The Crimson Pact by Paul Genesse, editor
Published by Alliteration Ink Publications
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
Once upon a time it was easy to write novels of heroic warfare against monstrous enemies. Pick your enemy from any of a multitude of exotic foreign peoples and nobody questioned whether they were indeed Up To No Good and therefore such a threat to Civilization that our doughty heroes were justified in wiping out vast multitudes of them in every battle, accepting no quarter, taking no prisoners. But in these more enlightened times, such an approach has become unacceptable. Even such treatment of nonhuman species such as Tolkien's orcs have become suspect, (although Tolkien himself became uncomfortable in his later days about the epistomology of a people who are evil by nature). George Lucas got around the problem in the Star Wars prequel trilogy by having the enemy armies be of artificial creation, first robots and then clones, that were Made That Way.
The editors of this anthology hit upon the idea of demons as the group of villains for a shared-world anthology. Supernatural entities can be irredeemably evil without raising cries of racism from the guardians of political correctness. After all, there are plenty mythologies and faith traditions which describe demons as being specifically created as agents of cosmic evil, or as immortal created beings which made a willful choice to embrace evil.
The first story in this volume is "The Failed Crusade," in which editor Paul Genesse and co-author Patrick M. Tracy set forth the story of how the Demons of Rusted Vale escaped the world of their origins to spread across the multiverse. Like so many epics, it begins with noble intentions. Our protagonist is a military man, one of the few senior survivors of the Crimson Pact, an organization vowed to battle Evil, which had taken embodied form as the Demons of Rusted Vale.
Except the battle which was supposed to secure the final victory of Good instead turned into disaster. Before it was over, the greater part of these noble fighters were dead, with not even bodies left to bury. An effort to summon the spirit of one slain officer reveals hints that they have been betrayed, that their efforts have been turned against themselves.
And then they capture a lesser demon, which they torture for answers. The vile creature shows no remorse for the abominations it has committed and regrets only that it should have been left behind by the more powerful of its kind as a rearguard and thus be captured by those who have the power to destroy it.
Once they have learned from this creature the true nature of the demons' plan, our hero and his inner circle decide that their honor and the terms of their oath demand that they carry their battle into the multiverse, across an infinity of lives and worlds, until they have tracked down every one of the vile creatures they loosed, or until their very spirits are worn down to nothing and extinguished altogether.
In the next story, Donald J Bingle's "Solitary Life," we start with a puzzle. A new chief jailer has taken over the king's jails and, being an honest man, has resolved to put an end to the corruption that has prevailed among the guards. They're in the habit of concealing the deaths of prisoners in order to gain additional food for themselves or to sell the rations. But here we have a cell which has been sealed shut from within from time out of mind. Something is moving within it, which only increases the mystery.
Determined to have answers, our protagonist orders the door to be forced open. Within he finds a man who tells him a bizarre story of crossing between worlds in pursuit of a shard of pure evil. He's a holy man with powers of purification and healing which have enabled him to stay alive for centuries, imprisoning the shard of evil within his own body. But his methods work only so long as the barrier of blood he's created over every surface is maintained -- and now our protagonist has broken it. The ending is reminiscent of some of the best of H. P. Lovecraft, as our protagonist realizes just how terrible an evil he has loosed upon his world, and what it means.
Chante McCoyls "Inside Monastic Walls" brings us back to Earth, to a Greek Orthodox monastery and a young aspirant's encounter with evil. Like many flash fiction pieces, it gives us but a glimpse of a situation, and leaves us with as many questions as it answers.
Lester Smith's "Brother's Keeper" is a first-person story of a man who discovered his brother was having dealings with demons, and did mortal combat with him to ensure the evil would carry no further. It's interesting to see how the ending uses the first-person narrative to particularly horrific effect, reminding us that there is indeed an audience present within the story.
In "Stained With Nightmare Juice" Isaac Bell gives us a story of hat happens when a guardian's spirit is stretched too far, when he's seen too many terrible things and can't go on. And then terrible things begin to happen and this man who appears to be nothing more than a worn-out old street person must summon up new wellsprings of resolution and fight the good fight.
Jess Hartley's "To Duty Sworn" tells the story of a woman religious, one of the few women admitted into the Noble Order known as the Brotherhood of Saint Hubert or the Hounds of God. Her public profession of vows is accompanied by a second loyalty, this one to the mysterious Crimson Pact. From time to time she receives a directive to take a very specific action, always delivered in an envelope with a crimson seal. Most of them have been opaque in their intent, but her latest is simple and straightforward -- to kill a man and destroy all his works.
