When I first encountered author Michael Cnudde, it was to review his alternate history novel War Plan Crimson over on the Sea Lion Press blog , where I semi-regularly review indie and small-press Alternate History and Counterfactual Fiction titles. I didn’t really know what to expect when I started reading War Plan Crimson, but soon discovered a fast-paced, deeply imaginative and genuinely compelling tale that moved from the imposition of a fascist regime in Washington D.C. in the 1930s, to an incredibly different Second World War that saw the USA clash with the British Empire, as the US Army ground its way through Canada. I finished it within a couple of days, which is rather rare for indie AH titles that I pick up to read, and had a thoroughly enjoyable time with the novel as a whole; I came away with the distinct impression that Michael Cnudde was a skilled and imaginative writer, able to weave thought-provoking scenarios into a whiplash-fast plot. I was eager to see what else he had written, and as such decided to pick up the short story collection he had penned – the intriguingly titled Elvis Saves JFK: Stories of Alternate History. From what I could see, the stories contained within the collection were a mixture of serious and more humorous Alternate History scenarios; but not only did I trust that Cnudde could deliver good stories, I had to admit that I wanted to see just how, exactly, Elvis could save the ill-fated John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
Fortunately for me, then, the collection opens with the titular Elvis Saves JFK; and from the very first paragraph, it becomes clear to the reader that this will perhaps be a less ‘serious’ counterfactual story than is usual in the genre. Elvis Presley, secret agent of the Trilateral Commission, receives an urgent message from a cross-dressing J Edgar Hoover on his picturephone: one of the aliens from the Roswell Incident has escaped from captivity and must be recaptured urgently, lest its escape cause chaos, confusion, and even worse – a decline in Elvis’ record sales. Pursuing the shape-shifting alien (who favours a disguise in the shape of Vice-President Nixon) across the country, Elvis is joined by Special Agent Marilyn Monroe as they try and stop the inhuman creature from escaping the planet. Cnudde gives us a fast-paced, action-packed and hilarious adventure that gleefully and unapologetically makes use of every far-fetched conspiracy theory to feature in US history, flawlessly integrating them into a short story that is part alternate history, part secret history, and utterly engrossing as a whole.
Demonstrating his ability to deftly move between humorous and serious Alternate History, Cnudde then offers up Chasing Fate, which gives us an alternate history tale featuring Amelia Earhart, something I haven’t seen in the genre before. Cnudde certainly has an eye for dramatic openings – here we see Earhart take up a new Curtiss P-40E fighter for a demonstration flight, complete with live ammunition. It’s already an unusual occurrence, given that she should have disappeared while flying years earlier; and it only gets stranger as it’s revealed that she’s taking off from Hickham Field at Pearl Harbor, and it’s the morning of 7th December 1941. There’s a hint at the rather subtle PoD (Point of Divergence) that kept Earhart alive in this timeline, then its straight into action as the trail-blazing test pilot is suddenly confronted with the lead wave of the Japanese carrier-based planes assaulting Pearl Harbor. Cutting between prose and excerpts from historical texts, Cnudde then charts Earhart’s career as it rapidly ascends, from hero of Pearl Harbor to one of the leading aces in the USAAF in World War II. There’s plenty more aerial action as Earhart squares off against the Axis, with some adrenaline-pumping dogfights described by Cnudde as the story progresses, as well as some rather surprising political developments that occur as a direct result of Earhart’s fame and influence. It’s another exciting and thought-provoking story from Cnudde, and also one thay has a huge amount of potential for expansion, especially considering Earhart’s wartime career, and the rivalry that develops between her squadron and that of her opposite number in the Luftwaffe. It could easily be a novella, if not a fully-fledged novel, in order to truly capitalise on Cnudde’s imagination and original concepts.
