Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Tales of the Shadowmen 2 – a guide

Hello. I’ve just finished reading a book of short stories. An anthology I suppose. I really don’t know. I ought to look up what constitutes an anthology sometime, but I don’t want to lose my train of thought.
The anthology in question is Tales of the Shadowmen volume 2 : Gentlemen of the Night. Quite a mouthful I’m sure you’ll agree, and one that should have given me pause before purchasing it, recalling Chelmer’s third law of publishing (“The longer the title, the more amateur the content”)*.

Regardless, I ordered it off my Amazon wish list, using up a slice of the generous gift voucher my ex-colleagues at United Amalgamated Consolidated had sent me off with some time ago. My reasons for acquiring the book elude me slightly now, some months down the line, but it must have been something to do with my on again/off again flirtation with gothic horror, pulp fiction and that peculiar pick&mix genre of ‘Hey, what if Sherlock Holmes met Dracula?’ type stories that have given us The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, the Wold Newton shared universe, and Popeye Meets the Man who Hated Laughter (you’ll probably just have to trust me on that last one).

Shadowmen 2, as I’m now going to refer to it, is a collection short stories based on largely French characters from 19th and early 20th century fiction, some of whom you may have heard of, others I truly believe have not seen the light of print for a good hundred years or more. Most of the characters originate from the adventure/fantasy/detective/scientifiction corner of the bookshop, it is true – you’re more likely to find Quasimodo or D’Artagnan here than Jean Valjean or Valmont – and that’s certainly one of the main reasons I picked it up.

All the stories are written in English, thank God. Don’t think for one moment I can manage any story in French longer than the page and a half of Vas-Y Gaiment that it took to describe what happened when Toutou a disparu. Moreover, a good proportion of the authors are English speakers (or at least American), and the genuine French (and French-Canadian) contributors have either pretty decent English themselves or access to fair translators. At any rate, all the stories are perfectly readable from a language point of view. I don’t even know why I’ve bothered to mention it as much as I have. I’ll stop now.

So, onto the stories themselves. It occurred to me, about halfway through a particularly tiresome chapter, that a future reader of this volume might find it useful if I were to furnish them with a short guide to each story, a mini-review if you will, so that they might avoid wasting their time on the turkeys, and even skip over the boring bits of the decent tales. Sacrilege? Maybe, but have you ever, honestly, picked up an anthology and found that each and every story was worth your while? I haven’t.

Of course, the following guide will only be of use if you happen to have exactly the same taste in fiction as I, and pretty much the same 21st century impatience with ‘the boring bits’. I mean, if I pick up another novel that wastes the first page and a half describing the countryside before getting on with the story (see every Wheel of Time book), I’ll- I dunno – I’ll probably go tch and skip to the first bit of dialogue. I guess what I’m driving at here is that this will only be useful to my brother, who will be the recipient of my dog-eared copy of Shadowmen 2, whether he likes it or not.

I suppose I ought to put in a spoiler warning at this point, in the astronomically remote event of a) anyone reading this, b) that same person subsequently reading Shadowmen 2, and c) that rare individual being at all bothered about what I’m going to say. So: SPOILER. There you go.

Ex Calce Liberatus, by Matthew Baugh
Told entirely in letter form, which I have never entirely warmed to (you could cut a lot of the Mina/Lucy fluff out of Dracula for a start), this revolves around a wax museum, a foolish French inspector and a sword maguffin. Oh, and the master thief Arsène Lupin. You’d better like reading about Lupin, because he appears in about half the Shadowmen 2 stories. It’s okay, I suppose; the Japanese detective character is quite good, but the involvement of Lupin is a character too many, not to mention Sir Lancelot (yes, really).

Trauma, by Bill Cunningham
Now this is more my ideal length of story. It’s one page long. Inspector Maigret interviews a young boy about a murder by the master criminal (there are a lot of master criminals in French fiction, it seems) Fantômas. The young boy will grow up to be the Green Hornet. Short and sweet, a sort of alternative Batman origin.

The Eye of Oran, by Win Eckert
This Casablancesque offering is one of the weaker entries, and probably the one that prompted me to write this guide in the first place. It’s also the most Wold Newtony of all the stories, by which I mean you’ve got a whole bunch of characters from multiple adventure and detective tales running around, including fabricated descendants like Violet Holmes, niece of the consulting detective (honestly). This can often end up as a bit of a fan-fiction indulgence, as in this case. He even manages to squeeze in Doc Ardan (a French Doc Savage rip-oeuf) and the inevitable Lupin involvement, though the passing reference to Conan’s lover Bêlit does redeem it slightly.

