The Whispering Swarm by Michael Moorcock

Michael Moorcock’s The Whispering Swarm is part autobiography and part sprawling literary fantasy. Moorcock is a giant of the genre whose contributions stretch, like his fictional counter part, from the pulp science fiction of the 1950s to the New Wave and beyond. His concept of the Eternal Champion has inspired generations of imitators and his writing style has legions of ardent admirers. Despite being aware of him, and having a vague secondhand knowledge of his more famous works and concepts, I had never read any of his novels until now.

The Whispering Swarm with its part factual, part exaggerated, part fictional autobiographical plot line is, perhaps, not the most obvious entry point. However, even on that level I found it fascinating. Growing up in post-World War II London and working his way up through the science-fiction and fantasy publishing community, Moorcock looks back blurring the lines of fact and fiction to create an interesting look at a world, a time, a genre, and the development of a writer, which is exactly the sort of thing I enjoy. Obviously, however, this is not for everyone. There is dryness to these passages, that even Moorcock’s practiced prose cannot always overcome.

The narrative also has more overtly fantastical elements, namely the timeless realm of Alsacia—an alternate world of literary adventures and romance, where heroes and characters from all ages live together untouched by the constraints and concerns of the mundane world. The fictional Michael finds himself torn between the worlds, between a career and family on one hand, and adventures and fantasy on the other.

The Whispering Swarm is a superb technical achievement. Moorcock glides between different genres, and skillfully blends multiple layers of fantasy and reality with deceptive and enviable ease. There is not, however, a great deal of plot. The main character spends much of the novel meandering, and the autobiographical passages were occasionally overlong, even for me. Perhaps a committed fan might have gotten more out of it, or even seen connections with Moorcock’s earlier works. As it stands, I enjoyed the novel, but wanted more.

 


The Whispering Swarm can be found here on Amazon

Received a Copy From NetGalley For Review

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The Devil’s Detective by Simon Kurt Unsworth

Simon Kurt Unsworth’s The Devil’s Detective is, as the title suggests, a hard-boiled detective novel set in Hell. Unsworth has crafted a tightly plotted noir mystery filled with a number of twists and turns, but the real strength of the novel is in its intricately realized depiction of Hell.

Thomas Fool is an Information Man in Hell. His job is to investigate, catalogue, and file reports on the endless stream of violence and death. He dutifully makes his reports to the Bureaucracy, but there is no justice, no arrests, and no punishment. His job is to fruitlessly gather information. That is the punishment for his unknown sins, but like everyone else, he has no recollection of his previous life. He only knows that he must atone. When a delegation from Heaven arrives to negotiate with Hell’s Bureaucracy, a human body is discovered with its soul completely devoured. The worst thing you can do in Hell is attract attention, and as the murders escalate, Fool suddenly finds himself in the middle of a vast conspiracy. Hell is in the midst of a revolution and Fool has a role to play whether he wants to or not.

Unsworth’s Hell is a place of uncertainty and random violence. Demons resent the humans moving in, and attack them without warning and without punishment. Once a place of absolute burning Hell has changed into something more subtle. The tortures are deeper and more psychological. It is a place of metaphysical horror, where hope is the greatest cruelty of all.

The Devil’s Detective is a marvelous debut—a page-turning mystery, an exploration of human nature, and a darkly absurdist take on Hell itself. Unsworth’s imagination is fertile and his prose is lyrical. Highly recommended. My favorite book of the year so far.


The Devil’s Detective can be found here on Amazon

Received a Copy From NetGalley For Review

New Short Story “The Nightmare Man” Now Available

And so it begins. I have taken the plunge into the world of indie publishing, although this may count as less of a plunge and more of a cautious toe-dipping.

The Nightmare Man is a short, psychological ghost story with a sprinkling of Lovecraft. It is currently available for $0.99 at AmazonBarnes & Noble and Kobo.

 

Here is the Blurb and a Brief Excerpt:

Uncle Josiah collects dreams. That’s all Molly knows about him; all anyone seems to know. The family would rather forget he even existed. But when her mother dies and she and her brother are orphaned, Uncle Josiah is the only one who offers to take them in.

Molly finds living in her uncle’s house difficult at first. It is not a place for children—strangers come and go at odd hours and his amanuensis watches the children with secrets in his eyes. Uncle Josiah remains awkward and distant. Part Jungian, part mystic, he is determined to find the primordial nightmare at the root of the collective unconscious. His obsession has made him a laughingstock, but Molly is fascinated. In her uncle’s work she can escape her grief, if only for a little while.

Then the dreams begin, harmless at first, and Molly slowly realizes that she may be the only one who can save what’s left of her family.

