October 2003

Adam Lipkin

fear factor

A phantom menace

One of my favorite horror authors doesn't even exist. Hell, it's nothing that shocking. Pseudonyms abound in horror. Stephen King, of course, wrote a number of novels as Richard Bachman until a reporter outed him. Bentley Little has used the name Phillip Emmons overseas. And Michael Slade has had no fewer than five different people assuming his name over the years. But my favorite pseudonymous horror writer is Kim Newman's alter-ego, Jack Yeovil.

Newman, of course, is best known for the Anno-Dracula series of books, which, aside from being wonderful horror novels in their own right, have made extensive use of other literary characters, borrowing everyone from Mycroft Holmes and the titular count to Tom Ripley and Clark Kent. He's also staked out a career as a film critic and satirist.

Most of his Yeovil novels were written quickly as work-for-hire assignments for Games Workshop, a company whose Warhammer setting is about as derivative as any setting one could imagine. By all rights, quickly-churned out gaming novels (a subgenre that has made millionaires out of Tracy Hickman and R.A. Salvatore) have no place on any bookshelf. But the Yeovil books somehow transcend their origins, and are must-haves for any horror fans with a sense of humor.

There are four Yeovil books currently in print. Drachenfels, the earliest in the series, is, at face value, a story about an evil mage who seeks revenge on the party of adventurers who defeated him years ago. And the typical fan of gamer novels might not get anything else out of the book. But buried beneath the cliches (and even the more original fantasy ideas, such as the elaborate trap the villain sets for a peace-seeking baron), is a genuinely funny novel about, of all things, theatre. Newman has managed to wedge dozens of pages of Warhammer theatre history and production into a gaming novel. In anyone else's hands, it'd be a mess. Newman turns it into one of the wittiest fantasy novels this side of Terry Pratchett.

His follow-up novel (which, like Drachenfel, was first written in the late '80s), Beasts in Velvet, is equally witty, even if the ground has been covered before. This time, Newman brings the Dirty Harry concept to the Warhammer universe, giving us a no-nonsense maverick police inspector nicknamed Filthy Harold. Subtle, it ain't, but the novel (which follows the story of a mysterious Jack The Ripper-style killer stalking the streets of a Wahammer city), is a blast, and the mystery story beneath all the humor is actually pretty well done. Surprisingly, we get a cast of characters who are genuinely appealing, in spite of the hackneyed setting, and they help keep the book moving along nicely.

The two short story collections in the series, Genevieve Undead and Silver Nails, are just as enjoyable, providing us with everything from another Filthy Harold tale, to a story following the vampiric Genevieve (who not only appears in all of these books, but also makes her way over to Newman's Anno Dracula series), as she gets caught up in a cursed house that transforms its inhabitants into soap opera characters. And Newman gives us some new short stories in these collections, showing how much better he's gotten since Yeovil first started writing.

For those who simply can't abide fantasy stories regardless of the storyteller, Yeovil also wrote in Games Workshop's Dark Future world, a sci-fi future. All four of these books (Route 666, Krokodil Tears, Demon Download, and Comeback Tour) are out of print, alas, but they're worth tracking down. Although it's another pre-fab gaming setting (think Damnation Alley or Mad Max), Newman is given a lot more latitude to change the world, serving up some nasty plotlines involving demonic possession, psychotic computers, and religious and government conspiracies. But he sows the seeds for his later works here, throwing in hundreds of characters from other works of horror, everything from minor cameos by folks like Jason Vorhees and Michael Myers, to a major plotline centering around a futuristic Hannibal Lecter. Throw in Elvis as a futuristic military operative and secret agent, and you've got four zany but truly fun post-apocalypse novels.

Newman dragged out his pseudonymous buddy one more time, this time for a book that wasn't licensed at all. Orgy of the Blood Parasites not only has one of the best titles ever, but is an effective post-splatterpunk story. Like Bentley Little's University (written right around the same time), it's the story of a campus that's torn apart by a great evil. In this case, an act of environmental sabotage gone wrong (something also used in this summer's 28 Days Later, of course) leads to a mutating virus that warps the minds and bodies of students and faculty. Newman embraces a few cliches (is anyone surprised that the military get called in, or that there are scientists on campus doing Bad Things?), of course, but he takes the plot in new directions, letting the virus gain sentience and intelligence as it devastates the campus. It's a silly, fun little novel, unfortunately out of print, but easy enough to find used.

Okay, so Newman's alter-ego isn't exactly high literature, even within the genre. But he's published some wonderful literary junk food, and as junk food goes, there's little better than these books.