Book Review: Three Books from Stark House Press
Stark House Press’s recent releases include both new fiction and rereleases of classic works. The following three books provide widely different plots and themes, but all are worth a look.
The Thing Beyond Reason/Echo of a Careless Voice/Blotted Out is a collection of three novellas by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, a prolific author from the early and mid-twentieth century whose works have unfortunately faded from the public consciousness. Stark House is now bringing them back. The biographical essay by Curtis Evans at the start of the book gives a really interesting look at her life and why Holding wrote so prodigiously (to survive economically). Many of her works are crime stories, others are romances, and the novellas featured here are a blend of the two.
Of the three, I found The Thing Beyond Reason to be the best by far. Echo was a bit more of a story about relationships and dysfunction, and Blotted Outhas an intriguing “stranger in a strange land” premise that doesn’t quite pay off, but they’re clearly the work of a talented writer. The Thing Beyond Reason is the story of a young woman working for a wealthy family. When the teenaged girl in her charge vanishes, the protagonist’s employer is determined to hush up a scandal, and refuses to look into the matter. The protagonist is convinced that a serious crime has occurred, and defying her employer’s wishes and potentially endangering her future career, her investigation leads to desperate men in love, a creepy doctor, and a mysterious plot. A lot of the plot tropes have been done before and better, but it’s a very fun read that keeps the pages turning.
Straight Dope, by Tommy Swerdlow, is the story of a Hollywood screenwriter who had some success a couple of decades ago, and since then, has wrestled with drug addiction and is desperate for another attempt to make it big in the film industry. Anybody with a passing acquaintance with the “Hollywood is a Hellhole” subgenre will be familiar with all of the plot points, ranging from the phoniness of movie studio executives, the constant lying and self-promoting, and the endless betrayals and unending shallowness. It’s familiar ground, but Swerdlow manages to make these tropes interesting and even compelling. In a poor Hollywood satire, we know from the outset the studio executive is a sleazy liar and we feel nothing when he doesn’t keep his word. In Swerdlow’s tale, when a Hollywood scumball breaks a promise, we’re angered by that character’s lack of honor. The emotional connection is what raises the quality of the story.
As the central character is tasked with tracking down a valuable object, all the while trying to mount a comeback as a screenwriter, he continues to battle drug addiction, as well as help a fellow addict. The raw, visceral nature of his struggle to maintain his sobriety and to raise a friend out of the Tartarus of addiction turn Straight Dope into more than just a Hollywood satire or a bitter film industry farce. It’s a comic tragedy where the stakes are more than just human lives, but human souls as well.
Arguably the most fun of the three books reviewed here is O.J. Knife, by John Gibson. In this comedic novel set in the mid-1990’s, a fictionalized free-for-all centers around the titular object. When a couple of airport workers witness a famous retired football player leaving a piece of luggage behind, they retrieve it, hoping to receive an autograph as thanks. When they open it, they discover a bloodstained murder weapon, and they’re not sure what to do with it. As news of their grisly discovery leaks out, the football player’s lawyers seek to get ahold of the incriminating object, but so does a local drug dealer who seeks to parlay the weapon into a sweet plea deal, and a local branch of an organized crime organization seeks the knife for its own purposes. Meanwhile, a twice-divorced news reporter with a chaotic private life searches for the weapon to turn it into the story of a lifetime.
It should be stressed that this is a purely fictional story inspired by true events. Notably, the names of the defense lawyers who appear in the story have been changed (though anybody with ten seconds of knowledge regarding the O.J. case knows who they’re supposed to be), possibly because they’re violating numerous codes of ethics. There are a bunch of terrific comic characters, though at times it seems that the novel’s mounting body count eliminates characters before their full comedic potential has been achieved. The ending is a bit predictable when you think about real-life events, it’s a wackily endearing tale, though the real-life saga turned out to be far more twisty than any self-aware work of fiction could be.
With luck, Stark House Press will bring back more of Holding’s work, and Gibson and Swerdlow will turn these novels into series.
By John Gibson
Stark House Press
By Tommy Swerdlow
Stark House Press
The Thing Beyond Reason/Echo of a Careless Voice/Blotted Out
By Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, Introduction by Curtis Evans
Stark House Press