Monday, June 28, 2010

Tim Curran Interview

The fine folks at Cemetery Dance were kind and tolerant enough to allow me to continue doing interviews for them. My interview with Tim Curran is now up, and may be read here:

Pod of Horror # 60

After too long an absence, the Pod of Horror has returned with its 60th episode. Mark Justice talks with Peter Straub and Peter Clines, and Nanci Kalanta has all the news that's fit to broadcast.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Death of a Citizen

I have just recovered from one of those nasty viruses. Nothing dramatic or life-threatening, just enough to have me engulfed in waves of self-pity. In the aftermath, it was difficult to concentrate on reading or doing anything else, so, to re-stimulate my interest in reading, I turned to an old favorite dating back to my childhood: Donald Hamilton’s “spy” novel Death of a Citizen.

Set in 1958 (published as a paperback original in 1960), Death of a Citizen introduces us to Hamilton’s most popular creation, Matt Helm. Living in New Mexico, Helm makes a comfortable living as a photographer and writer of westerns (Hamilton was also a very good western writer), with a wife and three small children. Thirteen years prior, however, Helm had served in World War Two under the code name Eric as part of an elite group of assassins, managed by a mysterious boss known as Mac. Helm has left his violent past behind, but it catches up with him when he meets an old associate at a cocktail party, who recruits him to help her with a local operation. What Helm doesn’t know at first is she has switched sides, and wants to use him to commit and take the fall for a murder of a prominent scientist.

Helm is rusty, and slow to get back into the game, until his old partner and lover decides to kidnap his baby to force him to do her bidding. Citizen Helm dies, and Eric is reborn.

Although out of print and not very well known today, the Matt Helm series was extremely popular. Hamilton published 27 books in the series, and completed the as-yet-unpublished 28th before his death in 2006. I loved the series because of its lack of sentimentality, which fatally mars most such efforts. Helm, although possessing a dry sense of humor, is a professional killer, and makes no effort to soften his work. When the government assigns a target or gives him a mission, he carries it out, no matter the cost. The bad guy takes a hostage as a shield? Too bad, but a bullet will easily go through the hostage to hit the target. Fair fights and compassion are for TV shows, not for real spy work.

There’s no denying the books are a little dated. Some of the attitudes toward women are in keeping with the time, as Helm beds them and (mostly) forgets them, and sometimes kills them himself. Still re-reading the book was just as satisfying as the first time for me, and if you have a taste for harder-boiled spy novels than the better known James Bond, give Matt Helm a try. You will have to pick up used copies, but they are fairly easy to find.

The series was turned into four movies starring Dean Martin in the 60s, but they were comedies, and bore little resemblance to the books, and neither did a short-lived TV series in the 1970s. There are constant rumors of reviving the character in the movies, but stories of Steven Spielberg’s involvement and the possible casting of Bradley Cooper as Matt Helm indicate the material will be treated with no more respect than in the Martin versions.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Brief History of the Dead

I was lent The Brief History Of The Dead by a friend, who had recommended it. It is an interesting book, and the first I have read by its author, Kevin Brockmeier.

The premise is intriguing: There is a City where people live after they die. They pass into the city, where they live a healthy life, remaining unchanged at the age they were when they died. There they dwell – until the last person on earth who remembers them dies, at which point they disappear, to some unknown destination. This is the earth of the indeterminate near future, which has become something of a dystopia, with wars, ecological crises, and the constant threat of biological attack. As the story in the book begins, a new virus has been unleashed on earth, which causes a lethal pandemic. The population of the City begins to shrink rapidly, triggering a mild panic. Soon, they realize that everyone who is still there knew the same woman, who must be the last survivor.

The even numbered chapters tell the story of this woman, Laura Byrd. She was on a research project in Antarctica, and missed the plague. The book follows her struggle to make her way across the ice to reach civilization – not knowing that she will die of the virus when she gets there.

The book raises some interesting points, but leaves far too many unanswered questions. What happens when someone dies in the City? Everyone continues to do the same jobs as in their previous life, but where do the products they sell come from? Since there are no animals other than birds, where do they get their hamburgers? How does a memo that explains some of the origin of the plague exist in the City when it was created on Earth?

The book is marketed as science fiction, but is actually a fantasy, since the author has as much grasp of science as I do (my high school science teacher was the basketball coach, so to this day I have no idea if the earth revolves around the sun, or vice versa). Laura’s vehicle is powered by a nearly inexhaustible fuel cell, yet she has to fret over the stove running out of fuel, and many other illogical devices.

It is also hampered by the fact that the book doesn’t end so much as stops, without clearing up anything.

An interesting concept, well written, but ultimately, I was disappointed.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

A Host of Shadows

You can read my short review of Harry Shannon's new short story collection A Host of Shadows at the Horror World website. Harry is one of those writers who isn't nearly as well known as he should be, and this is a good collection. If you haven't already tried Mr. Shannon, you should check him out.