|"Other Places" - the 2015 anthology from Lowestoft Chronicle|
Five Fantastic Journeys, by Nicholas Litchfield
October 8, 2016
As a kid, during the summers I’d take long hikes in the woods near my parent’s home. There were no designated trails back then, and after following well-trodden ground for several miles, the makeshift path would suddenly end, inviting you to work your way through brambles and over mud banks in search of a clearing or some telltale sign you were headed in the direction of an outlet from the woods rather than further into wilderness. More often than not, I’d find myself completely lost and needing to retrace my steps, before attempting to forge a different path through the trees and scrubs.
Sometimes, after a fretful spell of vigorous trekking, I’d emerge onto the fairway of the golf course in the next town over. Other times, I’d find myself in another village, ten or more miles from home.
Half the time, the rambles were more frustrating than exciting, but there was something about them that made them addictive. I like to think that a driving urge for exploration was behind those daily forays into the dense unknown. Maybe, though, it was just that my head was full of classic 19th-century adventure novels from the likes of Robert Louis Stephenson or H. Rider Haggard, and I was desperate for an adventure of my own.
Today, those same abundant woods are heavily depleted, and numerous short trails have been marked out and areas fenced off. But the books that filled my head with a lust for travel and adventure are still in print. In fact, I’ve since discovered a huge number of later, swashbuckling novels—the sort that would inspire any schoolboy worth his salt to lay down his class project, on a warm weekend, and head off into the darkest, most impenetrable thicket he can find, determined to tread where no other has gone before and, before nightfall (probably sporting blackened, calloused hands and bloodied knees), emerge triumphant.
The books I’ve chosen here veer toward the wild and dramatic and the darkly comic—from unorthodox Westerns set in mid-1800s and early 1900s, the 1930s and 40s styled pulp fiction adventure yarn, and the 1960s spy thriller, to the modern-day black comic masterpiece.
1) The Spy In The Jungle, by Bill S. Ballinger (1965)
I own at least seven books by Bill S. Ballinger, although it's taken me years to finally pull one off the shelf and give it more than a cursory glance. I’m glad I waited until I had time to read one leisurely. The Spy In The Jungle is the second in Ballinger’s exciting '60s espionage series featuring super-spy Joaquin Hawks, a fearless, multilingual, martial arts trained CIA agent of Spanish and Indian heritage. Hawks’ greatest talent is his aptitude for going deep undercover, establishing thorough fake identities for himself in various parts of Asia and attracting a useful network of allies. There’s much to enjoy in this Hawks adventure. Ballinger is a very descriptive writer with a talent for depicting people and places, which he puts to good use as he sends Hawks on a wide-ranging journey to places like Saigon, Hanoi, and Laos. His mission is to investigate stolen missiles in a top-secret nuclear project, and the best parts of his adventure are, indeed, when he's in the jungle, either hanging out with remote tribes (entertaining them with music and trading wise comments with the elders) or trying to get inside a heavily guarded ancient temple. Over all, this is a very likeable, classic adventure novel, typical of its time, though penned by an adept, erudite writer experienced at genre fiction.
2) Hunt At the Well of Eternity, by James Reasoner (2009)
This exceedingly entertaining six-book series, published between 2009 and 2010, was originally credited to Gabriel Hunt (with the genuine author named on the title page, under the byline “as told to”). Acclaimed mystery writer and publisher Charles Ardai developed the Indiana Jones inspired series and penned the second Hunt adventure. Being that the books in the series are by different authors, the writing style varies greatly from one novel to the next—Raymond Benson, author of the final book (Hunt at Napoleon’s Web) makes a smart move by referencing other Hunt adventures and attempting to further develop the relationship between the Hunt siblings. However, nothing can eclipse the masterful first Gabriel Hunt adventure, which is more than just a throwback to classic pulp fiction fare from the 30s and 40s. Here, high-caliber author James Reasoner offers up a master class in action/adventure writing. Paying close attention to plot development, he manages to string together a succession of exciting vehicle chases, dramatic gun battles, and even a vicious bullwhip contest, as goodies and baddies attempt to locate the fabled Fountain of Youth.
Of all the exciting moments in this novel—and I guarantee there’s more heart-pounding action here than in any other novel you may have read—none are more exhilarating than when Gabriel and his small company, during their exhausting trek through the Guatemalan jungle, set foot on a sagging four-foot-wide bridge made of ropes and planks, in their attempt to cross a chasm fifty yards wide and hundreds of feet deep, known as “The Blade of the Gods.” The rickety bridge Reasoner describes sounds daunting enough, and their journey across it will make your knees go weak. Of course, Reasoner doesn’t let the drama ease up for a second. Just when they are all halfway across, he presents a new unexpected twist, and all hell breaks loose…
Few writers can match Reasoner when it comes to action and adventure. My only complaint is that there aren’t more Hunt adventures in the works—principally, those penned by Reasoner himself.
