Thursday, March 29, 2012

Lyndsay Faye’s The Gods of Gotham is a Modern Classic

Lyndsay Faye made quite a splash a couple years ago with her excellent Sherlock Holmes novel, Dust and Shadow. It was an impressive debut for a first-time novelist not only for taking on the world’s most famous sleuth but in choosing to have him investigate the most notorious criminal case of Victorian London. Holmes had, of course, already tackled Jack the Ripper in A Study in Terror which came off as an exceptionally good Holmes film and novelization (by Ellery Queen, no less) in the mid-sixties. What could this ambitious young woman bring to the Ripper case that Alan Moore or Nicholas Meyer had not already covered in From Hell and Time After Time, respectively? Quite a lot, it turned out. Ms. Faye delivered a cracking good mystery and an excellent piece of historical fiction in one turn. The question was how to follow her success.

Another Holmes story for an anthology that was published hot on the heels of her first book was taken as proof of her intent to join the ranks of the multitude of successors continuing the exploits of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s immortal consulting detective. In a sense, Ms. Faye has done just that with her newly-published and wholly original sophomore effort, The Gods of Gotham. Her new series hero, Timothy Wilde, is a character Conan Doyle would have been proud to call his own and is not without his parallels to the famous resident of London’s Baker Street.


Thursday, March 22, 2012

Lost Classics of Pulp: Guy Boothby’s Dr. Nikola and Pharos the Egyptian

One doesn’t have to dig very far to discover my devotion to the works of Sax Rohmer. Peter Haining was, I believe, the first commentator to propose that Australian writer Guy Boothby’s works were a likely influence on Rohmer in the excellent survey, The Art of Mystery and Detective Stories. I first stumbled upon Boothby’s name and that of his most famous creation, Dr. Nikola courtesy of Larry Knapp’s brilliant Page of Fu Manchu website. Finally, it was a very informative piece written by that eminent Sherlockian, Charles Prepolec that convinced me I had to read the Nikola series for myself.

Five Nikola books were published between 1895 and 1901. The best editions available today are in the two-volume The Complete Dr. Nikola published by Leonaur Press. Dr. Nikola is a criminal mastermind with an occult twist. Think Conan Doyle’s Professor Moriarty (introduced only one year before Nikola) eerily anticipating Aleister Crowley and you have a pretty good idea of Boothby’s ambitions.

Like much fantastic fiction of the Victorian era, the books are more about how others fall into Nikola’s web than they are about the sinister doctor himself. This was the same approach taken by Bram Stoker with Dracula and Rohmer with his Fu Manchu series. The Nikola books are also globe-trotting adventures that move rapidly from Australia to Europe to Egypt to London to Africa to Tibet. The sense of mystery that pervades these exotic settings in those imperialist days of empire-building is part of the books’ nostalgic appeal today.


Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Other Dracula the Undead

Continued health-related issues again delayed the planned entry on Guy Boothby’s Pharos the Egyptian. I hope readers will enjoy my revisiting (and rewriting of)the second entry in this blog from January 2010 as it predates the greater exposure my work has received since my former association with The Cimmerian or my current work for The Black Gate. I hope to be back up to full speed and health next week. Thank you for your patience.

I belong firmly to the camp of Bram Stoker fan that approached Dacre Stoker and Ian Holt’s Dracula the Un-Dead with great anticipation and left disappointed. Well, actually appalled might be a more apt description of the reading experience. Had I not had my jaws wired shut at the time I read the book, I would have described myself as speechless. Severn House, a small press that has been kicking around for at least forty years when they took over Tom Stacey’s imprint, decided to capitalize on the attendant hoopla of a Stoker descendant co-writing a sequel to reprint an earlier literary sequel with very nearly the same title.

Freda Warrington’s Dracula the Undead was originally published to mark the centennial of Stoker’s classic original in 1997. I was aware of the book prior to its reprinting, but avoided it like the plague at the time believing incorrectly it was comparable to Elaine Bergstrom aka Marie Kiraly romanticized and anemic sequels, Mina and Blood to Blood. There is an element of romance found in Warrington’s book that does not ring true for the Stoker purist, but Ms. Warrington is a gifted British fantasy and horror author who accomplished something few writers can claim – she authored a sequel to a literary classic that doesn’t pale in comparison.


Thursday, March 8, 2012

Bram Stoker’s Dracula Reconsidered

Circumstances of health and chance caused me to delay the planned entry on Guy Boothby's Pharos the Egyptian until next week. I choose instead to revisit the very first entry in this blog back in January 2010 in the hopes that I can offer something fresh to a work that continues to fascinate me and direct my ambitions.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) has gradually won acceptance in literary circles over the past few decades as a legitimate work of literature after years of being dismissed as an influential work in a genre unworthy of serious consideration. Horror, much like mystery and fantasy, has always been dismissed as lowbrow entertainment. If mass acceptance is any measure of success, the book’s place has long since been secured. It is the only one of Stoker’s titles that has never fallen out of print at any point in the past 115 years. Public domain copies abound alongside dozens of editions from popular presses.

Most readers who happen upon this article are likely familiar with the book. Enthusiasts can be divided into two camps, although this division is rarely spoken of in polite company. The deciding factor that divides the two elitist camps is based solely on the matter of whether or not one chooses to accept “Dracula’s Guest,” the posthumously published excised chapter of an earlier draft of the novel, as an integral part of the story.


Thursday, March 1, 2012

Sturges Tops The Topper With Shortcut Man 2

The late Leo McCarey is remembered by most film buffs today for his imitation Capra-corn, The Bells of St. Mary’s and Going My Way starring everyone’s favorite likeable cad, Bing Crosby as the sort of priest you’d find in a parish where the nuns looked like Ingrid Bergman. Turn back the clock a few more decades and McCarey was the finest comedy director in Hollywood capturing the very best performances from Laurel & Hardy, an aging Harold Lloyd, and the Marx Brothers in their prime (when Zeppo was still part of the act). McCarey patented the chain reaction gag which tasked the comedy filmmaker with finding a way to consistently “top the topper.”

That was no mean feat. Once you get your biggest belly-laugh from the audience and then set out to find an even bigger laugh, you’re laying the groundwork for disappointment. Quite simply, no one can be that funny all the time. Yet McCarey managed it time and again and so did several other comedy directors who followed in his wake like Howard Hawks, a young Frank Capra (before sentimentality ruined his comic timing), Preston Sturges, and Billy Wilder. Very few others have managed to scale those same dizzying heights since Hollywood’s Golden Age and the lost art of the chain reaction gag is one of the measures by which one may easily separate modern and classic comedy. Comedy, in its purest form, allows us to break the pain barrier and laugh.

Such ruminations on the art of comedy are entirely appropriate when discussing P. G. Sturges, a new talent who arrived on the literary scene last year with The Shortcut Man. It was easily my favorite book of 2011. It had everything going for it: a hardboiled mystery mixed with high farce, a keen ear for dialogue, and an even sharper wit in laying bare personal and cultural failings in modern society. Any book that makes the reader think, consistently laugh, and still keeps them riveted to discover the next twist the story will take is exceptional.