John D. Rateliff, The History of the Hobbit

Image of the slipcase and books of John D. Rateliff's History of the HobbitJohn D. Rateliff’s The History of the Hobbit is a handsome three-volume slip-cased set of hard covers. The first two volumes are the actual History of the Hobbit, in the form of Part One: Mr Baggins, and Part Two: Return to Bag-End. The third volume in the set is Tolkien’s published version of The Hobbit, with a new-to-American publishing 2007 preface from Christopher Tolkien and a text based on the 1995 edition incorporating Tolkien’s corrections and his original illustrations, some in color. The cover is the original cover based on Tolkien’s art as Tolkien intended it, (a red sun and dragon) and the end-papers feature Tolkien’s version of Thorin’s map.

In History, Rateliff documents Tolkien’s first completed draft of The Hobbit, based on Tolkien’s much-revised mss. in the Special Collections and University Archives of Marquette University. It is, as Rateliff notes an attempt “to capture the first form in which the story flowed from his pen, with all the hesitations over wording and constant recasting of sentences that entailed” (ix). This is no small undertaking, given Tolkien’s habit of recursive revision, the natural decay of acidic paper over the course of decades, and the difficulties of Tolkien’s handwriting.

Rateliff not only manages to construct a reasonable chronology and edition, enough of an accomplishment on their own, but he also extensively comments on the various emendations and changes in a detailed and scholarly fashion, while remaining engaging and interesting. He divides the general process of creation, composition and revision into five “phases,” based on Tolkien’s recursive process of writing, revising, making a typescript or fair copy, and revising again. Rateliff proceeds, chapter by chapter, offering Tolkien’s text and noting the various changes and differences. Most striking were the character evolutions of Bilbo and Gollum, each of which are thoroughly delineated by Ratecliff as he draws attention to Tolkien’s changes and choices.

It is first, fascinating to see a story evolve, to see the process of creation and composition from the very different story in the first fragment to the published and much-loved version. Some interesting differences include the wizard Bladorthin and the king of the dwarves Gandalf (a name borrowed from the Old Norse Völusp&agrav;). More importantly, Ratecliff draws attention to the way Tolkien’s revisions effectively shaped the story and the mythology. In particular, Ratecliff’s thoughtful notes on some of the cruxes (Beorn, fairies/elves, the spiders, the eagles, nomenclature, and itineraries and timelines) are especially illuminating. Ratecliff includes a number of useful external documents, like Tolkien’s plot notes, and does a thorough job of examining and citing relevant scholarship. Ratecliff also includes several interesting Appendices, among them a list of dwarf names comparing the two Old Norse sources, and some otherwise unpublished or difficult to find letters.

For those seriously interested in The Hobbit or Tolkien’s creation process, Rateliff’s notes and commentary are invaluable, though some may prefer the single-volume 2011 edition instead (Harper Collins). Those attempting to make sense of the recent Hobbit films may find some of the sources illuminated here, particularly regarding the role of the Necromancer. For those more interested in the actual ur-version of The Hobbit, they may find Rateliff’s A Brief History of The Hobbit (Harper Collins 2015) more to their liking.

John D. Rateliff has a website and he also blogs.

(Houghton Mifflin, 2007)

Kinrowan’s Bees

Bees are cousins to the wee winged fairies some of us see here in the summer. Or so says Tamsin, our resident hedgewitch. You’re surprised that we’ve got a hedgewitch living here? Don’t be, as we’ve had one on staff for centuries now. She’s hardly the strangest of the staff here, but that’s a tale for another time.

So let me tell you about our bees



Stephen King, Finders Keepers

Cover of Stephen King's Finders KeepersStephen King’s summer release, Finders Keepers, picks up the saga of retired police detective (“Det Ret”) Bill Hodges, a story King began in his previous novel, Mr. Mercedes. Although it’s book two of a planned Bill Hodges Trilogy, Finders Keepers doesn’t suffer from any of the usual middle-of-a-trilogy weaknesses. The novel stands easily on its own, the story is compelling and complex, the characters are engaging, and the conflict had me holding my breath for the inevitable resolution.

