One of my all-time favorite types of speculative fiction is the story that mixes gritty crime drama with fantastic elements. When the writer gets it right, that is.
Fortunately, Robert Ford gets it right with “Samson and Denial,” from Thunderstorm Books.
It’s a delicate balancing act. Few things are more out-and-out sad than a science fiction, fantasy or horror author’s failed attempts to be edgy.
You want to call up the writer and tell him: “For the record, the answer is ‘no.’ Your copious use of the word ‘fuck’ did not imbue your organized-crime-meets-Lovecraft pastiche with any semblance of credibility. Go back to impressing your World of Warcraft buddies with your dubious street smarts, Scarface.”
But when the writer nails it? The results are analogous to peach salsa.
See, a friend turned me on to peach salsa a few years back. I thought it sounded gross. Peaches are sweet. Salsa’s spicy. They aren’t meant to be combined.
But it’s actually great stuff, simply because the dissimilar flavors complement each other. The sweet flavor of the peaches heightens the spiciness of the salsa, and vice-versa.
So it is with speculative/crime fiction. Crime fiction tends to be hard-headed by nature, populated by pragmatic characters concerned with making a buck and surviving. When they’re thrown into a story with some fantastical element, it’s a matter of two great tastes that taste great together.
“Samson and Denial” concerns Samson Gallows, a South Philly pawnshop owner and small-time drug dealer who’s having a rough night.
First off, he’s got to deal with an annoying junkie trying to pawn a mummified head for drug money. Then, through an unfortunate set of circumstances, he goes up against some vicious local mobsters. And really. In the annals of fiction, has there ever been any other kind of local mobster? Nope. They’re as rare as mummy heads without mystical, sinister powers.
It’s an intentionally over-the-top, pulpy read that zooms like a tricked-out Camaro on the Schuylkill Expressway. But that breakneck quality doesn’t come at the expense of plot or nuance.
As a former Philadelphia resident myself, I found it entertaining how much Ford captured the vocal mannerisms and culture of the tragically misnamed City of Brotherly Love.
In the early going, Ford does go a bit overboard on the “This is the way shit goes down on the streets, baby” rhetoric of Samson’s running monologue. By and large, though, Samson and the other characters talk and act like actual human beings, rather than “edgy” stereotypes.
That’s particularly admirable given the book’s length – a mere 125 pages. In addition to the characterization, Ford manages to get in a few plot twists that are purposely jarring, but feel organic.
It’s also one of those books I like as much for what it leaves out, as for what it includes. Ford throws in a couple of hints about the head’s background, via plot developments that I don’t even want to hint at.
But he doesn’t go into any great depth because, really, who cares? It’s a mummified head with mystical powers. Are you along for the ride or not?
I have a shameful confession to make. I was trying to come up with some pun on the word “head” to close this review. I mean … I didn’t do it. But the fact that I was even thinking about it makes me kind of hate myself.
So maybe I should sign off here.
In closing: Read “Samson and Denial” by Robert Ford. It’s really good.