Michael McBride throws a curve with The Coyote

I’ve reviewed several Michael McBride titles in the past, enjoying the vast majority of them.  His latest book (or one of his latest, I should say, since his prolificity — yes, it’s a word — continues to astonish me), The Coyote, published by Thunderstorm Books, marks a fairly significant departure in some ways for McBride.  Gone are the unusual creatures or perils that often populate his stories; gone are the scientist-type protagonists and somewhat science-fictional underpinnings that he frequently employs.  Instead, we have an FBI agent tracking a very human serial killer.  But while some of the trappings may be different, McBride’s strengths remain: superb pacing, engaging plot developments, and strong, non-stereotyped characters.  The resulting novel is one of McBride’s very best works.

The protagonist is half-Native-American FBI agent Lukas Walker, whose cynical, world-weary view helps lend the tale a noir-ish tone, despite its setting in the wide-open sun-baked desert, as succinctly captured in the following passage:

I shivered despite the warmth of the night and stared out over the valley to the east.  The Amnesty Trail.  An endless stream of victims. Infinite places to hide. The American Dream. The Valley of Death.

Walker has been called to the Tohono O’odham reservation in Arizona, a hot spot for illegal immigrants crossings into the U.S. due to its thirty-six miles of unfenced border.  Walker has come to investigate a murder that left no corpse, but a great deal of blood, purposely painted on a canyon wall.  He forms a somewhat uneasy alliance with the strangely impassive tribal police Chief Ray Antone, who keeps his personal history and certain other details to himself while at the same time seeking to educate Walker on tribal history and legends.  Enduring the Chief’s machinations and the scorching heat, Walker maintains a grim, wry sense of humor, as evidenced here:

The chief’s squad car was like a sauna. He smirked every time I toggled the AC switch. I was starting to think of it as a stick I used to poke the midget who lived under the hood, prompting him to blow his rank breath through a straw and into the vents.  This kind of heat does strange things to your brain, as I was starting learn. I saw lakes on the horizon, but we never seemed to reach them as they poured off the edge of the earth.

As Walker’s investigation proceeds, more killings occur, and it quickly becomes apparent that he’s dealing with a serial killer, one who’s seemingly intent on playing a cat-and-mouse game with him.  In the course of events, Walker — who had believed his personal connection to the Tohono O’odham nation was tenuous at best — learns some surprising facts about his past…and present.

McBride clearly performed a great deal of research in putting together this novel, and it shows — not in the form of massive info-dumps, as you’d find many writers resorting to, but rather via a gradual unveiling of details.  The fascinating background info, the unique desert setting, and the compelling plot all combined to keep me deeply engrossed in the story. It’s also worth mentioning that the Thunderstorm hardcover is a beautiful artifact, with great overall design and production values, including four-color pages kicking off each chapter.  All in all, The Coyote is a significant book, and comes highly recommended.

Orrin Grey’s Never Bet the Devil — A Winning Gamble

As I mentioned in an earlier column, after I had criticized the state of new publisher Evileye Books’ website, they responded by sending me a box of their titles.  I figured I owed them a review for that, so I picked out — pretty much at random — Orrin Grey’s collection Never Bet the Devil and Other Warnings.  I was familiar with Grey’s name, but had never read anything by him.  What followed was one of the most pleasant unexpected surprises that I’ve had in a while.

Never Bet the Devil contains nine stories (two of which are debuting here) and a novella.  The tales are consistently fast-paced, frequently feature plots and milieus refreshingly far from the norm, and display evidence of Grey’s obvious, genuine enthusiasm for his subject matter.  For example, in “Nearly Human,” the biographer of the scandalous, purported devil-worshipper Dr. Edward Tate is invited by Tate’s surviving family to investigate what seems to be a poltergeist haunting his former house.  What the biographer discovers is decidedly unexpected (as is fortunately the case with most of the stories here); call this one a nicely-updated pulp thriller.  A novel approach can also be found in “The Barghest,” wherein some highly unusual bones under examination by an archeologist and his assistant yield startling results.  It’s ultimately a riff on a popular trope, but that fact is kept well-cloaked until the end.  The true essence of oil– i.e., the stuff of which it’s made — is explored in “Black Hill,” as an oil company owner comes face-to-face with an evil that dwells below the wells.

“The Seventh Picture” is sort of a fiction equivalent of the found-footage films that have proven so enduringly popular in the wake of The Blair Witch Project.  A film crew making a documentary about deceased producer/director Arnold Zenda and his mysterious, lost final film The King in Yellow stumbles upon much more than they bargained for while shooting in Zenda’s abandoned, fire-damaged mansion.  I’m a sucker for stories about lost films (e.g., Joel Lane’s The Witnesses Are Gone and Ramsey Campbell’s Ancient Images) and this taut piece of terror was the highlight of the collection for me.  “Count Brass” features an engaging 2nd-person narrative style, with the protagonist revealing that his jazz-musician grandfather made a deal with the devil (the eponymous “Count Brass”), an arrangement that has repercussions far beyond what the elder anticipated.

