"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Monday, December 12, 2022

Dear Diary: Run Like Hell By James A. Moore (Cemetery Dance Publications Baltimore 2022)

Readers unfamiliar with Dear Diary: Run Like Hell may prefer to read these notes only after reading the book.

Dear Diary: Run Like Hell 

By James A. Moore (Cemetery Dance Publications Baltimore 2022)

This is my first time reading James A. Moore. My thanks to his publishers for sending me an advanced reading copy of Dear Diary: Run Like Hell

*   *   *

Dear Diary: Run Like Hell contains two adventures of Buddy Fisk.

The short story "Dear Diary" is a biter-bit suburban crime story. Diarist narrator Buddy (his criminous nom de guerre; by day he teaches dance) is sent by his sometime employer Demetrius to steal back four rare books.   

     "Four books?" Listen, I'll be blunt here. I don't work at a library. I do the sort of shit that no one ever wants to do and somebody always has to do. Mostly, I kill people. I kill a lot of people. I don't ask questions, I don't study my targets and get to know them, I just make them dead. My point is…I don't normally get sent out to gather a few books. My rates are too high for that sort of shit.

     Demetrius gives me one of those looks; the ones that say I'd be better off not asking too many questions, and I nod my understanding.

     "So what's the deal then?"

     "I have a name. I know who has the books. You get them, and you take them to this man at this address." He hands me a piece of paper. "When you get done, you come back to me and I give you a bonus."

Now, if you think this is going to be a smart-alec Bernie Rhodenbarr caper or one of Donald Westlake's yarns of crime and misdemeanor, adjust your readerly expectations. "Dear Diary" is moonlighting splatterpunk: a man reports on the men fought and the carnage wrought, and the satisfaction he felt in inflicting so much of the old ultra-violence.

The twist in the tale begins when Buddy gets his hands on the books:

     One of them was as big as the Manhattan White Pages and bound in leather. There was some weird writing on the front. It matched the description. One looked like somebody had taken the time to bind eight pages of paper between two pieces of sterling silver. No way it was a fake. Like the first one, it matched the description. The next one was small and well worn, like an old family Bible, only I'm pretty sure the gargoyle face on the front never went with a copy of the Good Book.

     I reached out and touched the last one. I swear it squirmed in my fingers. That was enough for me. No way the little shit had a chance to make copies. Even if he'd had the time, he wasn't that smart. Leo looked at me hopefully and I nodded my approval. Then he turned to pick them up....

Once Leo the book thief is dispatched, Buddy begins the nighttime trek on foot back to his vehicle. But he senses he is being followed, not by rival book collectors, but by something out of "Canon Albrecht's Scrapbook."

[....] I finally got a look at what was following me. It wasn't a dog. I would've preferred that, because, noisy and vicious or not, I knew a well-placed bullet would at least kill a dog. I only got a look in the plate glass window from a little five and dime on the corner of Westfield Avenue and Lanier Road. It was night and the only light was coming from the streetlamp behind me. So I couldn't see it clearly, but I knew right away I was in deep shit.

     It was just a shadow, okay? But it looked all wrong. It sort of looked human, with arms and legs, but it was running on all fours, and it was as skinny as a greyhound. I couldn't see the face, but I could see the hair on the thing, thin and scraggly, like it had the mange or something, and I could see the long fingers of the hands whenever it was bouncing forward. It didn't run so much as it hopped, the legs pushing off the ground and the hands catching the sidewalk and moving it forward before the legs did their thing and kicked again. It made me think of the way kids played leapfrog when I was younger. The same sort of motion, but faster and a lot stronger....

*   *   *

"Dear Diary: Run Like Hell" is a longer yet more perfunctory Buddy Fisk adventure. Our diarist is kidnapped and tortured after an assassination. His opponent, Anton Naheel, is a remorseless revenger and dabbler in black magic, made bullet-proof through the skills of his familiar.

"Dear Diary: Run Like Hell" is far more violent and gruesome than the first story. Happily for any Buddy Fisk fans, room is left for a galaxy of sequels.

*   *   *

One benefit of Dear Diary: Run Like Hell is that it gave me an even greater appreciation for Nathan Ballingrud's short story collection Wounds: Six Stories from the Border of Hell (2019), which I reviewed here.

Ballingrud takes far greater care in the ways he turns the tables on his protagonist, Jack Oleander. He also seeds small dramatic curlicues along the way that pay off later, often across more than one story. 

