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Bjorn Svendsen

Noir of the Damned: ‘Hollywood Dead’ by Richard Kadrey

Hollywood DeadHollywood Dead (354 pages; Harper Voyager) is the tenth novel in Richard Kadrey’s bestselling urban fantasy/noir series featuring the half-human, half-angel James Stark, AKA Sandman Slim. Stark has made a career of fighting supernatural threats; first as a monster slayer in the gladiatorial arenas of Hell, and later against rebel angels, demons, and magicians willing to sell their souls in exchange for power. For a time, he even occupied the position of Lucifer himself. Stark is blunt, crude, and can heal from any injury, but this time around he might just stay dead.

In Hollywood Dead, Stark has been resurrected by a necromancer who works for a secret society of magicians called Wormwood, a group hellbent on—you guessed it—world domination. But before their plan can work, they need Stark to dispatch a splinter cell of their organization. There’s only one catch: Stark’s dead body is, well, lifeless. His healing powers are stunted, but if he can fight decomposition long enough to stop Wormwood’s rogue element, the magicians promise to restore him to life––real life. As Stark explains, “When you’re Hollywood dead, you can die a hundred times and still come back for the sequel.”

With a new, but extremely short, lease on life, Stark travels throughout Los Angeles, tracking the Wormwood defectors. He navigates the city’s dangerous supernatural underworld with his trademark cynical wit and magic spells referred to as “Hellion hoodoo.”

Kadrey’s world building is just as impressive here as in previous installments. Readers will enjoy returning to Stark’s favorite haunts: the punk tiki bar Bamboo House of Dolls, as well as Max Overdrive Video, which stocks movies captured from other realities. And let’s not forget Donut Universe. “If I have to die again,” as Stark says, “let it be in Donut Universe. Bury me in old-fashioneds and éclairs. Burn me in the parking lot and let me drift up to Valhalla on a wave of holy sugar and grease fumes.” Stark still maintains a penchant for “sin tax” items from Hell—cigarettes called Maledictions, and the underworld’s finest vintage, Aqua Reqia. These touches of detail gently enhance the novel’s mood, which balances seriousness with Kadrey’s brand of absurdity.

Hollywood Dead also presents a more reflective James Stark. His friends have moved on, and his former lover, Candy, is happy with a steady girlfriend, while Stark is painfully aware his presence could be a greater source of harm than celebration for those he once knew. He’s emotionally vulnerable, and as he fights rigor mortis, Stark is forced to rely on others—and duct tape—to stay alive long enough to save Los Angeles. He lives in a morally gray area, yet senses a cosmic responsibility. Is he human or an angel, hero or villain? Or can he be all of them at the same time?

Kadrey engages these questions with his trademark funny dialogue and ultra violence. Hollywood Dead reads like a grindhouse film on the page, and delivers exactly what the movie-poster themed book cover promises. (As Stark himself states, “In my bloody suit, I look like the maître d’ at a Texas Chainsaw cookout.”) Kadrey’s prose is fast, fun, and makes the novel’s pulpy concept shine.

New readers are missing out on nine great books if they start here, but relevant backstory is woven into the narrative without information dumps. Hollywood Dead is an entertaining read, and fans of the series will not be disappointed.

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Violence and Consequences on the Fringes of Society: ‘In the Cage’ by Kevin Hardcastle

In the CageWith In the Cage (309 pages; Biblioasis), Kevin Hardcastle drops the rural noir genre into the ring of literary fiction. Hardcastle, winner of the Trillium Book Award and ReLit Award for Short Fiction, has created a novel where crime fiction and the literary tradition occupy the same space. In the Cage tells the story of conflicted characters with complex relationships navigating violence and its consequences against the morally gray backdrop of remote Saskatchewan.

Daniel is a caring but stoic husband and father whose mixed martial arts career ended twelve years earlier with a detached retina. He and his wife now live in near-poverty with their daughter. Unable to find steady work, Daniel moonlights as hired muscle for a local gangster. When a money collection gig turns more brutal than delivering one-two punches, Daniel grapples with the true cost of the path he’s chosen to provide for his family. Returning to the gym gives him distance and sanctuary from his problems, but his time spent training is overshadowed by the presence of a chilling, pale-eyed villain whose sadism intimidates even the most hardened criminals.

What’s perhaps most notable about In the Cage is its unflinching look at the destructiveness of violence. Hardcastle’s descriptions are clinical yet shocking. A shotgun blast erupts and “One part of the man flew skewered with rib-bone.” Punches flatten noses. A throat is slashed and “it seemed like all he had in him had exited the body through that cut.” Hardcastle’s descriptions are free of gusto and provide just enough detail for them to act like a chokehold on the reader.