The plot of Finders Keepers unfolds in narrative that alternates back and forth in time, starting with the infamous unsolved murder of a renowned American novelist in the 70s, and ending up in the present day of adolescent protagonist Peter Sauber, who is dealing with the effects on his family resulting from a mass-murder during a recession-era job fair (these are the events from the first novel in the planned trilogy,  Mr. Mercedes) — where young Pete’s father was badly injured.

Cover of Stephen King's Mr. MercedesPete finds a buried treasure, and must struggle with questions about doing the right thing, familial obligation, filial love, and that ultimate bugbear of adolescence: Life isn’t fair.

Ultimately, of course, the terrifying (and somehow pitiable) antagonist of the piece (the guy who buried the treasure in the first place) comes looking for it.

When King writes about writing and writers, the reader automatically assumes a degree of self-reflexive storytelling. Just a few such examples over the years include Misery, The Dark Half, Bag of Bones, and Lisey’s Story — each of which are powerful novels that provide as much internal character exposition as external. But where the aforementioned novels examine the internal struggle of writers floundering between worlds both internal and external, Finders Keepers examines the experience of readers entering the world created by a powerful story. The novel examines the experience of reader-engaging-text almost as a kind of conversion narrative.

King holds a secure place in a long line of fundamentally Puritan New England writers. He returns again and again to themes of good versus evil, faith versus cynicism, innocence versus wickedness, judgement versus revenge, and ultimately, damnation versus redemption.  He’s subversive, however, in that an innocent reader is unlikely to suspect there’s more going on than than a tear-you-along-by-your hair narrative guaranteed to keep you up and reading well past your bedtime.

Finders Keepers fits neatly into that body of work, while remaining compulsively readable and never preachy. The novel poses unanswered questions regarding literary compulsion, desire, and the sometimes dysfunctional symbiosis between writer and reader — yet remains a rollicking good thriller completely suitable for a summer-blockbuster beach read.

And, as usual, I can hardly wait for King’s next book.

(Scribner, 2015)

Zedashe, Our Earth and Water

Founded twenty years ago, Zedashe is one of the first performing groups attempting to preserve and share the traditional music and dance of the Republic of Georgia. Our Earth and Water is their seventh album. It contains over an hour’s worth of music, comprising 26 tracks, many of them less than two minutes long. Most of the pieces are vocals, rendered in the distinctive three-part polyphonic harmonies for which this culture is known.

Cover of Zedashe's Our Earth and Water I did not know much about the Republic of Georgia when I started this review. I knew that it had been part of the former Soviet Union, that the man known to the world as Joseph Stalin (born Ioseb Besarionis Dze Jugashvili) was born there, and that the country fought a brief war with Russia in 2008. I learned that, in the aftermath of this conflict, the Russian military still occupies two regions of the country. Bordered by the Black Sea on the west, the country is bound on the north by the Greater Caucasus Mountain Range, on the south by the Lesser Caucasus. Russia lies to the north, Armenia and Azerbaijan to the south. Off to the east, through Russia and Azerbaijan, lies the Caspian Sea. Given this geography, it’s not at all surprising that the region often experienced domination by conquering armies, or that several different ethnic groups, including the Svans, Mingrelians and Laz, inhabit the territory.

When I started doing my brief, web-based research on the Republic of Georgia, I quickly noticed that the Georgians have their own very distinctive language and scripts. It is not Indo-European, Turkic or Semitic in origin. The album cover, shown below, includes both the band’s name and the name of the album in the Mkhedruli script. Founded and still directed by Ketevan Mindorashvili, the Zedashe Ensemble is based in the medieval fortress city of Sighnaghi, where the music for Our Earth and Water was recorded live at a local winery. This locale is particularly significant because the band takes its name from earthenware jugs (literally zedashes) that were filled with wine and buried in the earth, to be tapped once a year at a ceremony venerating the ancestors.

