Things that brought me delight in January, 2023:
Rin Chupeco, Silver Under Nightfall
When I first heard that Rin Chupeco's Silver Under Nightfall was inspired by the Trevor-Sypha-Alucard relationship from the Castlevania cartoon, I was a bit worried that the novel would be thinly veiled fanfiction. My love of stories about vampire hunters won out, and luckily the novel does have its own feel. The action in the novel feels quite Castlevania-esque, but the characters, plot, and worldbuilding do not.
The premise works: the last scion of a famed and feared house of noble vampire hunters finds himself paired with a seductive ancient vampire and his kindly, solar-empowered vampire fiancée. (That "has the power of the sun" thing does feel a bit too Grisha-verse in action.) Of course, they move from allies/enemies to lovers, forming an unlikely thrupple as they confront the mystery of a strange disease that is refashioning vampires and their victims into nearly unkillable, mindless monstrosities.
The main characters do not really map to Castlevania's protagonists in a direct way, which was my biggest fear going into the novel. There are parallels; for example, the human vampire hunter does have a whip-like weapon and hails from a notable family of monster hunters, but his personality is more "plagued by self-doubt" and "vengeful over this mother's death" than Trevor Belmont's cynical world-weariness. The male vampire character is emotionally closed-off and arrogant, but he's more a creature of desire than Alucard is. And the female vampire character is really nothing like Sypha; although both wield explosive power, she has none of Sypha's verve. To be honest, she's the weakest character in the novel, as she seems to exist to comfort and console the male characters or be the lynchpin around which they resolve their homoerotic desires.
Previously known for her work in the young adult vein, Silver Under Nightfall bears the marks of Rin Chupeco's transition toward a more mature form of writing. Despite this, in places the dialog is a bit too quippy and the characters often behave like teenagers, even though they're all adults and some of them are vampires who should have grown out of sulking by now. Still, the book has some nice bits of adventure and action, even if most of the tension resides in the triad relationship between the two vampires and the hunter of the undead.
Deathless Legacy, Mater Larvarum, The Gathering, Satunalia
Deathless Legacy has carved out a niche as a symphonic Gothic metal band that doesn't sound like other bands in that genre. Including Mater Larvarum here is admittedly a bit of a cheat, as I was listening to it at the end of December, but never got a chance to write it up. That said, this is a great album that mixes the "horror story" elements of King Diamond, bits of gothy power metal ala Powerwolf, and the usual symphonic and choral flourishes. One thing that's noteworthy about Deathless Legacy is that they never make the same album twice. The Gathering, for example, brings a lot of unexpected swing and cabaret influences into the mix. Saturnalia, on the other hand, goes all in on am epic historical narrative.
Barnes, Alexander, NCT, Killadelphia vol. 4
By its fourth volume, Killadelphia is in a weird place. It feels like now that vampire George Washington has joined the already crowded cast of undead founders (Abigail Adams, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson are already counted as present in the roll call) something has to give. Although I'm still enjoying the art, I think the ensemble of supernatural creatures (vampires! werewolves! witches! gods! angelic hunters from beyond the grave! something called the eterna!) has impinged on the important human element that made Killadelphia resonant in the first place. I'm still along for the ride, but I'm seeing the uneasy indications that this could be the beginning of a nosedive where the plot gets lost.
T. Kingfisher, What Moves the Dead
What Moves the Dead is essentially a riff off of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher." A "dying" Madeline Usher summons a family friend, and a former commander of Roderick's regiment, to the house for reasons that aren't immediately obvious; the Ruritanian solider, along with an American doctor and an English specialist in fungi, discover and come to grips with the true horror in the house. Overall, the book strikes a surprisingly jaunty tone, but the description of the "not right" hares inhabiting the countryside around the house were extremely well done and creepy; the horror plays very well off the otherwise adventuresome, picaresque tone of the book.
Cullen Bunn, Brian Hurtt, and Tyler Crook, Manor Black vol. 2: Fire in the Blood
The second volume of Manor Black is a tough one to talk about because it really feels like almost all of the story it manages to deliver takes place in flashbacks. Those dips into the backstory also have the most interesting visual flare: they are mostly muted in tone, except for the more vibrant colors that delineate the presence of magic. Unfortunately, the events taking place in the comic's present are left to proceed at a snail's crawl in comparison. To be honest, I thought this second volume was going to tidy up the story and end things--an expectation that probably only heightened how slow this saga is moving.
