Friday, April 25, 2014

Reading Makes You Smart: Tales of the Shadowmen, Vol. 3: Danse Macabre

Vive le Shadowmen! 

Tales of the Shadowmen, Vol. 3: Danse Macabre

1. “The Heart of the Moon” by Matthew Baugh

            Matthew Baugh continues his growth as a storyteller with this darkly comedic tale of a group of vampire hunters on the path to Paul Feval’s vampire city Selene. Told from the perspective of Yvgeny, Baugh’s original vampire character who’s not nearly as smooth and mysterious as he would lead us to believe, Baugh delivers several clever and humorous potshots at the tropes of vampire fiction. To describe each misfortune that befalls Yvegny throughout would spoil the fun, but suffice to say that Baugh creatively (and hilariously) finds ways to keep him involved with the band of vampire hunters that include Solomon Kane, Captain Kronos, Doctor Omega and Maciste, to name a few. The beginning is so much fun that it’s a little disappointing as the story reaches its conclusion and becomes more of a standard action/adventure story, but Baugh fills it with enough pulpy goodness that the proceedings remain exciting enough. Most especially of interest are the various theories of the vampire species origins, and the temporal explanations by Doctor Omega of their various powers. All in all, a great way to open this third Shadowmen volume.

2. “Long Live Fantomas” by Alfredo Castelli 

            For his story, Alfredo Castelli attempts to explain a discrepancy in Marcel Allain’s Fantomas of Berlin, wherein it is hinted that there was another Fantomas tormenting the world years before his first appearance in 1910. Castelli rushes through time to portray horrific scenes of this first Fantomas, who’s implied to be Jack the Ripper, freshly arrived in Paris from Whitechapel and looking to start another spree of terror - all the while being chased by the Black Coats’ aging leader Saladin. The original Fantomas soon grows old, and finds a sadistic young man by the name of Gurn who seems to be the perfect fit to take his mantle - perhaps a little too perfect, as the aging Fantomas finds out too late. Castelli weaves an interesting tale that moves at a blistering pace, and will likely leave readers not as familiar with the works of Feval and Allain somewhat perplexed. But that’s okay - those readers should do themselves a favor and track down the original stories to get fully caught up.

3. “Next!” by Bill Cunningham

            Bill Cunningham returns for this volume with another extremely short piece of fiction, and it’s to the writer’s credit that he’s able to pack so much wit and personality in so few words. This playfully erotic tale concerns the Queen of the Spaceways herself, Barbarella, on a mission to create the ultimate superbeing by coupling with some of the greatest heroes of genre fiction - the first of which is an utterly baffled (but no less horny) James T. Kirk.

4. “Au Vent Mauvais…” by Francois Danaurdet & Jean-Marc Lofficier 

            Yet another short piece introduces the western world-hating Madame Atomos to the Shadowmen oeuvre, as she and Zemba III watch on as Neil Armstrong becomes the first man to walk on the moon. It seems at first as if there’s a devious plan in motion to sabotage the famous moon-landing, but a last minute twist reveals the plan to hit far closer to home. There’s not a whole lot to the story itself, but the characterizations were excellent, as is the real-life detail paid to the 1969 launch.

5. “Return to the 20th Century” by Paul DeFilippo

            Paul DeFilippo’s tale is a cheeky piece of fetishized adventure, although from the author’s style it’s hard to discern just how serious he was when writing it (my guess is, “not very”). The story meshes Albert Robida’s 20th Century with Roy Hamilton’s Cat Women of the Moon, but the most fascinating character DeFilippo utilizes was actually a real-life person: “Jungle Alli” aka Alice Bradley Sheldon, a famous science fiction author who wrote under the pseudonym James Tiptree, Jr. and had a life almost ripped from the pulps herself (readers not familiar with Bradley should look her up immediately). It’s a fun romp, filled with all sorts of kinky and playful adventure, but I can’t help but feel it was lacking in just one more dimension that would have made it even more enjoyable.
6. “Les Levre Rouges” by Win Scott Eckert

            Win Scott Eckert’s continuing chronicle of the saga of Doc Ardan is a much more successful bit of cheesecake, as Eckert picks up where his last Shadowmen tale left off, continuing the infatuation between Ardan and Arsene Lupin’s daughter Adelaide, whom Ardan has to rescue from the immortal and vampiric Elizabeth Bathory. It’s a really fun story, and Eckert continues to expertly utilize other elements from popular fiction, such as Casino Royale’s Le Chiffre and H.P. Lovecraft’s fish-men. 