***

 

I.

Uncle Josiah collected dreams. That was all Molly knew about him, all anyone seemed to know. She had heard the whispers, of course, even the ones she was not meant to, hushed and disapproving. Eccentricity was permitted in old distinguished families, sometimes even borne as a badge of honor, but only a certain respectable sort of eccentricity. Uncle Josiah’s peculiarities were another matter entirely and not to be tolerated, certainly not by that great assemblage of aunts, cousins, and various relations. For her part, Molly had always found him kind and considerate, affable even, if a little awkward, despite his reputation.

They had met twice before, if fleetingly. The first encounter had been at her father’s funeral, but she had been barely seven at the time, and the whole ordeal was something of a blur, best forgotten. Their second meeting had been at Grandmama’s ninety-fifth birthday, a milestone that even Uncle Josiah could not safely escape. He had spent the entire time hovering in corners or by the refreshments, scribbling in his notebook, hardly speaking to anyone. Molly had approached him with childish determination because there he was, the reclusive uncle, the Dream Collector in the flesh.

The thought filled her with a strange thrill. Dream collecting—it sounded so wonderfully romantic, like something from a fairytale. She had created her own mythology, her own secret fairytales of expeditions into strange and secret places where dreams were carried on the winds, fluttering like wisps of clouds. And at the heart there was always the Dream Collector, her uncle, net in hand trapping and bottling dreams like butterflies.

Those were her favorite stories, her stories, the ones she whispered to herself at night, the ones she desperately hoped were true, and perhaps, just perhaps, one day he would take her with him. But that was before. She was older now. She no longer believed in fairytales. Not anymore.

*

The past few weeks had passed in a haze of sad, solemn faces—policemen, concerned citizens, and relatives, all suitably, infuriatingly sympathetic. It was all a jumble of images and moments. The priest had droned on, his voice a distant murmur. A procession of strangers in black had wound its way through the graveyard, an odd boy trailing the casket, sobbing. His grief bought and paid for. Molly and her brother, Tom, bore it all with numb, faltering patience. It had been six days since their mother died.

They heard so many stories about her, some familiar, others unknown—happy stories, funny stories. Tom and Molly didn’t laugh, didn’t smile. They were stiff in their formal clothes, isolated in their grief. The others had stories of a friend to share, a sister, a niece. Only they had stories of a mother, but they kept them locked away. Those stories were theirs alone. Not for company.

Molly could feel the family watching them.

“What are we going to do about the children?” their eyes seemed to ask, but no one answered.

There were spaces too between the stories—awkward pauses and significant glances—filled with the weight of things unsaid. And there was something else, something Molly couldn’t quite put her finger on. Beneath the fond memories and somber chatter, she caught glimpses of darker undertones, frightening, and out of reach.

She reached for her brother’s hand, but he seemed to shrink from her touch.

*

At last all the arrangements were made, the paperwork signed. A severe young woman and a flustered man in a suit from the Royal Philanthropic Society arrived. Their names were Ms. Sneed and Mr. Blot and they had come to take the children to their new home. The assembled aunts, cousins, and uncles, even Grandmamma herself, gathered to see them off, sadly, but Molly was unmoved. Their sadness had teeth. For all their sympathy and piety, none of them had been willing to take her and her brother in afterwards, none of them had even offered.

Uncle Josiah lived in a thin, old house at the end of a long, narrow street. There was a light on inside, waiting. Molly and Tom stood staring, dripping in the rain. It was a brownstone, somewhat neglected, with vines creeping up the side, threatening to ensnare the windows. They shared a long look full of furtive sadness and determination.

“Stand up straight,” Ms. Sneed said, interrupting. “You’re a proper young lady, act like it. Your uncle is an important man, even if they say he’s…” Ms. Sneed paused and coughed slightly. On anyone else it would have seemed embarrassed, but Molly had the distinct impression that Ms. Sneed didn’t know the meaning of the word, certainly not as it pertained to herself.

“No dawdling,” she snapped. Mr. Blot gave Molly a slight smile. It was meant kindly but appeared more strained than encouraging. The children exchanged one final glance. No turning back now. They climbed up the stairs and knocked.

Uncle Josiah’s housekeeper, Mrs. Hagen, welcomed them with painful, draconian kindness, fussing over Molly dreadfully, while Ms. Sneed and Mr. Blot spoke with Uncle Josiah in hushed voices. Ms. Sneed, in truth, did most of the talking. Molly couldn’t make out the words, but she was certain they were talking about her, and whatever they were saying, it wasn’t pleasant.

