Grim Death and Bill the Electrocuted Criminal by Mike Mignola and Tom Sniegoski is a beautifully illustrated, 1930s pulp-style novel featuring two unusual heroes who seek justice (available February 28, 2017).
An uneasiness festers upon the city streets, threatening the peace and safety of law-abiding citizens. A war is escalating, and it seems as though the good and righteous are being crushed beneath the unholy weight of evil’s onslaught. Organized crime is spreading in an unchecked reign of terror.
Until a mysterious agent of retribution rises up from the shadows to challenge the villains. A lone figure, clad in a slouch hat and clothes seemingly stitched from the blackest shadows, masked in the guise of a skull-faced death―a Grim Death―emerges with guns blazing. With him, a wronged ex-con clad in the striped costume of his misfortune―Bill the Electrocuted Criminal.
In this beautifully illustrated 1930s-pulp-style novel, two dark new characters take to the street to fight the growing infection of organized crime. Grim Death and Bill the Electrocuted Criminal are not your average heroes, but they want justice.
I must look a sight, Bentley Hawthorne thought as he stood in the doorway of his family home, adorned in a ragged black suit, slouch hat atop his head, face hidden by a grinning skull mask.
He could just imagine the thoughts racing through his manservant’s mind at the moment.
“I seem to have misplaced my key,” Bentley said as he reached up with a gloved hand and removed the gruesome mask.
“Dear God, sir!” Pym exclaimed, clutching the heavy bathrobe about his throat. “You gave me a fright. I had no idea…”
A sudden wave of overwhelming fatigue caused Bentley to slump against the doorframe, interrupting the butler’s rant.
“You’re hurt,” Pym observed, and quickly reached out to take the young man’s arm. “Come inside, you’ll catch your death.”
“Too late for that,” Bentley muttered, and then chuckled as he was drawn into the warmth of the foyer.
The servant closed the door on the frigid morning rain and turned his full attention on Bentley. “Here, let me look at you,” he said. “You’re bleeding.”
“Yes, but not all of the blood is mine. Some of it’s monkey.”
Bentley nodded. “Trained to commit the act of murder. Wouldn’t have believed it myself if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes; furry devils wielding straight razors and…”
“Monkeys—with straight razors?” Pym asked incredulously.
There was that look in the manservant’s eyes. Bentley knew it well; he’d seen it so many times over the many years the two men had been together—first when he’d been horribly sick as a child, and most recently as Pym worried about what strangeness had come over his charge of late.
“Where on earth have you been?” the butler asked, a touch of petulance in his tone. “I thought we retired hours ago.”
The skull mask dropped from where Bentley had held it clutched beneath the arm of his jacket, the visage of death grinning up at them from the marble floor where it landed.
“The ghost of a murdered innocent roused me from the comfort of my bed,” he explained as he reached down for the mask. His black-gloved fingers hooked the eyeholes, but the effort nearly cost him his balance.
Pym rushed closer, placing a supporting grip upon his master’s elbow. “Perhaps we should call the doctor.”
“No need,” Bentley said quickly. “All I require is a warm bath, and then to slip beneath the covers of my bed and into Morpheus’s soothing embrace. I’ll soon be right as rain.” He forced a smile to lighten the mood, but Pym was having none of it.
“Bentley … sir, I don’t understand what—”
“It is my burden alone to bear,” the young man interrupted, placing a comforting hand on his servant’s shoulder. “Yours is the preparation of that bath I’ve been yearning for since I encountered those filthy monkeys. Have I told you how much I despise monkeys, Pym?”
The butler looked as though he might burst, a multitude of questions desperate to come forth, but he held his tongue.
“I’ll draw that bath,” was all he said as he turned away.
A wise decision, the young man thought as he watched Pym head for the stairs.
For to know the world within which Bentley existed was to tempt the touch of madness.
* * *
By the time Bentley had climbed the winding staircase to his suite of rooms on the second floor and sloughed off his wet clothing, Pym had finished filling the tub with steaming-hot water.