7. “Beware the Beasts” by G.L. Gick

            Another short offering, G.L. Gick’s tale feels more like the epilogue to a story we don’t get to see, but is filled with enough humor and pathos to make it a worthwhile read. After saving their planet Soror, Dr. Omega has tea with the inhabitants Jinn and Phyllis, where he remarks that their society can never be perfect until they allow the inclusion of all denizens, including the savage beasts on the outskirts of civilization - the twist being that Soror is actually a planet full of intelligent apes and the “beasts” are wild humans. Yes, it’s a Planet of the Apes, although Gick bases it here on the original Pierre Boule novel rather than its more famous counterpart. 

8. “The Ape Gigans” by Micah Harris

            One of the neat things about the type of Wold Newtonian-styled fiction collections like Tales of the Shadowmen specializes in is the various ways different literary worlds can intersect and blend together. Micah Harris here combines the differing mythology of Jules Verne, Edgar Rice Burroughs and King Kong in several creative ways, as we learn that the reason Skull Island is home to so many prehistoric creatures is because it houses a portal to Pellucidar. Into this midst Harris thrusts his protagonist, Vanity Fair’s Becky Sharp, into the action, and it’s a good bit of fun having a heroine whose morals are somewhat less than scrupulous. The recreations of scenes in the original King Kong are a little too on-the-nose, and kind of drag the story down in places, but otherwise “The Ape Gigans” makes for an excellent story.
9. “A Dance of Night and Death” by Travis Hiltz

            Travis Hiltz’ story concerns a deadly encounter between those most famous of French villains, Fantomas and Irma Vep, on the rooftops of Paris, and is a perfect example of what makes Tales of the Shadowmen such an enjoyable collection. Writing action or fight scenes in prose is a tricky proposition, as you don’t want to overburden your reader with detail, while at the same time giving them just enough to go on to understand the stakes, but Hiltz succeeds wonderfully in portraying his “dance” between these devilish characters.

10. “The Lady in the Black Gloves” by Rick Lai

            The type of crossover fiction that appears in collections like these always walks a fine line between telling a story or ticking off boxes on a check-list, the latter of which Rick Lai comes dangerously close to falling into for his contribution this time out. Lai has been carefully assembling his own mythology throughout the Shadowmen series thus far, meshing Maurice Leblanc’s Lupin and Josephine Balsamo with the old Spanish horror film The House that Screamed, and this time adds the criminal organization The Black Coats to the fray. It’s mostly entertaining, although the author has a tendency to have much of the action told to the characters through lengthy dialogue scenes which kind of drag the story back a bit. But it has an excellent ending, which provides a nice and effective coda to the whole affair.

11. “The Murder of Randolph Carter” by Jean-Marc Lofficier

            Editor Jean-Marc Lofficier transplants Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot within a dizzying intersection of various characters from the Lovecraft mythos in a rather short but no less engaging murder mystery. It’s a classic set-up of the famous detective explaining the various ins and outs of the case to a stunned audience after-the-fact, and executed well, although brief and a perhaps in need of slightly more detail.

12. “A Day in the Life of Madame Atomos” by Xavier Maumejean

            Xavier Maumejean’s Shadowmen contributions are often among the highlights of the collection, as his offering here, following supervillain Madame Atomos throughout an ordinary day in her life, will attest. There is much comedy and excitement to be found throughout, as Atomos routinely fends off attackers and makes plans for revenge against the ignorant Amercians while going about normal, everyday tasks. Everything from Marvel Comics villains to Fu Manchu to real-life Japanese holdouts from WWII play a part, all culminating in an excitingly clever story. 

13. “Bullets Over Bombay” by David A. McIntee

            David A. McIntee has a novel and original idea in combining the usual Shadowmen histrionics with Bollywood musicals, but his greatest inspiration for his entry is the “Great White Hunter” trope, as H. Rider Haggard’s famed tiger-hunter John Good teams with Docteur Mystere in hunting down a pack of leopards responsible for killing a wedding party. Readers averse to such stories may not be as taken with McIntee’s tale, the climax of which features the two heroes mowing down dozens upon dozens of feline foes. And although it’s revealed the leopards were under the control of a Kali-worshipping assassin the whole time, the story still can’t help but leave a bitter taste in the mouth once all is said and done. 