My review is based on a download of the tracks provided by their US promoter, Rock Paper Scissors. While the forthcoming CD apparently has no liner notes per se, their publicist sent us a few song descriptions written by someone in the band, most likely Mindorashvili. Track 1, “Supruli,” is described as a feasting song, but features melismatic singing, elision of syllables across multiple notes, of the sort I associate with Gregorian chants and other liturgical singing. Track 3, “Dzveli Abadelia,” is based on a 12th century Georgian poem written by a revered poet, Shota Rustaveli. Track 22, “Orovela,” is a work song, more specifically a farming song, in which male voices provide a droning background while the females sing the melody. The list of songs on the Zedashe website reveals that they offer a mix of themes, including hunting and feasting, work and war, love and marriage, along with a few liturgical chants. The latter represent one of the unique forms of Georgian music that were nearly lost during the many years the region was part of the USSR. Traveling from village to village, members of the band learned song and dance traditions from their own region of Kiziqian, as well as from Rach’a-Lechkhumi, Guria, Kartli and Abkhazia.

Although the recording is live, this is definitely NOT a field recording. The recording has been professionally mixed and mastered and has a very clean rich sound. Nine artists perform on the album. In addition to Mindorashvili, three other women and five men are credited. Everyone sings; in fact, most of the songs feature both strong male and female vocals. While several of the band members also play traditional instruments, including the garmoni (accordion), panduri (lute), doli (hand drum), and chonguri (bagpipes), group singing is the dominant sound on Our Earth and Water.

Most of the artists are also dancers—although of course that doesn’t show on the audio recording. I did find a number of their dance videos on YouTube. The Highland Love Song is a good example. The women’s moves are very graceful; the men carry small swords and shields that they brandish about with great skill and vigor. While I found their recorded music challenging to listen to, because the tonal qualities are so unfamiliar to me, I noticed that when I watched the dances, I could easily feel the connection. About the closest comparison I could make to any band I know would be to Ilgi, which has played a very similar important and longstanding (nearly 35 year) role in the preservation and promotion of the folk music of Latvia. The main difference is that the members of Ilgi play modern instruments: electric guitar and bass, violin and rock drums.

Zedashe has toured extensively in Europe and the United States. They are just starting their fifth US tour in support of Our Earth and Water, with nearly fifteen gigs at churches, college campuses, and folk festivals in the Midwest, Northeast and Mid-Atlantic. I’m sorry that none of the venues are close enough to where I live—I would love to see them perform. At several of these venues they will also be holding music and dance workshops. Members of the band also operate a music and dance school for children in Sighnaghi; a choir of children from the school was featured on the earlier album Intangible Pearls.

If you are interested in listening to Our Earth and Water, you can order the album in either digital or limited edition CD format. You can find their earlier recordings on the usual retail sites.

(Living Roots Music, 2015)

Eliza Carthy and Tim Eriksen, Bottle

carthy_eriksen_bottleI first heard the music of both Tim Eriksen and Eliza Carthy at about the same time, in the late 1990s – Eriksen as the driving force behind the U.S. electric folk group Cordelia’s Dad, and Carthy as a contributor to her mother Norma Waterson’s first eponymous 1996 album. Spine by Cordelia’s Dad and that Norma Waterson album were among my favorites of the latter part of the ’90s, and several songs and tunes from the two remain in my all-time favorite playlist. As a longtime lover of electric folk-rock in the vein of Dylan, The Band, Fairport Convention, Neil Young and The Pentangle, I loved the way Cordelia’s Dad mixed hard-core traditional songs with modern hard-core rock esthetics. And although I came to Norma Waterson as a Richard Thompson fan, I fell in love with everything about Norma’s performance, and was also drawn to Eliza’s fiddling and harmony vocals.

So here we are about 20 years later, and Eriksen and Carthy have recorded an album together. Something I’m told they’ve been wanting to do for about 20 years themselves. It’s a natural fit. Eriksen’s craggy, in-your-face mid-range voice blends delightfully with Carthy’s earthy alto, and his eclectic range of skills with stringed instruments complements her drop-dead, inimitable fiddling.

