Brooklyn-based author C.J. Henderson has a lot of nerve. Not only did he have the audacity to steal the concept of my monster-hunting novel before I’d even thought of it, he also had the gall to execute that same concept in a much slicker and more professional way than I could ever hope to.
The result of C.J. Henderson’s inadvertent reverse-plagiarism is Where Angels Fear – a collection of short stories written by Henderson and his long-time writing partner Bruce Gehweiler. It’s a wildly entertaining romp chronicling the exploits of Duke University professors Blakely and Boles – two completely mismatched personalities thrust into reluctant partnership to satisfy the stipulations of a staggering hundred million dollar grant.
Through a series of novellas and short stories, the jovial crypto-zoologist and the snippy para-psychologist travel the world to investigate a menagerie of ferocious and fantastical creatures – el chupacabra, the infamous Georgia skunk-ape, dinosaurs in deepest Africa and even the legendary Walrus’ Graveyard.
Afloat in a veritable ocean of horror and fantasy books, Where Angels Fear bobs to the surface thanks to an utterly unique writing style that combines a light-hearted, adventure story style (the sort that I’m so fond of) with the darkness and depravity of a good Stephen King novel.
The result is... different - in the best possible way. Breaking the book into short stories delivers an immensely satisfying reading experience and keeps you flicking through the pages long after you should have turned off the light and gone to bed.
I will admit the two styles don’t always sit well together – many of the stories read like they were written for a ‘young adult’ audience, but snap you awkwardly out of that mindset as soon as the decapitations, demonic rapes and torture begin – but that’s probably more a statement about how formulaic horror and fantasy writing have become than anything negative about the Henderson and Gehweiler.
What really stood out for me about Where Angels Fear was the structure. Each short story was intricately planned and wrapped up with a highly satisfying ending (which is something many authors – I’m looking at you, Stephen King – sometimes fail to deliver.) The characterization was subtle, but effective – like a good TV show, each ‘episode’ added another layer of depth to the main characters, without deluging you with reams of unnecessary exposition.
The best aspect was probably the simplicity, though. C.J. Henderson and Bruce Gehweiler have mastered the golden rule of writing and say the most by saying the least.
Horror fans will find a lot to like here – and the book will especially appeal to fans of H.P. Lovecraft. Although it’s never explicitly mentioned, there’s a lot of Lovecraftian lore within the pages and much of the characterization deals with the increasingly fragile mental health of our heroes. Teetering on the brink of madness is perhaps the signature of a good Lovecraft story; but an aspect too many imitators forget or ignore.
If I have any criticism, it’s more about the publishing that the writing. Printed by small press Dark Quest, Where Angels Fear has a bit of a POD-ish feel to it, which isn’t ideal when you’re paying upwards of $15 for a book. There are a number of typos inside, but nothing groundbreaking - if anything, you’re left thinking that a proofreader with a red pen could whip through the book in a day or two and trim just a few unnecessary words to lift the writing from ‘excellent’ to ‘sublime.’
The cover of the book is amazing – a beautifully rendered illustration of Blakely and Boles surrounded by their supernatural adversaries* – but again adds to the feeling that this is a young adult book, rather than horror compilation for grown ups. (Be advised, this book is most definitely for grown ups - albeit big, childish ones like me.)
But ultimately, I was thrilled with Where Angels Fear. It totally exceeded my expectations in every aspect. Mummy Militant will attest to the fact that I developed ‘can’t-put-it-down-syndrome’ during the week or so it took me to read it – avidly thumbing through the pages at any opportunity, including when I was feeding the baby, walking the dog or brushing my teeth.
I think with a few marketing tweaks, there’s nothing stopping the partnership of Blakely and Boles from exploding into the mainstream – it’s definitely a rival to Anita Blake or many of the other horror series hitting the shelves of Barnes and Noble. Don’t let the small press ‘badge of shame’ fool you – Dark Quest are into a winner with Henderson and Gehweiler.
NOTE: Earlier I'd misidentified the cover artist of this great book as the wonderfully talented Erica Henderson, when it fact is was the similarly talented Ben Fogletto. My only excuse is that there's clearly too much damn talent in this place!