Kung Fu Antipopes And Other Strange Stories
I’m a huge fan of Paul Leone and his storytelling abilities, and particularly how he’s one of a relatively small handful of authors I’ve come across in my career as a book reviewer that has been able to make the jump between different genres. As such, when I heard that he had plans to release another anthology, bringing together a number of stories from a variety of different genres, I couldn’t wait to see what he had in store. And I must say that Kung-Fu Antipopes and Other Strange Stories certainly doesn’t disappoint, starting with the fantastic piece of cover art by Jackson Tjota, who has worked with Leone before to produce covers for some of his previous titles; as with the other pieces, Tjota has knocked it out of the park with this one, a full-colour piece that gives off a distinctly eerie and mystical air that puts one in the exact frame of mind needed to start reading the collection.
Composed of thirteen stories, the collection opens with the titular Kung Fu Antipopes, which I think might just take the award for the strangest – and most imaginative – story I’ve ever read outside of the Bizarro Horror subgenre. Taking place in the boiling hot environs of the island of Sicily, one of the most important events in the history of Christendom is about to occur; two senior clergymen claim to be the Holy Father of the Christian world, but only one can be crowned as Pope. But rather than decide this conflict through politics, espionage and even open battle as in our reality, in this world the decision is far more personal – and awesome: two men enter the fighting arena, and only one leaves as Pope. To say any more would be to spoil this brief, quirky and perfectly-executed story, which acts both as an excellent demonstration of Leone’s skill and imagination as a writer, and as a superb opening to the collection. It’s followed by Night Mare in Coal Country which is a moody and atmospheric piece that follows a tough, reticent biker as she travels to a hard-scrabble, dying town in response to a desperate plea over the phone, from a young woman desperate to settle accounts on behalf of her younger sister. Suspicious locals and a mysterious, silent stranger hovering around the bar at the same time as the biker make for an unexpectedly explosive finale. It’s reminiscent of an early Jack Reacher novel, like the under-rated classic The Killing Floor; lean and tense with sparse, pared-back prose, the sort used by Lee Child before he got too comfortable and too successful. It’s not only one of the best stories in the collection, it seems like it could be the progenitor of something far greater. Shades of Barbary then takes us to the first decade of the 20th Century, and the diary of someone travelling between London and the continent, visiting a variety of locales as part of a distant journey into North Africa. But the further their journey takes the diarist, the more unsettling and even sinister events begin to plague them: a painting in Paris that has an eerie resemblance to them, a woman in Oran forcing a strange hand-shaped token on them, and a baffling fortunate told by a blind prophet in the back streets of Tlemcen in Algeria. Heading deep into the desert, our narrator finds themselves trapped in a Foreign Legion fort amidst dying Legionnaires and unsettling strangers, only to discover the fearsome creature she has long been seeking. The Barrow Bride is presented as excerpts from the memoirs of one Goodwife Purity, who lived in Lancashire in the late 17th Century, and whose papers describe the events that occurred when her villages long-absent squire and his daughter returned to their home, coming back into the febrile atmosphere of the recent Restoration of Charles II. The square’s daughter, Emma, becomes fascinated with a series of sinister and mysterious ancient burial mounds on the moors outside the village, which become the source of terrifying nightmares for her, and also become linked to the strange deaths of certain villagers. Soon it becomes apparent that she is somehow linked to the Barrows – and the terrifying and ancient creature slumbering within. Leone crafts a compelling tale, seasoned with the additional twist of academic haughtiness from the professor translating the tale, which even results in an additional, and intriguing, ending to the tale.
Further on into the collection, The Girl in White is a fast-paced thriller, in which a man named Marty recounts an incident when he was a teenager working in a pizza shop. He meets a strange, ethereal woman dressed in white who seems odd and out of place – barely comprehending where she is. Seeing her being pursued by a strange, menacing figure in a black suit at the side of the road on his way home, the narrator impulsively gives her a lift in his car – only to become embroiled in a situation far beyond his every day reckoning. Pursued through ever-worsening weather by the implacable Man in Black and accompanied by the increasingly strange yet mesmerising girl in white, Marty discovers the secret wonders of the universe around him for a few moments, and also bears witness to the true nature of the girl and her pursuer; it’s a fun and quirky story, with a delightful sting in the tail at the end. It’s followed by Winter Black’s Bad Week, in which the titular Winter Black leaves a series of diary entries detailing her first week at a private all-girls college in Brooklyn. Apart from the usual issues for an eighteen year old girl, like crushes on attractive boys and the utterly boring nature of many of her lessons, she also has to content with dealing with the unearthly powers she possesses thanks to her parents – powers like being able to count all the dots on a ladybird, keeping time instinctively without access to a watch – and also the ability to immediately be aware of dangerous situations just by reading people’s body language. Which is what leads to Winter foiling the attempt by the hot guy she likes to kidnap one of her school friends, and in the process finding out that he’s some kind of demon – just like she’s half-angel herself. It’s a delightfully complex with a very likeable cast of characters and seeded with some intriguing worldbuilding, and certainly seems like a story that’s just begging to be expanded into a wider novel – or even the beginnings of an urban fantasy series like The Dresden Files. Then comes the unusually-titled Voyage of the Xuanzang: Horror at Houtu which deftly moves from urban fantasy to hard scifi in a universe where China is the dominant human power on Earth, and humanity has extended its reach to the stars. One of the longer stories in the collection, Leone weaves a compelling slice of science fiction that follows Li Heili, captain of the tramp freighter Xuanzang as it travels through space (using the rather appositely-named Zen Space which is Leone’s equivalent of warp speed) delivering cargo and allowing Li to remain independent of various corporations and governments. Leone – once again – delivers a solidly-built and imaginative universe for the story, somewhat reminiscent of Joss Whedon’s Firefly and its Anglo-Chinese fusion culture, though fortunately Leone deftly avoids the numerous dodgy stereotypes and character tropes in his story. Instead we are presented with an adventure in which Captain Li and her delightfully roguish crew travel to the distant and independent colony of Houtu to deliver goods, only to discover that the entire colony is deserted – everyone has disappeared, apparently all at the same time. But the further they investigate, the more Li realises that something is terribly wrong: a crewmember is kidnapped, a girl with a tenuous grip on sanity is discovered, and it becomes clear that the colonists have met a terrifying fate that might become the Captain’s as well. This is first-rate sci-fi horror, one of the rarest subgenres to be found, and bodes extremely well if Leone decides to continue with the story of Captain Li and her crew.
