He Stepped Through — Nate Southard’s Cthulhu Crimewave

I’ve read many a twist on Cthulhu’s tentacles over the years, but I believe Nate Southard’s He Stepped Through is the first to combine Mythos echoes with gangbangers’ gunshots.

Corrupt LAPD Gang Unit Detective Walker and his partner Rawls starts\ their day dealing with a hostage situation in a fast food restaurant that ends with a cannibalistic banger chewing on a body part and muttering “he stepped through.”  Officer Megan Ricks discovers the same words scrawled in blood at a horrific crime scene.  And the words are on infinite loop in the head of 2bit, another Compton gangbanger, who has a dead spot in his memory and a nagging fear that he’s done something very bad.  Walker and Rawls’ investigation leads them deeper into madness and toward an ultimate confrontation with a drug lord who found a certain book, and set the whole nasty chain of events in motion.

Southard’s characters are distinctive and the pacing here is rapid-fire, leading to a highly engaging read, and the sense that this could easily be developed into a longer work.  The 300-copy Bloodletting Press print edition of this novelette is out of print, but you still may be able to find a copy through a bookseller, and there’s a digital edition available.

Ramsey Campbell’s The Seven Days of Cain, plus titles by Graham Masterton and Carol Johnstone

Ramsey Campbell has produced thirty novels during his long and prolific career, and my reactions to the ones I’ve read tend to run hot or cold — I was hugely impressed by titles such as Incarnate, The Hungry Moon, and Ancient Images, but left unsatisfied by others such as The Doll Who Ate His Mother and The Influence. His latest, The Seven Days of Cain, falls somewhere between the two extremes, but closer to the hotter end of the scale.

At its heart, Seven Days is an inventive take on an old chestnut — that of a fictional character being brought to life — updating the idea for the Internet age. The plot centers around frustrated photographer Andy Bentley, who begins to receive strange emails that seem to be connected to a string of murders. Among the sources of Andy’s frustrations are the inability of he and his wife, Claire, to have children, a fact which Andy’s parents, eager to be grandparents, never seem to tire of reminding him. Andy’s life is further complicated by the appearance of Max Beyer, a wealthy but very troublesome client, who wants Andy to photograph him in a way that will capture his true essence. Just what that essence is proves debatable, but Beyer’s intent seems darker with each passing page.

Based on this novel, one might get the sense that Campbell himself isn’t entirely comfortable with the Internet, a sense that’s perhaps reinforced by the rather outdated and haphazard nature of his website (and yes, I realize that comment opens me up to criticism of this oft-ignored site). More often than not, Andy’s dial-up connections to the Internet (and that’s a rather telling choice — having a character using dial-up in 2010) seem like the opening of a doorway into a mysterious and frightening place. For Andy, the web is full of dark corners, harboring threats and danger.

A pervasive sense of vexing ambiguity, a staple of much of Campbell’s work, is on display throughout Seven Days. What detracts a bit from the proceedings is the generally unlikeable nature of the characters. Between the frequent doses of bickering, guilt-trips, and recrimination, I sometimes wanted to reach into the pages and strangle the characters. Additionally, Campbell’s characters often seem to speak in riddles, eschewing direct answers to hint, unconsciously or otherwise, at deeper meanings. It’s an approach that, used in moderation, can elevate the sense of mystery and unease, but Campbell sometimes goes over the top with it.

Still, even though it’s an occasionally bumpy ride, The Seven Days of Cain is, at the end of its days, more engrossing than aggravating.

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I have a fairly strong tendency to only review books that I enjoy. I usually don’t get very far into titles that don’t pass the sniff test. I’m going to make an exception in the remainder of this posting, and briefly review two recent books that just didn’t do very much for me. Both are mercifully short, with one categorized as a novella and the other a short novel, a fact that led me to actually finish them rather than tossing them aside.

First up is Graham Masterton’s The Djinn, which was recently republished by Telos, after first appearing in 1977. I realize that a career as long as Masterton’s is bound to produce some highlights and lowlights, but it sort of boggles my mind that the same writer who can produce a brilliant work like Bonnie Winter can also produce less-than-pedestrian fare like Dream Warriors, Revenge of the Manitou, and…. this book. Telos’s edition of The Djinn is updated with a new Introduction from the author, but as far as I can discern, the story itself has not been edited or updated in any way, which would seem to indicate that Masterton is perfectly happy with it the way it is. That would make one of us who feels that way. Ahem.

The Djinn stars cynical psychic detective Harry Erskine, who also featured in Masterton’s Manitou novels, and begins with Harry attending his Godfather’s wake, where he meets the alluring Anna, and also learns of some very bizarre behavior by the now-deceased Godfather. Prompted by concern for this Godmother Marjorie, Harry proceeds to investigate that strange behavior, which centered around a mysterious jar which was brought from Persia and now resides in a locked tower room, while at the same time seeking to ingratiate himself with the lovely Anna. The requisite academic expert, Professor Qualt, helps Harry and Anna to understand the true story behind the jar, and the dangers held within it. It’s all fairly fast-moving, but there are expository passages and exchanges of dialog that are jarring to the nth degree. Not recommended unless you’re a fan of everything Masterton produces.

The second book to underwhelm recently was Carol Johnstone’s Frenzy, published by Eternal Publications in a form that calls to mind amateur desktop publishing experiments in the 1980s (the back cover has to be seen to be believed). This novella was particularly disappointing given that I’ve read several of Johnstone’s short stories, in Black Static magazine and elsewhere, and generally been quite impressed. I’m afraid I can’t say the same for Frenzy, which utilizes a familiar set-up — a group of strangers regaining consciousness in a strange place, with no memory of how they got there — that I first recall seeing in the 1997 film Cube, and which has been used ad nauseam since then.

Here, eight men come to on a life raft in the middle of what they later determine is the Pacific Ocean, with the primary focus on one rather ordinary character, Peter Sherlock. Bickering between unlikeable characters, which I mentioned earlier in my review of Campbell’s The Seven Days of Cain, is truly taken to another level here, with constant suspicion and infighting and occasional bouts of violence between the eight men. It’s certainly realistic to expect such behavior in that kind of a frightening and stressful situation, but that doesn’t make slogging through descriptions of it any more enjoyable. As the hours and days pass, hunger and thirst spreads, exhaustion grows, and the men come to realize that they are not alone. There is the expected threat from circling sharks, as well as another unknown and seemingly supernatural presence. The author occasionally inserts passages about the endless void that lies beneath the men, “vast trenches miles wide and deep”, but even these sections seem forced and artificial.

In the end, nothing is really explained or resolved, and there certainly is no happy ending. The reader is left with little more than a sense of gratefulness that the story is only around 80 pages long.