In the introduction to his 2017 collection Heroes and Villains, Lewis Shiner points out that the best length for purely entertaining fiction, whether it be horror, action, spy thriller, etc., is the novella. And I have to agree. If you want to relax after a long day and just escape for an hour or two into a complete story that does not tax the brain, a novella can really hit the spot. Putting his money where his mouth is, Heroes and Villains (2017, Subterranean Press) features three novellas previously published in Subterranean magazine, as well as one original short story. Representing the more genre-heavy side of Shiner’s fiction, it is a relaxing, escapist collection.
Like the film Valkyrie but with a Houdini twist, “The Black Sun” tells of a group of stage magicians who hatch a plot to take down Hitler. Playing with the Fuhrer’s belief in the magical, destructive potential for the Spear of Destiny, the group devise an intricate plan, complete with ‘stage effects’. Near misses abound setting up their plan, when the big day comes all their cards are on the table. The time and place of Hitler’s real death a historical fact, from the outset the group’s goal would seem to be a failure—or the set up for an alternate history. Surprisingly, Shiner takes a third option. To say more would naturally spoil matters, but at least I can say the build up is resolved in organic fashion. The story backdrop probably could have been expanded a touch (there is a bit of character and setting detail missing, details that normally give a story that full feeling), but the build up and climax make it worthwhile.
Playing off a riff that many people believe is a proverbial reality, “The Next” tells of vampire lawyers and their plot to takeover LA. Not your standard vampires, Shiner’s live off carbon monoxide and are not susceptible to garlic, sunshine, or crosses. But they do drink blood (vampires, natch). Blood drinking likewise their reproduction method, in the story they are bent on multiplying as quietly and fast as possible through murderous means. Enter defense attorney Tom Davis. Tasked with defending a murder suspect who turns out to be a bit crazy, Davis finds himself sucked into (har har) the vampires’ plans in ways he’d rather avoid. Originally written as a screenplay before being converted to novella form, “The Next” has a strong ‘80s Hollywood feel to it. (The screenplay can be read here on Shiner’s site, but the novella-ized version is significantly stronger.)
Despite the fact the title gives it all away, it’s still a surprise to learn that “Doglandia” is a story from dogs’ point of view and the small urban wasteland ‘kingdom’ they form. Forced to form in fact the correct description, the stray mongrels are come upon one day by a big Doberman named Bruno and organized by him under the header “No Cats Allowed Club”. The area’s stray cats catching wind, one feline gets the bright idea to infiltrate and expose the club for what it’s really worth. A shorter, much simpler version of Watership Down, Shiner demonstrates how easily Otherness can be perceived, then enforced in this light-hearted drama.
The best saved for last, “Doctor Helios” is a classic spy thriller in the flavor of early James Bond films. Set in Egypt, John York has been sent by the CIA with a suitcase full of cash on a top secret mission. Meeting the lovely stewardess Melody on the flight, he romances her before getting down to the business of maintaining US interests in a region undergoing political upheaval. The ongoing construction of the Aswana Dam on the Nile a point of contention among the various factions, York tries to infiltrate the local underground to get help in blowing the massive project up. But meeting the mysterious Dr. Helios puts a spin on York’s plans… Shiner effectively capturing an early technicolor, noir mood, “Doctor Helios” is a smooth, page-turning read that closes the collection in satisfying fashion.
In the end, Heroes and Villains does not represent the more ambitious side of Shiner’s fiction, but it is not intended to. The three novellas and one short story are filled out in accessible, entertaining form and feature several classic tropes of genre fiction—vampires, magicians, sentient dogs, and international spies, an idea captured nicely in the collection’s title. Good for the bedside table for that one or two hours of reading before nodding off for the day…
The following are the three novellas and one short story collected in Heroes and Villains:
The Black Sun