet has come under attack by creatures known as “Clickers”. Demonic, sadistic entites that are also very difficult to kill, they leave death and devestation in their wake.

Lyn tries her best to rescue as many colonists as she can, but the fight is hopeless, and soon, becomes a struggle just to survive. Lyn does, but at a heavy price. And eventually, it becomes clear the Clickers are not her only enemy.

The book is fast-paced, dark, and brutal. There are no happy endings here; more of a grim kind of satisfaction. It’s creepy, violent, and dark. Everything a good sci-fi horror story should be, in other words.

This is a sequel to the original Universal Dracula film from 1931. It stars Lon Chaney Jr. as the titular vampire, although he is going by the name Alucard to avoid arousing suspicion. (There is a reason for this in vampire lore, but as a disguise it’s barely better than “Mr. Hilter.”) He is invited to New Orleans by a Katherine Caldwell (Louise Allbritton), the daughter of a wealthy plantation owner. Soon after his arrival, her father mysteriously dies, leaving his estate to Katherine and her sister Claire. (Evelyn Ankers)

Katherine’s boyfriend Frank (Robert Paige) is alarmed at her strange behavior, and enraged when he learns she has married Alucard in secret. He tries to shoot Alucard, but hits Katherine instead when the bullets go through his target. He flees in terror and grief, but after he confesses to the crime, returns to the estate with the police to find Katherine still apparently alive.

I say “apparently,” and I think you probably know why I said “apparently.” I’ll spare you the description of the part where they consult vampire experts to work it all out, and skip right to the bit where Katherine confesses to Frank that she truly loves him, and only wanted to obtain immortality. She asks Frank to join her as a vampire, and tells him how to destroy “Alucard” by burning his coffin.

However, Frank is not the type to be tempted by the dark powers. He is much more of a Frodo than a Boromir, and so he does the only thing his conscience will allow: burns both Alucard and Katherine’s coffins. The film ends with him staring solemnly at the flames.

How much darker is this than your typical old monster movie? Usually the good guys kill the monster and save the damsel at the end. Not here, though. I remember the first time I saw it (on television, late one Halloween) I was stunned at the bleak ending.

Also, the New Orleans setting works really well. The scene where Katherine meets Alucard one night on a swampy river is a particularly eerie one.

Speaking of Katherine, I really liked her character. She’s clearly an intelligent woman, seduced not so much by Dracula’s charms, which are minimal, but by the prospect of eternal life. It’s a classic trope, but it’s a classic because it works.

And here we get to the implicit “moral” built into the vampire legend. The vampire is a human which has obtained immortality, but at the price of their soul. The implication is that mortality is the burden we must bear, and seeking to subvert it, particularly at the cost of others’ lives, is an unnatural perversion. The vampire is fundamentally parasitic, since it can only live by consuming the blood of mortals.

So, bottom line: don’t trade your soul for immortality! It may sound like a good idea, but trust us; it isn’t. This is the fundamental theme of a huge amount of fiction. And so, this is obviously what makes the vampire myth so effective.

Thanks for your time, fellow horror fans, but I think we’ve pretty much cleared this one up easily. I’ll just show myself out.

<Columbo voice> Oh, uh, there is one more thing. How do you know if you’re trading your soul? Come to that, how did this Count, uh, Alucard did you say? How did he get the idea to trade his soul in the first place? Was he the first vampire? If so, how did he do it? If not, who was the first vampire? </End>

I’m asking these questions as a study of the literature, of course. But also as a student of history–what inspired this myth to begin with? Do we know? The story of Dracula is obviously iconic. But where did it come from? And why?

More questions than answers, I’m afraid. Our work is not done, but take heart; I feel sure that we are hot on the trail.

If you described this book to me, I’d have said it sounded too clichéd. A mysterious monster killing people all over Whitechapel, and a private detective hired to track it down? It all sounds too much like a mashup of Jack the Ripper, Sherlock Holmes and Dracula for me.

But Lydia Schoch recommended it, and I trust Lydia. And my trust was vindicated, because this turned out to be a very fun Halloween season short story. It is very short, taking only about 20 minutes to read, but in that short space the author created a whole satisfying plot arc that largely makes sense. Well, almost. There was one thing that didn’t make sense to me. But I can’t get too much into it without spoiling the book. However, it was a minor plot element that didn’t detract from my overall enjoyment of the story.

The Victorian atmosphere is well done and the characters are engaging. It’s true, it doesn’t break any new ground, but that’s not a bad thing. There’s nothing wrong with a good, solid monster story competently told, and that’s what this is.

