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).
I must look a sight, Bentley Hawthorne thought as he stood in the doorway of his family home, adorned in a ragged black suit and slouch hat, face hidden by a grinning skull mask.
He could just imagine the thoughts racing through his manservant's mind at the moment.
“Dear God, sir!” Pym exclaimed, clutching the heavy bathrobe about his throat. “You gave me a fright. I had no idea…”
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.
Yes indeed, folks: this is a story with murder monkeys armed with straight razors. In a single page, Tom Sniegoski (and artistic collaborator Mike Mignola, who contributed several drawings to accompany the text) sets the entire tone for the following horror adventure.
It's certainly a humdinger: a fantastical mash-up of the detective pulp fiction of the 1930s, the superhero sensibilities of Batman, and the supernatural flourishes of Guillermo del Toro (which makes sense, given Mignola's best known work, Hellboy, has been adapted twice—thus far—for the big screen by the Mexican director).
Hero Bentley Hawthorne is Bruce Wayne if he was a) cursed with paranormal powers by Death itself, and b) a sickly, scrawny bookworm instead of a buff martial artist equipped with homemade weaponry.
Due to a tragic clash of science and the supernatural when he was a child, Bentley is an orphaned twenty-something recluse who hides from the world in the sprawling Hawthorne mansion, his only confidante his devoted manservant Pym. Thanks to the aforementioned tragedy, Bentley now has an alter ego he frequently assumes: Grim Death. When the ghosts of murder victims appear to him, he dons his skeletal mask and black trench coat in order to seek out their killers.
Advised by a talking raven named Roderick, armed with his pistols—relics of his father's munitions company—and bursts of unnatural strength, Bentley becomes the avatar of Death, meting out justice to evildoers.
“…I realize that something has to be done.”
Bentley looked away from the ghost and back to Pym.
“That somebody needs to act for them… Someday must avenge them.”
“But why you?” the butler pleaded. “Why can't it be left to law enforcement?”
“In some cases that's exactly what happens,” Bentley explained. “But with others…” He looked back to the ghost of the old woman, who continued to stare at him pleadingly. “The perpetrator will get away with it.”
“And why is that your concern?” Pym asked.
“Because I've been chosen, Pym,” Bentley said. “Due to the sins committed by my parents, I've been selected for a special purpose.”
Pym slowly blinked, folding his hand in front of himself.
“If you say so, sir.”
“Cheer up, Pym,” Bentley said, attempting to add a bit of levity to the moment. “You always said that I should find a hobby. Well, here it is.”
“I was thinking more along the lines of stamp collecting,” the butler said.
In his debut adventure, Grim Death must avenge a young trapeze artist who was strangled by her lover. What makes this case so confusing, though, is that the murderer immediately confessed, was arrested, tried, and now sits in prison awaiting execution.
So why must Grim Death get involved?
The ghost of the murdered woman is silently insistent that there is more going on here. Her lover is a kind, gentle man who truly cared about her and shows heartbreaking remorse for his actions—something must have made him throttle her in the sideshow of the traveling carnival they both worked at.
As the story see-saws between the “present” case of the murdered trapeze artist in the 1930s and Bentley's childhood and transformation into Grim Death, we meet monstrous cannibals, gorillas in suits, knife-wielding clowns, a lady reporter who's handy with a rifle, men who can generate electricity from their hands, and mad scientists with machines capable of capturing the essence of Death itself.
Grim Death is rife with beautiful, poignant, unsettling visuals. Maimed ghosts plead for absolution while the blood from their broken skulls drifts about them in an ectoplasmic cloud—a touch straight from Guillermo del Toro's masterpiece The Devil's Backbone. Like any pulp superhero worth his salt, subterranean tunnels lead our young hero from his vast, empty mansion to the munitions factory where his father's prototype weapons await his new cause.
The cast is a relatively small one, given Bentley's reclusive nature. There's the steadfast and very disapproving Pym, cut from the standard loyal butler cloth. Gwendolyn Marks, Bentley's closest neighbor, is an outspoken, straightforward lady who wants to become a serious reporter for her father's paper. The mysterious Professor Romulus plays an integral part in the creation of the Grim Death, as do parents Edwina and Abraham.
There's nothing precisely new about Grim Death and Bill the Electrocuted Criminal—it's a very fun puzzle crafted of pieces we've seen a hundred times before. Sniegoski has collected all of the best, most entertaining tropes of several genres—detective thrillers in the vein of Marlowe and Sam Spade; ghostly horror Poe would approve of; the adventure heroics of the Phantom, the Shadow, the Rocketeer; the mad science of Lovecraft—and hit puree on the blender.
This doesn't make it a bad story, though. Sure, it hits all the expected beats. But it's still a lot of fun and has enough flourishes to delight even the most well-read genre fans. There are genuinely creepy moments of horror, dollops of humor to leaven the darkness, and a fast-paced double narrative that carries you along with ease.
The ending suggests this may be only the first of Grim Death's adventures recorded for posterity—fingers crossed that another will follow.
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Angie Barry wrote her thesis on the socio-political commentary in zombie films. Meeting George Romero is high on her bucket list, and she has spent hours putting together her zombie apocalypse survival plan. She also writes horror and fantasy in her spare time, and watches far too much Doctor Who. Come find the angie bee at Tumblr.