Hey, it’s Monday morning, and, just for a little change of pace, I’m NOT looking at a week’s schedule chock full of doctor’s appointments and various tests (said tests conducted by good-natured vampires wearing scrubs and saying, “Little pinch” while brandishing big needles). Hurrah for me! I’m also not looking at a yard full of tons of snow. Snow sucks.
Hi guys. Still doing the recovery thing here, which is why I’m running a light schedule here on the ClarksonPunk blog. I’m hoping to get back to a normal posting rhythm very soon. IN the meantime, I had a busy week, and a lovely weekend here in the darkest jungles of Appalachia. I actually went out three times WITHOUT the wheelchair! Okay, on one of them I got halfway through the outing and then had Dear Husband break out the Hated Chair because I was flagging, but still, progress! This bodes quite well for being back on my feet full time by my birthday in April. I hope. A lot.
One thing sitting around in doctor’s offices and hospital waiting rooms is good for is reading. I am still making serious in-roads on my To Be Read mountain and enjoying most of it. Today’s book review is from that Everest. Readers, I offer you Doc Voodoo: Aces and Eights.
Doc Voodoo: Aces and Eights is a 2011 pulp novel by author Dale Lucas, telling about a superhero — Doc Voodoo, natch — protecting Prohibition era Harlem from mundane and supernatural threats.
Booker DuBois “Dub” Corveaux is a black doctor who has only recently opened a medical practice in 1920’s Harlem, New York. He’s quiet, soft spoken, intelligent, and a gifted physician; he’s already building a good reputation. Nobody would suspect that, at night, he dresses up and paints his face to mimic Baron Samedi, notorious guardian of the dead and powerful Voodoo Loa so he can go out onto the streets and fight crime (Loa = “spirit” or what might be considered a demigod, but that’s not really accurate; check here for a better explanation). And even if they did suspect that much, they wouldn’t believe the more important part: when he’s Doc Voodoo, he is being “mounted” by Samedi or one of the other Haitian Loa (“mounted” = “possessed,” but again, that’s not an entirely accurate characterization of the process). When playing horse to one of the Loa, he is granted various superpowers (invincibility, super strength, accuracy with weapons), depending on which Loa is along for the ride.
See, the thing is, during the 1920’s there was something called the Harlem Renaissance. The Renaissance was an explosion of black culture into the American mainstream that started around 1918 and ran up to the early years of the Depression. Dance, music, religious and political thought, literature, art, drama, you name it, Harlem was at the forefront of a tidal wave that was being led by the blacks at that time. Poet Langston Hughes, musicians Duke Ellington and and Fats Waller were leaders of the Renaissance. Jazz music came into its own in Harlem in the 1920’s. And it’s jazz music that leads us back to our hero.
Because jazz was becoming so huge — and the Renaissance was spilling over into white culture in a big big way — there was a veritable boom in nightclubs catering specifically to white New Yorkers, which meant big big money. That really happened. In Doc Voodoo, these nightclubs are in cutthroat competition for those white dollars. Most of these clubs are Mob owned and Mob operated, which means whites only. But one lady, Madam Maybelle Merriwether (known more commonly as The Queen Bee or just The Queen) wants to change this; a formidable black woman, she is in the process of setting up her own nightclub in competition with those white mobsters. Now, The Queen is no saint; she’s got her own little criminal empire going strong. But it’s implied to be less exploitative, less cutthroat than the white empires, and more sensitive to the needs of her people.
Suffice it to say, mobsters don’t like competition at the best of times. In 1920’s Harlem, they like it even less; when it’s coming from a black woman who “doesn’t know her place” they like it, oh, I’d say not at all. So they try to come down hard on her, setting the police on her, intimidating her employees, sabotaging the project. None of it works; Queen Bee is going to have her nightclub or die trying. Until one mobster decides to take the fight into the supernatural and lays a heavy-duty curse on the club. And boy-howdy, what a curse. It’s pretty nasty stuff, spilling out of the club and into the neighborhood: accidents, crime, unexplained violence, people going nuts. It’s bad bad stuff.
And this is where Doc Voodoo comes in. He starts out trying to put out the metaphorical fires this curse has started, and eventually must go toe-to-toe with the curse itself, all the while steering clear of white mobster who don’t want interference, trying to convince a frightened neighborhood that he’s not part of the problem, and showing Queen Bee that he’s on her side.
Did I mention he’s also trying to maintain a secret identity and a medical practice? And he’s met a feisty young lady, Miss Fralene Farnes, community activist, who he’d like to get to know much much better. Yeah, Dub /Doc has a busy schedule.
Okay, here’s the thing. I love classic pulp. I love the energy of it, the action and romance and swashbuckliness of it all; nobody can top the pulps when it comes to plot. But it has its drawbacks. A modern reader expects their characters to have more depth than, oh, say, Doc Savage did back in the day. We’ve become too sophisticated in our tastes to easily accept the sort of slapdash set-building and characterization that Lester Dent and Robert E. Howard got away with. This is why I’ve fallen so in love with New Pulp: it delivers the plot goodness of classic pulp, but without letting down the side when it comes to character and setting. And that’s what makes me recommend Doc Voodoo: it delivers all three.
In some respects, Doc Voodoo delivers a little too well. If you haven’t looked at my About page, then I’ll let you in on a little (non) surprise: I’m a white chick. Moreover, I’m a Southern white chick. I’m not old enough to remember segregation, but I have seen its skeletons: a nice water-fountain next to a crappy one that used to be labeled “Colored only.” In my hometown there were two public swimming pools, and while neither is segregated, the oldest members of the community still refer to one of them as “the colored pool.” Little things like that, scar tissue from a nastier time in our history. I’m ashamed of them, as is any sensible person. But I can’t deny them; to forget is to invite those times to come back again.
This book, and its sequel, Doc Voodoo Crossfire, is set deep in one of the nastiest of those nasty times. Historical accuracy, not to mention plot and character motivations, demands that the author depict that nastiness in all its horrible ways. This means this book is full — and I mean FULL — of the most horrible ethnic slurs. Seriously, there are racial epithets in this book that I had never heard of. Wow. (BTW: if anybody tells you that racism only ever existed in the South, mark that guy down as a liar or hopelessly deluded. Racism was everywhere, including up North; the South was just (way way WAY) more aggressive about it). I found myself cringing a lot while reading this. I understand why the author used them, as I say. But it was hard going, and several times I put the book down, saying, “I can’t take it anymore.” But I kept coming back. Good stories, even challenging ones, well, I can’t seem to stay away.
I took a peek at some of the reviews on Goodreads before writing this article, to see who else commented on this aspect of the story. One reviewer, a black lady, said she refused to finish the book because she was offended. I can’t say as I blame her; I was blown off my feet by some of it, and I didn’t have half her excuse. It’s a great story, and, as i say, the racism is justified; it’s part and parcel with the setting, the plot and the characterizations. The story just doesn’t work as well without it. If you’re easily offended by that stuff, you may want to skip this one. But if you can take it for what it is and work past it, I think the pulp fans among you will really enjoy this one. Good characterization, really well-developed setting, a rollicking plot. This story has everything. I can’t wait to read the next installment.
Okay, I think that’s it for me for today. Like I said earlier, I’m still on a light writing schedule. But I’m going to try and come back ASAP, and see how soon I can get back to three blogs a week, same as before. Besides, a great guy and fellow writer gave me a treat for my next Fun Friday, and I can’t wait to share it with you! In the meantime, you know the drill: share, tweet, comment, and write. Send me your recommendations for Fun Friday. And stay out of trouble until we meet again!