For what ails you — Frankenstein’s Prescription, by Tim Lees

It’s been a while since I’ve reviewed a title from Tartarus Press, the UK-based publisher of fine limited editions and winner of three World Fantasy Awards and a Stoker. My reintroduction to the press came in the form of the novel Frankenstein’s Prescription, by Tim Lees.

Set in Europe at the beginning of the 20th century, this pitch-perfect period piece chronicles the experiences of Hans Schneider, who when we first meet him is a rather arrogant medical student at Heidelberg University. Forced to abscond after he unintentionally kills another student in a duel, Hans’ forced exile leads him to a post as an assistant at a remote asylum. From the moment he arrives, things seem decidedly strange, and that includes the nature of Hans’ new boss, the enigmatic Dr. Lavenza, who manages to seem both crazed and detached at various times. To further complicate matters, there’s a murderer loose in the woods nearby.

Hans eventually discovers a series of increasingly disturbing facts:

  1. Lavenza is engaged in experiments to reanimate the dead;
  2. Lavenza’s real name is Frankenstein, and he is a descendant of the good Doctor himself, Viktor;
  3. the murderer in the woods is none other than the Frankenstein Monster, both immortal and immoral;
  4. as seen elsewhere, the monster wants a mate, and won’t cease plaguing the Frankenstein family until he gets one.

The tale is enlivened by frequent doses of subtle humor, as here:

“I wondered what I had been a party to; was it surgery or was it torture? In truth, I had often found it hard to tell the two apart.”

But then again, not all the humor used is quite so, er, subtle, as evidenced by the following exchange between Hans and Lavenza, which is joined by their servant Karl, a not-overly-bright former asylum patient.

“‘This is a problem to be solved Hans, not a crime. Not — what did you call it? Not a massacre. More the reverse. Indeed, an anti-massacre.’

‘Like on a chair,’ said Karl.”

Even though there’s a healthy dosage of such humor, comedy is certainly not the prevailing mood — there is plenty of drama and horror to be found in these pages. But what’s unfortunately missing is really any sense of mystery or suspense. Given that most of the info I disclose above is revealed, or otherwise apparent to the reader, early in the story, and given that the monster’s quest for a bride has been explored multiple times before across various media… well, there’s a lot of familiar ground being trod here. For the most part, though, Lees’ evocative writing manages to keep the reader engaged.

It’s worth noting that the author explores at length Lavenza’s role as the creator of the monster — and hence as God in the monster’s eyes — as captured in the monster’s monologue here:

“‘The life was shot into my veins…and then the light inside my skull caught fire, so fiercely I could never shut it out again, and even when I sleep, the colours dance upon my eyes and tease me with a mockery of life; and the sounds I heard still thunder in my ears… I was not born as you are, helpless maggots, squirming through your first few years of life. I was born awake, and I was born full-made. And I remember.’”

Frankenstein’s Prescription is clearly a labor of love by Lees, as it’s hard to see a story such as this appealing to a mass audience in today’s world. His appreciation for the subject shines throughout, making this an appealing read, beautifully packaged by Tartarus Press (as always).

Southern Gods by John Hornor Jacobs — “a mash up of crime noir, Southern Gothic, and Lovecraftian cosmic horror”

For the third consecutive post, I’m reviewing a first novel. After previously evaluating Matt Hults’ Husk and Laird Barron’s The Light is the Darkness, this time I train the spotlight on Southern Gods, the debut novel by John Hornor Jacobs, published by Night Shade Books.

While doing a little background research on Mr. Jacobs, I came across an interview conducted by Joe Howe for the site, in which Jacobs provides a great high-level summary of Southern Gods via a recounting of the formative factors in the book’s creation:

“…the things I was interested in at the time heavily influenced the writing of it: Alan Lomax’s recordings for the Library of Congress, Robert Chambers “The King in Yellow,” the history of blues (and rock-n-roll) in the South and, more specifically, Memphis and eastern Arkansas – my stomping grounds – and the post WWII Chandler-esque noir hero. In general, Southern Gods is a mash up of crime noir, Southern Gothic, and Lovecraftian cosmic horror.”

