Michael Panush’s Stein & Candle: American Nightmares is, at once, what I expected and not really what I wanted. Which is not all bad, let me tell you. I expected a bit of semi-hard-boiled detective stuff from the cover and blurb when I selected this to be one of the review copies from Curiosity Quills Press. But I expected more Lovecraft, and fewer splinters. Well, it was an e-book, so e-splinters. Yes, it is that pulpy.
The characters are Morton Candle, ex-US Army and currently a PI and his teenage ward/sidekick/adopted son/brain of the operation Weatherby Stein. Stein is the 14ish son of German occultists killed in the waning days of WWII, right before Candle’s special ops unit could save them. Set in the immediate post-war years, when Route 66 was hitting stride, and the idea of a former Army sergeant just up and traveling around with a kid not his one was less questionable. With vampires, werewolves, and at least one radiation-tainted mutant.
The style is adventure-magazine serial of a sort – the stories are roughly chronological, but each would be, I think, one edition’s worth in a magazine. The writing it spot on for the era – Stein & Candle occupy a world where our heroes are heeled with twin heaters and a Chicago typewriter in the back driving their boiler to the sticks hoping to score a job for some cabbage. Yeah, like that. Which is pretty nifty, all-in-all.
The tales themselves are equal parts 50’s horror and overblown hardboiled detective. Panush walks a really thin line here, and holds it together through the first book perfectly. This combo can too easily devolve into horrible garbage, where the slang takes over, or the story drifts into a different era, or both. Panush uses exactly the right level of slang, with Stein serving the reader as the straight man – no slang here. The stories cover the gamut – zombies, vampires, Route 66 roadside attractions, zombies again, Cuba, and biker gangs.
Personally, I liked the Cuban story best. It injected a nifty ‘Weird Tales’ vibe into well-documented history, and stayed true to both sources. It did a great job of establishing the characters, and demonstrated Panush’s ability perfectly.
While I liked the book, it hit three sore spots with me.
- The first is my dislike of anthology works. This avoided the worst of that by being one author, and by being a well-crafted homage to a long-gone genre, but still, I generally dislike anthologies.
- The second is the use of slang – while it does (and I cannot stress that enough) read true to the era, that doesn’t mean I like the era. It wasn’t enough to get me to stop, not even a little bit, but it got a bit wearing after a while. The writing is good, this is a personal perspective. Like anthologies, any overuse of terms of art, from slang to writing in dialect, to technobabble, can get tiring.
- The third is a wild and unexpected anachronism. Wait, is that right? It was a reference to something that didn’t exist in the time of the story. Maybe a prechronism? I only caught the one, but it was so amazingly obvious and out of place (about 30 years out) that it jarred me out of the story a bit.
That’s it – three little things, two of which are just my quirks as a reader. So if you are wondering, I wholeheartedly embrace this book, and look forward to getting to the next two.