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July 2005
 
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Charles de Lint
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Books To Look For
by Charles de Lint

Gil's All Fright Diner, by A. Lee Martinez,
Tor Books, 2005, $12.95.

IN A recent column I made mention of how tired I am of vampires. Perhaps what I should have said is that I'm tired of the same-old, same-old take on them. But I'm also tired of the shtick vampires—where whatever it is the author has used to set their vampire apart from tradition is pretty much all the story has got going for it. It's not much different from writing a private eye novel, giving the main character a couple of quirks—what's called the Funny Hat character—and those quirks are all that the character has going for himself. It's especially tiresome when the quirks are played for laughs, instead of allowing humor to arise naturally from situations and character interactions.

That said, the vampire in Gil's All Fright Diner is pretty much a farcical character. Actually, the novel as a whole is farcical, from the redneck, cowardly vampire and his good ol' boy werewolf buddy to the jailbait teenage occultist trying to raise a variation on Lovecraft's Old Gods so that she can rule over the ruin that's left of the world. But it works, nevertheless, because while the characters are over the top (I haven't even mentioned the plague of zombies attacking, night after night, the lonely diner of the book's title), and the situations are certainly preposterous, Martinez wins us over because he cares about both.

He cares about them, and so we do, even when we're laughing ourselves silly, or shaking ours heads over some new outrageous plot development.

As for that plot, the book opens with our heroes Earl (the vampire) and Duke (the werewolf) bickering as they arrive at a diner in a small Texas town. No sooner are they inside, than the place is attacked by zombies. The waitress/owner (well, sort of owner—she took over the place when the real owner mysteriously disappeared) asks them for their help, and the book is off and running.

What is it about Texas writers that makes them so inventive? Is it something in the water? Martinez holds his own with the best of them, coming up with everything from vampire cows to oracular eight-balls that can also imprison a spirit.

This is a gory book in places, with some really graphic scenes, but it's also one of the better written and funniest novels I've read in years. Oh, and let me emphasize yet again that right from the start, through all the slapstick mayhem, I really did care for these characters. I think you will, too.

*     *     *

John Constantine/Hellblazer: All His Engines, by Mike Carey & Leonardo Manco,
Vertigo Comics, 2005, $24.95.

I feel sorry for all those people whose first (and probably only) introduction to the long-running character of John Constantine will be the recent Hollywood extravaganza Constantine. Let me tell you right now that Keanu Reeves, with his good-boy looks and impassive performances, isn't, and could never be, the dark and complex character that long-time DC and Vertigo readers know. The original Constantine is also decidedly British, with his roots in the punk scene of the late seventies, unlike Reeves's character.

First introduced in the pages of Swamp Thing in 1985, jumping onto the page from the fertile mind of Alan Moore, Constantine has gone on to become a mainstay of the DC Universe, usually at the edge of the main stage. He works in the shadows, this "con man, joker, thief… Magus," as he's described in the afterword of the book in hand.

Created by Moore, Constantine was defined by Jamie Delano when the character was given his own title with Hellblazer in the late eighties. The reason for his appeal to readers isn't much different from why various authors over the years have so enjoyed telling his stories.

Jamie Delano: "John is a man constantly driven to live up to his own expectations, at the same time undermined by the knowledge that failure is inevitable and laughing himself s**tless at the ridiculous spectacle of his struggle."

Garth Ennis: "I liked the 'ordinary bloke' aspect of Constantine. With Hellblazer, I could write a monthly comic featuring a normal, non-superpowered or costumed character who moved in a recognizable world, with realistic motivation and moral behavior. His reactions would be those of a mortal, vulnerable man—and the fact that he was a bit of a bastard helped."

Paul Jenkins: "He won't suffer fools gladly, he won't be shat on. He likes to pretend he's a mean, heartless bastard, but the way I saw it was that nobody's just one color, there has to be another side to him."

Brian Azzarello: "John's a spiritual grifter, a con man working with a psychological shell game. You may be certain where that pea is, but the only certainty is you know where it is if he lets you. It's this control—or illusion of control—that lies at the heart of the character. He may not be one step ahead of the game, but he makes you think he is."

