Monday, June 3, 2013

Degrees of Fear and Others, by C.J. Henderson

Dark Regions Press, 2008
266 pp

trade paper, signed

"...there is no such thing as bravery; only degrees of fear"..."Find a degree you can live with, and carry on."

I recently discovered Dark Regions Press and in skimming titles, came across one of my favorite authors, C.J. Henderson.  I first encountered this writer in The Occult Detectives of C.J. Henderson at a time when I couldn't get enough of psychic investigators (and truth be told, I still love reading about them).  From there it was on to the Teddy London series -- I read the first one and bought the entire set. Then I got my hands on his The Tales of Inspector Legrasse, a host of stories featuring the character from Lovecraft's original Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird StoriesThe Supernatural Tales of C.J. Henderson also sits on the shelves, and whenever his work showed up in anthologies,  those books made it into my home library as well.  I also recently bought book 1 of the Piers Knight series, Brooklyn Knight.  I have yet to try the Kolchak stories, but I foresee that series making its way to my house here shortly.  I also love his take on Lin Carter's character Anton Zarnak.  In short -- I  like this guy's work.

picture from Wicca Girl
Now to get down to business. While not every story was to my exact taste, the case in any anthology, there are a number of good ones in this collection. While a number of these tales are Lovecraft inspired, there are others that are more original in nature.

Listing out the stories in this anthology, the book begins with "The Gardener," where a wealthy and powerful business man comes on his yearly visit to help out his "aged and frail and withered"  parents in Kingsport, RI.  This year he decides to stay an extra week -- and all hell breaks loose. Literally.

2. "Admission of Weakness," which gives the impression of being Henderson's first Anton Zarnak tale, is a good one. The psychic investigator, who literally holds the weight of the world's survival on his shoulders, comes to New York with an aura of "smug self-satisfaction" then becomes quickly chastened by his first case in the Big Apple once he gets to work.

3. "Hope," which is one of the non-Lovecraftian tales, is set in "the Stygian depths" and  follows a damned soul who finds a little glimmer of hope in his eternal suffering -- with a nasty, mean-spirited twist.

4. "Misery and Pity. " Jhong, a man who spent some time in America "chasing and banishing" vampires   meets his friend for dim sum in a restaurant in Hong Kong, and takes on a Chinese vampire known as the "Ch'iang Shich" (jiangshi in modern Chinese -- 彊屍).  The character of Jhong also appeared in Some Things Never Die (1993) from the Teddy London series.

5. "Incident on Highway 19",  chronicles the slow undoing of a highway worker whose job it is to keep the roads clean of road kill.  This one is downright creepy, as the guy's strange obsession unfolds.

6. "That's the One!" probably my least favorite story in the book -- a strange twist on Lewis Carroll in the realm of the weird.

7.  "A Happy Mother Takes Away Pain," featuring another character from the Teddy London series, Lai Wan, who also is the featured heroine of Lai Wan: The Dreamwalker.  Lai Wan takes on the case of ridding a dying mother of a demon -- a pretty good story that makes you think about yourself when all is said and done.

8. "Body and Soul," a Lovecraft-inspired tale if ever there was one.  Re-animator Herbert West returns in a rather strange story where he meets up with  Thomas Malone, the erstwhile police detective from HPL's "Horror at Red Hook."  I won't say more -- this one I found to be a little so-so.

9. "The Horror,"  - a very short story about one man's particular horror that no one else seems to take too seriously. Again, not one of my favorites. 

10. "A Forty Share in Innsmouth," written in 1997 but extremely relevant in today's reality TV-crazy society .  If you've read Brian Lumley's "The Kiss of Bugg-Shash," you'll recollect an earlier ritual that went somewhat awry.  In this story, a reality-TV host decides to fill a stadium and repeat the procedure.  Possibly not a good idea.

11. "Sacrifice,"  a bleak, disturbing  tale that I can only describe as gruesome.  How does one appease the gods of suffering in the world? One man takes it on. Thankfully, this one is very short.

12. "Pop Goes the Weasel."  The club Uproar will thrill and chill, and anyone can take center stage and do anything on their own, or with the props supplied by the management.  Pressure from the audience decides if one sinks or swims.  This was a cool, off-kilter little tale, and I loved the premise! 

13."The Questioning of the Azathothian Priest" I read this a long time ago in Hardboiled Cthulhu.  A man in custody for a series of extremely grotesque murders dies while being questioned by Zarnak and Captain Mark Thorner of the New York city police.  There are two reports of what happened: the truth, and the one that is safe for the public to know.  It's a good one.

14. "Pragmatic" is the story that prompted me to buy the first Piers Knight book -- not so much for the story itself (which all in all is just a little silly) but because of the character of Professor Piers Knight.  Knight travels to Munich to protect a baby that is about to be born from cosmic forces.  I won't say why, but it's a cool little tale.

15. "The Laughing Man" is one of those stories that could have been left out and I never would have noticed.  Set in 878 AD,  Vikings meet Valkyries in a rather ghostly tale. Meh.

16. "The Soul's Right Hand" is a  Teddy London story chock full of Halloween lore and more.  I liked this one not just for the story, but also because it calls attention to the media's habit of trying and convicting people in the public eye. I loved the ending!

17. "So Free We Seem" features Inspector Legrasse, and poses a tantalizing puzzle involving a dead man and a room full of traps.  Excellent.

18. "The Longest Pleasure" is a rather short but nasty tale of revenge out in the middle of the desert -- really, what some people won't do to get back at someone!

 19. "Juggernaut," another Teddy London story.  This time he's trying to help a human target of the Hounds of Tindalos.  While the message of the "greater good" is embedded here, the story itself is just a little rocky.  Not one of the best in the book.

and last, but by no means least, to the asylum for #20.  "Degrees of Fear." There are changes at the Derringol Asylum for the Hopeless,  "civilization's dumping ground for the absolute dregs of the world's nightmares."  The director, who'd been at the same job for decades,  is stepping down, and a younger,  ambitious new guy is taking his place. However,  before the incumbent leaves, he has something he really needs to show the new guy.  Creepy.

So there you have it... overall, a very good collection of stories.  For me out of 20 there were about three that I didn't really care for, a couple that were just in the so-so range, and several good ones, all dealing with the idea that "Our world touches upon other worlds, other realities."  I can recommend this anthology; it would be helpful if you've had some reading experience with Henderson's Teddy London or with HP Lovecraft's stories of cosmic horror before starting this one.