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Tuesday, August 18, 2015


Author:  Adam Mansbach  
Plot Type:  Horror-Crime Fantasy
Ratings:  Violence5; Sensuality4; Dark Humor—2-3   
Publisher and Titles:  Harper Voyager
          The Dead Run (11/2014)
          The Devil's Bag Man (7/2015

This review contains an overview of the world-building and reviews of The Dead Run and The Devil's Bag Man.

     This series will appeal to lovers of horror-crime fiction as well as those who love gory, supernatural horror movies—films like From Dusk to Dawn (or almost any other Quentin Tarantino movie). These novels are eerie, high-concept thrillers, mixing blood-curdling horror and driving action with Aztec mythology and Mexican drug cartels. This world is populated by fanatic religious cultists, corrupt cops, vicious motorcycle gangs, ancient evil deities, and a few honest folks who take many a beating but never give up on their fight for truth and justice. 

    At first glance, this world appears to be a realistic, if dark, representation of both sides of the Texas-Mexico border area, but in the Prologue of The Dead Run, we learn that something besides coyotes and rattlesnakes threatens the lives of humans traveling through that arid desert. When we meet a flesh-eating woman and a supernaturally powerful creature who lives in the depths of a Mexican prison, we realize that this world isn't as "normal" as we thought it was. Especially when we learn that the food that sustains this creature is a steady supply of the still-beating hearts of virgins.

About the Author: Adam Mansbach is the author of the New York Times bestsellers Go the F**k to Sleep, and the sequel, You Have to F**king Eat. His 2013 novel, Rage is Back, was named a Best Book of the Year by NPR and the San Francisco Chronicle and is currently being adapted for the stage. His previous novels include The End of the Jews and the cult classic Angry Black White Boy. Mansbach's work has appeared in The New Yorker, New York Times Book Review, Esquire, The Believer, and on National Public Radio's All Things Considered. Mansbach is also a contributor to Salon. Click HERE for links to his essays. 

                      NOVEL 1:  The Dead Run                      
     With thrilling chills and crackling suspense, The Dead Run is an edgy novel set in the netherworld of the Mexican-American border.
On both sides of the border, girls are going missing and bodies are beginning to surface, a deadly epidemic of crime that plunges a small-town police chief into a monster of an investigation he's unequipped to handle. Sherry Richards is one of those disappeared girls. Miraculously, she manages to escape…briefly. As she soon discovers, freeing herself was the easy part. Lost and alone, she has to make it through the desert. Alive. 

    Wrongfully imprisoned in a Mexican jail, outlaw-with-a-conscience Jess Galvan accepts a devil's bargain: transport a sinister package across the border for the jail's mythical—and terrifying—bogeyman El Cucuy. If Jess can survive and deliver the iron box in twenty-four hours, Cucuy promises that he will be free. But there are more than coyotes roaming the desert in search of prey. An ancient evil has returned. Click HERE to read an excerpt from The Dead Run.


     According to Kirkus Reviews, “Mansbach’s enormous gift for language and a dedicated understanding of the genres involved—noir, horror, thriller and other tropes come into play here—make this wobbly machine work surprisingly well.…Galvan talks like Jules Winnfield out of Pulp Fiction, sure, but the plot is as hard-core as an episode of Breaking Bad, and Mansbach’s desiccated prose is first-rate….A head-spinning mashup of genres, with a cast that includes bikers, hookers, demons and corrupt cops. It works.” Here’s what RT Book Reviews has to say: “While the plotting is good the author doesn’t leave enough room for characterization, making his large cast feel two-dimensional. His trademark humor helps break up heavy moments, making this an enjoyable quick read.” Publishers Weekly calls this a “taut and gritty adventure thriller with a supernatural element." 

     Mansbach tells the story from several very different perspectives, alternating among some unconventional people who, at first, seem to be living unrelated lives. He expertly juggles these seemingly unconnected story lines, keeping the balls in the air all the way to the endwhere the stories merge into one big showdown scene that resolves mostbut not allof the creepy conflict. Here are the major characters and some elements of the mythology:

The Virgin Army:
     A mythical (or is it?) horde of undead, flesh-eating virgins whose bodies were buried in the desert after their hearts were removed. According to the legend, they rise up from the barren earth to attack and consume unlucky desert travelers. 

