The American Book of the Dead by Henry Baum

What is every father’s worst nightmare? There might be any number of specific answers to that question, but the one which Henry Baum delves into is this: imagine surfing the net and encountering a porn video of your teenage daughter. That’s what happens to Eugene Myers in The American Book of the Dead. You could run a whole novel on this idea alone, but as it turns out, this aspect of the story is merely a precursor to something much bigger in scale. After the inevitable confrontation between father, mother and daughter, Eugene goes on the hunt for whoever made the movie, starting at his daughter’s school. This ends in violence, with Eugene suffering a head injury. And here’s where the real story starts. He begins having vivid dreams about people, dreams which end in a voice telling him the names and addresses of the people he is dreaming about. He investigates these locations and discovers that these are real people. But he has no idea what he is supposed to do about it, or why he is dreaming about reality, or what significance these particular individuals have. Meanwhile, another story is going on in another part of the USA: President Charles Winchell is being tutored by his father, past President Herbert Winchell, on secrets involving religion, aliens and the approaching World War III. The trouble is, Charles is a fundamentalist Christian, despite his father’s claims of religion being merely a tool of manipulation. Charles begins to wonder if his own father is the Antichrist.

Okay, that’s all I’m going to say about the story, which might leave you wondering, “What the hell is this book actually about?” But the wackiness of it is part of its unpredictable charm. I’ve a feeling that some people are going to love it and some are going to hate it. I’m something of a conspiracy buff, and I have some strong spiritual views, so I found the whole dynamic of the Winchell story to be rivetting: the wise father, carrying the world on his shoulders, having no idea of the religious insanity that is brewing inside his son’s head, as he tries to instruct the younger President on secrets that are about to affect the future of the whole planet. The Eugene Myers side of the story was also very well done. The author has a real knack for brutal honesty when it comes to describing the innards of a person’s head. This honesty also comes with a dash of humour at times. Ultimately, you see parts of yourself in the character, and it really brings him to life.

I don’t want to say too much about where the novel heads. I’ve mentioned the Antichrist, World War III, and a man who dreams about real people. Suffice it to say, the Eugene Myers story and the Charless Winchell story eventually come together. I had no idea how the book was going to finish until the finish line, and the ending was very satisfying, casting fresh light on an intentionally confusing first chapter.

If you have an interest in government conspiracy, alternative spirituality, the paranormal, I think this is a novel you’ll really enjoy (and if you’re a fundamentalist Christian, you’ll probably be offended). The story packs a little something extra for the conspiracy theorist than for the mainstream reader, especially on the theme of culling the human population. The American Book of the Dead is too wacky to be taken entirely seriously, but it does have a serious undercurrent, in the same way that John Carpenter’s movie, They Live, is on the one hand a dumb action movie about some butt-ugly aliens who secretly rule the world, and on the other hand it’s an expose of how asleep and enslaved people are and why the world is this way.

The American Book of the Dead is a self-published novel, but please don’t let that put you off. The book is skilfully written and edited to pro standards. Baum is a credit to alternative publishing. The story is totally fresh. I haven’t read anything like it before and I give it an unhesitating recommendation.

North of Sunset by Henry Baum

There’s a new serial killer with an unusual MO stalking Hollywood: no one with a personalised number plate on his car is safe. The psychopath’s name is Curt Knudsen and he’s known to the public as the Vanity Plate Killer. His name is no secret to the reader, because this is no mystery story. Author Henry Baum likes to take you right inside the head of your killer, putting his life and his motivations in full view. But this is not only the tale of a serial killer. It’s a shifting-perspective novel that lets you see the thoughts and feelings of several very different and flawed individuals: a detective, a paparazzi photographer, a producer, and principally, top Hollywood actor Michael Sennet. Michael and the killer become inextricably linked, due to an unfortunate incident. A paparazzi photographer captures Michael’s infidelity on camera and tries to bribe the actor. Michael, in a fit of rage, clobbers the photographer to death. To cover his tracks, he dresses the scene to make it look as if the Vanity Plate Killer commited the crime. But Curt Knudsen isn’t too happy about having his image tarnished by a copycat. However, if you think the rest of the novel is about Curt out for Michael’s blood, think again. There are far more complex issues going on in the killer’s head. The story also has an amusing and insightful satirical side, poking fun at our tendency to become starstruck when encountering celebrities – celebrities who may well be immoral behind all the glitz and glam.

North of Sunset is very well written. The style is snappy and polished, a rare find in a self-published novel. The author also pulls off two very tricky things of note. The first is his decision to write a story about bad people. When you learn about how to tell a story effectively, they tell you to make the reader sympathise with the protagonist(s). Well, there’s not much to sympathise with here. Even the characters who aren’t killers are still wrapped up in their materialism, greed and adultery. And yet the novel remains a page-turner. Secondly, the author indulges in talking us through a lot of each character’s backstory. It’s usually better to reveal a character’s nature through his present actions in the story rather than communicating it through lengthy passages of exposition about the character’s past. And yet there’s no denying that Henry Baum is able to do just that and make it all very interesting. The author is involved in the Hollywood movie industry and rubs shoulders with the sort of people he’s writing about. The writing definitely carries an air of realism. As an author myself, but with a different background, I know I couldn’t handle the same material as Baum.

The only disappointment I found in the novel (and this is purely personal) is that I rather liked old Detective Harry Stein. He was the one character with a bit of moral backbone, and he seemed a little underused in the story. I would have liked to have seen him get a bigger slice of the action.

Nevertheless, North of Sunset is a very good thiller, both insightful and inventive. A worthy read for those who like crime fiction.