Without Butterfly Wings : David Lapham – “Stray Bullets”

Cool beans! David Lapham’s “Stray Bullets” is testimony to what a creator can do unbound from the shackles of commercial consideration; which is to say this is nothing like Lapham’s writing for  “The Strain”.

ABOVE: Suppertime, and the dyin’ is easy.

Before the likes of “Lost” and “Orange is the New Black” were playing with chronology to produce genuine revelations about character, “Stray Bullets” was doing it, taking a large cast of mean-to-do-good-but-ne’er-do-wells from the dark side of the ’70s, (with murder being committed under the”Star Wars” marquee) to the ’90s, (that distant era that a whole generation now idolizes as the idyll before 9/11.) The issues stand alone; intense cautionary tales that feel as though Lapham was processing a binge-watching session of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” meaning there are heaps of ironic turns and “be careful what you wish for” twists. Or else sex and violence meet at some intersection of Raymond Carver and Raymond Chandler. Or else… What DOESN’T “Stray Bullets” encompass? It does Lynch, it does Tarantino. It’s so recommended! It’s simply a masterpiece of American neo-noir. Here, try the first few issues, and beware: those bullets hit the heart and the brain as often as they hit the guts.


Adventure Time : Osamu Tezuka – “New Treasure Island” and “Lost World”

When Japanese editorial giant Kodansha started publishing their priceless collection of Osamu Tezuka’s (nearly) complete works in the late ’70s/ early 80s, the manga genius was reluctant to include what is generally acknowledged as his debut book, 1947’s “New Treasure Island.” Only nominally related to R. L. Stevenson’s pirate classic, the story is as black-and-white simple as adventure gets, and Tezuka must have felt a level of shame at the general crudity of his youthful designs: the mature man sneering at the amateur. In a fit of ret-conning, Tezuka redrew the entire book, (allegedly from memory) to produce a new vision of his own artistic past, one that was dignified enough to stand side by side with subsequent classics.

ABOVE: Old School Booty


ABOVE: Chest Friends

Compare some more. 1947:

To 1984:

“Lost World” (once more, no relation to the classic novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle or to Jules Verne’s “Journey to the Center of the Earth”, except for the presence of a dinosaur here and there) also comes from early in Tezuka’s career, and is actually more ridiculous in its story of scientists and crystals and plant people and what have you. But ridiculousness is rarely a minus in Tezuka’s work, because it allows for the type of left-turn surprises few other artists provide. No one ever told Tezuka that you can’t transition from cutesiness to thrills to horror to pathos to kids-fare to adult-angst to slapstick and then back to cutesiness within a same page – or, at his bizarre extremes, within the same panel. “Tone” is not one of his concerns, and it makes for reads that are exhilarating even if when he’s working at his least sophisticated.

ABOVE: Found Again!

RATING: COOL preparation for future masterpieces.

From the Earth to the Moons : Neal Stephenson – “Seveneves”

It’s hard to read Neal Stephenson’s “Seveneves” without assuming that its nominal hero is actually Neil Degrasse Tyson.  (Actually, it can be hard to read “Seveneves” PERIOD, but we’ll get to that in a moment.)

ABOVE: Planetary.

“Seveneves” is an ambitious descendant to the Jules Verne “From the Earth to the Moon” science-fiction model. Here, our friendly satellite has disintegrated into many pieces, life on Earth is doomed, and the only possible way to preserve the best of human society involves launching ourselves into planetary orbit pronto.  It’s not even that outré a premise, and Stephenson, as usual, exhaustingly details the processes. He is possibly the most ambitious writer out there, capable of thinking his way through highly detailed scientific scenarios. But his grand, challenging ideas need to meet an editor at some point, someone to let him know that “Seveneves” would have been a mind-blower at 300 pages, but gets to be a drag at 800. Most readers will feel the gravitational pull (this is what makes a book put-down-able) around the 2 thirds mark. And the man still hasn’t learned to write about human beings:  his people are all prodigious automatons involved in the complex calculation of every single move.