Dracula is about… oh, who am I kidding? You all know what Dracula is about. Even if you haven’t actually read it, you know the deal: vampire comes to England, mysterious things start happening to a couple of young women. One of them dies, and rises from the grave. Then her friend starts to have similar strange experiences. Eventually, her male friends, with the help of Doctor Van Helsing, realize she is being haunted by an undead monster.

That’s the story. I knew it long before I read the book, mostly because I’d seen the 1931 movie.

One thing I didn’t know was that the book was told as a series of letters among the characters. That was an interesting idea, and made the whole thing feel very immediate. Also, the movie minimizes the coolest scene in the book, the arrival of Dracula’s boat in England.

Now comes the part where I’m probably going to get into trouble: I don’t love the book. It is, in my opinion, just okay.

Part of this is not really anything intrinsic to the book. Dracula is iconic, and as such, most of the elements of it that must have seemed amazing at the time have now become clichés. Alas, there is just no way to read Dracula with the perspective of an 1890s Victorian reader.

But there are some books from the 1890s that still feel to me as fresh as if they were written yesterday. You know the book I mean, so I won’t rehash it again.

Dracula, I’m afraid, doesn’t feel that way to me. It feels dated. That’s not to say it’s bad, because it isn’t at all. It’s fine. More than fine, I suppose. It has become become iconic for some reason. What is that reason?

I’m privileged to know many talented writers and artists. One of the things we often talk about is whether art needs to have a meaning or not. The reason for this question is raised not so much by art, but by the field of art criticism, which follows all art but is never as substantial as art itself, like a mere shadow on a wall.

Is a work of fiction just a pure fragment of imagination? Or are there lessons about the real world that we can take away from fiction?

On the most obvious level, Dracula is about a vampire who comes to England. However, in the century-plus since its publication, critics have written all sorts of analyses of the meaning of Dracula. Dracula is “invasion literature.” Dracula is about tradition vs. modernity. Dracula is about Victorian sexual mores.

Is any of this remotely true? Or is it all a bunch of academic navel-gazing?

My feeling is, if you could ask Bram Stoker himself, he’d tell you Dracula was just a cool story about a vampire.

But then… Bram Stoker was a Victorian, and so it is reasonable to suspect that in the process of telling his cool vampire story, he included some elements of himself and the world he knew.

As an example, it is interesting to know that Stoker modeled the character of Dracula after Henry Irving, the most famous actor of the period. Stoker was Irving’s business manager, and it seems he both adored and feared the man. Indeed, he wanted Irving to play the part of Dracula on the stage, but Irving refused, perhaps believing that playing “modern” characters like Dracula (and Sherlock Holmes, BTW) was beneath him.

This is an interesting tidbit, and maybe it tells us something about Victorian society. Maybe the vampire legend’s enduring popularity can tell us other things about society.

Then again, maybe not. Maybe it is just a cool vampire story after all. Either way, though, don’t you want to stick around to find out? 🙂 As I did with the Headless Horseman legend last October, each weekend this month I’m going to take a look at some of the stories related to Dracula and see if there’s anything interesting to be discovered.

Dark Magic is a novella about two groups of magicians: the “Maestros of Magic” and “The Carnival of Conjurors.” The latter begins making a sensation with some truly spectacular performances that seem unbelievable to the Maestros, who investigate and eventually discover that the secret of the Conjurors is in fact real black magic.

What follows is a series of daring episodes of theatrical sabotage, as the Maestros try to thwart their rivals. It’s fast paced and exciting, although still with a few moments to catch your breath and learn something about the characters, all of whom are quite well-drawn, considering how short the book is.

If I have a quibble with the book, it’s that it seemed like the Maestros were a little too willing, too quickly, to jump to some rather dramatic conclusions about the Conjurors. Yes, they turn out to be correct, but even so, it seemed a tad rushed. 

That’s a minor point, though. Overall, this is a very fun story with an absolutely perfect ending. I half-guessed it before it was revealed, but even so, it worked quite well. I know I say this about a lot of things, but if you like Twilight Zone type stories, you’ll love this.

I like magic shows and supernatural mysteries, so in that regard, this book was perfect for me. There are a few ways in which it was not perfect for me, however:

  • I’ll try to say it without spoiling anything, but there are a few references to women meeting violent ends.  Nothing particularly graphic, but most readers know that I’m always uncomfortable with female victims as the hook for mystery stories. Give me Stephen Leacock’s “body of an elderly gentleman, upside down, but otherwise entirely dressed” as the victim and I’m much more comfortable. But again, I want to be clear this is not a criticism of the book, by any stretch.
  • One of the characters suffers from extreme arachnophobia, and this is a major plot point. I’m not quite at the “extreme” stage–I can look at a spider without screaming and running away–but I don’t like them. If the Thought Police ever took me to Room 101, there would certainly be spiders in place of rats. So, reading about them can be a little creepy, although I could really empathize with the character who feared them.
  • I also am mildly claustrophobic. Mostly, this relates to elevators and an irrational fear I have of being stuck in one. And once again, this book includes a scene with a claustrophobic character who is trapped for some time in a confined space. 
  • Finally, I know I have at least one reader who is not a fan of chainsaws, and there’s one critical scene involving a mishap with one of those. 

