Playing Favorites

I don’t have one favorite author. And at any given moment, I might give a different answer if pushed to pick one. In the world of film and popular music, I have no problem playing favorites. Casablanca has been my favorite film since I first saw it 55+ or so years ago. I never get tired of watching anything with Humphrey Bogart in it. Same with music. Brian Wilson has been #1 for me since I first heard the Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ U.S.A.” come blasting out of my radio back in 1963. The Beatles come a close second, right up there with Frank Zappa. They all took music in a different direction, and I was happy to follow.

But writers, now, they’re a slippery breed. You can have a favorite author at one point, and then a few years later, you realize you’ve lost all interest in them. You’ve got all their books, but can’t imagine reading one of them. Fond memories prompt you to mention them when someone asks, but you are plucking the strings of auld lang syne more than being honest about your feelings when you call them a favorite.

I feel that way about a lot of my teenage favorites: Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard both come to mind. I love those guys….but when did I last read one of their books? Way too long ago. I also read a lot of Jules Verne when I was a kid, too. And I’m sure I’d find joy in all three of these authors if I read them now. But favorites? Maybe not so much anymore….

You might think that my favorite writers would all be Stark House books. But, in fact, my three favorites are Ernest Hemingway, Philip K. Dick and Jonathan Carroll. Hemingway for the precision of his writing, the way he could create an emotion with dialogue alone, the leanness of his prose. I love Phil Dick for his crazy-ass ideas. His books always take me somewhere new, and get me to look at the world in a different way. And Carroll, well, I love his books just for the pure magic of them.

Throughout my life, I’ve latched on to a lot of favorite authors whom I’ve read and collected with a fervor like that of a junkie searching for his fix. Authors like Robert Silverberg, Barry N. Malzberg, Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, Jim Thompson, David Goodis, Margaret Millar, Emile Zola, F. Scott Fitzgerald, W. Somerset Maugham, Aldous Huxley, Anthony Burgess, Stephen King, Robert McCammon, Michael Moorcock, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Ursula K. LeGuin, Neil Gaiman, Dashiell Hammett, H. Rider Haggard, Sax Rohmer, Sinclair Lewis, Algernon Blackwood, Kim Stanley Robinson, Graham Joyce, H. G. Wells, Storm Constantine, L. Frank Baum….

The list could go on and on. How do you pick a favorite among such heady company? And this is the short list. It’s rather slanted toward male authors, most of them American or European. I admit it, I need to branch out more. I read a lot of Russian literature in college—Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy come to mind—but that was years ago. I have yet to read many of the Indian, Japanese, Caribbean or Latin authors. There aren’t a lot of modern authors on the list either.

And, really, I don’t know what any of this has to do with Stark House except to give you an idea of where I’m coming from as a publisher. Nobody asked me who my favorite authors are. But, hell, nobody asked me to start a publishing company either, and I didn’t let that stop me….

—Greg Shepard
Stark House Press

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Fell the Angels

Chicago, Illinois. Present day.

