Sunday, January 6, 2013
Reading Makes You Smart: Tales of the Shadowmen, Vol. 1: The Modern Babylon
You’ve got your French heroes mixed in with my American pulp!
Tales of the Shadowmen is an annual anthology released every year by the husband and wife duo of Jean-Marc and Randy Lofficier, a collection of short stories taking on the World Newton conceit of a shared fictional universe, but focusing specifically on French literary characters. Since 2005, there has been one volume released each year, with a ninth forthcoming. I’m going to try and review each volume, tackling them story-by-story, as I feel there’s currently no definitive look at the series as a whole. It’s not going to happen overnight, but hopefully I’ll get through the whole series in due time.
Tales of the Shadowmen, Volume 1: The Modern Babylon
1. “Mask of the Monster” by Matthew Baugh
The first story of the collection is the first published story from Matthew Baugh, which pits the French crime-fighter Judex and famous detective Jules Maigret against the Frankenstein Monster, here named “Gouroull” and based off of a series of sequels to the original Frankenstein by Jean-Claude Carriere. A mostly tepid affair, the story is entertaining enough, but one can’t help but feel a certain lifelessness. The story concerns Maigret’s love interest Louise being kidnapped by Gouroull, who is acting as the lackey for the sinister Kramm Brothers in order to collect a ransom. There’s all the suitable hairbreadth escapes and daring encounters one comes to expect from pulp fiction, but it’s all much like the stock footage borrowed from a much better movie in a Roger Corman production. Baugh also sets up some interesting conceits, such as the hard-lined, black/white justice-seeking of Judex juxtaposed with the more practical Maigret, or allusions to Beauty and the Beast in Louise’s relationship with her monstrous captor, but those ideas are merely introduced, and not developed any further. I was also disappointed in the depiction of the Monster himself - I’ve never read Carriere’s sequels to Mary Shelley’s original, so maybe it’s entirely in keeping with the character of Gouroull - but having the Monster be inherently evil feels like a misstep. The best Frankenstein stories always depicted the Monster in a far more sympathetic light - as a creature who does monstrous deeds but is not manifestly evil. A more nuanced portrayal of Gouroull would have made for a story that resonated more on an emotional level. Still, this was Baugh’s first published story. His contributions to the Shadowmen series get much better in subsequent volumes.
2. “Cadavres Exquis” by Bill Cunningham
For his story, Bill Cunningham sought to utilize a lesser-known French hero and make the character entirely his own - which he does in spectacular fashion. The character Cunningham chooses for this task is the pulp hero Fascinax, a bizarre but entirely compelling proto-superhero whose series only lasted 22 issues before fading into obscurity. Fascinax follows the usual tropes of pulp heroes at the time - a wealthy playboy doctor by day (with obligatory butler and tired-but-loyal fiance), and grim avenger of justice by night - but his powers come from the ability to extend his mind and body to their utmost limits, giving him complete control of his every muscle and nerve. His arch-nemesis is a criminal genius named Numa Pergyll, who is possessed of similar abilities via a growing tumor in his brain. Much more than a simple tale of good vs. evil, Cunningham’s story portrays a grim, psycho-dramatic feud between extreme personalities. There’s just enough light shed on Fascinax and his bride-to-be Francoise to get us to care, and Cunningham’s prose always keeps the reader guessing by jumping back-and-forth through time to stunning effect - leaving just enough blanks between the spaces for the reader to piece together the central mystery of the story. There are several clever ideas at play, whether it’s a painting that inspires hypnosis or Fascinax’s near-sexual molestation of a corpse in order to read its “aura.” It’s a wickedly entertaining read that all leads up to a tragic gut-punch of an ending, which sees Pergyll exacting the ultimate revenge on Fascinax. My only disappointment was the short epilogue, which felt tacked-on and obvious, and failed to live up to the promise of the ending.
3. “When Lemmy Met Jules” by Terrence Dicks
This one’s a very short-but-sweet offering, in which American G-man Lemmy Caution travels to Paris in pursuit of a wanted criminal, meeting up with Detective Jules Maigret along the way. It’s great fun to see the hard-nosed Caution bounce off of the older, unassuming Maigret, but coming in at around three-and-a-half pages, the story doesn’t leave much of an impression. Had it been longer and further developed the relationship between Caution and Maigret, we could have had something significant, but as it stands the short is merely an entertaining diversion.
