Bond Unknown – Neil Baker (Ed.) – Review

Bond Unknown

April Moon Press

Edited by Neil Baker

[Note: I was offered a review copy of this title in exchange for a fair and honest review]

Would I call myself a fan of the James Bond canon? I suppose that would be a fairly accurate assessment, though with the caveat that this is very much lop-sided in favour of the long-running film series rather than the original books written by Ian Fleming. Indeed, growing up in Britain, not only is the character of James Bond an iconic figure as a result of that film series and the various actors who have portrayed 007 over the decades, but it almost feels ubiquitous in some vaguely insidious, mildly Lovecraftian manner. Whenever a Bond film is released in Britain it’s treated as a major event, an on-going symbol of Britishness that can rise above whatever the economic or political situation is at the time, regardless of the quality of the film itself or the actor in the role. But there does often seem to be a certain shallowness in the role that Bond plays in British culture and society, something that has become skin-deep, almost literally given the occasionally incendiary discussions that take place whenever 007 is rumoured to be recast and the possibility of a person of colour (or perhaps even a woman!) taking over the role is raised in the media.

It certainly seems to be the case that the pervasive nature of the James Bond ‘brand’ has resulted in the original creation by Fleming becoming airbrushed, his flaws and sharp edges becoming softened and blurred to such a degree that it seems like the two creations (Fleming’s Bond and Film Bond) are now only linked by that iconic name and some incredibly broad tropes like fast cars and travelling to exotic locales. Indeed, taking a look at the film series, it would be rather difficult for me to highlight the last time that the cinematic Bond actually undertook something that Fleming and his original creation would have recognised as an act of espionage, rather than globe-trotting, driving fast cars and seducing glamorous women. What the cinema-going audience now know as ‘James Bond’ is so detached from the realities of the character that Fleming introduced in Casino Royale in 1953 that it seems that the time is incredibly overdue for a re-examination of the original character; I suspect asking an average fan of the Bond films to watch the latest cinematic outing, and then to read Casino Royale and then, say, Moonraker would result in some deeply interesting reactions and perhaps a degree of cognitive dissonance.

I was vaguely aware that the copyright status of James Bond and his associated literary universe was still strictly controlled, and that there is famously a great deal of conflict between the literary Bond and the cinematic Bond and how elements of the former could be transferred to the latter; and as such, the only official Bond fiction titles that have been released have been those authorised by the Fleming estate, and accordingly their plots and characterisations stay incredibly close to what the Estate decrees. For those interested in the minute, often confusing details, io9 has an excellent summary article. As such, there have not been any of the literary deviations, pastiches or genre mash-ups that have been seen with other famous characters such as, for example, Sherlock Holmes, that provide the freedom to not only take Bond as a character into other genres, but to also conduct the deconstruction and analysis of the character that it needs.

Of course, there have been any number of stories published that feature a character that is obviously James Bond ‘with the serial numbers filed off’, but to me that it isn’t quite the same – to truly be able to drill down into the original literary Bond and analyse him as a character, it needs to actually be James Bond for that brand-recognition and, I suppose, a certain amount of shock value to see the famous spy scrutinized in such a manner. I was therefore distinctly surprised to learn that publisher April Moons Books were not only going to publish a duology of stories involving James Bond, the actual literary character and not some kind of parody, but these stories were not going to be simple pastiches, but in fact tales that plunged Bond into the Lovecraftian Mythos. Given that the Mythos genre is by far my favourite fiction field to read and review, I was incredibly excited at this news, and even more so when April Moon Books revealed that the two stories in Bond Unknown would be written by William Meikle and Edward M. Erdelac, both of whom I consider to not only be brilliant horror writers, but also some of the finest writers of Mythos fiction in the genre at this time. The fact that there would be two illustrations by artist Wayne M. Miller, my favourite illustrator, was just the cherry on top of the cake.

The incredibly high level of quality to be found in Bond Unknown is obvious from the very start, with an evocative and thematically perfect cover illustration by artist Mark Maddox that not only highlights that Bond will be fighting the horrors to be found in the Lovecraftian universe, but also how small Bond is when compared to those horrors. The first story in the duology is Into The Green by William Meikle, accompanied by the first illustration from Wayne M Miller. Going into the anthology, I was curious to what extent the two authors would draw inspiration from the literary Bond as compared to his cinematic counterpart; while copyright doesn’t appear to allow anything from the Bond films to appear in print, the prevalent nature of the big-screen version of the character would surely mean, I assumed, that it would dominate whatever stories were to be told in Bond Unknown. Fortunately, both for myself and the quality of the title, I was dissuaded from this assumption by the very first paragraph of Into The Green, which is actually a quote from Mr Meikle: “I’ve been a Bond fan as long as I can remember, and back then when the world was young JB was Scottish, hard as nails, and a bit of a bastard.” Those are three distinctive, and definitive attributes, and all three are featured prominently in the short story that follows. Very much taking cues solely from Fleming’s original character, the Bond portrayed by Mr Meikle is one who still remembers what it means to be a spy, as he’s tasked with travelling by nuclear submarine to a distant and isolated research station in Alaska to investigate what exactly is going on there. There’s a healthy dose of Cold War paranoia from the very beginning, effectively playing on the distrust between the United States and Great Britain that existed despite the ‘Special Relationship’, and Bond is forced to infiltrate the research station when it becomes obvious that the American-backed scientists are hiding something, an incredibly dangerous secret involving the roiling ball of sickly green energy that they claim is a new source of free and unlimited energy for the world.