The man grinned as he ran. He skipped lightly over a patch of ice, overbalanced, and turned his stumble into a theatrical flip that landed him squarely on the steel fire escape. He was a selkie and his name, when he bothered to answer to one, was Luka.
Abby Marquise hitched her purse higher onto her shoulder as she dodged around the ice Luka had jumped. Sweat trickled down her forehead and clung to loose strands of dark-blonde hair. Shapeshifters were never easy to handle, but this one had more energy than most. The shoulder holster under her parka was rubbing her side raw.
“Get back here!” she panted, but the selkie just thumbed his nose at Abby and galloped down the fire escape. She reached the top just as he reached bottom. As she clung to the metal railing, trying to find steady footing for the descent, he smiled up at her and tapped one foot.
Abby tried not to swear, but it was a near thing. She clambered awkwardly down the fire escape as Luka took off again.
At least he was doing her the courtesy of letting her keep up. Most fairies could easily outdistance a human, but Luka had already killed two women in his personal quest for fun, so perhaps he was enjoying this variation on his usual game. He might have a plan, or he might not. Whatever happened in the next few minutes, Abby would have to catch him.
She didn’t want to. There were other agents better-equipped to handle a takedown, but unless her luck changed they wouldn’t be there in time. Of course this had to happen today of all days.
Luka cut left and bolted across the street, ignoring the honking car horns and shouts of passersby. Another patch of ice sent him skidding, giving Abby a few precious seconds to close the gap, but her hand barely brushed his sleeve before he twisted neatly out of the way and bolted. “No touching!” he sang out.
They streaked past the adobe-colored structure of the local clinic, following the straight line of Western Avenue. Abby’s lungs burned with the cold air and her heart felt ready to burst. Luka just laughed and somehow accelerated.
There was a definite course to his run now. He veered off the central course of Western Avenue and streaked across the snow of an empty lot, heading towards the park across the street. He was about a hundred feet ahead, but Abby could see him stoop low and snatch something out of a snowdrift. Then he was off, but more slowly this time, struggling to unwrap heavy PVC sheeting from a small package as he ran.
Abby slowed a little as well and fumbled her cell phone out of her pocket. “He’s got something,” she panted. “Think it’s his skin. Off Addison, heading down to the river.”
“Hang on,” said the voice of Adam Starczynski. “John and Dummy are three blocks behind you. If you grab the skin you can control him, but if he hits the water—”
“I know,” she said and ended the call. Sucking in as deep a breath as she could manage, she swiped sweat out of her eyes and pushed forward.
The park sloped gently for the length of a soccer field before making an abrupt plunge into the gravel-edged shallows of the Chicago River. It was one of the best places for foot access to the river: the banks for miles around were steep and lined with trees, condos, concrete barriers and private docks. A small service offered canoe and kayak rentals for an hourly fee, but it was closed for the season.
The selkie plunged into the shallows and pulled his white sealskin over his head. A moment later, a snowy seal with golden eyes was thrashing its way into deeper water. It raised its flipper in a jaunty salute as Abby stumbled to a halt on the bank.
She had to do something. She should draw her pistol, shoot him dead in the water, but her hands were trembling with exhaustion and she could hardly see through the haze blurring her vision. She could only bend over, panting for air.
But something seemed to be wrong with Luka’s getaway plan. The seal flopped backwards in the water and wrinkled its nose. It sneezed. Spluttered. Its eyes instinctively squeezed shut, and its whole body convulsed as it tried to clap its flippers over its face. Its alarmed bark turned into bubbles in the greasy water and startled a seagull perched on a nearby chunk of ice.
With a wounded yelp, the seal thrashed its tail and sped towards the shore as fast as it could. When it crawled up onto the bank, some twenty yards downstream from where it had started, the water ran in oily gray rivulets from its fur.
Gasping, the selkie ripped off his enchanted skin and began to cough in a deep phlegmy rattle. “Is that supposed to be a river?” he demanded as Abby came stumbling through the trees. “How can you do that to me?”
Abby shucked off her parka and drew the Beretta Tomcat from its holster. “Luka,” she began as steadily as she could, “you are hereby charged with the murders of Alicia Gonzalez and Rebecca Cartwright. If you have any information that would be of use to the human authorities, please disclose it now and I might be able to help you. Hand over the skin and—”
Fairies preferred magic, but they knew what guns were. Luka grabbed his skin and bolted for the water’s edge.
Abby fired twice. The first bullet zinged over the selkie’s head, but the second hit home between his shoulder blades. He gasped and hit the surface face-first, his sealskin still in his arms. Blood bubbled out into the icy water.
Taking a shallow breath, Abby shook her head and holstered the weapon. The body was already sinking. She pulled out her cell phone and dialed Adam again.
“He’s dead,” she said. “But he’s in the water, and there’s no way I can fish him out myself.”
“Roger,” Adam responded. “Any witnesses? Dummy’s right behind you, and he’s got the jar …”
“Nobody saw the last part, but there might be some people who were curious about the chase.” The slow current of the river was spreading the blood around, creating a reddish-brown patch in the water. “We should probably listen to the police band for a while, just in case.”
“I figured. You gonna write up the case report?”
“I… no, I don’t think so.” It would be completely dark soon, and she had an appointment to keep. “Tomorrow okay?”
Adam’s voice wasn’t exactly sympathetic, but it had softened. “No prob. Go home and get cleaned up.”
Heavy footsteps were coming up behind her. Abby turned. A seven-foot-tall man, pale as chalk, was making his way down the riverbank with a green glass jar under one arm. When he saw her, he waved one hand and smiled. The hand hopped down from his wrist and scuttled across the snow towards Abby, where it made itself comfortable on her shoe.
“Hi, Dummy,” she said. “I hope you brought rope.”

…And that is the first couple of pages from Catherine Butzen’s new book, Fell the Angels, which Stark House just published in October. I mailed out lots of review copies, talked the book up, tried to encourage Crime Club members into taking a copy. Got no reviews, a few conservative orders. Which is a shame, because it’s a great read. It moves fast, has a host of interesting characters—including a group of rogue selkies—and reminded me of the early urban fantasies of Charles DeLint. It’s got a mystery for the mystery fans, but it deals with the peripheral world of faerie for fantasy aficionados. I was charmed by Butzen’s first book, Thief of Midnight, and equally charmed by Fell the Angels.

So why am I making a blog out of the first chapter of Butzen’s book? Because I refuse to give up. There are readers out there for this book, and I’m determined to flush them out!

—Greg Shepard