Except that he is one of the most noble and heroic members of their Order's number. So she wants to know what should have led to such a condemnation. Her interview with him and examination of his works raise even more questions, especially when taken in the light of the first story in this anthology. Has the Brotherhood also been compromised, turned to other ends, even those of their sworn enemies? The story ends in the best Lady and the Tiger tradition, and I'd really like to see more of this character and world.
Sarah Kanning's "Hidden Collections" takes us to a contemporary academic library and a young woman who's beginning a job in their special collections. When she finds a strange book, an ugly little volume that moves on its own, she's drawn into a hidden world of ancient conspiracies and magic that really works. The idea of secret books of ancient evil makes me think of H P Lovecraft's Miskatonic University and the ancient volumes of eldritch lore hidden away in its stacks, which played such an important role in "The Dunwich Horror."
In "The Inquest" Barbara J. Webb gives us the story of a young seminarian who's a member or a modern Knights Templar, and who's seen evidence of some very strange goings-on. Several times he's participated in these investigations of other Templars, but now he's the one on trial, having to relive the horrific events that led to the death of his mentor, Father Alvarez.
I really liked this story for its sudden and surprising reversal, in which the protagonists realize that no, the young woman isn't a helpless victim, but another kind of warrior in the same war they're fighting. And thanks to their charging in to her rescue, that plan has been ruined and they're going to have a much worse battle ahead of them.
Richard Lee Byers gives us "The Things That Crawl," a story that plays upon people's fear of snakes. Set during Hurricane Frances, which hit Florida in 2004, it starts with inexplicable mass attacks by snakes on elderly women. Yes, disruptions in a local ecology can upset animals' normal behavior patterns, but no, snakes don't have enough brain function to make a coordinated attack. Something has to be driving them, and the investigation turns to a suspected serial killer who was left paralyzed after a motorcycle accident. He has a collection of ancient and esoteric texts of the sort one might expect to find in the closed stacks of the library H P Lovecraft's Miskatonic University. He makes light of it, claiming it's no more than idle fooling around. However, the protagonist knows that sociopathic serial killers often enjoy taunting the cops, and wonders if there's some real occult power here. And then his enemy ups the ante with a massed alligator attack.
In his battle, our protagonist attracts the attention of a shadowy organization that opposes such evil-workers. And thus he finds a new job, and the story ends with a hint of more to come. This is another story that definitely leaves me wanting more.
In "Monsters under the Bed" Patrick S. Tomlinson draws on one of the most familiar childhood fears, of the strange sounds in one's darkened bedroom. Except in the world of this story, paranormal phenomena are an objectively verified phenomenon, and our first-person protagonist is a paranormal investigator with the police. When she's called to a grisly murder in a trailer park, the clues point to something supernatural, but no familiar creature fits. Then she discovers that a little girl should be in that trailer but is nowhere to be found. The search for her will reveal some troubling information, and the ending leaves plenty of room for more stories about the characters.
In "Sins of the Fathers" Kathy Watness gives us an extraordinary couple who once were fantastical beings but have given that up to become mortal, albeit with extraordinary powers. Something terrible is afoot in the forest where they're the sworn guardians, and even their remaining abilities may not be enough to protect them.
Gloria Weber's "Crimson Mail" is a brief and rather puzzling flash fiction piece about a woman who has a relationship with a man who periodically receives mysterious letters, right about the time that disasters strike. At the beginning it appears that he's died, but in the final scene he's still alive, just under some kind of invisibility field, and together they work some kind of magic that saves a city. I think this story would've benefitted from being expanded to give more room for development, because I was confused the first time or two I read it.
In "Cherry Picking" Rebecca L. Brown gives us another flash piece that offers just a glimpse into a world I would've liked to have seen developed further. We have a sinister femme fatale who's distributing crimson pills for some nefarious purpose that's never explained, and a man who steals the bag and destroys them. But instead of feeling complete, the ending leaves me saying, "OK, what happens next?"
T. S. Rhodes gives us "Chicago's Finest," the story of a Chicago cop who finds one of the local troublemakers freaking out, carrying on about monsters and demons. She assumes he's just having a bad drug trip, until she encounters a mysterious man who claims to be a demon-hunter with peculiar supernatural powers. I'd really like to see some more stories about these characters.
In "The Transition," Justin Swapp gives a brief encounter with a man who becomes host for a multitude of spirits of fallen crusaders who fight on, bound by the Crimson Pact. Yet again I feel the flash fiction format too limiting for the idea and wish the author could've developed it more fully.