The Disparate Protagonists:
Jess Galvan: An unlucky man with a conscience who agrees to deliver a package across the border illegally in order to earn enough money to hire a lawyer to get custody of his daughter. "To wrest a kid away from her mother in…kill-'em-all-let-God-sort-'em-out Texas, you needed big-league legal firepower. Not some jackass-of-all-trades attorney with a strip-mall office and a Men's Warehouse suit." When Galvan sees a girl being raped in a seedy Mexican bar, he goes to her rescue and ends up in a Mexican prison, where the other prisoners don't know quite what to make of him: "They smelled something on him, Galvan thought. Not fear. Innocence. These men...were here because they broke the law for money. That was who they were, and they were proud of it. Galvan was here because he'd failed to mind his business. Because he'd seen something he couldn't stomach and reacted. It wasn't a mistake he planned to make again." Oh, but he does make that mistake again…and again, and that good-hearted habit will soon change his life forever.

Sherry Richards: A sixteen-year-old girl who lives with her religious-fanatic mother in small-town Texas. As the story opens, her biggest problem is dealing with the terrors of being the new girl in town: "Being dropped into a new high school halfway through your junior year was like being dropped from a helicopter into a war zonea war in which you didn't know the sides. Or the weapons. Or the history." 

Bob Nichols: The unhappy sheriff of Del Verde County, Texas, who partners up with his Mexican counterpart to police the no-man's land on either side of the border, where girls have been disappearing without a trace. "In a real department, the sheriff wouldn't have been elected mostly because he'd quarterbacked the high school football team to a state championship twenty-six years earlier." The sheriff's mundane problems (lack of manpower, equipment, and firepower) pale in comparison to the horrific adventure that awaits him.

Dr. Ruth Cantwell: A clinical psychologist who teams up with Nichols to rescue Sherry after she is kidnapped by the cult from which she and her mother escaped several years ago. 

The Villains:

El Cucuy (aka Cualli, high priest of the Temple of Tenochtitlán): Here is the information Galvan learns early in the story: El Cucuy is "The mythical boogeyman of Ojos Negros Prison. Supposedly, he lived in the bowels of the place…half inmate and half god. Half monster and half mastermind. Some said they'd built the place around him…His appetite for women was said to be prodigious; the families of inmates left their young daughters at home on visiting days in case the tales were true." And, of course, the tales are true. Here is Galvan's first impression of El Cucuy: "The man who walked toward him parted the darkness like a curtain, his long thin body faintly and bizarrely luminescent…[He] was a foot taller, with straight white hair that fell past his shoulders. Necklaces and amulets wreathed his bare chest, and a lattice of tattoos covered his face from chin to foreheada geometry of symbols unlike anything Galvan had ever seen. They didn't look seared onto him so much as pushed out from within, the markings of some cruel and ancient god." El Cucuy selects Galvan as his "Righteous Messenger," sending him on foot across the border to Texas to deliver an iron box to his son—a box that contains contraband of unspeakable horror: the still-beating heart of a virgin. 

Aaron Seth: El Cucuy's son, who rules a cult that has built a compound in an isolated area in the Texas desert near the border. He and his true-believing thugs smuggle young virgins across the border to El Cucuy (although Seth does keep a few for himself), "telling their parents they've gone off on some kind of missionary trip, then selling them into sexual slavery"—or worse...much worse. Ruth explains to Nichols that Seth claims that "he's descended from the high priest of an ancient god. Who's going to pass his powers down to Seth, bringing an end to the world as we know it." 

     As Mansbach moves back and forth between perspectives, he always maintains a high level of action and suspense while never letting go of the threads that tie his characters together. We jump from Galvan crossing the desert, to Sherry escaping and being recaptured by Seth's thugs, to Nichols and Cantwell in hot pursuit of Sherry, to Seth and El Cucuy communicating with one another as they bathe themselves in vats of virgins' blood. (Yuk!) It's a brawling, blood-soaked ride from beginning to end. This novel is definitely NOT for the fainthearted, but if you are up for an engrossing adventure involving a series of spine-tingling, heart-stopping, blood-splattered exploits by a group of fiercely complex characters, I guarantee that you will love this book. 

