Vampires. They're everywhere: Among the mist-shrouded firs of the Upper Northwest, Twilight's Nosferatus glitter and glower and fetchingly pout, as if the whole dark-gift-of-life-everlasting thing came with a modeling contract. The sleepy bayous of True Blood are lousy with bloodsuckers whining about their tormented existence in accents thick as roux. Meanwhile, the overheated and impeccably cheekboned undead chronicled in The Vampire Diaries keep turning love triangles into overwrought guilt trapezoids.
Face it; you're kind of over all that self-serious, gothy melodrama, no? This summer, might you not seek out fare that delivers dangerous thrills and uncanny chills without forcing you to endure still another scene in which the heroine's getting a paper cut passes for narrative tension? The books below have got you covered. They feature gods, monsters, aliens, mutants, pulsating brains, sword-canes, dirigibles and derring-do. They're enlivened, every one, by wit and wordplay, not more pale, bloodless introspection. Which is to say: They're fun.
Kraken, by China Mieville, hardcover, 509 pages, Del Ray, list price: $26
Things start to go downhill for Billy Harrow as soon as his giant squid turns up missing. Someone, somehow, has managed to steal his perfectly preserved 25-foot-long Architeuthis specimen from London's Natural History Museum, an act that draws the hapless cephalopod expert (hee) into an urban underworld of death cults, dark magic and a criminal, mollusk-worshipping conspiracy that may be trying to bring about The End of All Things. That summary might lead you to think that Kraken's just another plot-driven exercise in 1) tortuous exposition and 2) running around a lot, a la The Da Vinci Code. But fans of British fantasist Mieville's previous books know that he's careful to couch his Big Ideas in rich, haunting, frequently playful language. As the repercussions of the "squidnapping" (I did warn you) play out, and Billy explores the magical London behind and beneath the London we know, the reader will be reminded, often, of Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere. Though the two books share several conceits, Mieville's voice is distinctly his own, and it will keep you devouring the pages of this lovingly crafted Lovecraftian epic. (In Chapter 1, Billy Harrow leads us on a tour of the darkened hallways, flesh-eating bugs and humongous mollusks of the Darwin Centre.)
Go, Mutants! by Larry Doyle, hardcover, 368 pages, Ecco Press, list price: $23.99
Larry Doyle, who captured the heartaches of high school so mercilessly, and yet so sweetly, in I Love You, Beth Cooper, revisits that ripe subject with Go, Mutants! This time out, his lens is colored by all manner of '50s sci-fi effluvia: Young rebel J!m, son of a would-be alien conqueror, is shunned by his Earth schoolmates owing to his throbbing cranium and blue, oily skin (the result of a recent molting). Only his childhood sweetheart, Marie, accepts him, but she's just started to date J!m's most hated enemy. Meanwhile, J!m's beginning to suspect that the U.S. government hasn't told the whole truth about his late father. Go, Mutants! is a fast, frenetic read crammed to the nictitating membranes with fun-to-spot references to classic science-fiction films. Dizzily high-concept it may be, but Doyle knows what he's doing with his central metaphor: By putting the alien in alienation, Go Mutants! hits on something true about the loneliness -- and the creeping terror -- that is adolescence. (In this excerpt, it's just "another day, another dolor ... on planet Earth" for J!m Anderson -- despite his 10-inch forehead, bulging brains and "delicate respiratory slits.")
Paul is Undead: The British Zombie Invasion
Paul is Undead: The British Zombie Invasion, by Alan Goldsher, paperpack, 288 pages, Gallery Books, list price: $15
Let's be honest: Author/bassist Alan Goldsher's Paul is Undead, in which a certain quartet of adorable Liverpudlian mop-tops conquers the world through music and brain-sucking, is a one-joke book. The thing is, it's not a bad joke, and by structuring the novel as an oral history told from multiple perspectives –- spoofing a technique that worked to memorable effect in Max Brooks' World War Z, still the Cadillac of zombie apocalypse chronicles -- Goldsher finds a way to imbue his broad, over-the-top, gleefully gore-flecked horror with something like nuance. In-jokes for music geeks abound, including cameos by a zombie hunter Mick Jagger, a ninja Yoko Ono, the ghost of Ed Sullivan and a Maharishi Mahesh Yogi who doesn't deserve the grisly fate he's dealt. Goldsher's certainly done his homework, dutifully reproducing every milestone of the Beatles' career and dousing them all in gouts of black blood. The book's gag-per-minute pace ensures that not all of the jokes work, but this is only fitting -- if there's one thing any book about the walking dead demands, it's a few good groaners. (In his preface, writer Alan Goldsher recounts Howard Cosell's breaking-news announcement that, tragically, John Lennon "was chopped twice on top of his spine, then rushed to an undisclosed location, where his skull was reattached and he was reanimated for the 263rd time.")
Johannes Cabal The Detective
Johannes Cabal the Detective, by Jonathan L. Howard, hardcover, 304 pages, list price: $25 (July 13)
"Zombies are so passe," sniffs the titular Johannes Cabal, and he knows whereof he speaks. The dour, stiff-necked antihero of Jonathan L. Howard's witty steampunk series is himself no punk: Cabal's fashion sense is au courant, his intellect sharp, his powers of observation acute. He's also, not for nothing, a necromancer. The second book of the series (the first, Johannes Cabal the Necromancer, appeared last year) finds Cabal fleeing a central European prison and traveling incognito aboard a luxury airship. It doesn't take long for a series of murders to get Cabal up to his old tricks (said tricks being dark, unspeakable rites that raise the dead in defiance of the laws of God and man). You needn't have read the first book to enjoy Howard's latest pulpy adventure, but odds are, once you've experienced the author's dryly funny, dexterous prose -- and seen how well it breathes life (as it were) into his unapologetically amoral main character, you'll want to seek it out. (In this excerpt, Johannes Cabal sits in the cat-infested dungeon of Harslaus Castle, patiently awaiting his execution -- in the very first chapter of the book.)
Stories: All-New Tales
Stories: All-New Tales, edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio, hardcover, 432 pages, William Morrow, list price: $27.99
This collection contains 27 new stories from writers like Stewart O'Nan, Chuck Palahniuk, Carolyn Parkhurst, Roddy Doyle, Walter Mosley, Jodi Picoult and many others not known for their fantasy work, at least not as the term's currently defined by publishers. And that, according to anthologists Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio, is the whole point. They offer up the book to argue that "imaginative fiction" can and should be a big tent, encompassing a great deal more than dungeons, dragons, swords and sorcery. All of these stories involve the uncanny, but they do so in appealingly diverse ways.
Some, like "Fossil-Figures," Joyce Carol Oates' lyrical tale of brotherly love (and hate), and O'Nan's true-crime "Land of the Lost," brush only lightly against the otherworldly. Others, like Gene Wolf's lonely outer space creeper "Leif in the Wind," jump feet-first into the turbid waters of genre only to emerge ... somewhere else.
Anthologies are, by their nature, mixed bags. Here it comes down to confidence and restraint: Where writers like Gaiman and Peter Straub, who've walked the dark forest of the imagination for years now, know how to deftly assert a given reality so that we never question its integrity, other stories in Stories insist so strongly on their own rules that the spell breaks. But long after the relative merits or faults of the individual tales fade, what lingers with the reader is the collection's cumulative effect: a renewed sense of openness, of endless possibility -- and that, Gaiman notes in his introduction, is why we tell ourselves stories in the first place. (Read "The Devil On the Staircase," Joe Hill's story about a bricklayer's son who discovers a flight of "crooked" stairs that he thinks goes "way down to the sea." No, his father cautions ominously, "They go farther than that.")