The Oleander stories lack the vigilante cynicism and rudimentary 1:1 plotting that hobble Moore's  Dear Diary: Run Like Hell.  

*   *   *


12 December 2022

Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Six stories by James Wade (1930-1983)

Readers unfamiliar with James Wade may prefer to read these notes only after reading the stories.

I first learned about James Wade last month when I read his short-short story "Planetfall on Yuggoth" in the Robert M. Price anthology The Hastur Cycle. "Planetfall on Yuggoth" was a brief story, droll and well worth reading.

I subsequently found a number of James Wade stories in some old anthologies. I could not, alas, find a photo of the man.

*   *   *

The Pursuer (1980) 

"The Pursuer" is a brief, brooding urban pastel in prose. The narrator's time is running out: he must soon turn and face his nighttime stalker. The story shows sparks of the intensity Poe and Bradbury achieved in their urban menace tales.

*   *   *

The Deep Ones (1969)

In broad outline the novella "The Deep Ones" might suggest the shopworn devices of a pastiche by August Derleth. But James Wade does not let his raw material rest at a bogus level of craft.

His own dramatic elements are rigorously folded-in to motivate each chapter of the story:

*The dolphin research lab on the California coast near Big Sur and San Simeon;

*The secured research lab compound just down the beach from a presumably hippie commune lead by guru and former  medical LSD researcher Alonzo Waite;

*Attempts to link dolphin and human telepathically using hypnosis on the human subject, dolphin researcher Josephine Gilman.

Webb's skill here is refreshing: new perspective and unpretentious style are brought to something already clichéd by 1969: the "we shall dwell amidst wonder and glory forever" punchline.

*   *   *

A Darker Shadow Over Innsmouth (1969)

Funny, elliptical, and filled with peripeteias sharp as whip cracks, "A Darker Shadow Over Innsmouth" will delight any reader hungry for a Lovecraftian narrator thwarted by the everyday abnormality of life.

The story begins with a clichéd statement being used around the same time by Lieber, Bloch, and Lumley: "I had read all the Lovecraft stories, of course...."

Climbing down from the bus in Innsmouth, our narrator meets Nella Kodaz:

     "That Dagon jazz is all washed up. After the Navy raids here in 1928, they say, the government kept a close eye on any funny business. During World War II there was a commando school here, and since then it's been used mostly as a hush-hush Defense Department experimental and training station. That's why everything's under cover and visitors aren't welcome. I thought you knew, from the way you talked."

     I was flabbergasted. "But what about the monstrous batrachian sea- creatures out beyond Devil Reef? The blasphemous fish-frogs that always dominated Innsmouth and extracted their unholy tribute?"

     "Well, every few weeks the Navy people dump a few crates of shark- repellent into the deep water off the reef. If there's any boogie-men around, that seems to hold them."

     "You must excuse me, Nella—but it seems to me you yourself exemplify what is referred to as the Innsmouth look', those peculiarities of personal appearance shown by people descended from human matings with the Deep Ones—people who will some day dive down to live forever in the sea- bottom citadel of Y'ha-nthlei."

     "Wrong again. I got an overdose of radiation, just a slight one, when I was working as a lab tech at the atomic reactor where they're making defoliants. The insurance paid through the nose, and I'm due for some free plastic surgery in a few months."

     "But what about those older inhabitants of Innsmouth who did have an amphibian strain in their ancestry?"

     "The ones who are left come under Medicare now. Mostly their relatives committed them years ago, and they're in protective custody at a big aquarium down near Marineland. It's sort of like Disneyland—people pay to see the Creatures from the Black Lagoon, only they think it's a fake."

     "Then what's hidden in all those huddled, leering old houses and sealed, sagging warehouses?"

     "Oh, all sorts of things—antipersonnel bombs, defoliant, infiltration training set-ups, secret courses on karate and winning the hearts and minds of the people. Professors from Miskatonic University come out twice a week to teach counterinsurgency tactics."

     "Not the famous Miskatonic University?"

     "Yes, in Arkham—where the new napalm plant is going up. Miskatonic U. got a big government contract, so they tore down their library, threw out all those moldy old books on sorcery, and built the biggest Pacification and Incineration Training Center in the country."

     Suddenly, with a numbing shock, I saw a hideous form emerging from the foaming breakers—a dark, glistening shape, its skin a squamous green—vaguely humanoid in outline, but surmounted by a flat, bestial head with bulging, glassy eyes.

