Friday, August 29, 2014

The Best Paranormal Novels You Probably Never Heard Of

***As I mentioned elsewhere on my blog, Squidoo - a site where I had previously published a number of articles - has gone the way of the dodo.  (Or rather, they will in the very near future - I think they shut down on October 1.) That being the case, I've been transferring some of that content to my blog here, including this post. Disclaimer: this is several years old and has not been updated, but I don't think much has changed.

Paranormal is the New Normal

There was a time in the not-too-distant past when reading paranormal novels - outside of Dracula and Stephen King books - was something other than mainstream. Now, thanks to the success of series like Twilight and the Sookie Stackhouse novels, there's a glut of them. So many in fact, that there's an entire section at Half-Priced Books devoted to this new genre called "Paranormal Romance." (And it's a big section.)

Still, a deluge of paranormal novels doesn't mean that they're all great reads, and there is an abundance of awesome stories that probably get lost in the process. With that in mind, I thought it might be worthwhile to mention some paranormal series that I felt would be worth your time and attention if you're trying to separate the wheat from the chaff in this arena.

Sandman Slim (The Sandman Slim Series)

James Stark is a young man who can perform magic – real magic – when he is dragged down to Hell (while still alive) and forced into gladiatorial combat for the entertainment of Hell’s denizens. Although – as a mere human – he was not expected to survive, he does the impossible and not only manages to stay alive during 11 brutal years in the arena, but develops a supernatural toughness in the process. Garnering the nickname “Sandman Slim,” he also becomes a feared supernatural hitman. After 11 years Stark manages escape, returning to Earth and vowing vengeance on the men who sent him to Hell and killed his girlfriend.

This is actually one of the best series I’ve come across in a long time. Needless to say, Sandman Slim is more of an anti-hero, combing the seedy streets of an L.A. underworld filled with magic, monsters and supernatural beings while seeking revenge. He is hard and completely fixated on revenge – but surprisingly humorous (which helps make such an uncompromising character likeable) – and tough enough not to take smack from anybody. For example: after beating back a surprise attack, Stark stands bleeding in Lucifer’s penthouse hotel suite. (Hey, Old Scratch has got to stay somewhere when he’s in town – you thought the devil camped out?) Stark is about to take a seat when he is told by Lucifer – the devil himself – “Don’t get blood on my couch.” Stark replies, “It’s not your couch,” and sits anyway.

Equal parts mystery, paranormal fiction, and high-octane adventure, the books in this dark urban fanatsy series (by Richard Kadrey) are as follows:

Sandman Slim

(On a side note, the first book, Sandman Slim, is purportedly being developed as a feature film.)

Staked (The Void City Novels)

In the supernatural world of Void City – which includes, demons, werewolves, witches and more – vampires come in four flavors:

Drones – Barely immortal
Soldiers – Tough, but not too hard to get rid of 
Masters – Very powerful 
Vlads – Top of the food chain, and almost impossible to kill for good. Cut their heads off, and they can be reattached; blow them up, and their bodies eventually reform; etc. 

Which type of vampire a person arises as after being turned is somewhat haphazard, although it tends to be related to force of will and personality. And there really isn’t a way to rise up the ladder, e.g., a vampire that arises as a drone will stay a drone forever (or until he gets killed).

Eric Courtney is a vlad famously known for having blackouts and an extremely poor memory. He chalks it up to having been embalmed before arising as a vampire. He can’t even remember how he came to be undead in the first place, and no other vampire has ever stepped forward to declare himself Eric’s sire. His legendary blackouts are usually the result of someone making him angry, and whenever he comes out of it there’s usually a dead body (or several) nearby. In fact, the first novel opens with Eric shouting at someone as he comes out of a blackout, looking at the decomposing vampire body and wondering who he’s killed. Moreover, he soon finds himself framed for the murder of a werewolf, who just happens to be the son of the local pack leader. Now he just has to prove himself innocent, find out who set him up (and why), and – among other things – avoid the werewolf assassins that he knows will be coming after him. Not the easiest thing to do for a guy who typically can’t remember who he ate the night before.

