Several months after the publication of Paul Genesse’s short-fiction anthology, The Crimson Pact, Volume 1, in March 2011, I posted a review at Collings Notes containing the following comments:
It’s a standard PR/Marketing ploy for an announcer to declaim in a stentorian voice that a certain product offers “SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE!”
Well, in the case of Paul Genesse’s anthology of short stories and flash fiction, The Crimson Pact, Volume 1, the claim would be true … as long as the ‘everyone’ involved has an unquenchable interest in things demonic. Please note, however, that in this case, the demons are (probably) not your typical straight-from-Hell, pitchfork-tailed monstrosities, or (perhaps) even in any realistic sense of the term ‘native’ to Earth. No, the demons you will encounter in The Crimson Pact are rather more like H. P. Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones — unknowable creatures from beyond the Void, waiting only their opportunity to invade helpless earths and rule them with devastation and despair.
The introductory tale clarifies the essential situation. In an attempt at destroying demonic invaders, great armies are gathered and a cataclysmic battle is fought, with victory — albeit at a horrendous price — finally going to the human forces.
Or so they think.
Because, as in all things moral and just, evil often has the power to subvert and overcome, even at the moment of triumph. In “The Failed Crusade,” by editor Paul Genesse and Patrick M. Tracy, we discover that precisely this has occurred — that ostensible victory is in fact crushing defeat, as the hordes of demons abruptly withdraw and, siphoning the vast power of death and suffering and pain concomitant with the battle, break through the barriers that separate worlds, systems, dimensions, and universes.
And all at once, the entire multi-verse comes under attack.
More than that, however, the human forces realize what has happened and understand the enormity of their vulnerability in the face of the new conditions. A few elect to return to their long-abandoned families and live out whatever years of peace they may find; others — and more specifically, many of those who will become characters in the stories to follow — determine to carry the battle beyond the Void to the strongholds of the enemy, even though to do so requires their own deaths.
Thus the stage was set for the original fifteen short stories and eleven flash fiction stories in volume one and the scores of tales in the three (soon to be four) volumes that followed … tales that incorporated the atmospheric, the psychological, the technological, the theological; tales whose central characters chose to confront evil as well as characters upon whom the choice was forced, even — as in volumes three and four — characters who have turned against their own kind; tales that explored landscapes as varied as Chicago, New York, and London, landscapes as unassuming as nameless hamlets and isolated farms, landscapes both mythologically rich and technologically overpowering … and extending the sense of strangeness and danger inherent in each into uncharted worlds beyond.
Perhaps the most fascinating thing about the series, above and beyond the consistently high quality of stories told and the unending diversity of themes and approaches, is the feeling I enjoyed while reading that I was to a degree sitting in a movie theater. As a child, I was young enough to have looked forward to the pre-feature-film episodic serials that were then almost a required part of the experience. Ten or fifteen minutes of a breath-taking action-adventure plot that invariably ended with the hero trapped in an inextricable situation that could only end in death and destruction … and the inevitable words flashed on the screen, “Continued next week.”
A few years later, and I relived those episodes on afternoon television, two serials in half-hour slots on one of the two television channels we received in 1950s Billings, Montana. Again the exciting moments of action followed by the admonition to “Tune in next week for the further adventures of…”
In reading the four volumes of The Crimson Pact, I re-lived those moments of heart-pounding thrill. A fair percentage of every volume consists of direct or indirect sequels from preceding volumes. Well-known characters either find themselves in new conflicts or intricate plots continue to unfold in new places and, occasionally, new times. There is the instant of recognition — ah, yes! I remember this fellow — followed by anticipation of what new horrors he or she will confront.
For devotees of rough-and-tumble adventures, every volume of The Crimson Pact offers battle after battle, from battle-royals extending over page after page to surgically precise one-on-one combats. And in every case, intrepid demon-hunters much confront demons of the most ferocious sorts.
And, as with the movie serials, there is the additional treat — the anticipation — of a special full-length feature, most particularly the novella that opens volume four. Patrick M. Tracy’s “Darkness of the Sun” gives us a true-to-the-genre Western complete with Territorial Marshall, saloon gal with a heart of gold, an intrepid deputy marshal and the woman who loves him beyond all hope, and villains nasty enough to support gunfight after gunfight. Blood flows freely … and not all of it is human. From a demon-possessed bull named Otis to an incomparably seductive demoness, Marshal Calico Black and his handful of cohorts confront the unknown each time they ride out to bring peace and justice to the Old West. Sort of. All in all, it is a remarkable piece.
This is not intended to denigrate the shorter pieces. The episodic Tombs and Santos stories by Larry Correia and Steven Diamond (who flies solo in the final segment) combine non-stop action with careful character development. Usman T. Malik’s “A Demon in the Mughal Court” brings a welcome note of the exotic to the demonologies employed, building as it does on Pakistani myth and storytelling. Donald Darling’s Ronin stories fascinate through their willingness to reverse and convolute, until the demon sent to destroy earth and humans ultimately embraces a new identity and a new purpose, while demonstrating the single fact that reverberates through all four volumes: Demons cannot be trusted!
The volumes are beautifully packaged and readable, whether in ebook format (in which I read the first two) or gorgeous trade paperback (my texts for the final two). Paul Genesse has done a fine job in defining the overriding theme for the books, in selecting new and repeating authors to give each volume simultaneously a sense of freshness and a sense of familiarity.
And he is not done yet. Volume Five is scheduled to be released in 2013. It will be interesting to see which stories continue and while resolve … and how.