     "Run for your life!" I shouted. "They've seen us! The Deep Ones! The monstrous, frog-like minions of—"

     "Calm down," Nella interrupted in a bored tone. "It's a frog-man, all right—just part of the underwater demolition school for Special Forces. Why, it's Elvis Whateley from Dunwich Acres. Hi, there! Dry off and let's all go downtown and slug back a few beers."

There is no place in the world for Yog Sothothery when the U.S. national security state has its tentacles everywhere.

*   *   *

Those Who Wait (1971?)

"Those Who Wait" is a tour-de-force thriller. It employs to the hilt Derleth's Cthulhu Mythos revisions, but with the tempo of a Keystone Kops chase.

Wade's narrator-protagonist is a Miskatonic freshman. Not one month after school begins, there's trouble:

     My work was soon finished, but as I walked across the campus, thoughts of the two strange men obsessed me. If they had been engaged in authorized reference work, why had the note hinted that they wished to be left alone before entering the locked room? Too, parts of the dark, moody note seemed curiously irreconcilable to that explanation.

     Over the thickly clustered, shadowy grove to the east hung a waning moon. Stars, those bright specks of light from distances incomprehensible, held dominion over the more subdued hues of darkness at the zenith. Ahead of me stretched the half-lit dormitory. Within was Bill Tracy. Perhaps he could shed some light on this matter.

     I hurried to our room. Bill greeted me with a cheer, "Hi! Get your work done?"

     "Yes," I answered abstractedly; then: "Have you ever seen a tall, dark, foreign, older-looking fellow in the student body?—Maybe tagged by a stoutish, younger fellow?"

     "I think I know who you mean. His name is Renaunt. He is older. Taking a post-graduate course in Ancient Literature and Folklore."

     "What do you know about him?"

     "Oh, nothing in particular. Rather reserved chap. You meet him?"

     "In a way." I told him what had occurred. He seemed peculiarly disturbed when I mentioned the strange name Ithaqua and the locked room.

     "He's up to no good," muttered Bill, more to himself than to me.

     "What do you know about it?"

     "It's more than you can imagine. I was bom and raised here. There are legends…."

     He told me then; fantastic tales of ancient books on malignant evil come down from ages immemorial, kept in Miskatonic Library's locked room. Sane or not, the dark beliefs and rituals contained in these books have been practiced even down to the present. The thick woods bordering the Miskatonic River had seen hideous, illogical rites celebrated within ancient circles of standing stones, and the forgotten hamlet of Dunwich, surrounded by altar-crowned hills, degenerated year by year from more cause than mere isolation. There were those, especially among the oldsters of Arkham, who averred that dark things could be called from the hills or the sky, if one was willing to pay the price. It was universally admitted that at certain seasons the sky lit up disturbingly over the hills, and queer rumbling earth-noises were heard. Scientists mumbled about seismographic shocks and Aurora Borealis, but few dared to investigate. In the old days, it had been quite generally believed that indescribable legions of demons were served there by wicked cults. Strange disappearances of those who lived or ventured too near the woods at night were invariably laid to the cult or its hideous deities, especially when the bodies would be found months later far away, only a few days dead.

     Here my informer paused.

     "Surely," I prompted, "you don't believe that!"

Readers will be flabbergasted at some of the turns Wade tries to make in "Those Who Wait." Some succeed better than others. Still, it's fun to see this attempted at all.

*   *   *

The Nightingale Floors (1975)

A ghost story following the experiences of a new night watchman at a haunted museum, "The Nightingale Floors" is a story by turns droll and shocking.

....I found myself a Korean War veteran in Chicago at twenty-six with a medium-size monkey on my back, picked up at those genteel campus pot parties that were just getting popular then among the more advanced self-proclaimed sophisticates. 

     Lucky? I was an Horatio Alger story in reverse....

Wade zeros-in on his junkie narrator's sense impressions of the hole-in-the-wall Ehlers Museum:

     The quiet was shy-making; for the first time in years, I missed Muzak. My footsteps, though I found myself almost tiptoeing, elicited sharp creaks from the shrunken floorboards, just as happens in the corridors of the Shogun's old palace at Kyoto, which I visited on leave during the Korean War. The Japs called those "Nightingale Floors", and claimed they had been installed that way especially to give away the nocturnal presence of eavesdroppers or assassins. The sound was supposed to resemble the chirping of birds, though I could never see that part of it.