To be clear, I’m in no way objecting to these things being in the book. Rather, I’m complimenting the book, because it’s such a good story I kept reading despite these things, and found it to be quite a satisfying story overall. 

The book description says the author is familiar with the world of stage magic, and that certainly seems to be the case–the descriptions of the life of a touring magic show feel very authentic. 

This is a perfect read for the Halloween season–creepy, weird, and tinged with dark humor. 

[Audio version of this post available below.]

This is a deeply strange book. It is set in an alternate future in which the Roman Empire still exists, and has evolved into a starfaring civilization. There is also a strong mystical element involving something called the Godstream, which is evidently some powerful, magical energy which grants great power.

And of course, as in the original Roman Empire, there are political machinations aplenty as various noblemen and women scheme for power. There are betrayals heaped upon betrayals, and ever-shifting alliances.

The first half of the book I admit was pretty dense, with lots of world-building I found hard to understand. It may just be my own literal mindedness; but I initially struggled to form a clear picture of what was happening. I did get strong Dune vibes, though, which is on balance a good thing. (Maybe with the exception of imitating Frank Herbert’s technique of frequent italicized thoughts to deliver exposition. But hey, if it worked for Herbert, it can’t be all bad.)

The second half of the book turned into more of a classic adventure type story. If not for the occasional references to philosophy and mysticism, I practically would have thought I was reading a Henry Vogel novel. There is a brave hero fleeing from two competing groups of villains, a beautiful slave woman he rescues in the process, and a wild battle in a gladiatorial arena.

This gladiator scene was the highlight of the book for me. The star is the gladiator Deimos. It’s the only chapter he’s in out of the entire book, but he has a complete story arc in that one chapter.

After that, there’s more mysticism, although it seems less esoteric this time, and more intrigue, back-stabbing, and a final battle. The ending feels satisfying, even though there were still some things I didn’t fully grok.

What to make of this book? Well, at times it was heavy-going. Partly, that’s because of all the Latin terms the author uses to create the setting. I liked this, but at the same time, it made it hard to keep track of who was who. Those more familiar with Roman naming customs may not find this to be a problem.

Then there’s also the mysticism element. I think the author was trying to make a point about philosophy, or maybe even about the nature of divinity, but I admit I couldn’t tell what it was. Again, that might be indicative of my own lack of understanding rather than a problem with the book.

Overall, I found it a tough but ultimately rewarding read. If you like deep sci-fi, with some adventure elements thrown in, I think you’ll enjoy it.

[Audio version of this post available below.]

There is of course a powerful recency bias that is well-documented, but offhand, this may be the funniest book I’ve ever read. It’s certainly up there. Even when reading a really funny book, I rarely laugh out loud. I laughed out loud multiple times per chapter reading this.

I could try to give you a plot summary, but it just wouldn’t do justice to this madcap epic. Basically, there’s a mysterious virus that gives geese human-like intelligence and the ability to talk. This results in tensions between the world’s human and geese populations, culminating in two wars.

If this sounds insane; well, yeah, it is. But it’s a comedy! And that’s just the setup. The titular goose finder is a man named Harlan. Harlan is a gruff, hard, Clint Eastwood type of character, seeking to avenge the death of his brother in the Goose Wars by finding and killing every goose he can. He’s hired by a toaster tycoon to find (but not kill) one specific goose.

It just gets wilder from there. There’s a mad scientist building a time machine, a desert sorcerer, an old sea captain, a ruthless goose general, a couple of infatuated hackers… the list goes on. It’s totally crazy, and I loved every word of it. Each chapter had me laughing harder than the last.

I think humor is probably the hardest genre to recommend, because it is so dependent on personal taste. With a romance book, for example, everyone has a fairly similar general idea of what a romance should be like, and so even if it’s not to their taste, they still can tell what it was supposed to be. But with humor, you either think it’s funny or you don’t. If you don’t, then you’re just going to be like, “What the hell did I just read?”

But it’s a chance worth taking. Not everyone is going to get it, but the people who do get it are going to love it. This book was recommended to me by Noah Goats himself, a master of comic novels, and I’m so glad he told me about it. It’s an absolute hoot.