If Eriksen and Carthy never released anything else, I’d be perfectly satisfied with a “single” of “Buffalo” b/w “May Song.” “Buffalo” (a.k.a., “The Buffalo”), which was recorded before a live audience, opens the album. It features Carthy’s forceful fiddling and Eriksen playing amped-up, highly distorted electric guitar that grunges up what is otherwise a fairly faithful rendition of this early 18th-century folk song, popular in the UK and USA, in which prospective emigrants are regaled with tales of homely riches and adventure that await in the New World. You can find the lyrics and a brief discussion of “Buffalo” online. And the song that here is titled “May Song” is a lovely a capella rendition of an old English carol sometimes titled “The Moon Shines Bright.” This track showcases their voices, sounds old as the hills, and introduces many of us to the concept of a “May carol.” There’s a lengthy online article about “The Moon Shines Bright.”

But of course there’s more, much of it just as moving. These two have mined the depths of Anglo-American folk music for more than 20 years each, and on this recording they present some unexpected choices – deep cuts, if you will. Like their version of “Logan’s Lament” also known as “The Blackbird,” a variant from the 1840s of a song based on the words of one Logan, son of a mixed Indian-White marriage whose family was massacred by American soldiers. Eriksen’s electric guitar provides the sole accompaniment here with Carthy singing lead. He fingerpicks acoustic guitar (in what sounds like an adapted bagpipe tune) and sings lead on “Castle By The Sea,” an American murder ballad in which the woman turns the table on the treacherous young man. And Eliza sings “Cats And Dogs (You Seamen Bold),” from the Copper Family repertoir over Eriksen’s chiming electric and her pizzicato fiddle. The title track is an intriguing arrangement of a song also known as “A Shepherd Kept Sheep,” one of those old English roundelays with a fa-la-la refrain. Eriksen plucks sparse banjo while Carthy sings to a syncopated rhythm set by frame drum and handclaps – a very Cordelia’s Dad-like setting. You can listen to “A Shepherd Kept Sheep” here.

There’s plenty of variety, as you can see. I won’t describe all of the songs. If you’re read this far, you’d probably like this album as much as I do or more. You can learn more about it on this website from Navigator, the U.K. label (a Proper Records imprint) that released it. As far as I can tell it’s not available in physical form in the U.S. except as an import from Amazon-UK but you can download it from iTunes.

(Navigator, 2015)

Drinking, or More Properly Not Drinking

It’s astonishing how many visitors to the estate assume that as the resident publican I drink for free, indulging in any libation I please, whenever I please. The reality is more complicated.

What’s New This Fortnight

Ahhh short stories. I’ve been reading through four anthologies that Ellen Datlow edited. You’ll see my review in the next week or so. Ellen of course was the horror and dark fantasy editor for the Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror for all of its twenty one year run, as well as editing many other anthologies.

Gary starts off this What’s New with a trio of Latin Jazz recordings from Spanglish Fly, Quarter Street and Max Pollak: ‘It’s been a long, hot summer where I live, and it’s lingering into the fall. Latin jazz is perfect for hot weather, and here are three releases I’ve been enjoying. All of them are just a little bit different from your run-of-the-mill Latin jazz, as you’ll see.’

Gary says that ‘While They Were Dancing from Portland, Oregon-based band Vacilando is ‘post-modern alternative country, played at slow tempo, dealing largely with themes of ennui and loss and emotions on the sad end of the scale.’

logo_foxRock and roll in the form of Steppenwolf’s The ABC/Dunhill Singles Collection is up next for Gary: ‘John Kay surely has one of the most recognizable voices in all of classic rock. The vision-impaired German native’s band Steppenwolf rode a wave of rootsy hard rock to stardom in the late 1960s with some of the most iconic singles of the era. “Born To Be Wild,” “Rock Me” “Sookie Sookie,” and “Magic Carpet Ride” were all over the radio in the pivotal years of 1968 and 1969, and their cover of Hoyt Axton’s iconoclastic “The Pusher” had pride of place on the Easy Rider soundtrack even if its profane refrain kept it off the airwaves.’

Lisa reviews Archie Fisher’s new album A Silent Song noting that ‘This is, astonishingly, the first time The Green Man Review has reviewed an Archie Fisher album. It won’t be the last.’

