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Leonard started the car as the brothers came out of the café, stood on the sidewalk and looked at us. Leonard watched them a moment, backed out and drove off.

‘Trouble?’ he asked.

‘No. But I will say this. It’s not every day you can actually step into a science-fiction episode of The Andy Griffith Show by way of Deliverance.’

Joe R. Lansdale has written dozens of books, contributed to a number of short story collections, comic book anthologies and even had some film adaptations of his work. So why is it so damned hard for me to track down his Hap and Leonard series. I have evolved a habit of snatching his books off the shelf as soon as I see them. I read the fourth book Bad Chilli first, then the second Mucho Mojo and this morning on the train to Sydney finished the third. Consequently I have a very confusing understanding of this pair of righteous country boys’ adventures, kicking ass and righting wrongs across Texas. And I don’t care.

Hap Collins is still blue after having been dumped by his lover Florida for the local police lieutenant in the last book. The only interruptions in his moping are provided by his best friend Leonard’s habit of burning the local crackhouse to the ground. This being the third experiment with arson, Lieutenant Marvin Hanson has them brought to the station and offers the pair a deal. He agrees to look the other way one more time, if they run a little errand for him. Florida has vanished. Last Marvin heard she was chasing down a lead on a story involving a possible wrongful death in police custody and voodoo rites in a place called Grovetown. If Hap and Leonard have a look around and see if Florida is okay, he’ll let bygones be bygones and drop the arson charges.

Leonard agrees to the deal, despite the Kmart-loving police sergeant Charlie’s warnings of the dangers a black man would likely face in Grovetown. Apparently the clocks stopped there some time back in the sixties. Civil rights are seen as a liberal conspiracy and an offshoot of the Klan holds great sway in the town. Hap and Leonard march into Grovetown ready to bust heads, but find themselves up against bigger odds than they expected. The local sheriff has a ruptured testicle and a permanent bad mood. He welcomes the pair with a death threat. There is no sign of Florida anywhere and the ‘victim’, who’s memory she was trying to defend was a hateful son of a blues legend who enticed a record company rep with the promise of undiscovered music tapes and murdered him for his wallet. Everywhere the pair go, it seems they have big, fat targets scrawled on their backs. Maybe they should have just agreed to do time for burning down the crackhouse?

Lansdale has a filthy sense of humour, a love of confounding expectations and inverting traditional notions of machismo. Hap and Leonard often find themselves beaten and bloody after a fight, but are always ready with another quip to aggravate their opponents. They just don’t know when to stop. Split down the middle they are a very opposite duo. Hap is white, votes Democrat, hates guns and tries to see the best in folks. Leonard is black, gay, Republican and just loves cracking heads. Also he plain distrusts most people and often seems to be correct in his assessments.

There is a great moment when Leonard tries to explain to his boyfriend Raul that what he and Hap have is a bit like love. It reminded me of a speech I saw Sean Connery give once at the 2005 Edinburgh Film Festival. There were sniggers when he referred to Brokeback Mountain as an example of male friendship, but jokes aside, I think he knew exactly what he was saying. Lansdale is interested in what makes a man, a man. Leonard is homosexual, but tough as nails and macho as they come. Hap is ruled by his emotions, but acts according to firm principles of honour. The pair also are skilled in Korean martial arts, something of a hobby of Lansdale himself. Whenever I try to describe these books, I often say try to imagine Harper Lee’s Atticus Finch, as played by Chuck Norris.

Blackly comic, offensive, filthy and laugh out loud funny, if you haven’t been in Hap and Leonard’s company yet, I’d advise you to look them up some day.

I had seen men die violently before; indeed I had killed a few myself in the Matabele War; but this cold-blooded indoor business was different.