I’ll leave this sexy bit here:

“He was in Amelia’s arms, and she in his, as they got busy making an embryo for him to carry up into space for implantation in some other, unknown woman’s womb. He was already thinking about the videos he was going to make to teach his baby about calculus when he climaxed.”

RATING: COOL! for the brilliant ideas, SHRUG for narrative drive.

Welcome to the Beast House : Richard Laymon – “The Cellar”

ABOVE: Conceived in the wild terror of nightmare!

“The Cellar,” the first in a series of “Beast House” novels, is a competent 1980 debut for Richard Laymon, the late cultish splatter-punk writer whose style made him more Koontz than King. (This would be ancient Dean Koontz, full of licentiousness and horror, and not modern Koontz, full of Labradors and homilies.)

“The Cellar” is built around two main plotlines. One follows the “realistic” horror of an abused woman running away with her daughter from a vengeful ex-husband; the second is pure fantasy, about an unlikely tourist attraction called the Beast House – the dwelling of a mysterious monster straight out of some R-rated Scooby Doo episode. Neither plot line makes any sense, and nothing psychologically convincing happens at any point, but Laymon dares to go some dark places. The ending of “The Cellar” is more or less unpredictable in its bleakness – or is it randomness? The author earned his fandom by being unapologetic about delivering cheap gory thrills in tight, efficient packages. Only the illiterate would consider this “literature,” but it is at least a quick read, which is a sort of literary value. Today’s bloated novels could learn much.

ABOVE: Sure, complimentary Stephen King blurb! Except that King trashes Laymon and “The Cellar” in “Danse Macabre” if I recollect correctly.

Less worthy of emulation are the extremes ( sextremes?) of bizarre titillation dutifully sprinkled throughout “The Cellar.” The looser standards of the late ’70s, early 80s, (a funner, pre-AIDS era) lead to some descriptive ridiculousness in Laymon’s part: there is no female character in the story, (be she 6 or 86, be she romantic heroine or briefly-glimpsed cashier), whose breasts don’t fall under inspection within two lines of her initial introduction. Look. I am a hot-blooded heterosexual male. I enjoy boobies. But I can also tell the difference between healthy sexual interests and a creep at work, and Laymon falls big on the creep line.

It kinda feels like: “Grandma Moses steps out of the house, letting the cheerful morning sun warm her face as well as her pendulous, once-magnificent mammary organs. On the street outside, Mrs. Miller walks her Pomeranian, a job she performs twice daily while rarely wearing bras. The Pomeranian is of the female variety, and has six large nipples which would be quite enticing  if they were placed on a woman. Suddenly a little girl named Marjorie runs into Mrs. Miller and the dog, and although Marjorie is 9 and does not really have breasts at this moment in the narrative, one day she’ll be 18, so think about THAT. Meanwhile, Mr. Johnson the mailman waves at Grandma Moses, and although Mr. Johnson also lacks breasts at this moment in the narrative, what if he gains a lot of weight in the next few chapters, huh? You could totally close your eyes and grab a handful and it would feel alright.”

It’s kinda icky, to put it mildly.

RATING : GOOD ENOUGH for hard-core gore fans, EEEWWW for the otherwise inclined.

Tales of the Crusaders 1 : Walter Scott – “The Betrothed”

ABOVE: Betrothed, Bewildered, Bebothered

“Widowed wife, and married maid,

Betrothed, betrayer, and betrayed.”

Most of Europe came uneasily together for that First Crusade hinted at in Walter Scott’s  “Count Robert of Paris”. Scott’s “The Betrothed,” ( first in a diptych called “Tales of the Crusaders,” along with “The Talisman”) jumps ahead almost a century to the eve of the Third Crusade against Saladin, sometime around 1187. But the setting isn’t Anatolia or Jerusalem: “The Betrothed” is very much a local affair, largely taking part in one British castle and its outskirts.