Before long Bond is sneaking, punching and shooting his way into (and out of trouble) in the research station, and for a few pages I assumed that I knew where the story was heading: a relatively straight-forward tale of Bond versus cultists. I’ve read enough of Mr Meikle’s work, however, that I should have realised that the would never get so complacent and offer up something so bland; by the time you’re a third of the way into the story, Mr Meikle has suddenly pulled off a number of twists and revelations that completely change the tone and nature of the story. Bond is in a sort of peril that the character has never faced before, his soul in danger as well as his physical body, and for much of the rest of the story he’s distinctly on the back foot, distrusted by his closest allies and forced to rely purely on his wits and perseverance to triumph. Meikle’s Bond is certainly the hard as nails character that he promised at the beginning of the story, and indeed there are a series of sequences late in the story that had me physically wincing in both dismay and revulsion, as Bond is forced to act drastically to try and counteract malevolent Lovecraftian forces that are attempting to control him. There are some great action scenes, combined with a fantastically imaginative and subtly chilling Mythos plot, as is to be expected from Mr Meikle, and it’s a deeply enjoyable tale that I’ve gone back and read several times after finishing Bond Unknown as a whole.

Into The Green is a superb blending of Bond and cosmic horror, but is very much the delicious starter to the sumptuous main course that is Edward M. Erdelac’s novella, Mindbreaker. I’ve only come across Mr Erdelac relatively recently, but his Merkabah Rider series, and his stand-alone novels such as Andersonville have deeply impressed me with an instinctive understanding of the nature of Weird Western and Cosmic Horror writing; and as such I was looking forward to seeing how he would interpret James Bond in the context of a Lovecraftian universe. The result? By the time I had finished Mindbreaker, it’s no exaggeration for me to say that my mind actually was broken, in the best possible way. What Mr Erdelac has written is not only a sublime piece of cosmic horror fiction, but also a story that I have no hesitation in describing as the exemplar that all future Bond Mythos stories – and hopefully many more will be written – must compare themselves against and attempt to better. What starts off as the kidnapping of a member of the Royal Family by what appears to be a group of Middle Eastern terrorists soon escalates into something far more dangerous and reality-bending for 007, as he is forced to comprehend that his world is infinitely larger than he once knew, and contains a multitude of interdimensional horrors that could exterminate all life on Earth – and the cosmos – in a fraction of a second; and that there are entire cults of men, women and monsters dedicated to ensuring these cosmic horrors can undertake this holocaust.

Mindbreaker is a perfect blend of Ian Fleming’s most famous creation and H.P. Lovecraft’s universe, almost as if Mr Erdelac has channelled some alternate reality where Fleming was directly influenced by the American author’s writings. The novella combines the pacing and action sequences of the cinematic Bond canon (almost every fight scene and gunfight seems to be a lovingly crafted homage to a scene from a Bond film, with boat chases, anonymous henchmen with sub-machine guns, and even an incredibly evocative sequence that references the infamous train fight with Red Grant) with the casual violence, misogyny and attention to detail that Fleming demonstrated in his original stories. If that was as far as Mindbreaker went in terms of its depth, then it would already be an outstanding read; but Erdelac constantly pushes further into the Bond canon and the psyche and construction of Bond as a character. There are layers and layers to this novella, and as it progresses Erdelac effortlessly skewers all of the flaws and problems to be found in Bond, both as a fictional character and a personality. Indeed, perhaps the greatest element of Mindbreaker is the portrayal of Bond desperately trying to cope as the boundaries of the universe he dominates rapidly expand, and then collapse; it’s an incredible effort by the author, as Bond grimly, desperately clings to the idea that his foes are just very luck, or equipped with fantastically advanced technology, or their efforts are being exaggerated by a female companion who just needs a swift slap to the cheek and a rough bedding, all of which are brutally discarded as the plot progresses. The characterisation is spot on, particularly in regard to the supporting cast, with Erdelac creating several female characters who are not only the equal of Bond, but in fact manage to surpass him in various aspects; and the plot moves forward relentlessly, with the energy of the best Bond films, assisted by first-class prose and an incisive understanding of the Bond and Lovecraftian universes.

Bond Unknown is a glorious triumph, both for April Moons Books and for authors William Meikle and Edward M. Erdelac. Editor Neil Baker must be lauded for bringing together two skilled authors who have such innate understanding of both the Bond canon and the nature of Lovecraftian horror and combining their stories with the peerless illustrations of Wayne M. Miller and Mark Maddox. Erdelac’s Mindbreaker in particular is a flawless piece of cosmic horror fiction that sets an incredibly high standard for any stories that follow in this new subgenre; and perhaps the greatest shame of all is that Bond Unknown will be seen by so few readers due to the vagaries of international copyright. If the Fleming estate, and all others involved in licensing Bond fiction, had any sense then they would immediately license April Moon Books to produce further titles in the genre. I can only hope that, if the stars align correctly, we will see further stories published.

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