Novella “The Mysterious Flame, which closes out the collection, is by far the longest story here, and Grey struggles at times working with the larger canvas.  In the end, though, this tale of a golem who clings to the shadows and the strange, seemingly revived-from-the-dead figure who pursues him inexorably pulls in the reader.

I love it when collections include author’s notes for each story, and Never Bet the Devil does so, affording Grey the chance to add some insight into the stories’ genesis and publishing history.

All in all, this debut collection turned out to be one of those all-too-rare serendipitous discoveries of a fresh new talent.  There’s nary a dud to be found in these pages, and I heartily recommend that you take a chance on Never Bet the Devil.

Peering into Darkness with The Ghosts & Scholars Book of Shadows

The backstory of The Ghosts & Scholars Book of Shadows, edited by Rosemary Pardoe and published by Sarob Press, is as interesting as the fiction contained within.  As Pardoe explains in her introduction, she was the longtime editor of the late, lamented Ghosts & Scholars magazine, a publication dedicated to 19th-century ghost story master M.R. James and the style of fiction he’s inspired.

G&S ceased publishing after issue #33 in 2001 and was essentially supplanted by the Ghosts & Scholars Newsletter, which initially had an exclusively non-fiction focus. More recently, though, Pardoe has sponsored some fiction competitions through the Newsletter, with the most recent such contest — a challenge to come up with prequels or sequels to James’ stories — spawning this anthology.

Across all 12 stories gathered here, the tone and atmosphere is amazingly consistent (even if not necessarily “Jamesian”), the sense of time and place unerrringly strong.  As with almost any anthology, however, the quality of the stories is not quite so consistent.  Fortunately, there are no truly bad stories to weigh down the collection, but there are definitely a few that eschew pacing in favor of atmosphere — which is to say they’re downright slow, even by antiquarian standards.

Christopher Harman’s “Quis Est Iste?” was judged to be the winner of the aforementioned contest, and it’s not hard to see why. Harman’s pompous protagonist Mr. Rogers returns to the vacation spot where his friend Professor Parkin had a…notably bad time, and Rogers’ visit gradually turns for the worse, as a palpable sense of dread begins to form.

Helen Grant’s “’Canon Alberic de Mauleon” is a finely-turned tale of revenge between two brothers, providing insight into the early years of the eponymous character before his brother Henri’s cruelties bring an unexpected twist. Reggie Oliver’s “Between Four Yews” is intriguingly intricate, utilizing nested narratives to relate what is, at its heart, another tale of revenge. Oliver adopts the requisite style while at the same time adapting it incorporate a subtle, wry sense of humor, as can be seen in passages such as the following:

“A few days later the whole district was agog with the latest news: Sir Arthur was dead. Lady Felicia had been away, spending the night with relatives, and her husband had dined alone. When the servant had come in to collect the dishes at the end of the meal he found his master, as usual, asleep, or so at first he thought. But Sir Arthur’s posture seemed unusually awkward and he was not emitting the stertorous snore which was the usual consequence of his potations. In short, Sir Arthur had died from some kind of seizure, perhaps brought on by a choking fit. Strange white marks had been observed around his throat, but, as nothing could be made of them by the men of science, they were dismissed as irrelevant. ‘Died of drink,’ was the general verdict.”

Peter Bell, whose work I’ve sung the praises of previously, offers a nested narrative of his own, as a Professor relates the tale of his niece, who acquired a former rectory, unaware of a rather sordid part of its history (which occurred during a total eclipse, no less), and thus ultimately found her own family befell by tragedy.

The only James story to receive dual coverage here is “The Mezzotint,” which is riffed on by both Rick Kennett and John Lewellyn Probert, albeit in in very different, and satisfying, ways.  David Sutton and Derek John also offer strong entries in The Book of Shadows.

On the disappointing side, I’ll only mention a small handful of tales. Pardoe says she considers Jacqueline Simpson’s “The Guardian” to be a light-hearted change of pace, but it struck me more as a lightweight waste of time.  C.E. Ward’s “The Gift” is an intriguing tale of one Revernd Dr. Luard’s curiosity and, ultimately, greed, but is hamstrung somewhat by awkward omniscient narration.  Although Mark Valentine is an extremely highly-regarded author, and I’ve enjoyed much of his prior work, I found his tale “Fire Companions” relatively dense and impenetrable.

Issued as a limited-edition (340 copies) hardcover and featuring a beautifully-appropriate full-color illustration by one of my long-time favorite artists,  Paul Lowe, The Ghosts & Scholars Book of Shadows is a must-have for established lovers of Jamesian fiction, but perhaps not the best introduction to the sub-genre for the uninitiated.  (Note that while the book has not officially been declared to be out of print, Sarob Press owner Robert Morgan indicated several weeks ago that less than 20 copies remained in stock from the publisher.)