Indeed it is, and an extremely well-concocted mash-up at that. The Chandler-esque noir hero is one Bull Ingram, a WWII veteran who by 1951 has turned enforcer for various shady employers. His latest assignment comes from Memphis record producer Sam Phelps (clearly modeled on Sun Studio’s Sam Phillips), who wants Bull to track down a promo man who’s gone missing in the midst of a tour of radio stations across the south. Phelps tells Ingram there’s a secondary aspect to the job as well — to find out whatever he can about a shadowy musician named Ramblin’ John Hastur — and plays a sample of Hastur’s music, to dramatic effect:

“The percussive beat held the sound of a thousand slaves, bloody and broken and murderous, each walking forward with the rattle and clank of their broken shackles, knives whisking in their hands, walking through the night under black skies. The guitar’s atonal buzz reached places in Ingram that had been deaf until then, each note curdled with madness and hatred, each measure meted out in some ethereal range that was perceived by more than ears—as if Ingram, not the radio, were the receiver and the invisible transmissions emanating out of the deep and dark fields of Arkansas held some frightening and terrible message just for him.”

Ingram’s quest soon leads him into increasingly dangerous territory, including an encounter with a strange pale man who can seemingly reanimate the dead. Meanwhile, a second storyline focuses on Sarah Williams, a young mother who’s recently left her abusive husband and moved back to her childhood home to be with her own ailing mother. Bored and lonely, Sarah decides to brush up her Latin by attempting to translate a book she comes across in her late father’s library…but it’s not just any book; it’s a very dark tome indeed. Confused and concerned by what she’s reading, Sarah seeks the assistance of a local Catholic priest, one Father Andrez, who turns out to have a very interesting history with such forbidden texts.

The first 2/3 or so of Southern Gods is riveting, but once the paths of Bull, Sarah, and Andrez cross, there are an unfortunate number of convenient plot developments — enough that they start to feel like contrivances. Between that and a little too much time spent on exposition, the story loses steam in the stretch run. But even though the book can’t maintain its initial brilliance, there is nonetheless more than enough promise shown in Jacob’s first novel to make it worth your time and to mark him as an author to watch.

Laird Barron’s debut novel, The Light is the Darkness

I’ve been a huge admirer of Laird Barron’s short fiction for a while now — among many highlights, “Old Virginia” is the creepiest story I’ve read in the last few years — and was thus very intrigued to see his first novel, The Light is the Darkness, come out from Infernal House.

It’s a short novel, clocking in at a brisk 182 pages, and I have to admit that it’s not exactly what I expected. Much of Barron’s short fiction, and certainly the best of it, has a gritty, noirish quality, and is often firmly based in reality until the otherworldly elements start poking their way through the thin fabric of the everyday world. The Light is the Darkness, on the other hand, has a fantastical, over-the-top feel to it right from the get-go.

Conrad Navarro is a gladiator for the 21st century, a competitor in underground death-matches that cater to bored, rich clientele. The spectacles are perhaps a logical next-level from today’s ultimate fighting bouts, and Conrad is a champion in this blood sport, able to absorb huge amounts of punishment before launching his deadly counter-strikes. As Barron describes:

“Uncle Kosokian had also instructed young Conrad in the princely arts, including that of warfare and close combat, had groomed him for the clandestine spectacles of the Pageant and its gladiatorial exhibitions—a great and secret show that had played to the tune of obscenely rich patricians since ancient times. The man had participated in the secret arenas during his own sordid youth, had spilled his share of blood. He taught Conrad most everything there was to know about killing men and beasts for sport and profit.”

Brutish in appearance but possessing an intellect that’s the equal of his physical prowess, Conrad is consumed by the search for his missing sister, Imogene, an FBI agent who disappeared while conducting a search of her own, for a brilliant, evil scientist Dr. Drake, who may have murdered their brother Ezra.

The propensity of pulpish elements made suspension of disbelief a challenge for me at times, with the end result that I didn’t find The Light is the Darkness to be among Barron’s very best work. But that’s not to say that it’s not entertaining — because it is — or that it doesn’t feature some of Barron’s characteristically rich prose. For example:

“Daylight bleached his moonscape of a face. Black and blue on deadly nightshade, red meat bulged like an intestine in the corner of his right eye. The left eye was a glistening purple bud, clenched as a toddler’s fist, its roots sunk deep in a hidden fracture that yawned with each hoarse exhalation.”

Given the pricey nature of Infernal House’s very limited edition ($175, for a print run of 174), I can’t unreservedly recommend Barron’s debut novel, but if you’re a big fan of the author’s work and have some cash burning a hole in your pocket, it will probably be hard to say no to this one.