It took all that Bentley could muster to scrub his body clean of the grime of conflict. Drying off quickly, he slipped into his robe and padded barefoot from the bath, sidestepping the pile of wet clothes still lying where he’d shed them. He fell upon the bed and barely managed to squirm beneath the heavy blanket before the blackness of sleep engulfed him.
In seconds, he was firmly in the clutches of unconsciousness and began to dream, reliving the evening’s dark endeavors. Once again he faced the bitter scientist driven to madness with the belief that his life’s work had been stolen. With the injection of an experimental hormone believed to increase the intelligence of lesser life, the scientist had orchestrated the murder of the one he believed had wronged him. His engineered instruments of revenge: capuchin monkeys.
Capuchin monkeys taught to murder for a mad scientist’s twisted cause.
Bentley saw them again as he’d seen them earlier that evening, freed from their cages and scampering across the floor of the secret laboratory, knives and straight razors clutched in tiny, long-fingered hands, dark beady eyes filled with intelligence and wild with the promise of bloodshed.
He’d felt a twinge of pity for the things as he had pulled the twin automatics from within the pockets of his coat. But Death had no patience for such emotions, and he’d opened fire upon the murderous simians.
The pistols had made short work of the monkeys, leaving Bentley with only one remaining task: dispensing justice upon the scientist responsible for the gruesome murder of his colleague. The guilty one had tried to escape by fleeing across the rooftops as the storm had raged overhead.
But Death gave chase.
Bentley smiled in his sleep. The villain had believed he could actually escape the inevitable—right up until he was pierced by a lightning rod, thrown like a javelin just as a jagged bolt of lightning zigzagged down from the heavens to strike the alluring shaft of iron—and in a blinding flash, another wrongful death was avenged.
Bentley’s new purpose once again defined.
The young man’s eyes flew open, the scientist’s piercing scream receding into his subconscious. Bentley sat up suddenly, realizing he wasn’t alone; Pym stood before the bed, holding a silver tray.
“I took the liberty of preparing some breakfast,” the man said as he placed the tray on a nearby table.
“How long was I asleep?” Bentley asked, languidly stretching.
“Not long enough for an average person to function,” Pym replied dryly.
“Ah, but Hawthornes are better than average,” Bentley said as he left the comfort of his bed to see what his servant had brought him. He was suddenly famished. “At least that’s what Father always told me.”
He lifted the silver cover to reveal two pieces of lightly toasted white bread, exactly how he preferred it.
“I’m guessing these require laundering?” Pym asked as he reached down to pick up the pile of filthy clothes that were still on the floor.
“If you wouldn’t mind,” Bentley answered around a mouthful of toast. “Take the shoes as well; they got a bit scuffed with all the running about.”
An image flashed in his mind of his quarry, jumping from rooftop to rooftop, glancing over his shoulder with eyes growing wider in terror at seeing how close Death was to him.
It had been very close indeed.
“And this?” Pym asked. He was holding the skull mask with two fingers, as if it were contaminated with some wretched disease. “Will this need to be laundered as well?”
Bentley experienced both a sickening wave of dread and a flash of excitement at the sight of the grinning visage dangling from the tips of the butler’s fingers.
“No, that can stay here.”
Was it his imagination, or had the grin upon the skull face grown wider as Pym set it down atop a nearby dresser?
The butler left without another word, and Bentley returned to his breakfast. He ate another slice of toast and poured himself a cup of steaming coffee. Pym had placed a single, freshly cut rose in a small crystal vase at the corner of the tray, and the young man found himself staring at its beauty, but imagining it slowly wilting and dying.
As with all things, death and decay would eventually have their way.
He picked up the folded newspaper on the opposite end of the tray. The headlines still decried the so-called Great Depression and what President Hoover was or wasn’t doing about it. In between bites of toast and sips of coffee, Bentley perused the news of the day.
He had just started to read about the convicted murderer of a circus trapeze artist when he felt a terrible cold that made the short hairs at the nape of his neck bristle. He’d felt similar sensations since his transformation, and braced himself as he turned for what he knew would be looming behind him.
The ghost stood not two feet away.