The children were bustled to their room, given a hot bath and some cocoa. Mrs. Hagen brokered no arguments from either them or her ostensive employer. Molly caught glimpses of a third figure, tall and gaunt, lurking unobtrusively in the background, but when she turned to see him properly, he was gone.

Throughout her ministrations, Uncle Josiah remained welcomingly aloof and uttered not a single word of sympathy. Molly was grateful. Indeed, he spoke to them only once that first evening, to bid them good night.

II.

Molly dreamed.

She was sinking, or perhaps falling. Falling through a void. Empty. Lost. She smelt smoke, acrid, burning. It was everywhere. It was nowhere. She looked, wandering far and wide in a world of shadows and thorns, but the flames were always just out of sight. She wondered why she wanted to find them. It seemed important somehow. The fire was important, or maybe she was just cold, and it was warm.

She shivered, her breath frosting in the air. Shapes danced past her eyes, a woman and a man, strangely familiar, but disjointed and blurred. They frightened her. She tried to focus but the more she focused the hazier the shapes became.

“Hello,” she called into the darkness, and the answer came, whispering, babbling. So many voices, too many. They pressed against her, burrowing through the skin, infecting her. She screamed. She was silent. She fell.

She became aware, gradually, of her feet—bare, dirty, and scratched—and the ground rising up to meet them with a roar.

Suddenly she was on solid ground, running, searching for something, or perhaps something was searching for her with a thousand eyes, and ears, and roots.

The shapes were sharper now, more familiar. Bark, branch, leaf, and stem. Trees. That was the word and with it the trees sprouted into sudden reality all around her. She was surrounded, enveloped. Not just trees. A forest.

And she was alone.

 

***

If you want to read more, you can pick it up at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Kobo. Apple is coming soon. Thanks!

The Suicide Exhibition by Justin Richards

Justin Richards’s The Suicide Exhibition is the first novel in an alternate WWII, sci-fi romp. Richards is no stranger to science fiction, having edited the BBC Doctor Who line for many years and written a number of Doctor Who books as well, one of which involved aliens and the Third Reich. The Suicide Exhibition is, therefore, familiar and comfortable ground.

Hitler and Himmler’s obsession with the occult has fueled an entire subgenre, and Richards is well versed in the tropes and the history. The usual suspects are all present and he adds ingredients from Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 1871 novel The Coming Race, as well as British occult figures into the mix. The result is pulp fiction at its most confidently pulpy.

Major Guy Pentecross and pilot Sarah Diamond are lightly sketched, and essentially wander into the plot out of curiosity. British spy, Leo Davenport, and Miss Manners, a secretary with friends in dark places, are more interesting but secondary and the aliens themselves are suitably menacing.

The Suicide Exhibition is a fun and interesting combination of ideas and set pieces placed against a familiar WWII backdrop. The first in a series it is mostly concerned with setting up its characters and moving the pieces on the board. Justin Richards has a practiced hand and gets everyone into position, while telling a fast-paced adventure. Pure silly fun.


 

The Suicide Exhibition can be found here on Amazon

Received a Copy From NetGalley For Review

Walking the Labyrinth by Lisa Goldstein

Lisa Goldstein’s Walking the Labyrinth is an atmospheric fantasy that incorporates a wide-array of influences from vaudeville to spiritualism and secret societies to classical mythology and witchcraft. Molly Travers is one of the last living descendants of the Allalie family, once an infamous group of vaudeville magicians. Her life changes when she’s approached by John Stow, a private investigator, asking questions about her great-aunt and the family history.

Reluctant at first, Molly slowly realizes that everything her great-aunt told her about the family was half-truths and lies. Her search for answers takes her and Stow to London and the remnants of a Victorian secret society—the Order of the Labyrinth—and reveals a dark secret at the heart of her family tree.

Goldstein creates an intriguing world full of weight and history and sets up a number of intriguing mysteries. Apart from the secrets of the Allalie family and the labyrinth, there is the matter of John Stow. He is investigating the family for undisclosed reasons, his client’s identity confidential. Secrets build up, even as they begin to understand the nature of the Order and its relationship to Molly’s family.

As is often the case, at least for me, the mysteries prove more fascinating than the answers. The early parts of the novel were fascinating page-turners, hinting at the depths of magic and wonder to come. It slowed down slightly, once those answers started to appear, but remained engrossing.

Walking the Labyrinth is an intriguing mystery with ties to vaudeville and Victoriana. Lisa Goldstein crafts a determined heroine a labyrinth worthy of the name.


 

Walking the Labyrinth can be found here on Amazon

Received a Copy From NetGalley For Review