Neil Gaiman: "Flawed, smart, funny and cool. He's also a dickheaded, stubborn idiot, who causes nothing but doom and misery for his loved ones and friends."

Like the movie, All the Engines is set in L.A., or at least mostly, but there the similarities end. In the graphic novel, Constantine is asked by his oldest friend Chas to look into the cause of a strange malady that has put his niece into a coma. As usually happens in a Constantine story, that small drama expands into one that plays out across a much broader canvas, encompassing pantheons of forgotten gods and demons, with Constantine in the middle, playing all sides of the equation.

Leonardo Manco provides graphic (at times, some might feel, too graphic) depictions as the story unwinds, but he proves to be equally capable at rendering the quiet, tender moments and times when the action and horrors escalate. And Mike Carey writes Constantine with the brash vigor of his predecessors, creating a complicated and inventive story worthy of the canon as it exists so far.

If you're a fan of dark fantasy and characters with a punkish attitude who find themselves in impossible situations, do yourself a favor and check out this graphic novel before, or instead of, the film. And if you want more, or would like to see how Constantine developed over the years, Vertigo has fourteen collections taken from the regular comic series available in trade paperback format.

*     *     *

Perfect Circle, by Sean Stewart,
Small Beer Press, 2004, $15.

Well, with the publication of Sean Stewart's Perfect Circle last year, we can add another book to the growing list that makes up the Ghost Story "I see dead people" sub-genre.

The Sixth Sense movie from a few years ago seems to have brought these sorts of stories to the forefront once more, but they've been around much longer than that, from the Topper books in the 1920s and earlier still. I'm guessing that before we sat around the campfires in the long ago and made up stories about the gods to explain the world around us, we were telling each other ghost stories.

The reason The Sixth Sense stirred up the interest that it did wasn't so much because of the concept of a character being able to interact with the dead, but because of the big surprise ending. Which was very cool (even though Shyamalan has been trying to pull off the same coup with every subsequent film release, with ever-lessening effect).

But in some ways, it's too bad that the ending got all the attention it did, because the idea of being able to communicate with the dead is so much more interesting. And so long as one doesn't try to pull off some new big surprise, exploring the connections between a possible afterlife and the one we live in is the kind of story that can't get old. The ghosts of the dead were once people, and if the characterizations are well-drawn and true, we're never going to get tired of reading and writing about them.

For one thing, there's such an incredible variety in the subject matter, since in the right hands, every person's story, whether they're dead or alive, can be a riveting and illuminating experience.

Take the book in hand.

Will Kennedy can see the dead, but it hasn't helped him out much in his life. When the story opens, he's been divorced for twelve years, desperately loves his young daughter who lives with his ex, and has just lost yet another nowhere job. He's an old throwback punk, but now that he's in his early thirties the idea of anarchy and who-needs-money? has gotten old.

One of his cousins offers him a thousand dollars to help him get rid of the ghost in his garage, and after some persuasion, Kennedy accepts. Big mistake, because that just starts him off on a terrible roller coaster of events that soon show him that no matter how bad things are, they can still get worse. And they do.

Stewart has done a wonderful job with the Texas setting, but has particularly outdone himself with his characters. While even the walk-ons feel fully developed in just the few lines they get, it's the main cast that shines with depth. Kennedy himself is particularly believable and complex. He's pretty much a loser who still feels he can pull himself out of the hole he's dug himself into, but it's not as simple as that. The true depths of his unhappiness and loneliness are eventually revealed in his absorbing interactions with his extended family, his ex-wife, his next door neighbor and best (maybe only) friend, and even some of the ghosts, such as that of his older cousin AJ who died when she was seventeen, or his Uncle Billy whose spirit gave Kennedy his first experience with the supernatural world.

I started this review with a jokey, throw-away remark, which perhaps set the wrong tone. This is a serious, well-written, thoughtful novel—not without touches of humor (though it's a dark humor) and still inventive (I loved the ghost roads that keep threatening to take Kennedy away), but one very much rooted in our world.

Highly recommended.

*     *     *

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