Garrett J. Piglia's "Brotherhood: Fall of New York" gives us an alternate history in which World War II has gone terribly wrong and American forces are now fighting inhuman nasties known as Gorgos in the streets of New York. Our protagonists are on a desperate quest to retrieve documents related to the Manhattan Project, materials that may be critical to the war effort, even if it's just to make sure the Gorgos gain nothing of use if America's rearguard efforts fail.
This story's interesting because we the readers know more about a key piece of the story than the narrator does. It's a very tricky technique because it can make the reader look down on the narrator, and thus lose sympathy for the character. However, the sheer physical courage of the protagonist, and the fact that he's a little guy being drawn into things far larger than himself (after all, the Manhattan Project was so super secret that even its name was intended to divert attention), that I think most readers will see his ignorance of what he's handling as protective (what you don't know, you can't let slip) rather than ironic or weak.
In "Frankie's Girl" Kelly Swales takes us to Prohibition-era Chicago and the life of a powerful gangster's mistress. She's living well, until the day she discovers her boyfriend is not in fact human. Now she's in danger for her life, as he seeks to ensure her silence. But she discovers a secret weapon, and in the process the faith she'd left behind in the search for worldly pleasures.
Daniel Myers gives us "The Shell of a Man," the story of the assistant to a seemingly successful but perpetually drunk private detective. When our protagonist decides to take a case himself, he thinks it's an ordinary matter of adultery. He soon discovers there's a lot going on that he never suspected. It's an interesting twist on the hardboiled detective genre.
In "An Ideal Vessel" Sarah Hans takes us to the Columbian Exposition, giving it a little steampunkish twist with the automata of Professor Campion, which seem to be a Gilded Age version of the animatronic puppets so popular at Disneyland and similar theme parks around the world. The Russian immigrant cleaning woman Zuzanna is fascinated by them, and when one of them begins to move of its own accord, she overcomes her fear to learn that it is in fact being animated by an ancient spirit on a quest to fulfill a holy oath. Together the women, organic and mechanical, confront a demon who's set up a nasty torture dungeon under the Exposition.
Elaine Blose goes full-bore steampunk with "Love, Gangsters, and Demons," the story of Cecilia and her mechanical companions, Lily the automaton and Ashes the fox stole. When she receives a letter from Harlen Wentworth, notorious crime boss, she is determined to have nothing to do with him. But he knows her secret -- and he has a few of his own. Being a mob boss is in fact a false front, and in fact he spends most of his time fighting demons. The last time he enlisted Cecilia in those battles, it drove her insane. Although she was able to battle her way back, she fears that the next time it will break her mind for good. But this time Wentworth has identified one of the leaders of the demons, and hopes that by removing this key individual he can destroy them all.
"Bull King" is an extract from Larry Correia's novel Hard Magic rewritten to better fit into the Crimson Pact universe. Because I haven't read the original, I can't say how well the reimagined elements work compared to the original. This sort of thing is always a tricky proposition. Sometimes a writer can reframe a story to fit into a shared-world anthology and have it remain true to the original, and sometimes it feels like a bad squeeze.
EA Younker's "Run" is the story of a young couple fleeing a city being overrun by hostile war robots. And then comes the point at which they can run no more.
"Plastic" by Craig Nybo is the story of a case of mistaken identity in a world where everyone and everything is monitored and tracked. The protagonist, a factory worker who paints subversive artwork in his spare time, is visited by an Enforcer who persistently calls him by another man's name and accuses him of wrongly using his own credit card. It's one of the few flash pieces that really works well, and the bureaucratic insanity of it makes me think of the movie Brazil.
Patrick M. Tracy's "Red Test" is the story of the rite of passage by which the protagonist is admitted into a demon-killing squad. It works as a sketch, better than some of the flash fiction in this volume, but I still think it suffers from the limited length and I'd like to see more development of the characters, especially if they become recurring characters.
"Withered Tree" by Suzzane Myers takes us to a ruined world where the survivors eke out an existence amid the ruins, harried by demonic creatures known as Dogtribe that feed on fear. The story ends with a glimmer of hope that perhaps a bit of Good has survived in the world and it will be possible once again to build, rather than just run and fight an endless rearguard action.