The narrator's initial night watches  are carefully layered, and an atmosphere of drug paranoia and "pleasing terror" begins slowly to thicken.

(Auditory phenomena include an ancient piano in the museum rotunda that starts playing Liszt's Campanella).

     The second phase of the business started when I commenced to see things as well as hear them. Almost to see things, that is, which was the maddening part of it. Actually I would never catch a straight glimpse of anything odd: just flickers out of the corner of my eye, a fugitive flurry of barely-sensed movement that disappeared no matter how quickly I turned to confront it; furtive shiftings in the mass of solid objects as I passed by. It's not an experience I can describe very clearly, nor one that I would wish to repeat....

     I wondered whether Old Man Ehlers had seen and heard things here too, and whether that might have had anything to do with his being found dead of a heart attack in the medieval gallery one morning during the winter of 1927, as Mr. Worthington had told me.

     Now I really began to get concerned. Other people had heard the noises, or so I'd been told, and there were conceivable natural explanations for them. But nobody at the museum, as far as I knew, had ever mentioned seeing things, and I couldn't bring myself to mention the matter to old Worthington. I wasn't yearning for a padded cell, or Lewisburg, at this juncture.

     I drew the natural conclusion and knocked off on dope for a few days. But it made no difference, except then I was so nervous and shaky that my delusions (if that's what they were) might have been withdrawal symptoms as easily as narcotic hallucinations. They had me, coming and going.

     It was about this time that I found Old Man Ehlers' journal.

....It was neither a diary nor a business journal, but seemed to consist mostly of accounts of dreams the old boy had had, plus speculations on their meaning, with occasionally a few rather visionary philosophical jottings thrown in.

     Some of the dreams were dillies. I remember one that went something like this: "Dreamed I was shut inside the new Iron Maiden from Dusseldorf A noisy crowd outside was laughing, jeering, and hammering on it; and gradually it became red hot. Feeling of terror, not at the pain, but because I was certain those outside were not human. Meaning: birth trauma, or perhaps some ritual of spiritual purification?"

...."These phenomena, of course, are not 'ghosts' in any literal or personal sense, but more like the recordings impressed on a phonographic cylinder. Still, since I am unsure whether or not such emanations can affect matter physically, there is a chance they may be more powerful, and perhaps dangerous, than mere recordings could be."

How right the late Mr. Ehlers turns out to have been!

*   *   *

The Silence of Erika Zann (1976)

With "The Nightingale Floors" and "The Silence of Erika Zann" Wade is far advanced from the niche-ghetto of Lovecraft-Derleth pastiche and fan fiction. 

"The Nightingale Floors" has some antiquarian M. R. James bricolage, but its climactic acidy is similar in tone to the best stories of Chetwynd-Hayes.


"The Silence of Erika Zann" is a superb story of cosmic horror. The setting is San Francisco's The Purple Blob, a "psychedelic light-show club." 

     Everybody but me seems to have forgotten The Purple Blob ever existed. But I'll never forget the old place, with its glaring ricocheting lights and its mind-blowing music—for it was there that I experienced the most tragic and bewildering event of my life, the silence of Erika Zann.

Erika Zann, new lead singer with The Electric Commode, attracts our narrator's attention. 

     To make conversation, I remarked, "Pete says you're German." 

     She laughed mechanically. "Not really. I was born in Europe right after the war. My folks were refugees and got to the States a few years later. I don't even remember."


     "My dad's dead now, but he was a violinist. So was my grandfather, but he's been gone a long time. Funny thing."

     "What is?"

     "Grandpa Erich Zann left his family in the 1920's and settled in Paris. He played in a pit band, though Dad said he used to be good. He was a mute—not deaf, of course, but he couldn't utter a sound. Here I'm named after a dummy, and I make my living yelling my head off."

It isn't long before The Electric Commode starts packing in the crowds:

[....] The Electric Commode had certainly snagged a new arranger, though no one ever found out his name. (Once, when he was especially high, the lanky lead guitarist everyone called just Tommy was heard to claim that their cleffer was "a black man—not a Negro, just a black man." I wondered what he meant by that.)