The author is clearly knowledgeable in the area of mixed martial arts. During Daniel’s training and fight scenes, the various punches, kicks, and submission holds are elaborated on with enough sensory detail that even readers unfamiliar with blood sport will be able to feel them. These sequences serve double duty, providing just as much insight into the characters as into their fighting ability. Daniel’s interior and the expression of his will are narrated with deceivingly simple, Hemingway-esque prose. “Blood and sweat sprayed the canvas and their feet atop it,” for example, or when Daniel kicks a heavy bag in his basement, Hardcastle describes the sound like “a nail being hammered into the hollows of the place.”

The remote Canadian setting evokes the hardships of rural, working-class life. Daniel and his family live in a perpetually cold, blue-collar necropolis of rust and poverty. His worksite is, “Acre upon acre of frozen ground with muddied swaths in the white.” And in my favorite line of the novel, we read, “There he thumped the gas pedal and the tires threw broken chips of brittle tarmac as he went townward through cold and lightless country.” With passages such as these, one not only feels the mood of desolation but also a hushed metaphysical horror akin to Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.

Apart from the carnage, In the Cage is also a touching, multi-generational reflection on family values. Some of the best scenes feature Daniel’s elderly neighbors, Murray and Ella. Their kindness and moral expectations serve as prescient warnings to Daniel in a place where poor choices are paid for dearly. Even so, readers are likely to sense Daniel won’t heed his neighbors’ warnings, and that the novel’s bloody denouement will not end with a knockout.

Genre fiction is often criticized for its recurring tropes and boilerplate plots, but Kevin Hardcastle’s novel proves otherwise. In the Cage is both fresh and haunting. It is a novel of grace and brutality, and the balance between them.

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A Wasteland Where the Dead Can Die Again: ‘The Kill Society’ by Richard Kadrey

The Kill Society “So far, being dead is about as much fun as a barbed-wire G-string.” Thus opens Richard Kadrey’s The Kill Society (Harper Voyager; 416 pages), the ninth installment in his bestselling Sandman Slim series revolving around the half-human, half-angel anti-hero James Stark, a.k.a. Sandman Slim, one of the few souls to have escaped from Hell. He’s a scrappy boozehound who’s skilled in black magic and always fights dirty. He’s feared by demons, and considered an abomination by angels, but he may be the only one who can save creation from itself.

Throughout the series, he has faced off against vampires and zombies, biker gangs and white supremacists, murderous cults and mutant angels. He’s clashed with shadowy government agencies, fought all manner of monsters in Hell’s gladiatorial arenas, and even served a stint as Lucifer himself (a job which changes hands over eternity). This time around, Kadrey exchanges the dark corners of Los Angeles for uncharted territory. Sandman Slim is dead. Really dead. And he’s trapped in the Tenebrae—an endless desert of spiritual limbo scarcely populated by souls hiding from the torments of Hell. Here he links up with a group of motorized marauders led by a self-styled autocrat known as “the Magistrate.” This motley crew of dead souls and hell–beasts sustains their travel across the unforgiving hardpan of the Tenebrae with murderous destruction. Survivors of their wrath are given an ultimatum: join us or die again. (Souls unlucky enough to die twice end up in Tartarus—a Hell below Hell where the doubly dead are kindling for the furnace that fuels creation.)

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When Death Goes on Hiatus: ‘Killing Pretty’ by Richard Kadrey

Killing PrettyJames Stark is a sarcastic, hard-charging brawler who can heal from any wound. Half human and half angel, he still feels pain, and his battered body carries a multitude of scars from shootings, stabbings, and torture. Stark, who goes by Sandman Slim, is so tough he smokes Maledictions, cigarettes you can only get in Hell. He lives off spicy food, donuts, and Hell’s best wine, Aqua Regia. His attitude and appetites are the product of eleven years in gladiatorial arenas in Hell’s capital, Pandemonium (a much hotter version of Los Angeles). In the first book of Richard Kadrey’s bestselling supernatural noir series, Stark escapes Hell, seeking vengeance with a flaming sword and his weapon of choice, the na’at—a malleable, sword-like whip. He possesses Hellion magic, the ability to warp distance via shadow, and a black blade that cuts anything, opens any lock, and starts any car.

Stark’s penchant for violent solutions existed long before his time in Hell. He is a descendant of Wild Bill Hickok, and in previous adventures, Stark has faced off against numerous threats: vampires, mutant angels, necromancers, a zombie plague, and gods as old as God himself. He’s saved the world more than once, served as a bodyguard for Lucifer, and even reigned on the throne of Hell for a time.

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Deceptions of an Iraq War Memoir: ‘A Big Enough Lie’ by Eric Bennett

A Big Enough LieEric Bennett’s first novel, A Big Enough Lie (285 pages; TriQuarterly Books), is fiction within fiction. The novel opens with best-selling author John Townley sitting in a studio green room, waiting to discuss his war memoir, Petting the Burning Dog, for the second time on the Winnie Wilson Show. There’s just one problem. The memoir is a fabrication, written under the name Henry Fleming, who happens to be a real second lieutenant in the U.S. Army. Fleming is missing in action in Iraq and was the leader of the “Babylon Seven”—a platoon captured and executed on video. Townley suspects his second appearance will expose his lies on national television; the show’s second guest is Antoine Greep, the platoon’s sole survivor.

