”THE UNPLEASANT PROFESSION OF JONATHAN HOAG” by Robert A. Heinlein (first published Unknown Worlds, 1942; The Fantasies of Robert A. Heinlein, Tor, 1999. Included in Horror: The 100 Best Books ed. by Stephen Jones and Kim Newman)
”It is blood, doctor?” Jonathan Hoag moistened his lips with his tongue and leaned forward in the chair, trying to see what was written on the slip of paper the medico held.
-- first paragraph, “The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag”
Jonathan Hoag awakens each morning, ritually performs his ablutions, dresses and then … he does not know. He arrives home each evening satisfied that he has done something, but his memories are only of early evening until early morning; of when he supposes he is at work, he remembers nothing, and so he hires Randall and Craig, Confidential Investigations.
Though skeptical of a case in which they follow and report on the client to the client, Randall and Craig need the money. In the course of the investigation, first Hoag’s background information does not check out then Cynthia Craig Randall loses the two men after seeing Hoag catch her husband Ted tailing him. When Cynthia finally catches up with Ted he denies being spotted and says he followed Hoag to the thirteenth floor of the building in which Hoag works. On going to the building they find there is no thirteenth floor.
Then things get peculiar.
Elements of the story echo G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday – a reality behind the commonly perceived reality, a secret cabal led by a fat man, and the use of a form of popular fiction for structure for a story outside the usual scope of the form. Where Chesterton used the tale of espionage ala John Buchan for his structure, Heinlein uses the 1940s private eye story along with a common genre trope of the time, amnesia, to catalyze his tale questioning consensus reality. The novella’s major weakness shows up early on and stems from the private detective story: The snappy banter between Cynthia and Ted falls flat as Heinlein attempts dialog along the lines of 1940s screwball-comedy like The Thin Man movies or, for an even better example of similar film dialog, His Girl Friday. Still, the premise overcomes any missteps and reverberates off stories of the time with similar concerns, like Fritz Leiber’s “You’re All Alone” and “Smoke Ghost,” and Jack Williamson’s Darker Than You Think. The revelation of Hoag’s true profession is at once ludicrous, audacious and unnerving in its implications. Reasonable readers may disagree whether Heinlein spells out the implications a bit too clearly, but the ending convincingly underscores what reality the Randalls have found, and how they cope with it is both touching and sad.
“The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag” is one of my favorite Heinlein stories and I wish it was as well-known and frequently re-issued as his science fiction.
Another Heinlein story of similar interest (same collection): “They—“
Reality behind reality:
Cornell Woolrich: Night Has a Thousand Eyes (first published 1945; Pegasus, September 2012; available for Nook & Kindle)
Neil Gaiman: “We Can Get them for You Wholesale” (Smoke and Mirrors, first published Avon Books 1998)
Caitlin R. Kiernan: The Red Tree, The Drowning Girl & “Le Peau Verte” (To Charles Fort, With Love, Subterranean Press, 2005)
John Langan: House of Windows (Night Shade Books, November 2009 [hc]; August 2010 [tpb])
Thomas Ligotti: Grimscribe (Carroll & Graf, 1991; Subterranean Press, July 2011) & “Conversations in a Dead Language”
Arthur Machen: “The Great God Pan” (anthologized in many, many books)
M. John Harrison: The Course of the Heart (Night Shade Books, 2004 [hc]; March 2006 [tpb])
More Science Fiction and Horror
Next: The Dead Letters & Headstone City by Tom Piccirilli
THE DEAD LETTERS by Tom Piccirilli (Bantam Books, October 2006)
Words are not as adequate as teeth.”
-- first paragraph
Edward Whitt's daughter, Sarah, was the first victim of a serial killer dubbed Killjoy after Whitt told a reporter the murderer had "killed his joy." Killjoy went on to murder several other children, then mysteriously stopped, then just as mysteriously reappeared two years later, taking children from abusive families and distributing them to his previous victims. During this time, frustrated by the inability of the police to find Killjoy, maddened by grief and the loss of his wife to insanity, Whitt dedicated himself to finding Killjoy: What motivated Killjoy to kill? What then motivated him to repent or seem to, to try to repay the losses he’d inflicted? The novel details how Whitt struggles with these questions and the cost of his quest on himself and those nearest him.
