Review – “Samurai and other stories” by William Meikle


I’d read a couple of William Meikle stories before, but this was the first time I’d tackled them en masse. Crystal Lake Publishing have presented 16 recent tales from this prolific author’s catalogue, and it turned out to be just the kind of book I’d hoped. A melting pot of SF, fantasy, hardboiled, historical fiction and horror, Samurai… is a colourful ride and presents plenty of wry humour and derring-do along with the blood and chills.Samurai-and-other-stories-FB-sizeThere are no weak tales, but here I’ll mention a few of my particular favourites. One of those is the title – and opening – story in which we meet the Scottish survivors of a shipwreck on Japanese shores. They find an ancient temple, deserted yet strangely hospitable, and are tempted by the treasure it holds despite the suspicious lack of security. I was immediately drawn into this period piece by the action and witty dialogue – delivered as it is by strong characters – and it all kicks off before long, the action cemented by themes of honour and deft clashes of culture. I particularly like how the author introduces sudden violence with such elegance that it made me do a double take, matching the confusion of the protagonists. Stylishly written and building to a double-twist finale, this is a muscular start to the collection.

“Rickman’s Plasma” is a wild but self-aware B-movie about a man’s disastrous attempt to create music using his own dreams. And by disastrous, I mean carnage of international armageddon proportions. I liked the repetitious style of the escalating threat, and despite the casual gore, it still has a light tone and a pay-off that inspires a grin.

I especially enjoyed “The Toughest Mile”, a breathless fantasy in the style of “The Running Man”. We meet Garn – a successful gladiator owned by a witch queen – who is allowed a stab at freedom by facing the Challenge: a 10-mile dash along a tunnel, pursued by the queen’s terrifying bred-to-kill female assassins. Garn’s plight is made more interesting by his sexual relationship with the witch queen overseeing his ordeal, and as this author has a real knack for inspiring anticipation and tension, we’re very much along for the adrenaline-fuelled ride. Faultless in structure and sense of place, this cinematic blast builds to a surprisingly elegant conclusion.

It’s back to 1605 for “The Havenhome”: a ship visiting a colonial outpost in which everybody has been frozen, apparently by some malevolent evil force. The captain’s journal entry style works well, the 17th century language rings true, and I enjoyed the pervading sense of peril as the crew become trapped in the remote outpost and menaced.  We’re treated to some very dark moments, and the God-fearing attitudes add to both the supernatural unease and the historical milieu. An exciting contribution that’s ultimately rather elegiac.

The lights are turned down for “Living the Dream”, a moody modern story about a disturbed man who has grim nightmares and becomes obsessed with a woman from the factory where he works. Sexual, nasty and visceral, this piece draws you in whether you like it or not, and a sharp finale ties it together.

This collection boasts several solid ghost stories, but “The Haunting of Esther Cox” is the best of the bunch. We visit the 1870s to find our eponymous heroine narrowly avoiding rape, after which her attacker mysteriously goes missing. Cleverly told through the diary entries of Esther and her brother in law Daniel, it soon descends into a clamour of poltergeists and possession of the noisy hellfire variety. A scary experience that succeeds with the required suspension of disbelief.

“Dancers” stuck in my mind, beginning with an old man showing us the ghost of his lost love. Through his gentle voice, we learn of a bitter wartime romance that involved murder, jealousy and guilt, and this perfectly-crafted tale manages to fit in a huge of amount of plot and feeling for its short length.

Referencing Sir Walter Scott’s 19th century poetry, “The Young Lochinvar” introduces Julia, a young woman on a train journey through a dark and windy Scottish night. Stuck with her father and the ghastly bore to whom she is unwillingly betrothed, she meets an enigmatic and alluring stranger who might be the answer to her disillusionment. I didn’t quite understand the conclusion, but nevertheless found this a superbly evoked journey and my sympathies were very much snared.

Finally, I’d like to make special mention of the two stories that present an old creation of the author. Derek Adams is a droll and weathered Glaswegian PI with all the gallows humour, attitude and unhealthy habits that a hardboiled hero requires. In “Home is the Sailor” we find him investigating a cursed seaside hotel and in “A Slim Chance”, he tackles a case involving a fatal diet pact and a parasitic monster. Our ascerbic protagonist carries both 1st-person tales as the macabre mysteries unfold, and as “A Slim Chance” is the last story in the book, the conclusion ends things on a very wicked and pleasing note. I’ll be sourcing more tales of PI Adams and their seamless hybrid of crime and horror.

I rather enjoyed Samurai and other stories. The humour and horror temper each other to the right degree, and rarely have I come across such a breadth of imagination in one publication. From fantastic realms to the world of the Spanish Inquisition, from the high seas to haunted Appalachian mines, there’s swashbuckling and spinetingling aplenty in equal measures. The writing is crisp and unintrusive, often letting the characters and dialogue do the driving, and the period voice and place is without fault throughout.

Although a couple of the conclusions didn’t quite work for me, there’s no true disappointments, and it’s also pleasant to hear an authorial presence through the Scottish culture and folklore he drizzles into the mix. Overall, this book put me in mind of the adventure collections I used to read as a boy, albeit with the addition of adult themes and grisly shenanigans. This makes it a rip-roaring read for those of us who might have grown older, but still like a bit of intrepid charm with our darkness.

If you’re not familiar with William Meikle, this is a pretty good place to start.