Buchan’s classic novel has been adapted to film at least three times (with another due in 2011), a television series and even a stage play. Last time I was in London I was strongly tempted to check it out, but I am glad I got a chance to read the novel first, as the Broadway production takes a more comic approach to the material. Alfred Hitchcock’s film in 1935 probably was inspirational for one of his later ‘American films’, North By North West, which has a similar plot of an unremarkable man becoming swept up into an international conspiracy. Furthermore the timing of Hitchcock’s film is relevant, with the original novel also being published for the purposes of propaganda in 1915.

Richard Hannay is our hero, a middle-aged bachelor who was born in Scotland and made his fortune in Rhodesia. Having settled in London he discovers that he has become bored with his life of easy leisure. He longs for a return to the dangers of working in a mine, or the wild beauty of the veldt. His prayers are answered when a strange fellow named Scudder, an American who claims his life is in danger. Hannay patiently lets the man tell his story, a thrilling yarn of international espionage, Zionist plots and an already lit powder-keg set to drive the chancelleries of Europe to war. Despite the extravagant claims of the stranger, Hannay finds himself believing this rum tale and agrees to hide him from his shadowy pursuers.

Scudder proves to be a master of disguise and conspires with his host to hide his identity. Hannay observes him writing copious notes in a little black book, presumably a record of his investigation. Excited at the sudden injection of adventure into his life, the retired Rhodesian mining engineer enjoys aiding his companion in his efforts to prevent Europe falling into war. Then one day he returns to find Scudder dead in his home. Shocked, Hannay has no choice but to flee the scene of the crime. His tale is so outlandish no police man would believe it. He takes Scudder’s black book and takes the first train to Scotland, where he hopes his childhood memories of the landscape will help him evade pursuit. Everywhere he goes he sees strange figures watching him, just as the dead man had described. Finding himself hunted through the moors and mountain ridges of the Scottish highlands, Hannay has to think quick on his feet, disguising his appearance as Scudder had. His only hope is to decipher the cryptic code he finds in the American’s black book that may prove his innocence and identify the threat amassing against England.

Buchan’s redoubtable hero became a recurring character in his fiction, the archetypal ‘stiff-upper lip’ chap with a ready fist and a gentlemanly manner. The novel itself is a product of its time and not just due to the anti-semitic remarks attributed to Scudder (although a character later remarks that this was an ‘odd bias’, of his). Published in 1915 it is similar to the Riddle of the Sands, a jingoistic work released in 1903 that strongly encouraged the idea of an impending European conflict. The difference with The Thirty-Nine Steps is that it came out after hostilities had already commenced, all the better to reinforce the case for war. The men and women Hannay encounters during his hazardous flight across Scotland are mostly good, hearty ordinary folk. He becomes more convinced of the importance of succeeding where Scudder failed, so that the people of Britain should be protected from a disastrous war. Scotland itself is infested with spies from abroad, able to disguise themselves in a blink of an eye. Hannay, and by extension readers of the time, must be vigilant to ensure they do not manage to sabotage the defenses of the country.

Also particular to the setting of the novel is that peculiar condescension towards the Scots. I was reminded of my favourite scene from Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace whenever Buchan essays a Scottish brogue. I find the smug superiority strange, as the author himself was raised in Scotland and the landscape is described beautifully, as only one who lived there could achieve.

Despite some of the dated attitudes present in the book, it remains an entertaining read. A bladdy good yarn!

I blow some smoke at the ceiling

-I feel like I’m forgetting something. Vyrus. Clans. Zombies. Stay out of the sun. Don’t get shot. Abandon your life. Drink blood to survive.

I shake my head.

-No. Guess that pretty much covers it.

See I have some problems in reviewing this book. First off, it’s the fourth in a series called The Joe Pitt Casebooks by Charlie Huston. So I can’t really give away any of the specifics of the plot that might spoil readers who go on to check the series out. And you should check these books out. Secondly, as is abundantly clear by now, I’m a fan. I didn’t just read this book, I gobbled it down and asked for seconds. Sadly my library does not have the next title in the sequence – My Dead Body – so I have to be patient and hope this latest cliff-hanger doesn’t drive me nuts before I get my hands on the concluding story.