The final story, "Of the Breaking of Stars" by Chris Pierson, is to my mind the very best of them all. Written in the form of a diary being translated by a scholar of a much later era, it is the story of an Incogitor, a sort of scientist or natural philosopher in a time in which science, magic, and religion are still heavily intertwined and religious authorities fear the loss of their power if the literal truth of certain narratives is questioned. But it's not simply a rehash of our own ancient or medieval world, for there are ample hints that this world is structured in ways fundamentally different from our own.
For instance, when our protagonist comments about knowing that the moon reflects the light of the sun rather than producing its own light, we assume that when he mentions stars dying, he must be referring to meteors or some other astronomical phenomena often mistaken for true stars by pre-scientific peoples. But then he names a particular star in an important constellation as having died, and the glass from it raining down upon his holding, and suddenly we're groping for understanding. Are some of the lights in their night sky in fact artificial satellites of some sort that can be destroyed with some kind of ASAT weapon that's mistaken for magic by a pre-industrial people? The heat of the glass could certainly be explained by the processes of re-entry -- but what kind of orbit would enable constellations of satellites to remain in fixed positions relative to one another and to the ground, such that they could appear like patterns of real stars in the sky?
Or is this perhaps a bubble universe of some sort, where the sky really is a roof over the land and the stars are crystalline lamps hung from it, that can be shattered by far less sophisticated means? But if that were the case, the sun and moon would therefore be vessels drawn across the sky by some mechanism (similar to the primitive cosmology we see in the First Age in Tolkien's Silmarillion), which makes puzzling the protagonist's pride in knowing that the moon shines by reflected sunlight, if the moon isn't another world on which one could land and walk, collect rocks and maybe even whack a few golf balls.
However, given that the story is the record of a man's quest for truth, we can forgive his incomplete understanding of how his world works. He's doing the best with the data he has, and most of it concerns the rains of glass, so different from the ordinary sort with which he's familiar. And the Ektur.
It's an extraordinary device of the Jindites, a wandering people skilled in craftsmanship. It resembles a statue, but is jointed in a cunning fashion and if watersilver is poured into its eye aperatures, it proves to be more akin to a golem or automaton. The watersilver is pretty clearly the element we know as mercury, which is interesting because mercury is not only important in mystical and alchemical traditions, but also has electrical properties that made it important in early computing -- the Hollerith Tabulator used mercury switches, and many early computers used mercury delay lines for data storage. Once again we're struck by the tension between the hints of familiar sciences being discovered under different terms and hints of a world working under very different physical laws.
But the real meat of the story is our protagonist's quest to discover the reason behind the destruction of so many stars, which has been identified by the spirit inhabiting the Ektur as being the work of an ancient enemy, a monster he'd thought to be naught but a fairy tale.
I'll warn everybody right up front that we don't get a grand battle at the end. Instead, the final confrontation happens offstage, its outcome only suggested by the translator's final note, which also indicates that centuries have passed since those events and that the bad guys were beaten in the end, but the night sky remains dark and without stars.
After that dramatic and somewhat mindbending story,the volume is concluded by the statements of the editor and the publisher. It's interesting to see how this anthology developed from concept and seed novella to a finished product, and how various twists of fate nearly kept it from being published at all.
Table of Contents
- "The Failed Crusade" by Paul Genesse and Patrick M. Tracy
- "Solitary Life" by Donald J Bingle
- "Inside Monastic Walls" by Chante McCoy
- "Brother's Keeper" by Lester Smith
- "Stained With Nightmare Juice" by Isaac Bell
- "To Duty Sworn" by Jess Hartley
- "Hidden Collection" by Sarah Kanning
- "Inquest" by Barbara J. Webb
- "The Things that Crawl" by Richard Lee Byers
- "Monsters Under the Bed" by Patrick S. Tomlinson
- "Sins of the Fathers" by Kathy Watness
- "Crimson Mail" by Gloria Weber
- "Cherry Picking" by Rebecca L. Brown
- "Chicago's Finest" by T. S. Rhodes
- "The Transition" by Justin Swapp
- "Brotherhood Fall of New York" by Garrett Piglia
- "Frankie's Girl" by Kelly Swails
- "Shell of a Man" by Daniel Myers
- "An Ideal Vessel" by Sarah Hans
- "Love, Gangsters, and Demons" by Elaine Blose
- "Bull King" by Larry Correia
- "Run" by EA Younker
- "Plastic" by Craig Nybo
- "Red Test" by Patrick M. Tracy
- "Withered Tree" by Suzzanne Myers
- "Of the Breaking of Stars" by Chris Pierson
- Editor's Note by Paul Genesse
- Publisherls Note by Steven Saus
Review posted July 24, 2012
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