Sir Raymond Berenger has a beautiful 16-year old daughter, Eveline, who attracts the attention of a neighboring Welsh warlord. The warlord proposes marriage, is rejected, and then his forces proceed to lay brutal siege to the Berenger’s castle. Eveline makes a vow to the Virgin to marry the first man who rescues her from the hopeless situation. In comes Constable Hugo de Lacy to save the day, and Eveline dutifully makes herself available to him. They become the titular betrothed. The problem? Hugo is much older, a rough soldier who is about to depart for the Third Crusades and won’t be able to consummate the bridals until his return. Will pretty young Eveline remain faithful to her religious vows for two long, hormonal years of enforced teenage celibacy? Especially after temptation surfaces in the shape of the Constable’s heroic, handsome, age-appropriate nephew Damian?

ABOVE: Betrayed and bedazzled.

Despite the umbrella title of “Tales of the Crusaders,” the novel at its heart deals not with the struggles of Christendom and Islam, but with an equally vicious, divisive fight that probably mattered more to Scott: the one between Anglo-Saxons, Britons, Normans, Danes, Welsh, Scottish, Flemish, Irish, and even Jewish and Italian immigrants.

The centuries have created the illusion of a unified, ethnically and “racially” homogeneous Great Britain to the distanced American eye, but of course many in Ireland and Scotland still have a different story to tell. The violently racist distrust with which all these relative neighbors saw each other at the beginning of the last millennium has a lot to teach our modern world, which persists in replicating the idiocies of the past.

ABOVE: Besieged too.

Here’s a sadly relevant exchange between the conservative (Saxon) crone Ermengarde, and the more progressive heroine, Eveline, (somewhat abridged for clarity.)

“May not my Flemish maid Rose and my Norman companion Gillian remain in the apartment with me for this night?” said Eveline.

“Fleming! Norman!” repeated Ermengarde, angrily; “Is thy household thus made up? The Flemings are the cold palsy to Britain, the Normans the burning fever.”

“But the poor Welsh will add,” said Rose, whose resentment began to surpass her awe for the ancient Saxon dame, “that the Anglo- Saxons were the original disease, and resemble a wasting pestilence.”

“Thou art too bold, sweetheart,” said the Lady Ermengarde; “and yet… there is wit in thy words. Saxon, Dane, and Norman have rolled like successive billows over the land, each having strength to subdue what they lacked wisdom to keep. But when shall it be otherwise? We must distrust our enemies!”

“It shall be otherwise when Saxon, and Briton, and Norman, and Fleming,” answered Rose, boldly, “shall learn to call themselves by only one name, and think themselves alike children of the land.”

WISDOM! And also a reminder that despite the general “damsel-in-distress” role of Eveline, she’s quite capable of standing for herself. Scott’s female characters are of a par with his males in intellectual strength and vivacity, and always make a feint at physical courage as well, grabbing swords and readying to fight with the boys – even if dashing knights come at the last minute to talk them out of rushing into manly battle.

As for “The Betrothed”‘s emotional dilemma: Anyone who’s older than 6 will foresee the eventual ending as soon as Damian meets Eveline, but seeing true love triumph on the last page after some knotty plotting always leaves a sucker’s smile on my face.



One of Scott’s biographers, Hesketh Pearson, writes thusly:

“‘The Betrothed’ was clearly composed in a somnolent if not stertorous condition, and would score high marks in a competition to decide which was the dreariest and stupidest book ever produced by a writer of genius.”

Ouch and uncalled for. But considering all the enjoyment I extracted from most of the novel, I find that reassuring: It means I’m into Walter Scott’s oeuvre for the long run. If this and “Count Robert” are some of his worst, I can’t wait for the best. Critics aside, “The Betrothed” was quite popular upon release. It was used by Giuseppe Verdi, along with Bulwer Lytton’s “Harold,”  as a source for his opera about Crusaders, “Aroldo.”