     The novel ends in resolution of sorts for some of the conflict, but not for Galvan, who goes off into an uncertain future that will be continued in the second novel, The Devil's Bag Man
To read an excerpt from The Dead Run, click HERE to go its page and click on either the cover art of the "Listen" icon.

Note: Throughout his adventures, Galvan keeps himself sane and active by mentally repeating the song lyrics from a variety of musical genres, including some from Mansbach's real-life band, Kodiak Brinks (which is also Mansbach's personal pseudonym). Here are the Kodiak Brinks lines on which Galvan's brain focuses at a moment when he is threatened in the desert by a crazed woman with a gun: "Adrenaline the medicine / messin' with the specimen / this brethren stand strong weathering' / storms with a regimen that make your head spin / ten thousand strong men who never sin / nourishing' like niacin, minds with messiah bends / Leviathans stalk iron men / in the lion's den…" Click HERE for more information about the band.

        FAIR WARNING: This review of The Devil's Bag Man           
           contains spoilers for The Dead Run.           
                      NOVEL 2:  The Devil's Bag Man                      
     In this chilling sequel to The Dead Run...Mansbach mixes horror, the supernatural and gritty suspense to deliver a high-octane adventure filled with nasty bad guys, fearsome magic, and an unlikely hero caught in the dangerous terrain of the Tex-Mex borderland.

     Locked in a Mexican jail for a crime he didn’t commit, Jess Galvan made a devil’s bargain to escape and make it back home. Now, he’s trapped in his own personal hell, his mind and body inhabited by the soul of Cucuy, a fearsome, five-hundred-year-old Aztec priest and major crime kingpin determined to bring about hell on earth. Estranged from his daughter, Sherry, and now his own body, Galvan’s every moment is a battle to keep the evil priest at bay. But there is a silver lining—his presence has endowed Galvan with superhuman strength and endurance. 

    Meanwhile, in the bowels of Ojos Negros prison, Cucuy’s second-in-command, Domingo Valentine, is trying to run the empire Cucuy left behind when he vanished, but the drug cartels they once controlled are at war with one another. Desperate for answers, Valentine springs the imprisoned leader of a deadly biker gang and now they’re on the hunt for Galvan—who must find a way to exorcise his inner demon and save the world from annihilation. 


    Kirkus Reviews calls this novel a "blood-soaked, demon-ravaged, terrifying sequel…[with a] profane, hyperactive, and gloriously violent style...[that] will repel more sensitive readers and make those who revel in Tarantino scripts, Breaking Bad, or zombie flicks giddy with anticipation." RT Book Reviews awards this novel four stars, calling it "eerie, creative, and deeply unsettling" as well as "spellbinding" and "gripping." Publishers Weekly states that "Mansbach skillfully keeps the characterization and language of ancient priests and gods distinct from the modern idiom, so when Mexican prisons, cross-border cartels, modern police investigations, and fatherly concern finally come together with magically beating hearts and armies of undead virgins, the effect of worlds colliding is devastatingly effective."

     Once again Mansbach tells his dark story from the perspectives of a variety of characters, some who are familiar from the first book, but one who is new and important to the mythology on which the story is based. The action begins several months after the big showdown between Jess Galvan and Aaron Setha battle that left Galvan possessed by the power-mad demonic spirit of the dreaded El Cucuy, an ancient Aztec priest who possesses god-like powers. 

     As the book opens, Bob Nichols, Ruth Cantwell, and Sherry Richards are living together. Sherry has quit school to work in an ice cream parlor, and the only bright spot in her life is her dashing new-to-town boyfriend. She is still in a traumatic emotional state because of the horrific events that occurred in the first book
events that she can never divulge to anyone. Here, Sherry fantasizes about telling her co-worker about her recent adventures: "I used to live in a cult, but then we left, and so they cut my mom's head off and kidnapped me, but then my dad broke out of prison and ate like this magic human heart and...killed everybodyoh, except for the psychotic rapist who kidnapped me; I stabbed him to death myself. Yeah, it was awesome. So, like, how was your summer?" 