I try not to quote too much from the books I review, but for this one, I’m going to give you a few of my favorite lines. If you laugh at them, it probably means you need to read this.

“Some of the toughest bastards in the world had marched into City Hall to renew a fishing license only to come out deeply changed, haunted by the feeling that something had been taken from them.”

Here is one of the two besotted hackers, describing how they started dating:

“We met at an anarchy convention, which turned out to be a disaster. Horribly organized.”

Then there is one of the scientist’s speeches, which I actually found moving as well as funny:

“Why do things die? That’s just idiotic… it’s okay when bad things die, like spiders and naked mole rats, but not things like cats, dogs, or people. Especially people. People shouldn’t die, and it’s stupid that they do. It really creams my corn, I don’t mind telling you.”

Maybe none of that makes you even begin to think about the possibility of chuckling inwardly. If so, you should probably skip this. But if it makes you laugh, like me, then you should pick it up.

Underneath all the humor, there is actually a bit of a message about understanding and empathizing with those who are different. It’s not heavy-handed at all, but just a nice touch that makes the whole story feel essentially good-hearted.

A final note: there is some mild violence in the book that might be upsetting to some readers. It’s nothing graphic or explicit. It’s the literary equivalent of the violence in movies like Airplane! or Monty Python and the Holy Grail in terms of realism.

However, because this is a comedy, I feel an obligation to say something. Again, this is another thing that makes recommending a comedy tricky. One person’s hilarious joke may evoke uncomfortable memories for someone else. Unlike with, say, horror, where you can reasonably anticipate reading things that are horrific, I hate the idea of recommending a comedy to someone and having them instead find something about it upsetting, however benign it may appear to me. Particularly because it can be especially disturbing when something you take seriously is treated humorously.

This is a roundabout way of saying, if violence against geese, or gunfights, or grenades, are upsetting to you, this book might not be for you. If you want to know more about these details of the book, please feel free to email or DM me on Twitter. I’m happy to discuss.

[Audio version of this post available below.]

This is a literary novel about a young woman named Faby who lives in Vermont in the 1920s. Faby is obsessed with vaudeville acts that come to town. Every year, she attends with her sister and relishes watching the different acts.

One performer in particular who catches her eye is a dancer called Slim White, who bills himself as “America’s Favorite Hoofer.” Faby catches his eye as well, and after a quick fling one evening, Faby becomes pregnant. White, whose real name is Louis Kittell, seems willing to do the right thing and marries her, and the newlyweds start off on a trip across the Eastern United States, as Kittell moves from one town to another performing in various shows.

Normally, what I’ll find most memorable about a book is either the plot or the characters. I’ve just described about 80% of the plot, saving one semi-twist near the end, and while it’s certainly fine, it wasn’t what grabbed me.

As for the characters: Faby starts out as a naive girl, barely more than a child, and while it’s easy to feel pity for the situation she finds herself in, she’s a very passive type. Things happen to her, rather than her doing them.

And then we’ve got Louis: he’s basically a con man. A charming con man, to be sure, (think Robert Preston in The Music Man, or Burt Lancaster in The Rainmaker) but still ultimately a con man. It quickly becomes clear to Faby that he lies routinely and often for no apparent reason. Given this, many of his later actions are not really surprising. He’s not an absolutely terrible person, and he does in some sense care for Faby, but he’s far from being a good guy, and much of the book is just waiting for the inevitable in that regard.

But even though the characters weren’t the most likable folks in the world, and the plot is straightforward, I recommend this book strongly to fans of literary fiction. There are two reasons: one, the writing is just beautiful. It reminds me of Mark Paxson’s, and his mentor, Zoe Keithley’s, knack for crafting gorgeous paragraphs that really make you feel what the characters are feeling. For that reason alone, this is worth picking up.

The other reason is the setting. The author clearly spent a lot of time researching the culture, the fashions, the technology, and the slang of the 1920s, and it paid off in a big way. And I loved all the references to vaudeville. Louis may be a lying scoundrel, but I can’t deny that his little tidbits about the vaudeville life are enjoyable.

There are numerous references to many then-famous performers, including a brief mention of Elsie Janis. Janis is little-remembered today, but she was known as “The Sweetheart of the American Expeditionary Force” for her benefit shows in World War I. (She also hailed from my own stomping grounds of Central Ohio.  I once lived in an apartment built more or less on the site of her Columbus home.)

As you can tell from the above, I love history, and this book is like stepping into a time machine to a bygone era. I’ve read a decent amount of historical fiction, but it’s rare to find something that transports you so completely to another era. That, combined with the wonderful prose, are what make Telling Sonny memorable.

[Audio version of this post available below.]