4. “The Vanishing Devil” by Win Scott Eckert
Farmer disciple and World Newton guru Win Scott Eckert delivers a tale pitting Doc Savage against his immortal foe Fu Manchu… Or rather, their French counterparts, Doc Ardan and Doctor Natas. The problem you’re likely to encounter in these World Newton pastiches is that they feel more like checklists than true stories. Eckert devises a pretty nifty transportation gadget for Natas to use in his schemes, but in the end it’s all just a diversion for the Devil Doctor (and author) to hide their true intentions: devising the heritage for Marvel Comics’ Shang Chi. Which I don’t really mind too terribly, being that Shang Chi is awesome (and the idea of Doc Savage being his grandfather is doubly awesome). But throw in some other random appearances by Sherlock Holmes and Maigret along with a host of other references, and it’s hard to see how anyone not well-versed in pulp and literary fiction will be able to keep up without a stronger story to latch onto.
5. “The Three Jewish Horsemen” by Viviane Etrivert
The first story in the collection by a native French author, Etrivert crafts an amusing little side story where Josephine Balsamo, Lord Baskerville and Erik the Phantom team up to find a hidden treasure in Montpellier… only to discover that world-famous thief Arsene Lupin may have already beaten them to the chase. Etrivert moves her story along at a blistering pace; perhaps too brisk, as the story feels like it’s over almost as soon as it begins. But there’s still plenty of nice little details packed therein, such as the Phantom’s portable “hologram” of his beloved Christine that he takes with him everywhere, or the various disguises Lupin uses in his schemes to outwit his three competitors. It’s all-in-all a fun little romp.
6. “The Werewolf of Rutherford Grange” by G.L. Gick
G.L. Gick’s contribution is his first published work, and also the first of a two part story, to be continued in the next volume. And what a story it is! Gick has a very natural voice, giving his tale a light and humorous touch in this first installment - one that I’m quite sure will turn far darker in the next part, given how this one ends. Chronicling a young Harry Dickson’s seemingly-easy job out in the small town of Wolfsbridge, the story takes its time to set up the central mystery, and comes to an abrupt end right as things start to pick up, but Gick has such a command over the characters and his narrative that I didn‘t mind. There’s no werewolf - yet - but I greatly look forward to reading the next installment to see what happens next.
7. “The Last Vendetta” by Rick Lai
I love me some Spaghetti Westerns, so already Rick Lai has me in his corner by populating his story with famous Italian gunfighters such as Django and Loco from The Great Silence (called “Aguirre” here for no other reason other than both characters were played by Klaus Kinski)… But again, here we are met with a case of establishing continuity over telling an actual story. Lai’s short sees an aging Arthur Gordon travel to New Orleans to take part in an Assassin’s Auction, where famous weaponry from killers across the globe are put up for sale to the highest bidder by Josephine Balsamo. Lai has fun describing such familiar items as a certain flying guillotine and a Mauser pistol previously used by a mute gunslinger, but too much of the story is given to a rather random collection of characters standing around, trading stories about each weapon - whole paragraphs are devoted to explaining the historical inconsistencies of Django, serving no real purpose in the narrative. The story doesn’t even truly kick in until the final two pages, but even then Lai seems far more interested in clearing up family trees than actual storytelling (which still left me scratching my head, in regards to who was related to who). I appreciate the references to works that I enjoy, but I would appreciate an actual storyline more.
8. “The Sainte Genevieve Caper” by Alain le Bussy
Thief extraordinaire Arsene Lupin returns again in this clever little romp, although he never actually makes an appearance in the story proper. The long-suffering Inspector Ganimard stages a ploy he thinks will finally bring the gentlemen thief to justice, but the plot backfires in his face as Lupin evades his trap and still walks away with the loot. Le Bussy’s prose is light and energetic, and he cleverly weaves Lupin into the story without the character ever having to show his face.
9. “Journey to the Center of Chaos” by Jean-Marc and Randy Lofficier
Now we’re talking. The contribution by series editors Jean-Marc and Randy Lofficier hits all of my pleasure centers: Lovecraft, Burroughs-ian hidden cities, yetis… This is fantastic stuff, through and through. The story sees JimGrim traveling with a certain professor from Miskatonic University in search of a lost city containing a portal for the dreaded Yog-Sothoth, and it’s up to Robur and a host of other characters to stop them before it’s too late. The Lofficiers keep piling on the characters and the wacky ideas for this good old fashioned page-turner, crafting a story that’s fun and thrilling and everything you’d expect upon hearing the mission statement of the Tales of the Shadowmen anthology. It’s a little slight, but the story itself is so much fun to read that I didn’t mind.