The Werewolf of Rutherford Grange, by G L Glick
This is another iffy one, not least because it is the second part of a story that was started in Shadowmen 1, which I haven’t read. I’m pretty sure that contravenes another of Chelmer’s laws of publishing. It’s also too long at fifty pages, or at least too light on content to keep me interested for fifty pages. Essentially a bunch of people run around a house while a magical beastie periodically turns up and mauls someone. There’s a nothingy American detective called Harry Dickson, his Indian mate, a smattering of Agatha Christie extras and a turbaned mystic called Sâr Dubnotal who directs the action in an annoyingly Dr Whoish manner. Mainly too long and too many characters. And Sâr Dubnotal is a silly name.

Dr Cerral’s Patient, by Rick Lai
The best I can say about this story is that at 14 pages it didn’t eat up much of my time. It also didn’t leave a great impression on me for good or ill. It was something to do with an unscrupulous doctor (of course), murders at a girls’ boarding school and something to do with hand transplants. So far so good you may think, but it’s actually quite confusing, is largely structured as a dialogue explaining stuff that has already happened off-stage, and again manages to crowbar in a Lupin nod. Blah.

A Suite of Shadowmen, by various
A series of one-page vignettes featuring various popular characters accompanied by scribbled caricatures by Argentinian artist Fernando Calvi. The drawings are not all to my taste, but at least they and the vignettes don’t take up much space. Best skimmed.

Be Seeing You!, by Xavier Maumejean
This pleasingly short piece entertains the notion that a certain Village for detained persons of interest was in use as far back as 1912, and furthermore that a noted consulting detective spends a brief time there, earning himself the sobriquet Number Six. A neat little tale, though bordering on the cute and very much in the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen vein. And while it does feature the inevitable Lupin (in a submarine), there is a steam-driven Rover for our hero to flee from down the beach, which is nice.

The Vanishing Diamonds, by Sylvie Miller and Philippe Ward
A silly story in which HG Wells’ time traveller, relaxing at his club with Allan Quatermain, Captain Nemo and the Invisible Man (how did they come up with those particular characters?) accepts a bet from Henry Baskerville to investigate an anomaly in Dumas’ version of events in The Three Musketeers. Not my cup of tea.

A Jest, To Pass the Time, by Jess Nevins
Given Mr Nevins’ role as the author of guides to The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, it’s no great surprise to see him featured here, nor that his contribution is a wonder of research into some less-than renowned characters from French fiction. The story though is little more than a pass-the-parcel black comedy, wherein the maguffin of Wilke Collins’ moonstone is snatched first from the Louvre, and subsequently from a series of master criminals, one after another. Entertaining, though I only recognised Fantômas, Zenith and Raffles of the seemingly endless rogue’s gallery portrayed here. Oh yes, guess which master criminal had the moonstone all along? Arsène bloody Lupin of course.

Angels of Music, by Kim Newman
Now, I generally love Kim Newman’s work, especially his Anno Dracula stuff – Dr Jack Seward is actually Jack the Ripper, killing vampire prostitutes? Brilliant! And this story is based on no less cute a conceit: that Erik, the Phantom of the Opera, rather than orchestrating a one-man campaign of musical terror, instead assembles three remarkable ladies who he despatches on various thrilling missions. Brilliant again, even if I did have to look up who Trilby O’Ferrall was. But it does go on quite a bit, with perhaps a scene or two too many. You can’t go too far wrong with evil clockwork mannequins though.

The Incomplete Assassin, by John Peel
No, not that John Peel. This short story involves the ballet, Russian revolutionaries and the dullest of French pulp characters: Roulletabille the journalist. A man is shot at the ballet. Roulletabille dresses up as the murdered man and catches the assassin at the hospital. That’s really it.

Annus Mirabilis, by Chris Roberson
It took me a couple of read-throughs, and some diligent wikipeding (that is a verb, honest), to fully appreciate this Doctor Omega story, but it’s worth the effort. Unlike the other stories, I will resist spoiling it for you other than to recommend it for being short and quite clever.

Legacies, by Jean-Louis Trudel
This is probably the archetypal Shadowmen story, as it features a jewel theft in Paris, the reporter Roulletabille and Arsène feckin’ Lupin. Just skip it.

The Grey Men, by Brian Stableford
The final entry in Shadowmen 2 is an odd one, not least because like the earlier Werewolf story, it is incomplete, being part one of The Empire of the Necromancers, if you please. Thanks to the introduction, I learnt that is a sequel of sorts to a little known thriller from 1861 called John Devil, and features many of that near-forgotten novel’s characters, primarily a resourceful short chap called Ned Knob (worth it for his name alone). It takes a while to get going properly, and is a bit bloody long at sixty-plus pages, but if you skip over all the needless recaps of what happened in the original story, it’s actually quite a good weird science/zombie/gothic adventure with a few good action sequences. I think it’s a sort of sequel to Frankenstein on the sly, but I could be wrong.

So, yeah. Possibly the least mainstream fiction review you will read for some time. Move over, Richard and Judy’s book club.

* Made up.