Piccirilli's taut, concise writing and insight into obsession and near-insanity born of grief, guilt and rage and the mind-tricks a man can play on himself when driven to extremes make this a tense thriller. Whitt may not be wholly likable but I found him understandable and believable. Equally believable are the characters around Whitt, from his wife Karen, to his father-in-law Mike, to his friend Freddy, to his contact with the police, Brunkowski, who is gruff and manipulative and confrontational and gives Whitt more information than is probably good for him, to FBI agent Diana Carver who takes on the case late, to Mama Prott and her sons, murderous religious fanatics who seem to discern Whitt’s darkness and who know more about Whitt than they should. I would go so far as to say that what distinguishes this novel is the strong cast of characters surrounding Whitt.
In honesty, The Dead Letters is not as creepy as Thomas Harris' best thrillers, nor is it as compelling and ambitious as Glen Hirshberg’s The Snowman’s Children, but Piccarilli’s novel is literate, intelligent and frequently intense with a few harrowing scenes, and his Killjoy is far less romanticized than Hannibal Lector and so somewhat more believable. And that is as it should be. This is Whitt’s novel and what there is of horror in it comes from watching the ways his quest warps and torments him, the lengths to which he must go to solve the murders, the lengths to which he must go to control himself, skittering along the edge of becoming what he hunts.
Piccirilli started his career writing mainly horror stories. In the last decade or so he has slid over into the thriller category while retaining the ability to ratchet up narrative suspense and also create scenes that capitalize on fear and dread. I have a chunk of bookshelf holding Piccirilli’s novels and now that I’ve started reading him, I intend to read more. Anyone interested in crime stories, serial killer stories or noir would find this novel of interest.
HEADSTONE CITY by Tom Piccirilli (Bantam Books, March 2006)
The came after Dane in the showers while he had soap in his eyes.
-- first paragraph
Johnny Danetello, aka Dane, has "the burden": He can see ghosts and converse with them. His grandmother, his only living relative, has a similar ability, and his best friend, Vinny Monticelli, has a limited ability to see the future -- he sees three likely avenues the present can take, and he can move between them as he likes. But friendship aside, part of the Monticelli family blames Dane for the death of their youngest daughter, the Monticelli family is still one of the strongest Mob families in Brooklyn, and one of its members has taken out a contract on him.
After a stint in the Army, Dane has drifted for years. Now, to save his life, he has to decide what direction he needs to follow. Can he stave off Vinny's family? And what does Vinny really want from him?
This is an interesting book that overlaps with urban fantasy and crime stories in the hard-boiled tradition, and it steps around the border of horror without ever really falling over into it. I found it engaging and at times quite good. I enjoyed Dane's humor and his reminiscences about his old neighborhood and the people he grew up with; they help define a time and place where this story could happen. Still, I might have liked Headstone City more if I'd read it before or quite a bit after reading The Dead Letters. I think I expected another novel with a similar intensity, but Dane being laid back, a guy who mostly waits for things to happen before reacting, this novel doesn't have the same kind of drive. I also wasn't entirely convinced by the ending, even though Piccirilli prepares for it.
That said, I enjoyed it over all and anyone interested in Piccirilli, mob stories, or hard-boiled crime stories mixed with urban/supernatural fantasy should find it entertaining.
Other noir thrillers with elements of horror:
Cornell Woolrich: Black Alibi (first published in 1942; it has not been reissued since the 1980s, as far as I can find) & Night Has a Thousand Eyes (first published in 1945; Pegasus Books, September 2012)
Fredric Brown: The Screaming Mimi (first published in 1949. Filmed in 1958, starring Anita Ekberg and Philip Carey. There are Nook and Kindle editions available.)