3) The 100-year-old man who climbed out the window and disappeared, by Jonas Jonasson (2012)
This exciting, continually amusing crime novel was first published in Sweden in 2009, the English translation by Rod Bradbury coming three years later. Although there are many characters in the book (key historical figures like Francisco Franco, Kim Il-sung, and Harry S. Truman make appearances—in fact, there’s a chapter featuring Joseph Stalin that can’t help but make you laugh out loud), the focus is predominantly on the likeable, vodka loving, Swedish centenarian Allan Karlsson. After he skips out on his birthday party, surreptitiously exiting his room at a nursing home by way of the window, on a whim, he flees town on a bus—in possession of a stranger’s suitcase. So begins this offbeat tale, which rapidly picks up speed as a gang of violent criminals, as well as newspaper reporters and police detectives, pursue Allen across Sweden. If the story solely revolved around the ensuing mishaps and murders and the manhunt for Allen, this would still be an extraordinary novel, but what elevates it to modern classic status are the chapters detailing Allan’s remarkable past, from his role in the Spanish Civil War, and his significant interactions with various world leaders, to his years in the gulag, and his dramatic escape from a prison in Iran. We come to learn that, all throughout his adult life, Allan’s been involved, in some way or another, in various major world events. And even at a hundred years old, still he continued to wreak havoc.
4) The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick deWitt (2011)
Set in 1851, during the Gold Rush, two brothers (Eli and Charlie Sisters), hired guns working for a vile tycoon/private investor known as the Commodore, are dispatched to San Francisco to find and kill an extraordinary chemist by the name Hermann Kermit Warm. During their lengthy journey on horseback from Oregon to California, author Patrick deWitt introduces the reader to an impressive variety of remarkably quirky characters, from a crazed, weeping dentist to a vile young girl who takes pleasure in poisoning a three-legged dog. As one might expect, the pair's journey is fraught with mishap and danger, not least because the hotheaded younger brother, Charlie, is reckless and prone to alcoholic binges and bloodlust. Also, being that he’s a cold-blooded killer, he’s about as trustworthy as his boss—both Charlie and the Commodore are cheating Eli out of money. Gradually, Eli becomes aware of this fact. Actually, he becomes aware of a lot of things during the course of his travels and, in part through his interactions with others, undergoes a transformation, softening from the vicious killer we see at the beginning of the novel and, toward the end, becoming a more compassionate person, unable to complete his assignment and desperately striving for a different way of life.
Easily one the best novels I've read (I’m not in the minority here, either—the book was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize), The Sisters Brothers is very different from anything else that’s branded a “Western.” At times, graphic and unpleasant (the image of a horse burning to death comes to mind), with some startling images and characters; absurdly comic at other times. The deadpan dialogue is consistent throughout, though, and mixed in with the humor and excitement, there’s a lot of thoughtful, intelligent reflections. Incidentally, Patrick deWitt has written two other fine novels (Ablutions and Undermajordomo Minor), both markedly different from this one, but also well worth reading.
5) The Thicket, by Joe R. Lansdale (2013)
This is a fantastic coming-of-age black comedy set in Texas in the early 20th-century. The first pages are so packed with drama, it’s difficult not to become invested in the story and feel deep sympathy for the luckless central character, 16-year-old Jack Parker, whose parents have recently died from smallpox. When his grandfather takes him, along with Jack’s 14-year-old sister, Lula, to live with their aunt on the other side of the Sabine River, outlaws attack them—grandpa is murdered, Lula abducted, and Jack narrowly escapes death. Later, when he reaches town, he discovers that the outlaws, who, earlier, robbed a bank, have also killed the sheriff, and so Jack’s forced to take matters into his own hands and mount a rescue mission of his own. He enlists the services of some peculiar strangers—a half black, half Comanche gravedigger/tracker with a 600-pound pet hog, and Shorty, a bounty-hunter midget who is part philosopher, part astronomer. As characters go, Shorty—an ex-army scout who was taught to shoot by Annie Oakley—is one of the most fascinating of all, and you could listen to his philosophizing all day.
Other unusual characters join Jack’s troupe, and their entertaining, meandering journey to a large, wild forest called Big Thicket, home to outlaws and rednecks, is exciting and amusing, daft in places, poignant at times, and full of unexpected encounters and thought-provoking, highly enjoyable dialogue. (Sadly, as with the deep, dark woods I used to get hopelessly lost in as a younger, we discover miles of Big Thicket have been cleared, robbing it of its daunting quality.)
I’ve read a number of books by author Joe R. Lansdale, but this is by far my favorite. And if you’ve already read this and enjoyed it, then I’d recommend a somewhat similar though much earlier novel, The Magic Wagon (1986).
About the author:
Nicholas Litchfield is the author of the suspense novel Swampjack Virus. Born in England, he has worked in numerous countries as, among other things, a tabloid journalist, librarian, and researcher. He is also the founding editor of the popular literary magazine Lowestoft Chronicle and has edited numerous anthologies, including Other Places, Somewhere, Sometime…, Intrepid Travelers, and others. The latest anthology, Grand Departures published on November 1st, 2016, is available from all major online booksellers, including Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Powell’s Books, or directly from the publisher.