Sunday, February 13, 2011http://allpulp.blogspot.com/2011/02/hancock-tips-his-hat-to-tales-of-black.html
HANCOCK TIPS HIS HAT TO TALES OF THE BLACK CENTIPEDE!
TIPPIN’ HANCOCK’S HAT-Pulp Reviews by Tommy Hancock
Tales of the Black Centipede
Written by Chuck Miller
Every writer of pulp and heroes I know at one point or another comes up with their very own universe, a place where history is theirs to manipulate and their characters thrive, live, die, succeed, and fail. Sometimes these universes we creative minds come up with actually have histories similar to ours, histories that we allow our creations to influence and change even. So we have these great concepts where our personal ideas mingle and interact with real or other fictional beings and history becomes our playground. We all usually have these ideas and sometimes we explore them in a story or two. Sometimes, though, there is a writer who is so involved, so an integral part of what he creates that this universe of his not only shows up in a place or two, but becomes his body of work, is the focus of all that he does, and represents not only words by the author, but what the author intends to be remembered for.
If you haven’t yet, meet Chuck Miller. And welcome to the world of The Black Centipede.
Describing TALES OF THE BLACK CENTIPEDE in a short paragraph is problematic as it has so much involved. So, instead of stringing together sentences, I’ll do this. If you’re interested in pulp style heroes, true crime, mystical serial killers, super hero ghosts, drunk optimistic former sidekicks, a conspiracy headed up by a shadowy crime figure, Sherlock Holmes, Lizzie Borden, Fredric Wertham, Professor Moriarty, famous historical personages as vampires, lots of drinking, secret lairs, machines that should never exist, homicidal maniacs that stopped aging at nine years old, and sex charged surname obsessed tulpas, then you need to wrap yourself in the disturbing cape of The Black Centipede and hang on.
Now, to get to specifics. Before we get into this review, let me explain how TALES is set up. For the last year or so Chuck has ran his stories on the address noted above as he finishes them. They are of varying lengths, some short-short stories, some novel length. I’m going to review each story individually in no particular order, then offer a review of the concept and site as a whole.
The Origin of The Black Centipede
Chuck’s titular character finds his beginnings in this story. Written as if by the Centipede himself, it details the story of his move to Fall River, Massachusetts in the early 20th Century and his meeting with one of the town’s more infamous citizens, Lizzie Borden. Although not your typical pulp tale completely, this origin fits the mold of the other stories. The Centipede and Lizzie’s relationship is at the center of the tale, but the introduction of Bloody Mary Jane, a figure who is prominent across the Centiverse as well as the explanation behind how the Centipede took his name and had his becoming are the real jewels here. The writing is very personal and evokes emotions from beginning to end. Miller starts his world off with a subtle bang with this story that uncorks a whole universe of conspiracies, chaos, and cacophony.
FOUR OF FIVE TIPS OF THE HAT
WISCONSIN DEATH TRIP
This is yet another Black Centipede story. It establishes that the Centipede, once again the narrator of the tale, enjoyed popularity when a publishing company began publishing fictionalized Centipede tales in the 1930s. This story, set in the 1950s, has one of the Centipede’s fans send him a letter and ask for help dealing with the fan’s mother. The Centipede goes to help the fan and supernatural and murderous events ensue. The fan’s name…Edward Gein. Possession, killer matriarchal spirits, and more oedipal confusion than you can shake a speare at fill this tale with lots of turns and twists and does quite a bit to give the reader a fairly concrete view of just who the Black Centipede is and establish him as a viable, even likable character to a pulp fan. Miller’s use of such a heinous individual as Gein as a sympathetic dupe in this tale on one hand seems to be pure genius, but on the other hand is almost so disturbing it makes the story hard to stomach. This is somewhat relieved with the way the tale ends, however.
FOUR OUT OF FIVE TIPS OF THE HAT
THE RETURN OF LITTLE PRECIOUS
This tale involves a couple of different characters from Miller’s mind. Dr. Unknown, Junior, the child and inheritor of her father’s supernatural heroic legacy, and Jack Christian, a former super hero sidekick turned drunkard and once more reluctant hero, star in this tale, a first parter of however many parts to come. This is a quick little one two punch tale that fully fulfills its one purpose…to explain who Little Precious is. This character, like Bloody Mary Jane, is an evil sort that will leave all sorts of bloody prints across the Centiverse, but is extremely original in conception. Miller’s storytelling here performs a similar task to what it did in WISCONSIN DEATH TRIP, putting just a hint of sympathy on a dark shadowy villain that should have no redemptive qualities.
FOUR OUT OF FIVE TIPS OF THE HAT
VIONNA AND THE VAMPIRES
This is a novel length tale starring as narrator Vionna Valis, yet another of Chuck’s varied cast. Vionna is a young lady who in her youth enjoyed adventures alongside super hero types as a sort of ‘street kid hero’, popping up in the middle of derrings-do aplenty. She now, much like Jack Christian, has become a disaffected soul who has little memory of most of her life and finds solace in a bottle. She has, however, found Jack and companionship with the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee, five women who hold a special place in history-They were the victims of Jack the Ripper in the 19th Century who, due to a ritual to banish the Ripper’s Ghost, have returned to the modern world in brand new bodies. The WVC is a sort of private detective outfit and this is the capacity in which Vionna and the hardest worker of the five, Mary Kelly, end up involved with the ghost of Sherlock Holmes, Professor Moriarty as a vampire, and a host of other vampiric historic celebrities. Take that and mix it with a creepy old house, a machine of mass destruction hidden somewhere, and intrigue and triple crossing and you end up with what should be a rollicking adventure tale of blood sucking and world threatening evil. And it is, mostly.
