Rogue Blades Press is a small press responsible for several anthologies of heroic fiction over the years. Two of my Vasily stories have appeared in their books (RAGE OF THE BEHEMOTH and CHALLENGE!: DISCOVERY), and Trista has made an appearance in their reprinted/expanded edition of CLASH OF STEEL: DEMONS. Over the last few years, the publisher went quiet. This happens with small presses all the time. It’s not a measure of the quality of their output, it’s just a matter of logistics. Running a business ain’t easy, folks, and running a publishing business often requires fourteen impossible things before breakfast. However, Rogue Blades Press returned to the publishing game last year with a couple of anthologies, the aforementioned CHALLENGE!: DISCOVERY as well as CRAZY TOWN, a book of tales smashing up urban fantasy with crime fiction. Editor Jason M. Waltz sent a copy of the latter my way, and I gave it a read.
As with all anthologies, the contents are a varied bunch. From a tonal perspective, there is a spectrum with vicious little tales on one end and thoughtful/subtle stories on the other, and while the book trends toward the vicious, it contains plenty of stories across that particular spectrum. From a writing level, the tales show a wide range of talent, with several names I have not encountered as well as a few names I vaguely recall from other small press venues. Alas, the lack of contributors’ biographies don’t help me remember where I might have seen these names before or what their other projects are. The copyright page tells me a few of these stories are reprints from magazines, anthologies, or author collections while the majority are originals.
It’s never an easy task to discuss an anthology. With novels, we can talk about inciting incidents and the first half of the work as well as discuss how endings fit without being too spoiler heavy. A short story just does not have enough room for that. Likewise a review that tries to encapsulate the highs and lows of each story reads a bit like catalog copy. Let’s talk about the whole picture, with a couple of stories used for examples.
The anthology opens with Jennifer Rachel Baumer’s “Early’s Auto and Body Repair: We’ll Fix It” in which a night owl Mr. Fix It finds himself confronted with that staple of noir fiction: the dame who walks into the office.
She’s blonde, the kind of blonde that pours like honey, the kind of blonde you want to run your hands through. And she’s not leaning against the office door, she’s standing there kind of quivering, fear or something, but I like the effect. She’s one of those girls got side orders of everything that counts and those legs— (3)
It’s a classic kick off to a detective story, but the story that follows is not clichéd. Instead, we have a roman noir about an unofficial investigator (not far removed from the mold of F. Paul Wilson’s Repairman Jack) looking into a mystery about a woman in trouble, her gangster fella who might or might not have died a hundred years ago, and the investigator’s strange ties to the situation. It’s a clever story to kick off the anthology, heavy with mood and falling on the more subtle side of the spectrum.
The third story goes to the meaner side of the tracks. Patrick Thomas’ “Hook, Line, and Sinker” tackles a banshee cop investigating a mermaid’s murder. Not a clean gunshot wound style murder that might have happened in a black and white picture, this is the sort of Technicolor horror show that would not be out of place in an early work from writers like Jack Ketchum or James Ellroy:
Her killer obviously had some big-time issues with her breasts, having rammed a smaller makeshift fishhook through each of them. The cruelty and perversion didn’t stop there. There was a broomstick with dried blood on the floor. There was matching blood around Ms. Fishman’s groin, leaving little doubt what the stick was used for. Still, the crime scene unit and the ME would tag it, bag it, and prove it was used on the victim. (22).
Pretty gruesome, no? The author manages to keep the tone of the tale on the grim side while including a cast of selkies, mermaids, fish people, banshees, and leprechauns. The story manages to pack its slim page count with plenty of dirty cops, murders, mayhem, and stings-gone wrong.
Other tales position themselves along that particular spectrum between the aforementioned works, with a few subtle chills and a few examples of fiction that makes a reader want to brush their teeth afterward.
A majority of the tales fall under the umbrella of detective fiction. Lone investigators or hunters scour shadowy worlds, seeking out the perpetrators of crimes. A handful of the tales are actually romans noir or tales of more or less regular folks who find themselves drawn into worlds of crime and supernatural suspense. Roman noir is my preferred style, these days. I’ve read a ton of detective fiction and find something more engaging about non-professionals thrust into dangerous circumstances than the world weary private dicks getting one more case or trying to avenge their dead partner.
Fans of werewolves will find plenty of tales playing to their particular passion. These critters abound in at least three tales I recall off hand as well as making a metaphoric appearance in Douglas Smith’s devilish “Out of the Light”, which posits how shapeshifters might evolve to blend into cities where no large animals (such as wolves or bears) are to be found. Likewise, vampires, ghosts, zombies, skeletons, demons and other traditional creatures get some representation here, and the best stories offer little twists to expectations. Magic users and folks who can see dead people also make appearances, either as protagonists, antagonists, or secondary characters—I rather like how Internal Affairs in “Hook, Line, and Sinker” is a group of witches. More ambitious stories tackle mystical topics like prophecy, but the lion’s share of works here feature the intersection between humanity and one or more traditional urban fantasy race either hiding in plain sight, legally regulated, or sticking to the shadows.
One of the staples of urban fantasy is making the city itself a character. In that end, the stories vary in terms of how well they succeed. However, with short stories it is tricky to do too much in terms of presenting the world building. “Hook, Line, and Sinker” gives us a city where all the mythological creatures have been interred for better or worse, and that location gets a bit of characterization in the pages. Other stories name check this or that city and then leave the locations hazy, cycloramas against which the action is played out instead of something more vital. As we might expect, when cities do get some characterizations, they are either a hostile presence or an uncaring. Kind of like the Greek Gods on a bender. A few of the tales cheat a bit on the location, giving themselves a more rural location inside the city (parks and whatnot), but hey, the urban and the rural blend in strange ways in some of the larger cities.
Although not all of the stories worked for me, the book’s contents generally give a few fun twists on expectations as well as a couple of smart bits of dialogue. Overall, CRAZY TOWN is a fun little read for fans of Jim Butcher, Seanan McGuire, and Laurel K. Hamilton’s earlier Anita Blake tales.
Next week, we will check out something a bit different with WHITSTABLE, the first novella in Stephen Volk’s THE DARK MASTERS trilogy, which finds a mourning Peter Cushing mistaken for the Van Helsing character he played in Hammer Horror films and approached for the kind of help only Van Helsing could supply . . . The novella WHITSTABLE appears both as a paperback standalone edition from Spectral Press as well as collected with the other novellas in the trilogy as a recent hardcover omnibus release from PS Publishing.
Waltz, James M. CRAZY TOWN. Rogue Blades Press: 2018.
“For Your Consideration: Crazy Town” is copyright © 2019 by Daniel R. Robichaud. Quotes are taken from the Rogue Blades Press paperback edition.