A year ago I began a subscription to Weird Tales with issue #358. I figured that reading the latest incarnation of Weird Tales would be fun, and also that I could learn something about contemporary horror fiction along the way. (I really don't know very much about it, since my knowledge of the genre mostly resides in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.) An article by Cynthia Ward led me to check out the website of a new genre fiction press called Angry Robot Books. I moused around a bit, and saw several books that I thought I might enjoy reading. But the work of one author in particular, Justin Gustainis, caught my eye.
Mr. Gustainis's first book with Angry Robot is an urban fantasy novel called Hard Spell. It's also a police procedural. I don't know much about urban fantasy, except that it seems to be everywhere these days. So I was intrigued. I don't know how many hours of Law & Order and its spinoffs that I've seen over the years. But, I thought, that a combination of urban fantasy and police procedural could be entertaining. So I was doubly intrigued. Furthermore, according to his website, Mr. Gustainis was once in the military, and is now a Professor of Communication at Plattsburgh State University. That's an unusual background for a writer of any sort. So I was triply intrigued. Finally, the hilarious trailer in support of the book had me laughing out loud. In short, I was sold. (The excerpt on the Angry Robot website didn't hurt, either.)
The book was great, and, lucky for me, the first in a series. The second book is called Evil Dark, and it's just as great.
Detective Stan Markowski is a member of the Occult Crimes Unit of the Scranton Police Department. Scranton, as in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Okay, so it's not New York City. I never thought that I'd start reading a series of books set in Scranton. Not that I have anything against Scranton, of course. It's just that this sort of thing is usually set in more famous, more colorful cities. Although I lived in Philadelphia for many years, there were large parts of Pennsylvania that I never saw. (I didn't have a car, you see.) And so I never set foot in Scranton. But for all I know, Scranton (where Professor Gustainis attended college) is a great setting for supernatural phenomena. Just don't expect any famous landmarks to crop up as you follow Markowski's investigations.
So how do the books work? First off, what's the deal with supernatural beings (called "supes" in both books) roaming the mean streets of Scranton? According to Markowski, supes pretty much steered clear of the United States for a long time, what with its history of Puritanism. And we all know what happened in Salem, don't we? Well, two world wars put millions of Americans overseas, and air travel became widespread. So supes made their way to the New World in large numbers for the first time. In the 1960s they got the same civil rights as everyone else, and in Scranton there are a bunch of ley lines, i.e., sources of magical energy that attract supes whether they know it or not. So now they're Markowski's problem.
Markowski is the narrator, and his voice is what provides so much of the fun. His language is simultaneously profane and hilarious. I'll give you an example from Hard Spell. (And just so you know, that's me slightly editing the saltier language. After all, this blog is a family show.)
Markowski and his partner Karl Renfer have been sent out on a call to investigate reports of Satanists who are performing sacrifices. They find more than they expect, for the Satanists have successfully summoned a minor demon by means of a human sacrifice. Markowski goes hand-to-hand with a couple of the cultists, and then realizes that he has unintentionally stepped inside of the pentagram used to contain the demon. Not that he sees that he has done this. No, he realizes that he's in big trouble when he feels the demon grab his ankle. Here's how things play out on pages 42 and 43:
Most people can think pretty fast when they have to. Even me. In a flash I considered my options, and none of them looked very good. I still had my gun, but shooting a demon is a waste of time, even with silver bullets. And Arnie Schwarzenegger in his prime couldn't have broken the grip that thing had on my leg.
I was just thinking that my best option was to put the pistol in my mouth and pull the trigger when Karl Renfer appeared behind one of the smaller cultists, grabbed him at the neck and crotch with those big hands of his, and heaved.
"Here's dinner, Hellf-ck!" Karl yelled, as he threw the struggling man at the demon's ugly, misshapen head.
The kid was stronger than he looked.
Class-four demons aren't very smart. If this one had been brighter, it would have hung on to me with one clawed hand and grabbed the airborne cultist with the other one. Kind of like dinner plus dessert.
Instead, the stupid thing let go of me to grab its new prey, and I rolled away from that pentagram faster than a scalded cat on speed.
I got to my feet in time to see the demon bite the cultist's head off and swallow it whole.
I waved my gun at the rest of the coven. "Freeze, motherf-ckers! Hands in the air - you're all under arrest!" One of them made a dash for the door, but only got a few steps before Karl shot his leg out from under him. It didn't take long for us to get the rest face down on the floor, fingers interlaced behind their necks.
I looked at Karl. "You call for backup?" I asked. My voice was a little unsteady.
He shook his head. "Wasn't time, once I saw what was going down in here."
"Okay, I'll do it now."
I took out my radio, got the station, and told them what we were dealing with. The dispatcher promised to send help immediately. "Be sure to tell 'em to send an exorcist," I told her. "We got something that needs to be sent back to Gehenna."
As I clicked the radio off, I looked toward the pentagram. The demon was still devouring what was left of the unlucky cultist. Demons are real messy eaters.
Karl saw where I was looking. "Ate the outfit, too," he said. "Must be the extra fiber."
It wasn't all that funny, and definitely a 10 on the Insensitivity Scale, but I laughed. And laughed. It was all I could do to stop it from turning into tears. Coming that close to being eaten alive can shake you up some.
Even a tough guy like me.
This gives you a good idea of the tone of both books. Funny and scary.
But neither book is just a series of random calls. Instead, each book has a larger plot. In Hard Spell someone is killing vampires for some nefarious purpose that Markowski and Renfer have to uncover. And in Evil Dark someone is videotaping torture murders for a different but equally nefarious purpose. At times the books can be a bit gruesome, but the funny moments always come along to lighten the mood.
I had one minor quibble about something most readers won't notice (and that the editors at Angry Robot Books obviously didn't catch). Since Mr. Gustainis is a veteran, he generally does a good job of describing the use of firearms. I noticed, though, on page 252 of Hard Spell that he has Renfer thumb back the hammer of the Glock pistol that he carries. Well, Glocks don't have hammers. They're striker-fired semi-automatic pistols. Check out the Glock website and see for yourself.
Anyway, that's just a quibble, as I said.
Hard Spell and Evil Dark are loads of fun. I highly recommend them, and I'm definitely ready for the next one in the series.