Richard says that ‘To read Hannu Rajaniemi’s Collected Fiction is to get thrown immediately into the deep end. There are no warmup stories here, no simpler pieces to ease the reader into Rajaniemi’s voice and style. Instead, the very first story bombards the reader with the technical language of a highly wired, gloriously convoluted future. It’s sink or swim; either you’re along for the ride or you’re hopelessly lost.’

Richard also reviews Kelley Armstrong’s superb collection of stories Led Astray: ‘Kelley Armstrong’s Led Astray hits all the notes it’s supposed to, and quite a few higher ones as well. A short story collection featuring both original tales and smaller bits and bobs related to Armstrong’s various ongoing continuities, it’s an enjoyable read, expertly arranged to provide bite-sized variety all the way through.’


Before I leave you, a note on something you should be aware of if you’ve got any interest in traditional American folk music. Howard Wuelfing of Howlin’ Wuelf Media has the story for us:

2015, marks the Lomax Centennial. Born in Austin, Texas, in 1915, Alan Lomax became the foremost folklorist of the 20th century, documenting, preserving, and promoting traditional music around the world over the course of seven decades. . . .

A series of publications, events, and initiatives are planned throughout the year with ACE, the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, and local partners in the communities that Lomax documented, to mark the centennial.

To learn more see the Association for Cultural Equality’s website.

Vacilando, While They Were Dancing

Slow-core and alt-country had a brief marriage in the mid- to late ’90s, with releases by artists like the Scud Mountain Boys and the Oldham brothers’ various Palace-themed projects. The best known were Cowboy Junkies. I’m sure there were a bunch of others that I don’t know about. It was never a huge interest of mine at the time (I like it more nowadays), although I became a big fan of Gillian Welch and the Handsome Family, both of whom were fond of slowing down folk and country songs to a dirge-like tempo.

Cover of Vacilando's While They Were Dancing abumThe Portland, Oregon-based band Vacilando makes music in much the same vein — post-modern alternative country, played at slow tempo, dealing largely with themes of ennui and loss and emotions on the sad end of the scale. The band’s name is a Spanish word that was defined by John Steinbeck in his book Travels With Charley: In Search of America, thusly: If one is vacilando, he is going somewhere, but does not greatly care whether or not he gets there, although he has direction. That pretty well describes the songs on this short album. Vacilando’s songs are going somewhere, but they take their time. As always when this sort of thing is done right, that opens up the songs to all sorts of interesting things for those who approach them with a keen ear, an open heart and a patient attitude.

Vacilando started as a vehicle for the solo work of John Shepski, who wanted to create loosely structured songs in a singer-songwriter vein. He was joined by Juniana Lanning, who sings harmonies and plays percussion and engineers ambient sounds; and bassist Chad Lanning. Jason Montgomery now adds pedal steel and Sharon Cannon guests on violin.

With six tracks, While They Were Dancing is technically an EP. But those tracks average six minutes each in length, so the total is close to LP length. Various ambient sounds are used inside the songs as well as between them — snippets of radio preachers and the indistinguishable babble of people in public spaces, plus electronically produced sounds and the clicks and pops of an old vinyl record on a turntable. The opener “Down All Day” starts with a whisper of ambient sounds and ever so slowly builds to an emotional and sonic peak at the 4:30 mark, when the distorted pedal steel comes in along with bass and drums. In the denoument, Shepski sings a few times in his weathered, plaintive tenor, “If you don’t know by now, it’s only in your head, I hope you’ll find out soon.”

The songs all are originals except for a cover of the classic country standard “Tennessee Waltz.” I love the latter (a line from which provides the album title), but my favorites are the songs on either side of it, the languid waltz “The Ocean, While You Sleep” and the lullaby that ends the album, simply titled “Sleep.” The former’s lyrics are mostly pairs of things in couplets sung by Shepski over mesmerizing electric guitar and pedal steel vamping. The song crashes into a roaring instrumental break on distorted guitars at the end of the second verse like a panic attack in the night. When the noise returns as an instrumental outro after the third verse, it’s more as an old if troubling friend whose moodiness you’ve come to expect and even welcome.