14. “All’s Fair” by Brad Mengel

            Mengel’s entry is another bit of flash fiction, and another exemplary effort of packing in both literary characters and a decent plot whilst still being barely a thousand words long. The main centerpiece of Mengel’s tale is the constant thorn in Will Eisner’s The Spirit’s side, P’Gell, and her various machinations and manipulations of some of the spy world’s greatest heroes - chief amongst them none other than Commander James Bond and his French counterpart, OSS 117. A fun ride, all in all, and over in the blink of an eye.

15. “The Affair of the Bassin Les Hivers” by Michael Moorcock

            Any story by the legendary Michael Moorcock is usually the best offering in any given collection, and Moorcock’s debut Shadowmen entry is no different: a fantastic and exciting tale spun around one of the author’s favorite literary antiheroes, Zenith the albino. Moorcock’s “Affair” breaks with tradition by being set in the modern day, wherein Zenith resolves to solve the mystery of a murdered, time-displaced (or multiverse-displaced, to be exact) girl. Moorcok has a great deal of fun putting Zentih up against famous French supervillains Vautrin and Irma Vep, while also throwing his own Una Persson into the mix.

16. “The Successful Failure” by John Peel

            John Peel’s tale is a bit of light adventure that sees a young James Bigglesworth teamed with amateur detective Isodore Beautrelet and their investigation of a museum robbery in which at first seemingly nothing has been stolen. It’s a fun little mystery, and Peel takes pleasure in playing the brashful, exuberant Bigglesworth against the far more conservative Beautrelet. Peel also gives an impressive and hilarious account of what it must have been like to take to the skies in a primitive airplane in the early 20th century.

17. “The Butterfly Files” by Joseph Altairac & Jean-Luc Rivera

            This tale by Altairac & Rivera comes in the form of an official FBI document written by one William Mulder, which the authors have helpfully noted they acquired on the internet from a contingent known only as “The Lone Gunmen.” That’s right: The X-Files provides the bulk of the references here, as the X-file in question documents the supposed origins of Madame Atomos, making her third appearance in this collection. It’s another brief bit of business, but by utilizing X-Files mythology, Altairac and Rivera provide a touch of uniqueness to the story.  

18. “The Famous Ape” by Chris Roberson

            Chris Roberson’s story takes its inspiration not from pulp heroes or literary adventure, but rather gentle children’s books such as Babar and Curious George; in the process turning them on their ear and crafting an endlessly fascinating political spy thriller. The ape Zephir has spent the last few years as an undercover agent with the elephants during a long-standing cold war between the species. After the elephant king Babar is overthrown and executed, Zephir becomes a political prisoner, and after many years is finally allowed back into his own country, albeit as a traitor. The way Roberson blends children’s characters with real-world events makes you want to spend more time in this interesting alternate world, resulting in one of the best tales of the entire collection.

19. “Two Hunters” by Robert L. Robinson, Jr.

            He was bound to show up sooner or later in one of these Shadowmen outings, so it’s entirely fitting that Tarzan makes his debut amongst the TOTS  pantheon alongside the grim avenger of the night that is Judex, as the two of them conspire together to rescue Jane from the clutches of Tarzan’s mortal enemy Nicholas Rokoff. Robinson handles both characters well (it was especially nice reading his descriptions of the Ape-man leaping into action towards the end) and clips his story along at a blistering pace - perhaps too much so, as Tarzan joins up with Judex after the two exchange nary a few sentences between them, without really getting the chance to establish any kind of relationship between the titular “hunters.” But brevity is the soul of wit, as they say, and it’s definitely better to be left wanting more than less.

20. “The Child-Stealers” by Brian Stableford

            Brian Stableford continues the roman fuelliton he started in the previous volume, his pseudo-sequel to Paul Feval’s seminal John Devil entitled The Empire of the Necromancers. Once again we follow the exploits of Ned Knob and Gregory Temple (more the latter than the former, this time out), as the two navigate a brave new world where the dead once more walk the world of the living, and Stableford continues with the fascinating ideas brought forth in the previous installment. The revivified dead don’t want to eat our flesh or destroy our world; they just want a land of their own to call home. Excellent characterizations and the ideas brought forth mean that Stableford once more closes out this Shadowmen volume with style. 

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