Scary Human Tricks
Next: 13 Bullets by David Wellington
Additional information about Tom Piccirilli: Late last month a friend of Tom's announced at Shocklines that Tom had been diagnosed with "a tennis-ball sized tumor" in his brain. Tom has been operated on and, according to Shocklines, is doing well. He will be in for a round of chemo. Last I heard, Crossroad Press is giving 100-percent of purchase price of any of Tom's books until the end of this year to Tom to help defray costs. ChiZine Publications is doing the same with their edition of Every Shallow Cut
Last edited by Randy M.; October 10th, 2012 at 08:32 AM.
That is sad news about Tom, Randy: I wasn't aware of his health issues. Here's hoping he's on the mend and is better soon.
I've been planning to read The Coldest Mile by Piccirilli this year. I don't know much about it, except that it was a psychological thriller, wasn't aware of horror elements. thanks for the heads up.
13 Bullets by David Wellington (Three Rivers Press, 2007)
Through the rain there wasn’t much to see. The all-night dinner stood at the corner of two major streets. Its plate glass windows spilled a little light on the pavement. I handed the binoculars to Webster, my partner. “Do you see him?” I asked.
Wellington’s vampires are real and fast and strong, physically monstrous predators nearly invulnerable when full of blood. They are worlds away from such relatively debonair vampires as Dracula (or at least of his imitators) or Lestat, or even the more sensuous, insinuating vampires in Tim Powers’ The Stress of Her Regard. They are also extinct. Or were thought to be extinct in the U.S. since the destruction of Piter Lares by the one living American to have killed a vampire, Special Deputy Jameson Arkeley of the U. S. Marshalls. When a traffic stop discovers a car trunk full of corpses driven by a half-dead – a victim of a vampire whom the vampire calls from the dead to serve him – Arkeley joins the case.
Because Arkeley takes on as an assistant Trooper Laura Caxton, who was working the traffic stop that accidentally flushed the half-dead, 13 Bullets has a little of the flavor of The Silence of the Lambs. The story is told mainly from her point of view and over the course of the novel Caxton has to figure out what it is that Arkeley wants from her, why the vampires show an interest in her, save herself from direct attacks by half-deads and vampires, try to understand the recent ennui of her live-in lover, Deanna, and come to terms with her emerging feelings for another Trooper, the photographer, Clara. The characters act in ways consistent with the logic of the novel, and in mostly believable ways for fairly tough humans pushed into a stressful and violent situation, although their endurance approaches that of action/adventure movie-humans. The story builds to a crescendo and the conclusion, while obviously intended to leave room for sequels (four of them), doesn’t really disappoint me and again, in a way, reminds me of Thomas Harris’ novel as we gain more insight into the true villain of the novel.
Most readers who think about such things at all would probably call this a noir horror novel. To me it reads less like noir than like noir’s precursor, hard-boiled. Where noir emphasizes mood and atmosphere, an overhanging sense of emotional gloom and the overwhelming improbability of an ordinary person triumphing over the powers arrayed against them, hard-boiled fiction usually features the tough character (almost exclusively male in hard-boiled written before the 1970s) who takes on the odds and through gumption, guile, street smarts, luck and strategically applied violence survives if not triumphs. The difference between noir and hard-boiled fiction is the difference between Tom Piccirilli’s The Dead Letters and his Headstone City. 13 Bullets certainly has its dark, noir moments, but the overall feel is less horrific than like a crime adventure novel with teeth.
I've been chided for calling something a beach read, but even so that’s what I would call this. But there's the beach read you walk away from wondering if it has drained away IQ points, and there's the beach read that may not be substantive but is entertaining. For me, 13 Bullets is the latter: The story is handed to you on a platter (little subtlety of approach or subject), the characterization is adequate and with Caxton maybe better than adequate, and the prose is straight-forward and appropriate for the story being told, a story that is developed with some intelligence. Some of the plotting feels a bit TV-movie-ish to me, but in spite of that Wellington does a good job of balancing the elements of action/adventure and horror.
One caveat: While I would not call 13 Bullets excessively gory given the premise, if you're squeamish about the physical manifestations of extreme violence, know that Wellington does not avoid such descriptions, though I don't feel he dwells on them either.
More contemporary vampires:
“The Wide, Carnivorous Sea” by John Langan
Next: The Stress of Her Regard by Tim Powers
Last edited by Randy M.; October 10th, 2012 at 12:46 PM.