Charlie Huston is well-known for his crime fiction, such as Caught Stealing and has just had his novel The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death optioned for HBO by Alan Ball. Yes the guy behind True Blood, which is ironic, given that The Joe Pitt Casebooks are about a vampire gang-banger in Manhattan, trying to carve out a life for himself while eluding the machinations of the competing ‘Clans’, who control the island itself. Huston plays to his strengths here, with Joe being a down on his luck thug for hire who just happens to be a vampire. Occasionally he would do a job from one of the big Clans, which allows him to operate on their territory. Huston introduces further tropes from noir fiction with The Coalition, the biggest clan, resembling smart-suited Mafioso’s. Then there’s The Society, a bunch of anarchists led by Terry Bird who speaks in mixed metaphors and harps on about revolution, Charles Manson-style. There’s the Enclave, religious fundamentalists– yes, we have undead mujahideen here too. Finally there’s the Hood, a vampire street gang not too fond of white folks.

It’s an interesting mix of traditional vampire themes and modern fictional tropes. Joe Pitt himself is your typical antihero, capable of being quite cruel at times, but also possessing a code of sorts that allows you to root for him. As an independent ‘rogue’, owing fealty to none of the Clans, his position on Manhattan Island has always been tenuous. He’s always been a bit like Clint Eastwood’s stranger from A Fistful of Dollars, playing the Clans off against one another to buy himself more time. Half the Blood in Brooklyn brought matters to a head and this book deals with the fall-out.

Joe’s been living in exile for over a year in the Bronx, trying not to draw any attention to himself now that he’s burned his bridges with the Clans. Finally an opportunity arrives to return across the water. Joe’s got unfinished business in Manhattan. There’s Amanda Horde for one, the billionaire heiress he met during the events of Already Dead. She’s a human who knows all about vampires, with money enough to do something about it. She makes the Clans nervous and given her friendly disposition to Joe, he’s asked to find out what exactly she is planning. Then there’s the bounty on Joe’s head that he needs to clear and the possibility of all-out Clan war. Most of all, he’s heading back to Manhattan to find the girl he left behind a year ago. The girl he loves whose life he saved and who may just kill him for it.

Huston’s increasing the pace of the action with each book in the series and I cannot wait to see what he has in store for his grand finale. For the most part these have been books set in the familiar world of noir fiction, despite Joe’s unusual abilities. However, in Every Last Drop Huston introduces a vision of absolute horror that disturbs as much as it frightens. There’s a sense that he’s taking the gloves off, having established enough of the world in the previous novels to now smash it to pieces.

Smart, brutal and inventive, with foul-mouthed dialogue to die for.

He snorted softly to himself. It wasn’t selling souls that got you into trouble, it was buying them. Next time he would have to make sure there was a return policy. He laughed, opened his eyes a little. The dead man, Craddock, sat in the passenger seat next to him. He smiled at Jude, showing crooked and stained teeth and his black tongue. He smelled of death, also of car exhaust. His eyes were hidden behind those odd, continuously moving black brush strokes

Brrr. Spooky.

I feel for Mr Joe Hill though, I really do, because every review of this book starts with the same phrase. I don’t see any reason to break the tradition – see Joe Hill is Stephen King’s son.

I will say this though, I reckon he’s a better writer.

Judas Coyne (everyone calls him Jude) is a fifty-something rockstar who came up with the era of heavy metal and is now a lion in winter decked out in black leather, enjoying his reward for a career of Satanic-ish heavy metal by sleeping with goth-girl groupies named after the states of the union. He also has a predilection for the trappings of the occult and weird stuff in general. Not that he believes in any of it, he’s just a compulsive collector. Preserved skulls of madmen who had been trepanned, signed confessions of a witch burned at the stake, Aleister Crowley’s chessboard. Stuff like that.

So when a ghost comes up for auction online he immediately slaps down a bid for a thousand dollars. Judas Coyne’s very own ghost. The media release alone would make it a purchase worth its weight in gold.

