Friday, March 31, 2017

Wild at Heart- A Wild Card's Retrospective- Book 1: Wild Cards Part 3

So here we are the last entry for book 1.  As I said in the last post, the stories I'm going to cover here were not included in the original publication of the first book of Wild Cards. Instead, they were written for the book's republication by in 2010, twenty-three years after the novel's first publication. This is both a blessing and a curse: the stories are no longer bound by having to set up plot threads for the next novels but at the same time they have to take care not to contradict the events of the other twenty-two books.

This problem shows itself most fully in the first new story "Captain Cathode and the Secret Ace" by Michael Casutt.  The titular "secret ace" is one Karl von Kampen, a television producer who secretly possesses the power of "fokus," his pet-name for his  superhuman eye-site.  Karl produces the children's sci-fi  TV show, Captain Cathode, which is up for a lucrative sponsorship deal that is being jeopardized by the lead actor's tendency to disappear for long periods of time. When Karl tries to investigate  of the situation, he finds himself the target of the Medusa Killer, a murderer who literally turns his victims to stone.

To me this story is the epitome of a wasted opportunity. The sole story in the book to completely break free from the traditional origin story paradigm, it is, unfortunately, also pretty much pointless. The characters introduced in this story don't show up again in later books and because of the story's retroactive nature, none of the plot threads can be taken up again until past Book Twenty-Three. Writing new stories for Wild Cards could have been an opportunity to develop some of the characters introduced in the first book. Instead, "Captain Cathode" just feels like a place holder, there to pad out the page count.

Things improve somewhat in the next story, "Powers" by David D. Levine, which may not be essential but does at least serve a purpose. This is the Wild Cards universe retelling of the real-life story of Francis Garry Powers, an American pilot who was shot down and captured while piloting a spy plane over the Soviet Union. In the real world, Powers was released as part of an exchange of hostages by both sides. In this version of the story, he is rescued by the story's protagonist, Frank Majewski, a middle-aged ace.

"Powers" uses the real-life incident as a backdrop for what is essentially another origin story. (Majewski receives an appropriately super-hero-y sounding name at end of the story). However, it has a lot of fun riffing on the similarities between the super-heroes and the spy genre, namely code names and secret identities. Also, it shows what the aces were doing during the McCarthy era, a period of time that is constantly referenced but not really shown during the series proper. It also answers a minor mystery about the fate of a side character, 24 years after it was introduced in the first edition of this book, and then never mentioned in subsequent books. (See what I mean when I say that it could take a while for this series to wrap up plot threads.)

Another problem presented by these stories is there placement in the book as a whole.The book maintains it's chronological conceit which means that the new stories are inserted into the appropriate place between the older stories. The problem with this is that three of the  older stories "Witness', "Degradation Rites" and "Shell Games", contained a plot arc that continued from one story to the next. In older editions, these stories followed one another, allowing for a uninterrupted narrative thread.  However, since the new stories take place years before "Shell Games", they are inserted after "Degradation Rites". The result is that the book main narrative arc comes to a complete stop to tell two essentially unrelated stories and, as a result, the narrative flow is broken, to the book's detriment.

The last story, "Ghost Girl Takes Manhattan" by Carrie Vaughn, is the best of the new stories. Set in the 80s, the story tells the backstory of Jennifer Malloy,  aka Wraith, a heroic thief who is prominent in the later books in the series. Here, she is still just a reserved young woman who is hiding her ace ability to turn intangible at will.  Unfortunately, an evening clubbing with a friend goes south when she inadvertently encounters Croyd Crenson, the Sleeper, and gets embroiled in a conflict over some stolen money. While doing this, she learns to loosen up and enjoy stealing other people's things. (There are probably worse lessons to learn but none immediately spring to mind.)

"Ghost Girl Takes Manhattan" is the best of the new stories, mainly because it ties in more to the series as a whole.  In the original version of the series, Wraith was not introduced until the third book, by which time her career as a thief was already well underway. "Ghost Girl" gives us a sense of how she got to that point as well as working as a stand alone heist story.

Because the Wild Cards series has so many characters, theres simply isn't enough room to flesh all the character's backstories as much as one might like. Thus, the opportunity to write new stories for a new edition of the first book was an opportunity to go back and fill in some of the gaps. (I personally would have liked to get some background on Perigrine, who is arguably the most public female heroine in the early books, or seen some of Hiram Worchester's days at the crime-fighting Fatman.) Since only "Ghost Girl" takes full advantage of this opportunity, the other stories seem less consequential to the series as a whole. Thus, I would argue that the 2010 edition is for hard-core completists only.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Rue Morgue Reading- The Straw Men

Today, my blog will undertake a new project. Yes, yet another project that will come out in nowhere near a timely fashion.  As my friends and family know I am an avid reader of Rue Morgue magazine which focuses on horror in all aspects of popular culture. It is, in short, the thinking man's Fangoria.  A few years ago I read their article on the 100 best horror novels and decided to read them all. Every--- single--- one.

And I'm going to be sharing my opinion on every single one of them you my dear readers. I'm going to read them in no particular order but I will read them and discuss whether or not I think they are any good. Aren't you lucky?

First up: The Straw Men by Michael Marshall.

Let's get the first thing out of the way. This book is the first in a trilogy that deals with the efforts of Ward Hopkins, ex-CIA agent, in opposing the enigmatic criminal/terrorist organization that call themselves the "Straw Men." I actually the second book in the series some years ago and was left unimpressed (SPOILERS: If the end of your gritty thriller novel about a serial killer involves telepathic Neanderthals, reconsider your ending.)

By all logic, I should hate the "Straw Men" as well. And I will admit that there are some parts of the story that seem to tread into ridiculousness. (The "Straw Men" are implied to be behind pretty much almost everything bad that has happened for the last sixty years from the Altamont concert shootings to the war in the Middle East).

And yet it works. The story is a murder mystery dual investigation plot where two seemingly separate investigations turn out to be connected. One plot follows Ward Hopkins as he discovers evidence that the car accident that killed his parents may have been deliberately arranged. His search leads him to a gated community called the Halls, which is run and inhabited by members of the Straw Men. Hopkins is left trying to find out his parents' connection to the organization, a search which leads to disturbing revelations about his own past.

The second thread follows Jim Zandt, a former police officer who left the force after his daughter was abducted by a serial killer called the "Upright Man."When the "Upright Man" returns, abducting a fourteen year old girl named Sarah Becker, Zandt is called in by his ex-lover, FBI agent Nina Baynam to assist in the investigation.

This sounds like pretty formulaic crime thriller fair but make no mistake-- "The Straw Men" is a horror novel. The Straw Men's philosophy feeds into one of the most basic fears- that human beings are hopelessly corrupt on a fundamental level and that it is not evil, but rather virtue, that is an aberration. The book contains some scene that can only be described as nihilistic (the revelation of what animals the Straw Men keep in their stables is incredibly bleak and depressing).

Plus, Ward Hopkins is good lead. Just enough of a shady past with government that it's plausible that he could survive the unlikely scenarios he finds himself in but with little enough combat experience, that it's clear that he is completely in over his head. It makes the stakes so much higher and thus, his victories so much more rewarding.

The ending of the book as befits a trilogy is open-ended, leaving room for the next book. But trust me when I say that reading the sequel is a massive waste of time, especially because of Marshall's decisions to introduce science-fiction elements to the plot. The first book has enough a resolution that I was satisfied but that's a subjective judgment and if you're the type who absolutely need to know what happens to the characters in a book series, you might want to give it a miss.