I'm assuming you mean the Kiernan since you mentioned elsewhere that that one didn't work well for you.
In truth, I was less taken with it than with The Red Tree, possibly because the main character is more overtly passive, but I still found it well-worth my time. I expect to reread them sometime in the future, and one after the other because I have a feeling the two books play off each other to some degree -- Kiernan could almost package them as the fire and ice duology.
[Because I'm not certain I'll be on-line tomorrow ...]
THE STRESS OF HER REGARD by Tim Powers (Tachyon Publications, August 2008; first published by Ace, September 1989)
“Until the squall struck, Lake Leman was so still that the two men talking in the bow of the open sailboat could safely set their wine glasses on the thwarts.”
-- first paragraph
In the early 1820s, Michael Crawford, physician and practitioner in a new branch of medicine, obstetrics (and, yes, this has a bearing later in the novel), spends the eve of his nuptials to Julia with friends, drunk and foolishly adventurous. While helping one of his friends, to keep from losing the engagement ring he has bought for Julia he slips the ring over the finger of a statue. But it is not a statue, he is unable to remove the ring and from that night Crawford’s dreams turn vividly erotic and his mornings tired and dim, until the morning after his marriage when he finds his wife dead in his bed and her sister Josephine determined to kill him. Thus Crawford gained the attention and devotion of the nephalim and in the process married one of its number.
While sharing the quality to mesmerize humans, the contrast between Powers’ nephalim and the vampires in David Wellington’s 13 Bullets could hardly be greater. Where Wellington presents his vampires as true monsters, reveling in the carnality of blood, Powers’ lamia pay us little heed, excepting those few of us on whom their attention focuses, and those few the nephalim love. Often enough the few are gifted with words and the attachment of the nephalim sharpens and strengthens the gift, which leads Crawford to friendship and uneasy alliance with the lamia-beset John Keats, Lord Byron and Percy Shelley. But the attention and love of the lamia comes at a price: They are jealous and do not allow the distraction of other loved ones for long, often claiming their victims’ families as their own. Where Wellington’s vampires are mainly predators, Powers’ vampires are a disease (consumption) and a drug.
The Stress of Her Regard – a phrase lifted from a poem by Clark Ashton Smith – builds on the foundations of the Gothic novel, in particular through taking place in striking European locales known for their remoteness, mainly the Alps, or for their connections to antiquity, like Venice. And there are scenes that capture the feel of Gothic literature, as during the prologue in which a scene recreates the diner at the Villa Diodati during which Mary Shelley first began to conceive of Frankenstein: Percy Shelley, listening to Byron recite Coleridge, screams at something peering through a rain-covered window. Still for the most part Powers’ writing only suggests the atmospherics of Gothic as his conception of magic having, if not a scientific basis, then a science-like rationale and enactment, vitiates the mystery of magic. But this is greatly off-set by the cost of magic: As in the other novels I’ve read by Powers, there is often a grueling physical price for the use of magic, a price often symbolic of a deeper, more unsettling moral price.
Action, terror, despair, hope, friendship, romance, love, honor, magic, poets, gondolas, impossibly powerful enemies, striking locales, warring cabals, seductive nights, mountain-climbing, sailing, and more! More, I tell you! This novel you are likely to find yourself immersed in if it appeals to you at all and one impossible to encapsulate in a brief discussion. For instance, I haven’t even touched on the evolution of Josephine’s character from a damaged young woman, mentally unstable, to a strong, caring woman. This is an old-fashioned adventure novel in the best tradition, spanning decades and countries, taking place on land and sea. I may have reservations about Tim Powers, writer – his prose works well enough, but his dialog often sounds more American than British to my ear – but I have no reservation about Tim Powers, story-teller, whose impeccable research supports and enhances his story, providing background for the time and place and personages he describes. I doubt Byron, Keats and Shelley would have spoken quite as they do in The Stress of Her Regard, but I’m willing to suspend disbelief as Powers tells his story.