10. “Lacunal Visions” by Samuel T. Payne
The star of literary history’s very first mystery story is highlighted here, as Edgar Allen Poe’s C. August Dupin helps Police Sergeant Picard’s case of clockwork thievery. Payne crafts an intriguing little mystery for his relatively short contribution, of a seemingly invisible (or perhaps time-immaterial) thief who seems obsessed with stealing random bits and machinery from watchmakers all across Paris. Payne also keeps his story lively through some clever bits of humor, as the somewhat buffoonish Picard tries to keep up with Poe’s amateur detective.
11. “The Kind-Hearted Torturer” by John Peel
Dupin returns in John Peel’s story, which sees him getting involved with one Edmond Dantes, the self-made Count of Monte Cristo. Dupin becomes involved by happening upon a murder scene, which leads him to a Count now living peacefully after exacting his years-in-the-making plot of revenge. The two of them soon become involved in a kidnapping scheme involving the Black Coats criminal organization, which leads to several daring and breathless encounters. Peel stages the mystery and swashbuckling elements with a flair that would make both Poe and Dumas proud; his depiction of the Count feels especially true to Dumas’ original creation, as even after finding peace, Dantes still proves to be a menacing, vampiric figure.
12. “Penumbra” by Chris Roberson
Judex makes a return appearance in Chris Roberson’s engaging yarn, and through various twists of fate finds himself witness to the beginnings of several other dark avengers of the night. He runs across a dark (you might even say shadowy?) barnstormer/aviator named Kent Allard, and also has dalliances with a young honeymooning couple named Thomas and Martha Wayne (who also discovers by the end that she’s pregnant). I don’t recall the story having all that much action - which is a first for this first Shadowmen volume - but Roberson’s prose is thoroughly entertaining throughout. Although I’m not sure how I feel about Martha Wayne’s portrayal; it’s entirely fitting to have The Shadow be Batman’s true father, but the idea of Martha cheating on her husband just didn’t sit well with me. That’s a personal quibble, however, and has no bearing on the excellent quality of the story itself.
13. “The Paris-Ganymede Clock” by Robert Sheckley
Published mere month’s before the late author’s death, “The Paris-Ganymede Clock” is something of a puzzle. The story concerns the titular clock, an artifact found in an indeterminate future on one of the moons of Jupiter; a clear sign of intelligent alien life. Of course it gets stolen during a public exhibition (and of course that happens during the obligatory power blackout), with only a white card reading “Fantomas” left behind. The psychic detective Arthur Wimsey is on the case, which he solves by… being teleported to a distant planet and having the whole mystery explained to him. Or at least, part of the mystery. I have to admit, this one feels more like a curiosity than a story - there’s no real drive to the plot, no insight into any of the main characters, and the central mystery (and its subsequent explanation) isn’t all that compelling. I also fail to see what Fantomas has to do with any of this: the character never appears, and aside from leaving a calling card at the scene of the crime, never really feels like a major part of the story. Considering Sheckley’s previous work, it could be that there’s a joke I’m not getting, but this story just left me scratching my head.
14. “The Titan Unwrecked; Or, Futility Revisited” by Brian M. Stableford
The first volume of Tales of the Shadowmen draws to a close with Brian Stableford’s massive story, in which a host of characters both fictional and historical find themselves traveling together on an unsinkable steamer (the titular Titan) headed for New York City at the turn of the century. It’s really a strange tale, composed primarily of a set of dinner conversations held aboard the luxury liner; where characters as varied as Allan Quartermain, Mark Twain, John D. Rockefeller and Count Dracula trade increasingly bizarre stories of their adventures. What’s especially interesting is the way Stableford crafts his alternate history, where vampires and other supernatural ephemera are fairly commonplace. The author also has fun highlighting the class system of the early twentieth century, as all the passengers are either first-, second- or third-class depending on their social stature. When dead bodies start popping up, we think we know what direction the story will take, but Stableford drops that plotline fairly early in favor of something far more grandiose. I won’t spoil what happens aboard the Titan, but suffice to say no one will be able to predict how the journey ends. I’m not entirely sure the story works as a whole - Stableford perhaps leaves too much unexplained - but the ideas presented still have me noodling over it, days after first reading the story. Stableford’s whip-smart dialogue and devilish sense of humor alone make the story worth reading.
And there you have it. Whether subverting the old tropes of the pulps or content to merely imitate them, the Lofficiers have delivered an excellent collection of stories mashing up the great fictional characters of yesteryear, making Tales of the Shadowmen an annual tradition worth looking forward to each year.