     Nichols and Ruth are now a couple; in fact, they are expecting a baby. Nichols keeps in sporadic contact with Galvan, but Galvan prefers to keep to himself. 

     Although it is breaking his heart, Galvan is staying away from his daughter and his friends because he fears that if Cucuy breaks through his wavering control, he might kill them. "Two souls, one body. The math was a bitch." Cucuy's possession has given Galvan super strength, speed, and endurance that he is learning to wield as a means of keeping Cucuy at bay. Having isolated himself in a run-down trailer on the edge of the desert, Galvan spends his time engaging in maximum-level physical activitieswrestling mountain lions, running at top speed for miles and miles, and chopping wood like there is no tomorrowwhich may actually be true if Cucuy gains control over Galvan's super-hero body. Although Galvan knows that he is fighting a losing battle against Cucuy's possession, he hasn't given up…not yet.

     Another key character is Domingo Valentine, who was Cucuy's right-hand man in the Ojos Negros prison. Valentine believes that Cucuy's spirit and power still live on within Galvan, and he sets out to capture Galvan and call forth his Master. To complete this task, Valentine recruits Kurt Knowles, the psychopathic leader of the True Natives motorcycle gang that played such a devastating role in the previous novel. 

     And then there are the mythical figures who are major players in an ancient Aztec legend: Chacanza (aka Chimalma), the beautiful bride killed by her husband (Cucuy) on their wedding night, and Izel Notchi Icnoyotl, her brother, who acquiesced to Cucuy's murderous plan, witnessed Chacanza's death, and has regretted it ever since. And let's not forget the god, Tezcatlipoca—the deity who set this entire bloody plan in motion centuries ago. The plot moves between the realistic setting of the barren deserts of Southwest Texas and the Domino Gris (the Gray Realm), a plane of existence inhabited by Chacanza, the dead girls of her Virgin Army, and Tezcatlipoca, who was exiled there for eternity by his fellow gods.

     The plot follows the various characters as they move inexorably towards the climactic showdown scene that might save the world, but will have devastating effects on Galvan, Sherry, Nichols, Ruth, Chacanza, and Cucuy. Not to mention the hundreds (possibly thousands) of people—both innocent and guilty, friend and foe—who lose their lives in the ghastly, gory violence that drives the plot.

     The Devil's Bag Man gets much more woo-woo than The Dead Run, with a number of flashbacks to the 500-year-old betrayal that was the catalyst for the conflict in both books. This second novel is even more violent than the first, with casual neck-breaking, limb-tearing, head-bashing brutality in nearly every chapter. Mansbach effectively clarifies the specifics of the Cucuy-Tezcatlipoca legend by using the Roshomon style of repeating the story several times from the perspectives of the bride, the groom, and the brother.

     Mansbach has a wonderful story-telling technique, which includes slipping in bits of dark, sardonic humor in unexpected places. Here, a drug-cartel boss muses about his life: Herman "had studied alongside the sons and daughters of tycoons and aristocrats, rubbed up against money so old it had succumbed to dementia and couldn't remember where it came from anymore." In a scene in which Galvan ambushes a caravan of jeeps carrying cartel thugs, he causes two of the vehicles to crash into one other and then watches the passengers' heads smash into their respective windshields, commenting "That's why you should always wear your seat belt, boys." It is at this point that Galvan realizes that "the answer to most of life's problems…involved flipping large vehicles upside down."

     Although blood-soaked horror fantasy isn't my genre of choice, I must admit that Mansbach tells an engrossing story peopled by well-developed characters—especially Galvan and Sherry. Mansbach leaves several story lines unresolved, so we can probably anticipate more of Galvan's adventures in future books. To read an excerpt from The Devil's Bag Man, click HERE to go its page and click on either the cover art of the "Listen" icon.

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