Novels by Tim Powers of similar interest, though not quite horror:
The Anubis Gate
On Stranger Tides
Another historical vampire novel:
Fevre Dream by George R. R. Martin
By Blood We Live
The darkness in our past :
Patrick Susskind: Perfume
Guy Endore: The Werewolf of Paris
Christopher Priest: The Prestige
Glen Hirshberg: “Devil’s Smile” & “Like a Lily in a Flood” (from American Morons)
Next: "The Venus of Ille" by Prosper Merimee
Hey, what about the original Halloween broadcast of H.G. Wells' The War Of The Worlds starring Orson Welles? The one that allegedly convinced a surprising number of Americans that the Martians were genuinely invading? I won't give you a link because I'm not sure if it's in the public domain throughout the world, but seeing as how more than 70 years have passed, if you happen to find a free copy somewhere, I don't think anybody's going to sue you. "Mercury Theatre Of The Air" might be a useful search-term. To get the full effect, you need to fast-forward for about five minutes. Something much more popular was playing on a rival channel, so many listeners tuned in a little bit late and missed the opening announcement which made it clear that it was fiction. Seek and enjoy!
A number of years ago I went to a funeral where the deceased's daughter told an anecdote about the deceased as a teenager. Seems one day he returned home from his paper route to find the house empty, everyone gone to church. Tired, he decided he would skip church and listen to the radio. Guess what was playing? Apparently, he ran all the way to the church to be with his family when the end came.
“The Venus of Ille” by Prosper Merimee (Fantastic Tales: Visionary and Everyday ed. Italo Calvino: Vintage International, November 1998: first published in Italy in 1983; “La Venus d’Ille” first published in 1837)
“I was going down the last slope of the Canigou, and, although the sun had already set, I could distinguish on the plain the houses of the little town of Ille, towards which I was making.”
-- first paragraph
A young antiquarian and scholar from Paris visits Ille to see the local remnants of ancient buildings and artifacts. By coincidence he arrives a fortnight after the man he has arranged to stay with, M. de Peyrehorade, unearthed a bronze statue from the Roman era, which the locals have begun calling the Venus of Ille, and just before Alphonse, the son of his host, is to be married. Welcomed and invited to the wedding, on the day of the wedding the young scholar witnesses Alphonse start to play tennis and, to keep from losing it, place his wedding ring of his bride-to-be on a finger of the statue. (Sound familiar?) Later he thinks Alphonse is having a joke at his expense when the groom, distraught, claims he cannot remove the ring, that the statue has closed its hand. By morning he has reason to believe Alphonse.
I would be surprised to learn Tim Powers was not familiar with this story. At one time “The Venus of Ille” was frequently anthologized and is still considered a classic of the ghost/horror story. Powers would seem to have lifted the central conceit of placing a ring on a statue then used it as entry to a much more wide-ranging story, tapping into mythology and the Bible. While M. R. James might have felt distaste for the sexual nature of “The Venus of Ille” it’s also possible that this story was something of a template for his own: Take one antiquarian and one cursed object, mix liberally and observe the reaction.
I’ve not read Merimee before but certainly look forward to reading more. His descriptions emphasizing both the beauty and wickedness of the statue goes a long way to preparing the reader for the ending. But perhaps more, this story is told, at least in translation, with a light touch and a sense of humor. For instance, when first welcomed the young scholar is nearly overwhelmed with food all the while his hosts apologize for the meager fare and complain how picky Parisians are. And perhaps that explains the story’s reputation; the ease and flow of the narration, and the contrast between the early sense of humor with the appreciation of the quirks of the narrator’s hosts, and the late scenes of tragedy have a broad appeal.
Other femmes fatale:
Vernon Lee: “Amour Dure” (Hauntings, Ash-Tree Press, 2002; also, Fantastic Tales: Visionary and Everyday ed. Italo Calvino [as “A Lasting Love”]; first published January, 1887)
Peter Straub: Ghost Story
Caitlin R. Kiernan: The Drowning Girl
Other stories of interest:“A Warning to the Curious” by M. R. James
Next (Monday): Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
Last edited by Randy M.; October 15th, 2012 at 05:12 PM.