Then the sceptic who enjoys scaring middle America with satanic rock finds himself trapped in a house with the ghost of a dead hypnotist. And it dearly wants to hurt him for what he did to its stepdaughter, another in a long line of groupies used up and dumped by Judas over the years. His own house becomes a prison, the stereo system whispering death threats and television announcers predicting his suicide. In a panic Judas takes to the road, racing through the night as a dead man in a funeral suit and fedora hat follows close behind.

Heart-Shaped Box comes with ecstatic blurbs from Kelly Link and Neil Gaiman. That got my attention. I open the book and there’s a quote from Alan Moore’s The Voice of FireHow may the dead have destinations? Ok, I was sold. It’s an impressive debut and Hill shows excellent promise. This is a simple ghost story, one that relies on that basic fear of death we all feel. No monsters or vampires jumping out from cornfields. Here the scares are delivered by spectres appearing at the end of a long, dark hallway, or Ouija boards suddenly jumping to life and dogs growling in fear at invisible presences. The haunt itself, Craddock, is a malevolent spirit, whose hypnotist powers add an extra dimension of fear, controlling the will of Coyne and those around him to harm themselves. Reminiscent of the demented preacher Kane from Poltergeist II, his relentless pursuit of the terrified former rock star turning a more or less traditional haunted house story into a spooky road trip across America.

As the title implies, this is a book written by a member of the post-Cobain generation. The media hysteria surrounding heavy metal, grunge and goth music is rejected with the simple truth that true horror often happens behind closed doors in family homes. The lyrics of bands tarred with the ‘satanic rock’ brush often expressed feelings of rage and self-loathing that attracted troubled teenage listeners without the means to speak out themselves. Judas Coyne is cynical about his music and the trappings of a rock star, but Hill establishes that he is just as much of a victim as some of the emotionally damaged young people who buy his records. Ozzy Osbourne, Motley Crue and Trent Reznor are name-checked in the novel, with Coyne’s association with them allowing the character to represent the era of their music.

This is a gripping debut, a frightening race into the black night. Read it with the light on.

That’s our man’, he said, pointing at Ashbless, ‘and that’s….what was the name, haven’t seen him in a while…Jacky Snapp! – whose involvement in this I’ll want explained…but who’s the sick old bastard?’ The hijackers shrugged, so Ashbless said quietly, ‘He’s Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a very famous writer, and you’ll be buying more trouble than you can afford if you kill him.’

I’ve been singing the praises of the Fantasy Masterworks series of Gollancz publishing for years now. A carefully selected collection of out-of-print, or underappreciated genre fiction novels, I have yet to encounter a title I did not enjoy. This book is no exception. Tim Powers weaves a tale mixing science fiction and poetry, time travel and Egyptian sorcery, and casts Lord Byron and Samuel Taylor Coleridge as unwitting heroes.

Brendan Doyle spends his days absorbed in his research of the little-known 19th century poet William Ashbless, or drowning his sorrows in the wake of his wife’s death. Then one day he receives a fantastical proposition. An eccentric millionaire pays him twenty grand to give a lecture on Samuel Coleridge to a select group of poetry lovers – in 1810. Curious and bemused Doyle agrees and finds himself transported back in time! He gives his lecture, even meets the
famous laudanum addicted poet himself, but is kidnapped by a band of gypsies moments before he is due to return to 1983.

Stranded in the 19th century with no means, no useful skills and no access to modern day hygiene, Doyle resigns himself to a life on the streets of London. However, he stumbles onto a conspiracy among Egyptian sorcerers and a criminal plot to assassinate King George. Soon he finds himself targeted by an evil dwarf, cackling homunculi and an army of beggar assassins. His only hope of rescue is to find William Ashbless and seek refuge with the man who’s life he knows intimately from his studies.

But is Ashbless whom he claims to be? And what caused the holes in time that Doyle travelled through to 1810? Who is Dog-Faced-Joe and how is he connected to the Anubis worshipping Egyptian cult that plots to overthrow the British Empire?