Madness of Malifaux
The way Wyrd does their supplements for Malifaux is a winning formula, in my opinion. Delivering the game's ongoing story through (surprisingly good) fictional vignettes instead of lore dump is practically unheard of, and the mix of art and stats in the back half of their books strikes me as an exceptionally clean way to arrange a splat. The new additions, and changes to old favorites, all seem pretty cool. Now, who do I have to talk at to get a rework of my girl Rasputina? Not feeling the icy feet and pith helmet look. Ushanka all the way.
Livia Llewellyn, Furnace
Within the first few stories in Livia Llewellyn's Furnace I was already impressed by the breadth of her writing. No variations on a theme here; each story feels like it comes from a totally different hell. It isn't even so much that Llewellyn pursues a variety of horrors; her writings style is so varied that if they weren't gathered under the covers of one volume, you might not suspect they were all the work of the same hand. I was especially pleased by "Wasp & Snake," which is the kind of story I wish the cyberpunk subgenre delivered, and "Cinereous," a truly venomous tale of the French Revolution.
Shape of Despair, Return to the Void
Of course, in January you always have to play catch up on the releases from the previous year that managed to slip through your net, which is exactly what 2022's Return to the Void is for me. As funeral doom stalwarts, Shape of Despair know what to do: epic-length downers made of droning melancholy and relentlessly bleak atmosphere.
Shiwo Komeyama, Bloody Cross vol. 7-12
I continued with Bloody Cross in January and even managed to finish the series. Things take a turn at the midpoint toward spy vs. spy territory, with allegiances and alliances changing faster than the eye can follow. We're way past double agents here, so basically any characters' ultimate allegiances really don't even seem to matter. The best thing to come of the whirlwind of betrayal is the character Kanade, who seems to stir up drama and trouble solely because it turns her on to do so. Wild. Unfortunately, once Tsukiyima is brainwashed, she falls out of the narrative a bit--odd choice for one of your main characters. Once she's back in play everything ramps up to a surprisingly emotional climax. Bloody Cross really does pull it out in the end.
Guy Boothby, Pharos the Egyptian
Guy Boothby's Pharos the Egyptian is the focus of this Bad Books for Bad People episode, so click to hear our full thoughts on it. Suffice to say, in every one of these "Imperial Gothic" novels there is at least one big, wild idea that is worth the price of entry alone, and in that respect Pharos does not disappoint. It's a bit thin on character, but there are enough fun elements here that I feel pretty safe recommending it to people who enjoyed Bram Stoker's The Jewel of the Seven Stars or Richard Marsh's The Beetle. Add Dracula and War of the Worlds to that lineup and you'll have a solid handle on the Imperial Gothic as a whole, I reckon.
Deep Purple, The Very Best of Deep Purple
I feel like the journey I started with revisiting Dio's back catalog, which led to revisiting Rainbow's first two albums, has culminated in a return to the glories of Deep Purple. Many will be surprised to learn that there is more to Deep Purple than the perennial bane of all guitar shops that is "Smoke On the Water." Don't believe me? Give "Stormbringer" a try.
The Pale Blue Eye
I had heard mixed things about The Pale Blue Eye when it came to Netflix, but I actually thought it was pretty good. Of course, this sort of "Gothic murder investigation in the grim 19th century" is pretty much my bag so take my opinion with a grain of salt. Even so, this story about murder and mutilation at West Point that pairs a retired constable with a young Edgar Allan Poe hit all the notes I wanted it to, although I do think the characters' relationships could have been fleshed out a bit more. One thing that's interesting is that it's functionally impossible to do a "gritty reboot" of Poe's life because his life was actually worse than you can believably show as part of a larger narrative.
My God, it really is a shame they went with that "modern cartoon" illustration style for the covers of this third arc in the Last Apprentice series; they totally undersell the folklore-based approach to fantasy and horror that Delaney excels at, even if these later books do feel a bit light in comparison to what has come before. It's funny, the things that happened in previous books that are alluded to in this one are reminders of just how dark things used to be in comparison. However, that's not to say that things don't get dark at points in this one. It had the feeling of a final volume, but apparently there's another on the way this year.
Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio
More media for children should be as grotesque looking as Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio. When the title character first appears, he is a nightmare homunculus child of wood and nails. However, his grotesquery is nothing compared to the human monstrosity he encounters, particularly in the forms of an unscrupulous carnie and Italian fascism. No, really, Mussolini is in this! Although I'm told that this movie contains good messages for children, I am left wondering how many children will actually watch this--I hope it messes a few of them up in a good way, at least.
Bloody Hammers, Washed in the Blood
Ah, another album I missed last year! Bloody Hammers came back swinging with another slab of creature-feature punk-metal. I've said it before, but Bloody Hammers is fundamentally a "Planet Motherfucker band," by which I mean they fixate on the coolest stuff known to man: monsters, the devil, and big dark fun. Washed in the Blood feels like it will be a great album to blast with the windows down in the car come spring.
Agatha Christie, Poirot's Early Cases
My journey through the works of Agatha Christie continues! It's interesting to see that Poirot works just as well in short-form fiction as he does in longer novels; even with the space constraints, his fastidious character and cultivated arrogance, to say nothing of his dramatic and performative tendencies, manages to cut through. All that and Poirot meets an entrancing Russian jewel thief!
Plus, check out the cover on this book! Absolutely unhinged.
Agatha Christie's Poirot: The Affair at the Victory Ball, The King of Clubs, The Double Clue
One nice bonus for having read Poirot's Early Cases is that it opened up a treasure trove of adaptations staring David Suchet as Poirot! These were all pretty fun, and it was interesting to see what directions they took when fleshing out some of the shorter stories.
Cults of Cthulhu
You would be forgiven for thinking that Cults of Cthulhu, a supplement for Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu, covers the concept of mythos-devoted cults in general, but the book has a narrower focus: it only treats cults that serve Cthulhu specifically. The book gets a lot of mileage out of that topic; it presents an impressively diverse set of Cthulhu cults, includes a section on creating new cults, npcs and monsters associated with Cthulhu, and even three adventures that pit investigators against the insane servants of Lovecraft's most famous creation. The Cthulhu cult that riffs off the Church of Scientology is especially fine and cutting.
Dan Abnett, Ravenor: The Omnibus
New Year, new push to finish the Ravenor series by reading Ravenor Rogue and the remaining short stories I hadn't gotten to yet. Ravenor Rogue finds the inquisitor and his retinue going off-the-books in pursuit of their arch-nemesis, Molotch. All the while, a more insidious and powerful threat lurks in their midst! Dan Abnett really knows how to land on a downer ending that is all the more powerful for not being apocalyptic. The Eisenhorn series ended with the deaths of beloved side characters and the main character compromising his deeply held ideals; Ravenor ends with its main character making an incalculable sacrifice to uphold his own inner light. Can't wait to see where Bequin takes me.
The Lovecraft Investigations: The Case of Charles Dexter Ward
Someone on my Discord posted a link to the BBC's The Lovecraft Investigations, a podcast within a podcast about two true crime and weird history investigators who get drawn into the hidden world of mythos-related strangeness. So far I've only listened to the adaptation of The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, but I can tell you it's excellent and that I'm looking forward to listening to the rest of them. You can find it here.
Junji Ito Maniac: Japanese Tales of the Macabre
As a big fan of Junji Ito's horror comics, I was curious how well they would make the transition to cartoon form in Junji Ito Maniac: Japanese Tales of the Macabre. Pretty well, as it turns out. I do think that being armed with familiarity of the source material is best, as I'm not sure there is a comparable experience to seeing Ito's art on the page in stack black and white; any page flip might just reveal the most fucked up thing you've ever seen.
Missouri Williams, The Doloriad
Missouri Williams's The Doloriad might be one for the "vibes over plot" crowd, especially if they happen to prefer the vibes to be bad. The writing is definitely Faulkner-esque, but it's kinder and gentler, or at least easier to follow. Still, the humid dream of the prose washes over you; it's easy to lose yourself in the riptide of a floating perspective that shifts between the novel's characters as they contemplate the large-scale post-apocalypse they live within and the small-scale apocalypse that threatens to tear their ramshackle community apart.
The prose style may be milder than Faulkner's, but the story is not; when the Matriarch of a brood of mutant children sends the most disposable of her daughters into the woods as a scapegoat offering her rule trembles with new tensions when the daughter returns unscathed after crawling back to what now counts as "civilization." The rest plays out like a post-apocalyptic, Southern Gothic Lord of the Flies.