Free The Villain’s Sidekick

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Full disclosure: I’m about to have one of those milestone birthdays this month, where I find myself a lot older than the younger version of me ever thought I’d live to be. So in honor of that, I guess, I’m offering a couple of my books free this month over on Amazon, beginning with the one that started it all, The Villain’s SidekickFor the next five days, grab it and run and get the skinny on Duke “HandCannon” LaRue, the semi-lovable henchmen with a machine gun arm, an iron jaw, a steel-plated skull, a lethal boss, an irritable ex-wife, a precocious six-year-old daughter, and a heart of pyrite. It’s short enough to finish in three to five bathroom sittings and there’s plenty more where that came from (including an upcoming prequel story in the third Good Fight anthology and the origin tale, The Devil’s Right Handwhich will be available free next week).

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Review: The Regional Office is Under Attack!

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In a publishing world where we authors of a certain stripe are frequently told that there’s just no market for superheroic prose, it’s both heartening and frustrating when a work like this one manages to wend its way through the traditional distribution channels. Heartening because, like Soon I Will Be Invincible or The Violent Centuryit’s another testament to the fact that using a superpowered comic book backdrop is not only resonant to audiences well-versed in these tropes, it’s actually marketable! Frustrating because, well, most of us who write this kind of stuff would love to be in Manuel Gonzalez’ shoes, receiving legit literary attention for our exercises in subgenre. Hell, Gonzalez already has a movie deal, with Ruben Fleischer of Zombieland renown signed on to helm a bigscreen version.

Personal bitterness aside, though, I have to admit this one hit me in my sweet spot. Whatever its merits as capital L Literature, it’s a rollicking ride that’s equal parts thrilling, grim and hilarious. It contains homages to and elements of everything from Die Hard to Minority Report to Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., as well as sharp, glancing references to the many science fictional, magickal and fantastical devices familiar to comics readers from the Silver Age through the Dark Age and right up to whatever Age we’re in currently.

If the title isn’t a dead giveaway, Gonzalez’ novel concerns itself with the events surrounding an all-out assault on the headquarters of a mysterious organization dedicated to combatting the Dark Forces that are Amassing to Threaten our World. But the shadowy Regional Office is not a top secret governmental branch or an ancient order that’s been operating since the dawn of time; rather it’s a privately funded operation fronting as a high-end travel agency, and founded by a couple of lifelong friends–Mr. Niles and his superpowered crush object Oyemi–involving future-predicting Oracles and a vast network of mainly gorgeous badass female assassins, recruited–and sometimes abducted–from trailer parks, shopping malls, and high schools all over the country.

Bouncing between past and present, and far-flung locations from Texas to New York to a neighboring dimension, we learn the story of a couple of such recruits: Rose, a smalltown girl with a go-nowhere life and an inherent knack for mayhem; and Sarah, a fairly ordinary if high-strung woman with a tragic backstory and a mechanical arm. Their destinies are set on a collision course when a couple of disgruntled Regional Office employees decide to repay disappointment and betrayal with the titular attack.

Whether you’re into the superpowered subgenre or not, The Regional Office is just a really fun, page-turning read that doesn’t take itself too seriously, brimming with a drily sarcastic millennial wit that offsets the sometimes shocking moments of intrigue, danger and violence. But neither is it a constantly campy jokefest or all satire and no substance. Gonzalez gives us just enough, at least with a few of his characters, to raise the stakes and shape them into human beings to be fascinated with (if never to quite root for). Many things are sketched in or unexplained–i.e., we never learn why the Office recruits only women to their cause–and in a few cases that’s frustrating (we never discover one character’s actual fate, despite a few suggestive hints), and  I can’t help wonder if Gonzalez wanted to leave things open-ended enough for a sequel or three. But the narrative filigree he uses to sketch out his world is right in my wheelhouse–warlocks in Kansas, interdimensional field ops, nanotech with a mind of its own. In my own superhero prose, I take great pleasure in dropping those kinds of high concept notions into casual conversation or interior monologue, the suggestion of a wider, wilder world often more tantalizing than a fully committed plunge into all of its depths.

Gonzalez is a terrifically entertaining writer, his one notable weakness for me an over-reliance on a singular snark-drenched voice; whether he’s in Rose’s head or Sarah’s, crafting long passages of a fictitious academic research paper on the attack and its aftermath, or putting us in the heads of hapless hostages during the siege, the point of view and offhandedly chatty tone remain almost too consistent. But despite these quibbles and a couple of narrative dead ends and unrealized ideas, The Regional Office is Under Attack passes this reader’s ultimate litmus test: I kinda wish I’d written it myself.

Blood, Guts and Brains

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“Die Dog or Eat the Hatchet” first came to my attention thanks to “States of Terror” editor/publisher Matt Lewis. Considering I wrote a story about the Florida skunk ape for volume two of that collection, I was instantly intrigued to hear about Adam Howe’s “Damn Dirty Apes,” the first of three novellas in this book. It’s a twisted, pulpy Southern gothic adventure tale peopled with backwoods pornographers, ape-centric biker gangs, cryptid-hunting eccentrics, and a damaged-but-unbroken ex-prizefighter at the center of it all. It caroms from grim brutality to cartoonish otherworldly violence while rarely pausing for breath, and there’s a strong sense that Howe’s introducing one of those gruffly likable protagonist who could keep on having these kinds of reluctant adventures for years to come (and since there’s a sequel novel on the way, I may not be too far off in that guess).

The shortest of the three, “Gator Bait,” is a horror noir that’s equal parts James M. Cain and Stephen King in its Prohibition-era tale of a piano-playing ladies’ man forced to go on the lam after getting the drop on a cuckold bent on ending his adulterous days. Of course, stumbling into a new gig at a swampy roadside honkytonk run by a dangerous bootlegger with a gorgeous battered wife can only lead one way for the hapless ivory-tickler, no matter how often he claims to have sworn off the dames. Especially if the alligator in the pond out back has a say in the matter.

Throughout both of these Southern-fried tales, so steeped in the language and specifics of 20th-century hardboiled Americana, it’s easy to forget that Howe’s a Brit by birth. The stories read quick, funny and fun, with that enviable combination of smart satisfying wordplay and evocative imagery, yet with nary a wasted or extraneous word.

But the one that really grabbed me by the nards and wouldn’t let go is the one that gives the book its title. Unlike the other two tales, which are occasionally crude or violent but essentially accessible, “Die Dog or Eat the Hatchet” is one I would not recommend to the even vaguely squeamish. Easily the best horror movie I’ve read in ages, the less I say about its hardcore horror conceit the better, as I don’t want to spoil the immensely satisfying twists and turns it takes with its simple but brilliant “dammit why didn’t I think a that?!” premise.

Suffice to say, fans of old school pulp with a postmodern twist, over-the-top action-adventure lovers, and sick fucks who enjoy stories with as much brains as blood and guts will all find something to love inside Howe’s twisted little worlds.