Right of Return is an interesting story, and another sign of Cnudde’s vivid imagination taking him – and us the readers – to distinctly unexpected places. Here we have his unique take on that stale stalwart scenario of the genre, the Third Reich Victorious. A century after the final triumph of the Reich over all enemies, both those in the West and the East, banners are being hung in Berlin celebrating this momentous occasion. Cnudde brings to life the infamous Welthauptstadt Germania, the mega-capital city that Hitler and Speer could only imagine on paper and in scale models in our timeline; in this reality, it is an architectural reality (and horror) that acts as a physical demonstration of the Reich’s dominance over the world. But as SS astronaut Obergruppenfuehrer Karl Dietz walks up the vast marble steps to SS High Command, little does he know that vengeance is swiftly approaching the Nazi superpower, and from an incredibly surprising direction. I’ll not say any more to avoid spoiling the story as a whole, but it’s a fantastic and imaginative inversion of one of the most enduring pop culture myths in regards to the Nazis, and delivers a superb and rather epic ending.
A Date in November takes us in the direction of time travel, as a US operative travels back in time, away from the irradiated husk of a planet he inhabits, back to a crucial moment in the time stream that needs to change to prevent a global thermonuclear war from occurring. That moment is the 22nd November 1963, and the location Dallas, Texas, as President John F Kennedy travels through the city in his motorcade. However, as is the fate in this genre of all such time travellers going back to this moment in time, it soon becomes apparent that things are not as simple as initially believed. Conflicting time streams, hidden motives, and members of an opposition that our time traveler hadn’t even conceived of existing soon start to sow the seeds of confusion, and the story ends with a gut-wrenching twist that caught me by surprise and haunted me for some time after I finished both the story, and the collection as a whole.
The final story in the collection, and also the longest, is Truth, Justice, and the 1962 War Against Evil. As if further demonstrating his mastery of narrative, here Cnudde adopts a less formal structure, with the casual tone of one man transcribing the story told to him by another. In this case, the narrator is famous entertainer Joey Bishop, relating how one night after a show, he received a phonecall from no less than Frank Sinatra calling him to a meeting of the Rat Pack. In a secret penthouse in Las Vegas, that infamous pack of singers and rabble-rousers are briefed on a top-secret mission given to them directly by none other than JFK. Their task? To once again work together to reclaim the dread tome the Black Book of Al’zaroth, and prevent it being used to summon Shoggoths – or much worse – during the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis. This isn’t the first time they’ve had to secure the book – they did it the first time in the wartorn ruins of Berlin in 1945 – but no-one knows who stole it this time, or what they intend to do with it. Put simply, this is a hell of a fun ride, artfully blending together Hollywood celebrities, Lovecraftian lore and Silver Age-style superheroes into a fast-paced and cinematic adventure that Cnudde writes so well you can readily imagine it coming to life before your eyes. All the elements are done well, and even the Lovecraftian elements are well-executed, and not overbearing to the point of smothering the plot, as is so often the case in that genre. Cnudde obviously enjoyed writing all of his stories, but this clearly comes across as the one he had he most fun with, and it shows on every page.
If War Plan Crimson demonstrated that Michael Cnudde had a firm handle on the Alternate History genre, then Elvis Saves JFK evidences the fact that he has mastered the genre, as well as several others that include historical fiction, science-fiction, and even Lovecraftian fiction. Able to effortlessly move between serious and more humorous fiction as required, with each entry in this collection Cnudde delivers fast-paced, engaging and action-packed stories that also contain some rather thought-provoking elements. That’s particularly so for his superb Chasing Fate which, if Cnudde ever decides to go back to writing Alternate History fiction, has a huge amount of potential and would make for an excellent full-length novel. Although he’s only published two Alternate History titles – one novel and one short story collection – having read them both I can readily testify to the fact that Cnudde is a major talent in the Alternate History genre, and one whose works deserve to be brought into the limelight and read and enjoyed by a far wider audience than they have found so far. But whichever genre Cnudde decides to write in next, should he ever, then you’ll find me reading and reviewing them as soon as they’re published.