“Sleep” is a beautiful love song to either a lover or a child, with a humorously self-deprecating opening line: “Sleep — it’s all that’s gonna save you from the music in your head.” But Shepski goes on to make a series of lyrical promises that on the page look corny but in his delivery (with beguiling harmonies from Ms. Lanning) and the arrangement add up to more than the sum of their parts. It takes a certain amount of bravado to write and sing songs like of such naked emotion and at such a tempo that reveals even the tiniest flaws, and Shepski & Co. pull it off with aplomb. Vacilando is surely an act to see live, and While They Were Dancing is definitely a disc to pay attention to.

Listen to “The Ocean, While You Sleep” from Vacilando.

(Fluff and Gravy, 2015)

Steppenwolf, The ABC/Dunhill Singles Collection

John Kay surely has one of the most recognizable voices in all of classic rock. The vision-impaired German native’s band Steppenwolf rode a wave of rootsy hard rock to stardom in the late 1960s with some of the most iconic singles of the era. “Born To Be Wild,” “Rock Me” “Sookie Sookie,” and “Magic Carpet Ride” were all over the radio in the pivotal years of 1968 and 1969, and their cover of Hoyt Axton’s iconoclastic “The Pusher” had pride of place on the Easy Rider soundtrack even if its profane refrain kept it off the airwaves.

By the early ’70s it seemed like heavy bands were becoming the norm instead of a novelty, and Steppenwolf was no longer a Top 10 singles band, although they hung on as a “biker” band and charted singles in the Top 100 well into the mid-’70s.

In fact Steppenwolf, after a slow start as the more folksy, psychedelic folk band The Sparrows, had 14 charting songs and 14 charting albums. And although best known as a heavy rock band in the boogie blues vein, they had a wider range than that, especially if you delve into the B-sides. And that’s just what you can do for the first time now. The archivists at Real Gone Music have dredged up the original 45-rpm mixes of their hit singles and put them all on a two-CD set that also includes John Kay’s solo singles and a rarity or two. It features the best-sounding version ever released of the smash hit “Magic Carpet Ride,” which, y’know, everybody needs in their collection. It was one of the main songs that made 1968 such a monster of a year for great music. Trust me, I was there.

Cover of Steppenwolf's Dunhill/ABC Singles Collection

UNSPECIFIED – CIRCA 1970: Photo of Steppenwolf Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

This is truly a fun set. You don’t have to be cruisin’ on your Triumph or passing around a bottle of Jack and maybe a joint to appreciate it, although I’m sure it helps. If you were there like I was you’ll hear songs you’d forgotten all about like “Hey Lawdy Mama” and “Screaming Night Hog” with its deep-cut B-side, the fine instrumental “Earschplittenloudenboomer.” And you’ll encounter a side of Steppenwolf you may not have known about, flower-power folk numbers like “Spiritual Fantasy,” which backed “Night Hog,” or the meandering, piano-driven folk-blues “It’s Never Too Late” on the back of “The Pusher.” That one sounds like Just For Love-era Quicksilver except with a baritone lead singer! And one of the rarities, a slow, bluesy faux-live take on the classic folk-blues number “Corina, Corina.” Oh, and the nine-minute album version of the title track from their second album Monster, a political, anti-war statement that was pushed on FM radio. Another rarity is the proto-industrial instrumental curiosity “For Madmen Only,” which sounds like it could’ve helped inspire Neil Young’s live pastiche Arc. Kay and the band were running out of energy by the time of singles like “For Ladies Only/Sparkle Eyes” which to me sound like they deserved their lackluster chart showing.

There are some pretty decent sides from Kay’s early solo career, though. On his first album Forgotten Songs and Unsung Heroes from 1972, he started getting into proto-country rock with covers such as Hank Williams’ “You Win Again” (although I think Mason Proffit did it better that same year) and Hank Snow’s “I’m Movin’ On,” and sensitive singer-songwriter territory with “Walk Beside Me.” The soulful country-rock of “Nobody Lives Here Anymore” is a highlight of his second solo, 1973’s My Sportin’ Life, which also provides an over-produced Five Man Electrical Band cover, “Moonshine (Friend of Mine).” Finally there are a couple sides off the 1987 album John Kay — Lone Steppenwolf — the elegiac “Dance To My Song” and “Easy Evil,” the latter of which was practically an easy-listening staple in several other versions including Tony Orlando’s. Listening to these two, I’m not sure why I never heard Kay’s influence on Eddie Vedder’s vocal style — both gravelly baritones capable of conveying a wide range of emotion.