“Hello,” Bentley said, knowing full well that it would not answer.
The female specter hovered above the floor, this one’s body in even worse condition than the others that had previously appeared to him. The ghosts often came to him adorned with the damage that had claimed their lives: bullet wounds, broken necks, flesh charred black; this one was naked and missing part of an arm and the opposite leg. Pieces of flesh had been removed from her side, exposing the bones of her rib cage.
“Who did such terrible things to you?” Bentley asked, knowing that was what the spirit was waiting for, what they were all waiting for: the invitation to share the horrible fate that had befallen them.
Bentley steeled himself. If there was one thing he had learned since coming to serve his master, it was that the poor souls taken before their time could be very creative. The last had turned his dreams to grisly visions of its murder.
“I’m ready,” he said, taking a deep breath. “Show me how you—”
The ghost came at him in a rush of frigid air, the spectral woman’s mouth open wide in a silent scream. Bentley instinctively recoiled, stumbling back against the table, enveloped in a choking miasma that froze him to the bone. He crumpled to the floor, fighting to breathe, his lungs aching. He could feel the spirit inside him, desperate to share—desperate for him to know.
And then the images came, visions of the fate that had befallen this poor soul who now sought his aid.
He saw the woman, vibrant, alive, until …
Until she wasn’t.
He could not see the person responsible for the woman’s murder, the perpetrator’s features hidden in darkness as they crept up behind her. Bentley felt her terror as cold hands wrapped about her throat, closing off the flow of air, beginning a countdown to the end of her existence. She fought her assailant for as long as she was able, but time ran out, and she could fight no more.
Bentley could feel her life slipping away, writhing curtains of shadow falling down over her bulging eyes. It was the end of the line, but only the beginning of further indignities to be heaped upon her.
The next of the visions came in searing flashes, glimpses of events that followed after the woman’s untimely demise: weeping family members, ineffective law enforcement too stupid or uninterested to find her killer, a roaring oven fire, the flash of a metal blade, and a grinning mouth of razor-sharp teeth stained red with blood.
“Is everything all right, sir?” A familiar voice brought him back from where the spirit had taken him.
Bentley opened his eyes to see Pym, who wore an expression of concern.
“I heard you cry out, and…”
“I’m fine, Pym, thank you,” the young man said. His eyes searched the room for a sign of the ghost, but she had gone.
“Are you certain, sir?” the butler asked.
“I am,” Bentley replied. He was sitting at the table, the newspaper open before him. “Another ghostly visitation has occurred, I’m afraid; another departed soul in need of vindication.”
Under the sway of the specter, he had turned to the death notices. One particular listing had been circled repeatedly. It was only then that he noticed he was holding a pencil in a clawlike grip.
It was the obituary of Constance Dyer, due to be waked at the Hargrove and Sons Funeral Home.
“Was that you, Constance?” he asked the ether, reading further. It wasn’t likely, for Mrs. Dyer was listed as being sixty-five years of age. The apparition couldn’t have been much older than thirty.
But there was a reason the spirit had made him take note of this particular viewing, and Bentley knew he had no choice but to investigate further.
“Pym,” Bentley said, sensing the butler still standing in the doorway, “I’m going to need clothes.”
“Are we going out again this evening, sir?”
“I am.” Bentley closed the newspaper and turned in his chair. “And I’ll be needing a car.”
“And a driver?”
“I am more than capable of driving myself, thank you.”
“Then you haven’t seen the Packard since your last foray into the city.”
Bentley rose from the table, folded the newspaper and put it beneath his arm. He approached the skull mask still sitting atop the dresser.
“Perhaps it’s time for me to become more involved with what you’re doing,” Pym said quietly, watching as Bentley picked up the mask.
An electric charge went through the young man’s fingers. “A part of me would truly welcome the companionship,” Bentley said as he stared into the yawning darkness of the mask’s hollow eyes. “But there’s also a part of me that fears what I might be exposing you to.”
He managed to lift his gaze from the skull’s face to his servant and loyal friend. There was most definitely a tinge of fear on Pym’s stern features, but there was also something else. Resolve.
