Death on the Nefertem Express

It’s remarkable what several bottles of wine on a train can do for you.

As a kid, I grew up on a steady diet of mystery fiction. My mother was an aficionado of Daphne Du Maurier and Agatha Christie, which resulted in my exposure to both luminaries. Appetite whetted, I took on Poe’s trifecta of Dupin stories. In one summer I tore through a two-volume Sherlock Holmes collection, and that autumn discovered a paperback of Father Brown mysteries at my Nana’s house. In my teenage years I moved on from “gentleman detectives” to the hardboiled variants of Raymond Chandler.

Then, with these nutrients swimming in my blood, I became a science fiction writer.

Underlying both genres is a shared block of DNA: the logical extrapolation from available facts. Much of my writing is fed by this taproot. Ten Thousand Thunders is a sci-fi mystery, as is “The Memorybox Vultures”. My first published example was “Breaking News Involving Space Pirates” (appearing in Galaxy’s Edge) and which offered a spin on the locked-room scenario. I was eager to do more.

In 2019, I found myself on one of Connecticut’s only remaining steam trains. Several times a year, it ran through Litchfield county. This was a far cry from the nation-hopping Orient Express; Connecticut is a small state, and the train didn’t even complete a circle: its route was akin to the narrative topography of Mad Max: Fury Road: heading to one destination, hitting the brakes, and shifting into reverse.

The occasion was about the journey, however. And the journey was wine.

Bottles of reds and whites were uncorked, the passengers crowding around like the Council of Elrond. Thirty minutes into our route, with New England forests scrolling past the windows and a swiftly rising blood alcohol level, I was exactly where I wanted to be.

The wine train was touted as a sunset expedition. I was polishing off a glass of Pinot Noir (how apt) when we emerged from the wooded tracks into an open space. The sunlight hit the windows. The passengers were ablaze in red and gold. The train seemed to be burning.

By the time we moved onto the Rieslings, I was entertaining myself with a story of a train on another world, a deadly sunrise, and a deadlier mystery. “Death on the Nefertem Express” is the result, available now in the March/April 2020 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction.

“Death on the Nefertem Express” is my second published story featuring the character Jolene Fort (from “Breaking News Involving Space Pirates”, and which is teased in the new story). She’s become one of my favorite characters to write. I sought to create a “detective” who is neither British gentry nor hard-drinking Sam Spade; Jolene is a former space pirate (“never convicted”) who continually finds herself embroiled in bizarre mysteries.

To my pleasant surprise, though “Death on the Nefertem Express” has only been out for a few days, I’ve received three fan emails about her already. Review sites are also praising the tale.

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A flurry of opportunities has opened up with Baen Books over these past few months. The first was an invitation to contribute to the Weird World War III anthology edited by Sean Patrick Hazlett. The mission: examine an alternate track of history in which the Cold War between the U.S. and Soviet Union turned hot. Mix in some supernatural elements. Bake at non-nuclear temperatures. Let sit, and serve.

My contribution is “Shadow Rook Red”, set in Lucerne, Switzerland in 1980. A fast-paced thriller involving a unique technology that changes the dynamic between superpowers, Weird World War III will be out in October.

Speaking of Baen Books and Jolene Fort mysteries, my story “Breaking News Involving Space Pirates” was just selected for inclusion in the upcoming Cosmic Corsairs anthology. Maybe I missed my true calling by a couple centuries and flintlock pistols.

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This being the anniversary of H.P. Lovecraft’s death, I figured I’d post about my favorite story of his. 

“The Shadow Over Innsmouth” is the story I generally recommend to people unfamiliar with HPL. Written towards the end of his life, it benefits from a maturity and experience often lacking in his earlier work. From a craft perspective, it doesn’t suffer from the excessive verbosity and purple prose that characterizes stories like “The Lurking Fear” (which is hardly to say that “Innsmouth” is lean; Lovecraft was like the anti-Hemingway, and I’m certain that if the two ever shook hands the universe would explode into irreconcilable paradoxes). 

It also features his most fully realized setting. Innsmouth, with its decaying waterfront and shadow-blighted streets, is described in wondrous, compelling, and nauseating detail. Unusual for Lovecraft, the story features a fair amount of action, too; the narrator is unusually resourceful and quick-thinking. It’s pulse-pounding and nail-biting stuff. 

There’s also a double climax to the tale. This had an immense effect on my childhood self, as what I figured was the conclusion proved to be a feint: there were still a few pages left, and they invert all perspective in a way I wouldn’t see again until Matheson’s I Am Legend

I should add that in 1999 I really did take the wrong fork on a Massachusetts road and really did find myself in a place that had to be the inspiration for Innsmouth. In the years since, I’ve tried (somewhat) to figure out where exactly it was, but like the narrator in “The Music of Erich Zan” fruitlessly seeking the Rue d’Auseil, I haven’t been able to locate it again.

Honorable mention recommendations include “The Call of Cthulhu”, “At the Mountains of Madness”, “The Dunwich Horror”, and “The Dreamquest of Unknown Kadath.” That last story is not only a perfect fusion of Lovecraft’s Mythos and Dream-Cycle styles, but it hints at an exciting direction the author might have taken if he hadn’t died young. I can envision HPL writing a trilogy of novels in that vein… something like The Lord of the Rings, only with monsters that would terrify Sauron into hiding.

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