One major fault of this tale is a trope of Miller’s work. He writes from the perspective of his characters, not simply with them narrating, but as if they have a real awareness that they are writing, so they will at times to refer to why they aren’t writing a certain accent a certain way or when voices change, they make a point to say that they have this person’s narrative on voice recording, so we can get their side. This is a device that is ok and even works well in most of these stories. In this one, however, the technique takes largely away from the flow of the story and distracts the reader with trying to keep up with who is speaking and/or why Vionna feels like she shouldn’t be writing this tale or how others might do it well. The story has strong elements and potential in several areas, but Vionna’s voice, unsure and inconsistent, weighs it down and makes it difficult to read and follow in a flowing manner.
TWO OF FIVE TIPS OF THE HAT
THE JOURNAL OF BLOODY MARY JANE
This is exactly what it says it is, words from the mouth of one of Miller’s wildly imaginative, over the top villains, truly a vile spirit that haunts the world of the Centipede and his cohorts. This is Bloody Mary Jane’s origin in her own words, an explanation of what she is and what leads her to encounter a strange settlement of people who live rustic lives around a bubbling pool of mud…people name Ponce De Leon and Cotton Mather. This is probably one of the best of Miller’s works. He captures Bloody Mary’s voice as if he is channeling her, God forbid, and the tension builds evenly and steadily to the reveal at the end.
FIVE OF FIVE TIPS OF THE HAT
CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE KIND WE’D RATHER NOT THINK ABOUT
This story is yet again an adventure of The Whitechapel Vigilance Committee and is once more narrated, much more successfully than VIONNA AND THE VAMPIRES, by Vionna Valis. Here, Miller keeps the pace going briskly, Vionna’s voice moves well and not only makes sure the story flows, but adds to the consistency and intensity of the story. This cheating spouse case turned alien abduction conspiracy has so much in it that Miller explored and so much more he could have, it’s a story pregnant with possibilities.
FOUR OUT OF FIVE TIPS OF THE HAT
THE LAST VENUSIAN SUPER HERO
This story is not so much a stand alone tale, although it works well by itself, but more or less it’s the glue that sticks some things together. We get Jack, Dana, Mary, Vionna, The Centipede and others in this tale, but its biggest purpose is to peek even further into the mystery of what happened to all the super heroes and to announce the return of yet another great evil…the ghost of….well, that would be telling. For what it is, this one pops right into the mix and serves its purpose well.
THREE OUT OF FIVE TIPS OF THE HAT
THE OPTIMIST, BOOK ONE: YOU DON’T KNOW JACK
This is another novel length escapade and all the favorites end up in the mix. This tale is told by Jack Christian and is the reunion of he and Vionna and tells the story of the return of The Rippers’ five victims, the origin of the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee, and introduces the Centipede’s paranoid, but likely true concept of there being a ‘Moriarty’ of crime pulling criminal strings in the modern world. This tale is full of magic, ghosts, blood, death, revealing character moments, and scenes that make your skin crawl, all Miller trademarks by this time if you weren’t aware.
This tome, however, suffers from a couple of things, one of them evident in another of Miller’s longer pieces. The use of Jack as the narrator is fine, but Miller continually reminds the reader that Jack is writing this and has Jack comment on that fact. This is almost breaking the fourth wall in a way and it is horribly distracting. There are at least three significant places where this occurs that forced me to go back and start over just to be able to keep up. The use of this as a storytelling device seems to work much better in shorter tales, but ties a weight around longer stories.
Another issue I have with this story is the use of cursing. Now, I’m in no way a prude and other of Miller’s stories use it quite efficiently, but within THE OPTIMIST, cursing is extremely overused and even completely changes what Miller has spent so much time building up regarding one character. The cursing goes with some characters, such as Jack, but by the middle of the story everyone is flashing expletives like gang signs in a high school. It takes away from the story, makes everyone sound the same, and loses any effect the words might have. One character does it as a sort of recurring joke, but even the effect of that humor is lost because everyone else is cursing. And Miller’s allowing of the Black Centipede to be in this cursing chaos surprises me a lot and does not ring true of the Centipede Miller created via the other stories.
TWO OUT OF FIVE TIPS OF THE HAT
GASP, CHOKE, GOOD LORD!
This tale of the Black Centipede is from a period in the character’s history, in the 1950s, when he’s considered a hero in Zenith, his home city, and even has a close working relationship with the police. A call from the Commissioner to a strange crime scene at a ball park starts off this tale that ends up with Fredric Wertham, William Gaines (of EC Comics fame), a cast of three horror hosts, Albert Fish, and enough animated corpse bits to shake your lunch at! This story is really one wild ride that, while its throwing decapitated pitcher’s arms and wronged pedophilic cannibals at you, also does a wonderful job of not only adding layer upon layer to the character of the Centipede, but also paints all the characters, every single one of them in bright pastel colors on wonderfully conceived canvases. This is one of the best tales in the bunch.
FIVE OUT OF FIVE TIPS OF THE HAT
THE PRESENTATION/THE SITE
As a whole TALES OF THE BLACK CENTIPEDE is obviously a labor of love, a project of intense time and research, and overall a slam bang action packed thrill ride that we’ve only really seen a corner of.
This is no more evident anywhere than on Miller’s site. It is chock full of images, pictures, premiums, you name it, Chuck has covered the TALES site with enough eye candy to almost convince any reader that these people really did exist.
FIVE OUT OF FIVE TIPS OF THE HAT
OVERALL RATING FOR TALES OF THE CENTIPEDE
FOUR OUT OF FIVE TIPS OF THE HAT