Beneath the Skin: The Sam Hunter Case Files
Reviewed by Michael R. Collings
Jonathan Maberry is a master storyteller, and Beneath the Skin: The Sam Hunter Case Files showcases his talents. Widely known for his Joe Ledger thrillers and the supernatural Pine Deep Trilogy, in this collection, Maberry reminds readers why they enjoyed the longer works by incorporating elements of both into a series of adventures featuring another outstanding character: Sam Hunter, Werewolf-Detective.
In seven remarkable tales, Maberry demonstrates the versatility and durability of a perennial standard of horror fiction, the werewolf. But as one expects of Maberry, he does so by performing deft permutations on the traditions, giving Hunter depths and complexity not often found in werebeasts. Sam Hunter is a benandanti, a member of an ancient race dedicated to seeking out—Hunting—evil and destroying it. As with traditional werebeasts, he is motivated by a seething rage that overcomes his human emotions…but his is a rage directed at perpetrators, aimed at saving innocents. Even in the midst of the change, he maintains an element of control, constantly aware of two things: his need to obliterate the evil and to preserving his “pack”—those he has taken under his protection because they, like he, are essentially isolated by who they are.
In “Like Part of the Family,” hard-bitten (no pun intended) Philadelphia private detective Sam Hunter takes on a client whose husband, she claims, is trying to kill her. As Hunter investigates, the case grows more complicated, more personal, because, as he says, “My clients are mine, like members of my pack. Mess with them and the pack leader has to put you down. Has to.” And he does. The story is perhaps the weakest of the seven, but nonetheless serves several crucial roles in the collection. It defines Hunter’s fundamental moral stances; it graphically shows how literally he takes his responsibilities as pack leader; and it introduces readers to Hunter’s world, in which werewolf detectives are not the only anomalies one might encounter.
“Strip Search: A Limbus, Inc. Adventure,” appeared in Limbus, Inc., JournalStone’s shared-universe anthology—itself a powerful collection of tales. Here, the client is a classic—the drop-dead gorgeous woman in need of succor. Representing the amorphous Limbus, Inc., she asks for his help on behalf of sixteen innocents, young women killed in a particularly abominable way. His immediate task, though, is to prevent the death of the seventeenth. The job takes him from seedy bars to an elegant (on the surface, at least) gentlemen’s club, where he encounters not only his client but her human captors…and the decidedly non-human entity they have chosen to serve.
“Toby’s Closet,” as the name suggests, deals with the common child’s fears of the monster-in-the-closet. In this case, however, the fears are justified and the monster is real. Toby, the young son of a friend of a friend, is being attacked by something invisible, and left bruised and bleeding. Instantly upon meeting Gail and Toby, Hunter knows that they, too, are part of his pack; and he takes immediate action, goading an encounter with the monster. The story is particularly interesting for Hunter’s awareness that if a monster must breathe—and its breath is hor-rendous—it can be hurt. And who…what…better to inflict that hurt than a werewolf.
“Three Guys Walk into a Bar: A Limbus, Inc. Adventure” appeared in Limbus II and hinges on a set of old five-hundred-dollar bills sent by Limbus, Inc., as payment for an as-yet undefined job. He researches the provenance for the bills, discovering that they belonged to a collection originally owned by a foreign gentleman named Ubel Griswold. And with that name, readers are swept into Pine Deep, Pennsylvania, with its police chief, Malcolm Crow, his eerie deputy, Mike Sweeney, and its gruesome past and threatening present. Someone…or something…is slaughtering people and getting away with it, passing the deaths off as accidental. The investigation begins and, just when it seems it couldn’t get any more convoluted…a new character appears: Joe Ledger. Put the three of them together—Hunter, Crow, and Ledger—and all that can possibly happen is controlled mayhem on the highest of levels. With the destruction of the world as a con-sequence of failure.
“Dream a Little Dream of Me” pits Hunter against a remainder of the Nazi Thule Society, with its obsession for things arcane and mystical. He is hired to protect an ancient artifact, stolen by the Nazis, from being re-stolen. He is to steal the artifact from a safe and protect it for one night before delivering it to its new owner. Simple enough. Except that none of the characters involved—including Hunter—are quite what they seem, and the artifact itself is part of an entry-gate to the Lovecraftian Dreamlands. And there are more than humans interested in using it.
“The Unlearned Truths: A Limbus, Inc. Adventure” is the most substantial of the tales in Beneath the Skin—near-novel in length and in narrative complexity. Basically, several secret teams compete to collect what remain of the most horrifying books ever written and attempt to destroy them…or use them. The list of titles immediately puts aficionados of things-Lovecraftian on the alert: The Necrocomicon, The Book of Eibon, The Cultes des Goules, De Vermis Mysteriis, and others. The narrative moves from Hunter’s increasing involvement with the Unlearnable Truths, to the other teams and their attempts to gain specific books, and back to Hunter. Covering five years and much of the globe, the search for the books gains impetus as each stage brings Hunter and the competing teams closer to direct confrontation over the last remaining book and the possible end of the world.
“Goth Chicks” returns to the more narrowly circumscribed landscape of Hunter’s Philadelphia. A girl has gone missing; her über-wealthy father wants her found and, at the least, returned long enough to sign some papers crucial to his business. The girl has gone Goth, associating with vampire wannabes and other unsavory folks. Normally Hunter wouldn’t bother, but there have been some equally unsavory deaths involving her circle of acquaintances, and he fears for her life…for the life of one he has accepted as part of his pack. Everything goes well, until he actually meets up with the girl and discovers that there is much more to the story than he has been told.
As diverse as the stories are, the overriding presence of Sam Hunter, with his unique perspectives, his distinctive narrative voice, and his unflinching moral center, unites them and gives Beneath the Skin: The Sam Hunter Case Files consistency and texture. Whether he confront vampires, ogres, nightgaunts, fellow werewolves, nasty humans, or the worst that the realms of Cthulhu can throw at him, if members of his pack are threatened, Sam Hunter will respond.
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