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A Vision Stretching Over Centuries: ‘The Memory Painter’ by Gwendolyn Womack

The Memory PainterGwendolyn Womack’s first novel, The Memory Painter (320 pages; Picador), is a historical and scientific thriller fueled by themes of reincarnation and identity. World-famous painter Bryan Pierce is at the mercy of sudden trance-like states wherein he is able to paint moments of beauty and pain from his past lives. His art acts as a distress call, and it’s answered by Linz Jacobs, a neuroscience researcher. When Linz visits an art gallery and recognizes in one of Bryan’s paintings an image from a recurring childhood nightmare, an immediate connection to the artist soon becomes an exploration of shared history and past mysteries.

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The Delight of Treachery and Lies: ‘Tartuffe’ at the Berkeley Rep

From left to right, Steven Epp (Tartuffe), Nathan Keepers (Laurent), and Sofia Jean Gomez (Elmire) in the Berkeley Rep's revival of Molière’s "Tartuffe." (Photo courtesy of kevinberne.com)

From left to right, Steven Epp (Tartuffe), Nathan Keepers (Laurent), and Sofia Jean Gomez (Elmire) in the Berkeley Rep’s revival of Molière’s “Tartuffe.” (Photo courtesy of kevinberne.com)

Tartuffe, Molière’s timeless tragicomedy about religion, hypocrisy, and relationship distortion, was censored after a single performance in 1664. When the archbishop of Paris condemned Molière’s portrayal of religion, King Louis XIV acquiesced to the Roman Catholic Church and publicly banned Tartuffe. The seductive muddle of the title character’s benevolent deception led a second version to also be banned in 1667, and it wasn’t until 1669 that a third version of Tartuffe was finally published and openly performed to great success. Happily, 350 years later at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, the audience is free to experience Tartuffe’s subjective truth in all its dark glory.

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Understanding Desperation, & Knowing the Natural World: Q&A with Christian Kiefer

Christian Kiefer

Christian Kiefer

“Once upon a time, you told yourself that you would be no killer, that this was how you would live your life,” reflects the protagonist of Christian Kiefer’s new novel, The Animals (Liveright/Norton; 320 pages), as he prepares to euthanize a wounded moose in the book’s opening chapter. “And yet you learn and relearn that everything is the same.”

Bill Reed is the operator of the North Idaho Wildlife Rescue and a man haunted by a guilty conscience. Caring for wounded animals—raccoons, badgers, an owl, a wolf, and a blind grizzly bear, among others—is a form of catharsis for Bill, who is on the run from his criminal past and living under a different name. (His real first name is Nat.) When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service threatens to close the rescue shelter, the livelihood Bill has carefully built for himself and the animals is endangered. To make matters worse, his former best friend, Rick, is fresh out of prison and seeking payback.

The narrative switches between the story’s current setting of 1996 Idaho and Bill’s young adulthood in 1984 Reno. As he grapples with the rescue’s impending closure, we learn who Bill was, about his gambling addiction, and the catalyst for the bad blood with Rick. Survival is at stake as Rick and Bill circle each other in increasingly aggressive encounters from which neither can back down. As past sins threaten to eclipse the present, Bill is forced to explore what he is willing to do to save the people and animals he loves. Kiefer, whose story “Muzzleloader” appears in the upcoming issue of ZYZZYVA (No. 103), uses nature and seasonal imagery as powerful backdrops in an atmospheric narrative about conscience, survival, and primal identity—a story in which violence is inevitable. We talked to him via email about how he came to write The Animals, the importance of reading the work of master writers, what it means to “know your plants,” and the role of poverty in narrowing people’s options.

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A Mental Hospital’s Foreboding Power: ‘The Forgetting Place’ by John Burley

The Forgetting Place“Menaker State Hospital is a curse, a refuge, a place of imprisonment, a necessity, a nightmare, a salvation.” So opens John Burley’s The Forgetting Place (344 pages; HarperCollins), an atmospheric medical thriller with a fictional mental hospital as its core setting. Burley’s new novel follows resident psychiatrist Dr. Lise Shields, who is assigned a new patient, Jason Edwards, who has a mysterious past and an even more secretive admission. Much of the novel’s first half is spent on Dr. Shields’ attempts to coax the truth out of her reluctant patient and the hospital administration. Faced with a bureaucratic stonewall, Dr. Shields thinks, “So often we are the only tangible thing anchoring our patients to their delicate perch above the abyss.” As her concerns deepen, she discovers an institutional conspiracy that puts her and Edwards in danger. She takes drastic action, which hurls the story into its second act.

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