I’ve been on quite a reviewing roll lately — I’ve found at least something to like about every single book I’ve read for the past three months or more, and in several of them I’ve found quite a lot to like. My streak mostly continues with this post, which examines not one, not two, but three titles by Tim Curran, an impressively prolific writer who fortunately doesn’t sacrifice quality to achieve quantity.
First up is The Spawning, a meaty novel from Elder Signs Press that effectively combines eldritch Lovecraftian horrors with shape-shifting aliens a la The Thing, all in a harsh, foreboding Antarctic winter setting of nearly perpetual night.
The novel kicks off with a bang-bang prologue that seems like it will be impossible to follow, but Curran keeps the action flowing through the course of 125 short, punchy chapters. The plot initially bounces frequently between several Antarctic locales — The Polar Clime Station, NOAA Field Lab Polaris, and the Emperor Ice Cave — making the action a little hard to follow at times, especially given the large palette of characters used, but fortunately none of those characters seem cliched or stereotypical, and the identities of the primary figures are soon well-established.
Chief among them is Nick Coyle, the camp cook and confidante at Polar Clime Station and a veteran of 12 Antarctic winters. His good friend Frye and friend-with-benefits Gwen are also frequently on stage, and its eventually the plight of these three that the reader comes to most strongly identify with.
When a helicopter from the clandestine, military-controlled Colony Station crashes, a Polar Clime rescue team is first to arrive on scene and sees in the wreckage the body of something alien…and terrifying. Meanwhile, the research crew stationed at the Emperor Ice Cave make the ill-advised decision to thaw out their own alien discovery. The awakening creatures initially manifest their presence in the thoughts and nightmares of nearby humans, but then later in a more physical fashion. For those trapped in the station, all hell literally begins to break loose.
Curran leverages his setting well, juxtaposing the vast, foreboding Antarctic ice fields with the claustrophobic confines of polar shelters. Finally, Curran’s depiction of the shoggoths and shapeshifters are vivid and well realized, and his descriptions of the Old Ones’ master plans are likewise chilling, as here:
“Its kind waited it all out, sleeping away down here in their frozen tombs in black cellars of dead cities while men rose from ape-like ancestors and skittered across hillsides like white ants, self-important, brimming with conceit over their mastery of nature and their rising rudimentary intellect, never knowing, never guessing in their supreme arrogance that they had been engineered, created to fulfill a purpose and that purpose was to be harvested, wheat to the scythe as the Old Ones had engineered, modified, and harvested so many life forms.”
The Spawning is 384 pages of tiny print, easily 500 pages in a more standard font size and layout, and despite the onslaught of action, it does drag a little at times, usually when Curran gets a little overly fixated on providing a thorough description, and winds up saying essentially the same thing two or three different ways. That’s minor criticism, however, for a book that features generally stalwart pacing, admirable character development and — notably — strong, believable dialog.
The Spawning is sub-titled “Book Two of the Hive series,” and on the plus side, I didn’t feel like I missed anything by not having read Book 1, but the ending of this novel does seem more like a pause than a conclusion, which is not unusual for the 2nd book in a trilogy. Hopefully there won’t be a five-year gap between books 2 and 3, as there was between books 1 and 2.
Bone Marrow Stew, a collection of Curran’s short fiction from Tasmaniac Publications, is another large volume, coming in at 455 pages, although the typeface is of a more standard size here. The book gathers 17 stories, with publication dates ranging from 1995 to 2007, plus two originals. It’s likely no coincidence that my favorite stories were consistently the longer ones, wherein Curran has more opportunity to develop his characters and his plotlines.
A case in point is the science fiction/horror tale “Migration,” which — like The Spawning — focuses on a group trapped inside an outpost under siege from outside forces — in the case, the group are part of a mining operation on the planet Cygni-5, and suddenly find themselves in the migrational path of a previously-unknown species of deadly arthropod. Although “The Chattering of Tiny Teeth” and “Long in the Tooth” feature vastly different settings, with the former taking place on the battlefields of World War I and the latter in the contemporary English marsh country, both build creepy atmosphere and feature similar creatures — small, childlike, but hungry and lethal. “The Legend of Black Betty” is a voodoo western, with a high Priestess cum bordello madame transplanted from New Orleans to Nevada, where she is angered by the local settlers and takes out her vengeance via a zombie uprising. In “The Wreck of the Ghost,” a 19th-century whaling vessel encounters Cthulhu on the high seas, while in “One Dark September Night…” what starts out as an innocent coming-of-age story takes a very nasty turn when three boys find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time, spying upon a man burying a body. As you can see from the wide variety of locales and subject matter, Curran is no one-trick pony — he writes on a variety of subjects, employing diverse styles, and the result is almost always entertaining. There are only a small handful of stories here that I didn’t care all that much for. The author does still at times display a tendency to become verbose and repetitive in his descriptive passages, but for the most part this doesn’t detract significantly from the stories’ impact.
The collection is rounded out with an Afterword from Curran, wherein he explains the genesis of each story. As an aside, I had wondered, given that Curran is American, why he had two titles appear recently from Australian publishers — this collection as well as Zombie Pulp from Severed Press. Curran’s Afterword offers a likely explanation, as he mentions that he appeared in all 10 issues of the Australian magazine Dark Animus, a fact that no doubt helped introduce his work to Australian readers and publishers.
Providing a fine overview of Curran’s shorter fiction, Bone Marrow Stew is limited to 250 signed, numbered copies, and also includes signatures from Intro-writer Simon Clark and artist Keith Minnion. It’s sub-titled Collected Works – Volume One, so perhaps Tasmaniac has plans for more Curran.
Last up in Tim’s trio is the novel Fear Me
from Delirium Books. So, does this book complete a top-notch trifecta for Curran? Well, not quite. Fear Me is certainly not a bad book, but the repetitive passages that occasionally detract from the two titles discussed earlier are much more painfully apparent here in a story which, at 202 pages, is stretched well beyond what would seem to be the comfortable limits of the rather bare-bones plot.
Protagonist Romero is a hard-ass convict who’s a long-term resident of maximum-security Shaddock Valley prison. When he gets a rather wimpy-looking new cellmate, one Danny Palmquist, Romero figures it’s only a matter of time before Danny is forced to become a Daniela, made to perform sexual acts and stripped of all dignity and self-respect. Sure enough, Palmquist is not even in-house for 24 hours before the brutalization begins. But what Romero and the other cons don’t realize is that Palmquist is more than he appears. Far more.
At his last stop in the penal system, Brickhaven, multiple unexplained killings were left in his wake, resulting in his transfer to Shaddock Valley. And just like clockwork, Palmquist’s initial attacker at his latest correctional facility is soon found murdered, while locked in his cell. And not just murdered, as Curran describes:
“Weems looked like a pillow that had its stuffing scattered in every conceivable direction. His insides were on the floor, smeared on the walls, dripping from the ceiling.”
Despite the grisly fate that meets Palmquist’s attacker, there’s no shortage of others looking to do him harm, starting with an assassin seeking payback for the deaths that previously occurred at Brickhaven. Even though he knows better, Romero inexplicably begins to feel bad for his new cellie, and starts looking out for him… not that Palmquist really needs the help, given the seemingly supernatural presence that extracts revenge on anyone looking to do him harm.
Events proceed pretty much predictably, culminating in a bloody riot. None of the characters ever manage to rise above stereotypes, not even Romero, who at least does the unexpected at times, but he’s never given a backstory to make him more than two-dimensional. All in all, Fear Me isn’t a bad way to spend a few hours, but it’s far from Curran’s best work.