The CD booklet is well done, with very complete track notes and an essay covering his whole career by John Kay. With 38 tracks on two discs, this set does just what such reissues are supposed to do, give you the hits and putting them in the context of a full and varied musical journey.

(Geffen/Real Gone, 2015)

[Editor’s note: John Kay and Steppenwolf have a website.]

Kelley Armstrong, Led Astray

Cover of Kelley Armstrong's Led AstrayKelley Armstrong’s Led Astray hits all the notes it’s supposed to, and quite a few higher ones as well. A short story collection featuring both original tales and smaller bits and bobs related to Armstrong’s various ongoing continuities, it’s an enjoyable read, expertly arranged to provide bite-sized variety all the way through. And while Armstrong’s core following is paranormal romance readers, there’s plenty of content here for those more focused on the paranormal — or in several cases, the post-apocalyptic — than the romantic.

The earlier stories in the collection tend to be constructed with “gotcha” endings, making quick reads.”Last Stand” straddles zombie apocalypse and military SF with a Twilight Zone-style twist at the end. “A Haunted House of Her Own” boasts another twist ending, as the heroine’s dream of owning a haunted bed and breakfast runs into the unpleasant reality of what a haunting really means. And book opener “Rakshasi” is a classic “careful what you ask for” story, designed to coax sympathy for a monster too long in servitude.

Things shift into a higher gear, however, with “The Screams of Dragons,” an extended piece of backstory for Armstrong’s “Cainsville” Universe. Neither happy nor romantic, it’s a look at the horrors of child abuse and how the cycle repeats itself, leavened only by a dose of sad mercy. “Suffer the Children” is another one of the collection’s strongest pieces, an extended and disturbing riff on the notion of the traveling snake oil salesman. Here, the itinerant huckster and his sidekick are selling something more alluring and disturbing, offering resurrection of children lost in an epidemic to a town desperate for comfort. That the cost of that comfort is too high isn’t surprising, but the story delivers multiple unexpected twists along with genuinely affecting moments of loss and pain. “Dead Flowers By A Roadside” is another ghost story shot through with loss, trading “Haunted House’s” winking tone for something altogether more desolate and affecting.

“Devil May Care” and “Gabriel’s Gargoyles,” both also part of the Cainsville sequence, are intimately connected even if the sequence they appear in flips them chronologically. In the former, a trickster far named Patrick gets outmaneuvered both by prophecy and by a young hustler who wants something very particular from him. In the latter, it’s years later and Patrick’s son Gabriel is turning into quite an interesting young man indeed. The former zigs and zags like a heist caper, while the latter is more melancholy, a minor key examination of another neglected child making his way in a world that does him few favors. Patrick’s presence injects just enough sly humor into “Gargoyles” to bring it to a generous and satisfying end.

Of course, for those more interested in Armstrong’s bread and butter, that’s here too — werewolves and vampires and wisecracks galore. “V Plates,” “Young Bloods,” “The List” and “Learning Curve,” among others, all fill in gaps in continuity in her more popular series, covering everything from a young werewolf’s attempt to lose his virginity (to a zombie, no less) to various characters’ origin stories. For fans of books like Bitten, these pieces are the crunchy nuggets at the heart of the book’s appeal. For less devoted fans, they offer a reasonable diversion on the way to the more complex, largely standalone stuff. In either case, however, the collection’s a pleasant surprise with plenty for hard-core fans and newcomers alike to enjoy.

(Tachyon, 2015)

[Editor’s note: Richard has previously reviewed Kelley Armstrong’s Forbidden and Brazen. You can find more about Kelley Armstrong’s books on her website.]