The Greenwood Case is a police procedural, Leone once again smoothly changing genres, which sees a Federal agent fly into the small town of Greenwood to investigate a murder/kidnapping involving a young girl. But as the story progresses, it becomes clear that our narrator doesn’t belong to a normal FBI unit – there are references to a mysterious ‘zone’ and strange previous cases involving suspects only referred to by numbers – as if they’re grouped into certain categories. Soon the Federal agent finds herself hunting an incredibly dangerous being without any backup apart from a magical camera and a rookie agent from the ‘normal’ FBI who doesn’t have the slightest clue about the horrifying things that lurk in the darkness – the things humanity usually ignores because it doesn’t want to think about them. Grim, creepy and deeply atmospheric, this is another story I’d love to see turned into an ongoing series about the STAU and its contingent of FBI agents fighting interdimensional creatures. So it’s fortunate that the next story, Bad Night at Blackwell, is another STAU story – a different agent as protagonist, but the same brand of weirdness. This time it’s a fire that burnt down a bar in a remote Alaskan town, with the authorities finding five burnt bodies – and more curiously, the corpse of a grey wolf. Agent Dreyer and her partner Daniel travel to the distant snowy terrain in order to hunt down what they suspect is a pack of werewolves, finding themselves caught between suspicious small-town locals and a pack of biker werewolves who don’t take kindly to outsiders investigating them – especially outsiders carrying guns and ammunition that can actually kill them. It’s a more streamlined and action-packed story than its predecessor, and even has an amusing epilogue to finish it off. It’s followed by a third STAU story, The Abernathy Mansion Recordings, and once again Leone changes hears and tackles this from a Found Footage-style narrative, playing out interview recordings and the like to develop the story of what happened in and around the aforementioned mansion. Here Leone presents us with a classic horror scenario – an opulent mansion built by a 19th century magnate, his reclusive wife plagued by ill-health, and a series of grisly murders of young women in the area, with a mysterious fire that burnt the mansion down in the aftermath of finding the corpses of young women buried in the grounds of the mansion. A young university student, Violet Johnson, conducts a series of interviews and audio pieces discussing the mansion and investigating its secrets, only to stumble into something that is far less urban legend and far more deadly secret. The third STAU story really expands on the subtle worldbuilding that Leone started weaving through the other two tales, and cements the concept as one I’m eager to see explored in greater detail.
Moving into the last part of the collection, The Tainted Grove is a fantasy story following one Zaama, Daughter of the Dawn, as she enters the aforementioned grove to search for an ancient tree maiden that has not been heard from for some time. She is prepared for anything, and yet only a few steps into the grove it becomes clear from the vicious desecration that has taken place that a sinister force – the Red Cult – has visited the grove. Zaama has no choice but to cut away the heart of the infestation and attempt to return the grove to its natural balance – with both her wisdom and her spear. It’s another story that’s on the short side, but one still interlaced with fascinating worldbuilding and solid characterisation that demonstrates Leone can wrote pure fantasy amongst other genres. The penultimate tale in the collection is The Cursed Skin, another tale of Zaama, Daughter of the Dawn, which follows the character as she enters the great and ancient valley known as the Willowmere to answer the call of an even more ancient and immensely powerful being. There, the Mere-Mother bids Zaama to find and slay a terrible beast that has been plaguing her lands and killing indiscriminately. To find the beast, Zaama must travel through the valley and met with its inhabitants and those just passing through, gathering clues and tracking the path of the beast until she can corner it – and end its brutal rampage once and for all. The final story in the collection is The Five Travellers, and is also a Zaama, Daughter of the Dawn tale to close out the book. I enjoyed Zaama as a character as she slowly developed through the trio of tales, and this last one was by far the best – as Zaama and three compatriots share tales with a stranger arriving at their campfire, each person weaving a fascinating and compelling tale that helped develop the worldbuilding of Leone’s fantasy world.
Kung Fu Antipopes And Other Strange Stories is effectively a resume of Paul Leone’s prodigious skills as an author, demonstrating his ability to deftly and flawlessly move between genres at will, penning diverse stories across multiple genres that range from hard sci-fi to tongue-in-cheek urban fantasy, by way of pure fantasy and even a smattering of occult detective fiction. This is a deeply impressive, hugely enjoyable and deeply immersive collection of genre fiction, with each story and setting effectively acting as a series of pitches for Leone to turn into future stories and perhaps even entire novels. Accompanied by some sterling monochrome internal illustrations that help bring a pivotal scene from each story to life for the reader, Kung Fu Antipopes And Other Strange Stories is an incredible achievement that I cannot recommend strongly enough to those who enjoy any of the genres mentioned above, or who just wish to experience multi-genre fiction written by an author at the top of his game. I absolutely cannot wait to see what Paul Leone publishes next, and if they have any sense, indie publishers will be doing the same.
Kung Fu Antipopes And Other Strange Stories