     The first thing about their new sound, it was loud, so loud that if you'd already blown your mind, this music might blast it back in again. Second, it was electric. There were half a dozen new instruments to back up the guitars and sax and trumpet and drums that no one had ever seen, or heard, anything like before, except maybe in Dr. Frankenstein's lab on the Late Show.

     Third, there was Erika. Whether she'd always had it in her or the new gimmicks added something, wailing was no word for it. At the climaxes of those long sets, which left her drained and shaking, she'd take off into wordless stratospheric flights that reminded you of Yma Sumac, the freak Peruvian soprano of a while back.

     The total effect, while not exactly rock—or not entirely rock— was, in any event, searing. Some of the regular customers had convulsions, literally, but since they kept coming back, I guess that's what they were there for.

     Every once in a while would come what seemed to be an offstage stereo effect, a sort of wide-range, omnidirectional growl that built and built, like someone was sprawled full length along the keyboard of a great cathedral organ. Nobody could guess what it was, and only one thing was sure: The sound didn't come from that hyped-up little Hammond on stage. At those times the colored lights in the room would start to skitter and skim like reflections from the heart of hell, and Erika outdid herself to rise above the racket. I could almost swear the look of mingled fear and exultation on her face wasn't a put-on.

     The audience ate it up, and The Blob became an "in" spot, naturally attracting reporters, tourists, and slummers, in that order. Pete Muzio bought out the espresso coffee shop next door and knocked down the intervening wall to get more floor space.

     I was hooked too, and kept coming back week after week, even though I realized at last that it wasn't the music which attracted me—that began to seem vaguely disquieting, if not odious—but Erika herself.

     I'd gotten to know her a bit better by the simple expedient of buying the band drinks between sets, or passing around the grass. She was a strange, evasive kid, but I felt more and more certain she was at times scared blue, and so I suppose my feeling for her was deepened by a sort of pity or protective instinct.

     One night we were drinking alone at a side table and she finally started to level with me. I'd made some sort of inane remark about how she seemed nervous, which was simply my way of trying to break down her standoffishness—she always seemed nervous, actually, no more so one time than another.

     "Nervous? I suppose I am." She took a drag on her cigarette, an ordinary one this time. "It goes with the business. Only, I used to be able to unwind with some grass, or a few fingers of gin. Now nothing seems to help."

     "What's the trouble?"

     "Oh, lots of little things." She drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly. "That creepy manager isn't leveling with us on our slice of the bread. And the drummer's putting the make on me, or on Tommy, or maybe on both of us ... who knows?

     "Tommy's changed, too. He won't tell the rest of us where he's getting the arrangements or those crazy instruments. Did you know that the new side men and the light man don't even talk about the jobs they've played before?"

     "Does that scare you?"

     "Maybe it should. I was in pretty deep with the devil-worships gang I told you about. That wasn't all they were up to, either. Some of them have it in for me but good, and I thought I recognized the new man on vibes as one of that bunch, but he won't talk, just like the rest, and I can't be sure. The vibes man is pretty thick with Pete Muzio, and they seem to have a lot of private business together. But the worst thing is the music."

     "The music?" I exclaimed. "That's what made you a star."

     "I know, but it still scares me. When I'm on stage I can't tell where half the sound is coming from. It's not from those crazy boxes with grids and neon tubes on them; they're mostly dummies, or just far-out decorations on ordinary electronic instruments. That roaring, moaning noise from offstage is what really gets me. I swear to God I've searched every square inch back there—there's not that much space. Unless somebody took the trouble to build a set of speakers into a solid brick wall, and conceal the outlet some way, there's just no source for such sounds. And why should anyone do that? It doesn't even make sense as a publicity stunt, since Tommy won't let anybody even talk about it."

Wade employs just enough narrative distancing to keep the reader from realizing all the Faustian clichés he has simply assumed instead of spelling-out. It's a lovely skill, one of the most important for a horror writer hungry to "make it new."

As Erika begins slowly to come apart at the seams, the narrator tries to figure out where The Electric Commode's offstage vocalist is coming from.

     I thought of what one hi-fi nut in the audience told me: He'd tried to tape the show with a hidden transistor set, but could never pick up the offstage sounds.

The Commode's final night turns into cataclysm.

It stuns me as a horror reader that after half a century "The Silence of Erika Zann" is not more frequently  acknowledged and discussed.

*   *   *

In 2018 a collection of Wade's fiction appeared under the title Such Things May Be: Collected Writings.

I have not been able to find any of his music online. 


7 December 2022