Barry Reese is another one of those visionary writers who didn’t need no stinking Appendix N to show him how pulp was done. He started writing his own stories inspired by the classic pulp caped and cowled crusaders back in the late 2000-oughts with his Edgar Rice Burroughsian, Conquerors of Shadow: The Adventures of Eobard Grace. Over the last few years his output has increased with numerous books chronicling the adventures of his Big Three superheroes, Lazarus Gray, The Peregrine, and Gravedigger. With a total of thirteen novels between them, knowing where to start presents a bit of a challenge. Reese has solved that reader’s conundrum with his latest work, Götterdämmerung.
In Gotterdammerung, the big three players in what I have dubbed “The Reeseverse” are thrown together in a desperate bid to stop an unholy alliance between Hitler’s inner circle and Lovecraft’s worst nightmares. As a largely standalone adventure, Gotterdammerung works great. Take it from a man who tried it – this book represents my first foray into the Reeseverse, and all three of the major characters recieve the sort of introduction necessary to make them work as characters. At the same time, Reese draws on the deep backstories presented in the characters’ solo adventures in a way sure to please long time fans and to entice newcomers to go back and find out what they are missing.
In all honesty, it’s clear that those who have read the previous works will have a deeper appreciation for the sacrifices these characters make in Götterdämmerung and the ways in which they break out of their usual habits to stop the Mythos-fuelled Nazi Armageddon. The real depth of events such as the deaths of loved ones or a decision to take a life normally spared (or vice versa) are hinted at in this book, but likely take on a whole new dimension for readers who have already invested the time and effort to get to know these characters through multiple volumes. Which leads to an overall feeling for newcomers that this work lacks depth.
This shallowness shows through in the matter of fact handling of the Lovecraftian elements as well. The antagonists in Götterdämmerung are not the unknowable alien entities who care nothing for mankind. Instead, they are a lighter and more mundane horror characterized by plenty of tentacles and slime and ancient trickster gods who bear the name Nyarlathotep. While the light treatment of these eldritch horrors might turn off purists, it provides a perfect match for the feel of the novel. These are four color heroes engaging in the fun and honest adventure of good versus evil, and the books shallow depth is more than compensated by its generous breadth.
The adventure sprawls around the world, and even leaves the world at one point for a mystic nexus that provides part of the key to saving mankind from the belly of the Mythos beast. Reese has built a huge cast of character – and he has a knack for colorful and engaging characters – and he draws on them to add verisimilitude and import to the adventure. Supporting heroes such as the ancient sorcerer known as the Catalyst and the weird living pile of vegetation called The Heap standout in particular. Again, these characters serve as fun ‘in-jokes’ for longtime fans, but are presented with enough depth for first-time readers to appreciate them as well. Overall, these little nods to previous works add a lot to the narrative. Rather than feel tacked on, they all of them help drive the plot forward or raise the stakes in an organic and unobtrusive manner.
In like manner, the villains of the piece are also vivid and fully fleshed out. From the psychopathic Mr. Death to the honorable hero-assassin for hire, Nimrod, they each have their own motivations and abilities that range in power scale from barely above human to earthshaking, and they make for suitable foils as the heroes struggle to beat the overwhelming odds of the Mythos boss monsters.
A few sour notes do occur. For all his whiz-bang rejection of modern notions of literary frippery – which is commendable in stories like this – Reese can’t completely let go of his modernity. The past is a foreign country, and Götterdämmerung, for all its trappings, feels like a modern work. The characters might live and dress like they belong in the pre-WWII era, but they think like moderns. One passage serves as well as any to illustrate. In the following set-up, the hero prepares to make an attempt to prevent a woman from comitting suicide:
The rain was coming down hard, making the edge of the rooftop perilously slippery. The woman who stood balanced there was attractive, with long brown hair and soulful eyes. Her green dress was drenched and clung to her athletic form in the most scandalous way. It wasn’t something that Morgan Watts felt good about noticing at a time like this, but he was a heterosexual man and it was impossible not to take notice.
In the first place, no man in the late 1930’s thought of himself as ‘heterosexual’, he simply thought of himself as ‘typical’ or ‘hot-blooded’ or “a man’s man’. In the second place, any masculine hero wouldn’t think twice about noticing and appreciating the curves of a beautiful woman, regardless of the context. This paragraph jars the reader out of the 1930’s vibe that Reese had established and punts him right back into the mindset of the 2010’s when everything is problematic and men are pressured to apologize for anything and everything. It takes the hard-bitten Watts and makes him just another toxically masculine guy who feels bad about his oppressive nature even as he risks his life to save that of a woman he has never met. The narrative dissonance of passages like this sucks a lot of the drama and emotion out of the moment, and serves as a great illustration of the difference between those who want to ‘fix’ the pulp stories and those who want to embrace them.
These few discordant notes aside, Götterdämmerung is a straight-ahead action story that features square jawed heroes who are not afraid to roll up their sleeves and fight evil two-fisted style. If you’re looking for a light read and don’t mind the modern intrusions in your throwback adventures, then Barry Reese has just what you’re looking for. And in this team-up standalone work, you can decide for yourself whether you prefer the action hero of Lazarus Gray, the cowled crusader of The Peregrine, or the angel of death that is The Gravedigger. Whichever flavor you prefer, Reese has more titles ready for you to add to your ‘must read’ pile.