Crucified Dreams, an anthology edited by Joe R. Lansdale, bills itself as an anthology of urban horror. This is not entirely an accurate description. While the book opens with Harlan Ellison’s still-potent “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs” – as close to the Platonic ideal of urban horror as you’re going to get – the remainder of the book ranges more widely. Secluded hospitals, small-town fighting pits, hallucinogenic jungle landscapes and anonymous bars are as likely to provide the settings as modern cityscapes. It’s not all horror, either. A goodly chunk of the material’s more appropriately classified as “thriller” – Charlie Huston’s highly stylized “Interrogation B” and David Morrell’s “Front Man”, for example, feature nothing of the supernatural and precious little of the scary stuff. Even Stephen King’s contribution, “Quitters, Inc.” deals with human monsters, not befanged or betentacled ones.
So, really, it’s an anthology of stuff that Joe Lansdale likes, and there’s nothing wrong that. Indeed, trying to come up with a single tagline for a collection of stories that zigs from Karen Joy Fowler’s delicately relentless “Game Night at the Fox and Hound” to Lucius Shepard’s nightmarish “Beast of the Heartland” to Neal Barrett, Jr’s “Nightbeat”, which hides a heart of utter brutality under a blizzard of whimsical language. Sure, there’s a couple of more traditional horror tales in there – Michael Shea’s “Copping Squid” drags out Cthulhu himself (and a few passages of suitably overheated pseudo-Lovecraftian prose), while Joe Haldeman’s “The Monster” certainly earns its title. But then there’s Octavia Butler’s “The Evening and the Morning and the Night”, which only lightly brushes horror in the description of the disease that afflicts the protagonist, or Ellen Klages’ ominous fantasy “Singing On A Star”. Even the timeline of the stories defies easy description. The earliest dates from 1973, the latest from 2009. And yet, it all fits together in one great grim ride, bridging the gaps in time and setting and tone and God knows what else to provide a satisfying, if somewhat dark, read.
But Lansdale can also bring pulpy goodness to bear, as aptly demonstrated by Flaming Zeppelins. Subtitled “The Adventures of Ned the Seal”, it’s a rollicking, gleefully obscene steampunk adventure stuffed to the gills with literary and historical figures, alternate dimensions, Martians, zeppelins (flaming and otherwise), explosions, derring-do and penis jokes. Indeed, the whole thing is best viewed as a gleefully obscene rebuttal to the grim psychosexual seriousness of Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen; Lansdale’s versions of Buffalo Bill, Dracula, Jules Verne and so forth are enthusiastically earthy and extremely pragmatic.
They’re also, for lack of a better word, disposable. The body count is high, and many of the character deaths are sudden, unexpected, and utterly without angst or pathos. That, too, can be read as a dig at the uber-serious nature in which iconic characters usually get handled, or maybe Lansdale just enjoys the natural consequences of rollicking action sequences. Either way, the action (of all sorts) is fast and furious.
Structurally, the book consists of two short novels, Zeppelins West and Flaming London. The former starts with Buffalo Bill’s (or at least Buffalo Bill’s remaining bits, which consist of a head in a jar) attempt to rescue the Frankenstein Monster (who goes by “Bert” and is one hell of an ice skater) from medicinal vivisection in Japan, takes a brief pit stop on a sub that looks suspiciously like the Nautilus, and winds up on the island of the guy who mistakenly gets called Dr. Moreau. Also joining in the fun are Dracula, the Tin Man, Sitting Bull, and the aforementioned Ned the Seal, who’s not a bad fellow as randy hyperintelligent pinnipeds go.
The latter is mainly connected to the first piece by the continuing presence of the unflappable Ned, but instead riffs on H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, with starring roles played by Mark Twain, Jules Verne, and Verne’s manservant-and-house-inventor, Passepartout, among others. Narrated largely by Ned, with frequent asides about female seals, fish, fezzes, and masturbation (don’t ask), it’s a more straightforward story and a more action-packed one.
Of the two books, Flaming Zeppelins is the faster read, and in places the more lighthearted one. Crucified Dreams is more likely to stick with the reader, even if every story isn’t quite to an individual’staste. But taken together, they do a nice job of showing the extent of Lansdale’s range – his own contribution to the anthology,”The Pit”, is an exercise in classic swampy muscle’n’blood – providing an unlikely, but fitting complement.