In the Void City novels, the author – J.F. Lewis – has created something other than the typical vampire storyline. His is a dark and gritty world with its own unique vampire mythos. It’s a world where a magical veil over the city keeps normal humans oblivious to the monsters in their midst, and a corrupt police force gets rid of bodies and covers up crimes for supernaturals with enough money to pay the “fang fee.” Moreover, nothing is what it seems: one of Eric’s associates, Talbot, resembles a handsome Black man, but – as he tells a female character who doesn’t like his behavior towards her, “You keep expecting me to act human. I’m not…” (Talbot is, in fact, a rather unique creature, but to say more would be to risk spoiling it for some.)

The action is fast-paced, fun, and totally engrossing. The Void City novels are:


Child of Fire (The Twenty Palaces Series)

The Twenty Palaces Society is a group of warlocks dedicated to rooting out the use of magic by people trying to exploit it to gain power. Basically, there is a myriad of horrific, otherworldly beings – any one of which is capable of stripping all life from Earth – who generally promise power to any person who calls them forth. Needless to say, these creatures are nearly impossible to control, and death and destruction usually follow in their wake. Thus, the Twenty Palaces Society ruthlessly exterminates anyone they feel is guilty of the unauthorized use of magic, which basically seems to be any use of magic at all - other than their own, of course. (Their attitude towards other practitioners reminds of a line from one of my favorite video games, Fallout 3, when a villain tells his henchman, "Shoot anybody that isn't you, and isn't me.")

Ray Lilly is a small-time crook and petty thief who serves as a driver for a member of the Twenty Palaces Society. Because he betrayed her once, his boss doesn’t trust him and wouldn’t mind seeing Ray in a pine box. (In fact, Ray is designated a "Wooden Man," which essentially means that his job is to literally get himself killed if it helps his boss complete her mission.) When his employer gets hurt, Ray – with a single spell to his name and a few magical tattoos on his arms and chest – must go alone after an otherworldly monster capable of controlling not only people, but also time itself.

The action is fast and furious from the very start. Like the other novels in this post, this is dark urban fantasy – no lubby-dubby supernaturals here. It’s tense and violent, but utterly enjoyable. The books in the Twenty Palaces series are:

Child of Fire

Dying Bites (The Bloodhound Files)

Jace Valchek is an FBI profiler whose specialty is tracking down serial killers. Because of that talent, she is ripped from our world into an alternate reality – one where creatures such as vampires and werewolves are the norm. In fact, they are the majority: 33% of the world’s population is vampires, 47% are werewolves and 19% are golems (artificial constructs magically brought to life). Normal humans number less than 1 million people – the result of various activities over the years, including the forced transformation of millions during the alternate reality’s version of World War II.

A serial killer is stalking and killing supernaturals in this new world Jace finds herself in. Because vampires, werewolves and golems don’t suffer from mental illness, the killer – presumably – is human. Moreover, the lack of mental illness means that the authorities have no skill in this area, thus the reason for “borrowing” Jace from her own reality. In tracking down the killer, Jace also has to adjust to a world where she’s suddenly part of a dwindling minority, and the supernaturals have cute little nicknames for normal people, like “O.R.” (which stands for “original recipe”). Not to mention the fact that, in many ways, she sympathizes more with the killer she’s chasing as opposed to his victims.

This series makes a nice departure from the typical paranormal stories, where all of the things that go bump in the night are kept under wraps and hidden from plain humans. Here, all of the supernatural beings are out in the open, and it’s Jace who has to masquerade as something else – a werewolf, courtesy of a specially formulated body spray – in order to avoid detection for what she truly is. All in all, it’s a good read with great supernatural elements, mystery and action. The novels in the Bloodhound Files are:

Dying Bites

Needless to say, there are plenty of other fantastic series out there. These are just a few that I've come across and found worthwhile, but I also welcome any suggestions others may have.

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