Powers has fashioned a rip-roaring yarn that serves up implausible solutions to a number of literary and historical mysteries. What caused Byron’s crippling fever while on his Hellenic tour? Was there another cause behind Coleridge’s demented visions? The failure of Lord Monmouth’s attempted rebellion in the 17th century? Doyle himself is an amusing character, taking a time out from the trauma of being shunted through time to enjoy a fine cigar and jug of ale. There’s a whimsical underlying the labyrinthine plot, with body swapping and Egyptian gods stepping out of the wings during the proceedings to keep the story racing along.

19th century poets are something of a sci fi staple. Douglas Adams also included Samuel Coleridge in his novel Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, and Byron in the company of Mary Shelley appeared in Brian Aldiss’ Frankenstein Unbound. There’s fun to be had with a contemporary figure interacting with these controversial figures, whose mystique far outlasted their words.

Powers serves up neck-breaking changes in plot and contrivance to engage the reader and teases with possible solutions to age-old mysteries as a casual piece of high-brow dressing. Great fun.

The trouble with the news is simple: People, especially ones on the ends of the power spectrum, like it when you’re afraid. The people who have the power want you scared. They want you walking around paralysed by the notion that you could die at any moment. There’s always something to be afraid of. It used to be terrorists. Now it’s zombies.

Feed by Mira Grant, is the first book in the proposed Newsflesh trilogy. A pet peeve of mine is debut authors releasing a title bearing the impending legacy on the dust jacket, ‘Book One of…’. But fortunately, on this occasion, Grant has created a world that I would happily return to. Feed is a self-contained political thriller that just so happens to feature zombies. It does not end on a cliffhanger, avoids clichés and is written with an unusual degree of passion when compared to most novels featuring the rancid undead, especially those predicting a sequel.

In 2014 a hybrid disease known as Kellis-Amberlee, mutated from a combination of vaccines, one intended for curing cancer, the other the common cold, has spread across the globe. The result is that no one needs die from lung cancer or even suffer a case of the sniffles anymore. However, there is an unfortunate side effect – Kellis-Amberlee has also caused the dead to rise.

Feed begins in a world transformed, but unlike in the movies the zombie apocalypse never arrived. Humanity has survived and society remains intact. It’s just that people just spend a lot more time indoors, blood tests are required to enter public buildings and the internet has replaced traditional news media as the primary information source due to the reliability of live-blogging in reporting zombie outbreaks.

Which brings us to George (Georgette) and Shaun Mason. They are the new breed of blogger, traveling into zombie hot zones and filming what they see for the entertainment of their readers. There is even a shorthand to describe the different kinds of guerrilla journalists that have evolved in this zombified world. Take, for example the Irwins who are prone to risk taking; then there’s the Stewarts who are always ready with a pithy op-ed piece; the Newsies who report the facts, and the Fictionals who produce zombie fanfic, poetry and prose. It’s a very knowing take on contemporary media transplanted to Grant’s fictional world.

George and Shaun are two of the more popular bloggers and are thrilled to discover they have been invited to cover the campaign of Senator Peter Ryman in the lead up to the 2040 Presidential Election. While Feed opens with the Mason siblings fleeing a pack of zombies in the wilds of Santa Cruz, the story soon veers away from the standard run-and-hide horror novel plot. Instead, Grant has Ryman’s campaign taking the Masons on the traditional town hall stump speech trail. The Senator answers questions on policy and George blogs her impressions of the man who would be president, until an assasination plot rudely interrupts the proceedings. This is Hunter S Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 reimagined by zombie film director George Romero.

Feed is passionate and incisive writing. Grant is clever and thought-provoking, piggybacking on horror fiction tropes to speak to the audience about how we may be manipulated by the ‘news’, how fear motivates our decisions and how democracy is reduced to a special interest land-grab. At its core though, Feed is a story about a brother and sister who love each other very much. I eagerly await ‘Book Two….’ Deadline.

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