Bentley waited, praying for the butler’s retraction, but it did not come.
“I’ll go and find another suit,” Pym said instead, turning and leaving Bentley alone.
Though it might have just been the old house settling, Bentley could have sworn he’d heard a chuckle.
And that it had come from the mask in his hand.
* * *
Pym, chauffeur’s hat poised jauntily atop his head, brought the black Packard sedan to a stop in front of an old brownstone. Traffic into the city had been surprisingly light, and he and Bentley had made the drive with little trouble.
“I believe this is it,” he said, putting the gear in park.
Bentley leaned toward the backseat window, gazing out at the brick building. He could read the gold-lettered sign of HARGROVE AND SONS FUNERAL HOME over the door.
“Doesn’t look like much, does it?” he commented, still wondering what the connection to the dismembered ghost might be.
“A family-run business, obviously,” Pym said. “Probably been here for decades.”
“But what is it hiding beneath its inconspicuous facade?”
Pym turned in the driver’s seat to look at Bentley. “Does it have to be hiding anything?”
“I wouldn’t be here otherwise,” the young man said, still gazing out the car window. “The dead do not send me to places that have nothing to do with their demise.”
“I suppose,” Pym commented, his skepticism evident.
“Do you doubt me, Pym?”
The butler didn’t answer.
“How about an easier question, then,” Bentley said. “Do you think me mad?”
“Sir, please,” Pym began. “I know you’ve been through some difficult times over these last months, and I’m well aware that—”
“Answer without fear of repercussions,” Bentley instructed him. “Do you think I am insane?”
“Perhaps…” the servant said with a hesitant shrug. “A little.”
Bentley laughed, a short, barking sound of disbelief rather than humor. “Does this honestly look like the face of madness?” he asked the man who had looked out for him nearly since birth.
Again, Pym did not answer.
“Never mind that,” Bentley said. “Let me assure you that I am of sound mind and that I speak nothing but the truth. I must ask you to trust me, as well as my judgment.”
They sat in silence for several minutes.
“So what now?” Pym finally asked. “Have the spirits that communicate with you told you what to do next?”
“The spirits only share so much,” Bentley said, “nudging me in the direction of their retribution.”
“That’s rather inconsiderate,” Pym said. “If you’re going to take the time to avenge them, they should have the common courtesy to tell you more.”
Bentley appreciated the butler’s feelings, but who were they to question the way in which his objectives were delivered? There was still much he himself was learning about being an avatar of Death.
“They give me what they are capable of giving,” Bentley tried to explain. “Then it becomes my responsibility to unravel the mystery of their untimely expiration.”
“And how exactly do you do that?” Pym asked. “Do you enter the building wearing your fright mask with your father’s guns blazing?” He stared at Bentley, his gaze hard and accusatory.
“I’ve told you before,” Bentley stated. “I use violence only when it is necessary.” He looked out the backseat window of the Packard at the building again. “When the answers are found and the villains exposed.” He paused, flashes of the insane bloodletting that he had perpetrated—that Death had perpetrated—over the last weeks parading before his mind’s eye.
“And until then?”
“Until then?” Bentley repeated, opening the passenger door and stepping out onto the sidewalk. “Until then, there is an investigation to complete, and purveyors of evil to be routed.”
He told his driver to wait for his return before slamming closed the car door and climbing the steps to the building’s front doors.
Into the lion’s den.
* * *
Copyright © 2017 Mike Mignola & Thomas E. Sniegoski.
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Mike Mignola is the author and illustrator best known as the award-winning creator, writer, and artist of Hellboy. He worked on the Hellboy movies with Guillermo del Toro. He also coauthored several New York Times bestselling books with Christopher Golden. Mignola lives in southern California with his wife, daughter, and cat.
Thomas E. Sniegoski is a comic book writer and a New York Times bestselling author of more than two dozen novels. His teen fantasy YA series Fallen was adapted into a trilogy of movies by ABC Family. Sniegoski lives in Massachusetts with his wife, LeeAnne, and their dog, Kirby.