Posted on December 29, 2008 by Jason Thorson
Tales of the Seven Dogs Society is a collection of three novellas by authors, Matt McElroy, Jim Johnson, and Monica Valentinelli, based on the Aletheia role playing game from Abstract Nova Entertainment.
The basic premise of this book as well as the game is that the Seven Dogs Society is a group of investigators comprised of seven people who possess psychic or paranormal abilities. Based in Seven Dogs, Alaska at a refurbished Victorian mansion with powers of its own, the Society investigates cases involving things such as alien abduction, crop circles, spontaneous combustion, and all other manner of other worldly and supernatural phenomena.
The three stories all share the same universe: the same past events, the same locations, and the same basic rules. What separates them is that each author populates his or her investigative team with characters exclusive to their own respective stories. These stories represent each authors’ visions of the Seven Dogs Society after the events that transpire in the Aletheia RPG, in which players create and then play as investigators.
The first story is Matt McElroy’s Time to Burn. Jim, a grizzled ex-private investigator, narrates from the first person perspective as Caitlin, a 19 year old Society newbie begs him to help persuade the group to investigate possible instances of spontaneous human combustion in rural Wisconsin. Jim begrudgingly agrees when a gut feeling tells him there could be something to Caitlin’s case. He recruits Neil, an ex-cop with whom Jim has a good investigative track record and soon they leave for the land of beer and cheese.
McElroy nails Jim’s gritty PI voice right away, immediately lending his story an old school pulp/noire sensibility. The interplay and contrast between Jim and Caitlin is engaging and successfully compelling. The two characters are polar opposites in nearly every way and subsequently provide perfect foils for one another.
With regard to plot, Time to Burn nearly dies a narrative death about a third of the way through, bleeding out exposition in copious amounts; it’s very slow out of the gates.
Fortunately, McElroy’s strong characterization sustains enough interest to get us through to the point at which the investigation begins. It’s at that point the story gets its footing, and McElroy pilots his plot through some impressive and exciting maneuvers, giving readers the sense that there is and end game and we’re going to be entertained getting there.
The climax of Time to Burn is a revealing and satisfying twist and when it’s all said and done, the abundance of exposition early on becomes much less a blight on the story while it provides the following two stories the ability to sustain the narrative momentum that McElroy establishes.
The second story is Jim Johnson’s Lifting the Gingham Veil. Narrated from the third person perspective, The story starts with Keith Hardey as he makes his way up the stairs to Hepta Sophistai, the headquarters of the Seven Dogs Society. Terrence Chastain, the man currently responsible for the Society‘s existence, recruited Keith directly out of prison to join the mysterious group. Subsequently, Keith’s reluctance to knock on the door is no match for his utter lack of an alternative.
Later, when Keith and Gisele, an attractive French woman with powers akin to a GPS unit, partner up to meet the rest of the group in Kentucky to investigate a possible alien abduction, they come face-to-face with a killer who’s figured out the Society’s secretive and otherworldly mode of transportation, putting every member of the Seven Dogs Society in grave danger.
Johnson’s writing is tight and fun. He uses the concept of Aletheia to its fullest potential, fleshing out every member of the Society as well as their abilities. His style is compelling in an almost addictive way, similar to the way comic books like X-men and TV series like Heroes rope you in and won’t let go. And while those two examples are serialized narratives, Lifting the Gingham Veil potentially lays the groundwork for something similar. The people with whom Johnson populates his version of the Seven Dogs Society would work very well as recurring characters in future books or perhaps another format.
Johnson’s only misstep is that Lifting the Gingham Veil ends on a confusing note. The climax is well-crafted, paying off an objective correlative that’s planted earlier in the story, and it would have been a profound payoff had what’s happening not been obscured by the odd level of abstraction in an otherwise straightforward story.
However, my overall impression of his story is positive. Johnson’s writing is polished and entertaining and it left me wanting more.
The final story is Monica Valentinelli’s Twin Designs. On the run from members of a cult on the streets of Los Angeles, twin brothers Edgar and Ralph are found by Terrence Chastain and recruited into the Seven Dogs Society. Edgar becomes a recluse at the Hepta Sophistai, obsessed with his dead wife and online gaming, while straight arrow Ralph attempts to play den mother, but instead enables Edgar’s self-imposed seclusion. Written from the first person perspectives of both Edgar and Ralph, Twin Designs takes us back to the past, revealing what makes the brothers tick, how they ended up in Seven Dogs, Alaska, and how their shared power, known as Presque Vu, has tied their fates to that of the Seven Dogs Society in ways they had never imagined.
Unlike the previous two authors, Valentinelli spends very little time playing with the concept of Aletheia and instead chooses to use it as a backdrop against which she paints vivid characterizations of her protagonists. We spend at least as much time in the past as we do in the present, being told about the life events that led the brothers to this point.
Twin Designs breaks through the surface and plumbs literary depths a bit more ambitiously as Valentinelli emphasizes character over setting and plot. It’s a risky choice given the source material, but it works very well, particularly as the final act of the book. By the time we get to her story, there’s no need to further diagram the house or the realities of an investigative team comprised of people with special abilities. These ideas are a whole lot of fun, but the book would not have been as good a read had these ideas been the main feature of all three stories.
Twin Designs’ weakest area is where Valentinelli gets away from her characters’ distinct voices and emphasizes plot near the story’s climax. The narration loses its personality and it’s a bit of an off-putting shift in tone, but she finds her stride again as the story’s resolution gets back to the dynamic relationship between the twins.
As a compilation, Tales of the Seven Dogs Society is largely a success. There are times when the book stumbles a bit, but never falls flat, and tonally the book is multifaceted. The three authors have divergent styles, no doubt the results of equally divergent backgrounds and areas of expertise. Matt McElroy’s raw style and gritty tone is an effective attention grabber and he clearly establishes the rules of Aletheia against a tapestry woven from elements of horror and mystery. Jim Johnson’s straight forward narrative and polished writing is the stuff page-turners are made of; it’s entertainment in its purest form and it occupies the bulk of the book. Monica Valentinelli’s work is challenging and intelligent, and it concludes the trio of tales on a high note as it respects the source material’s potential for ambitious prose.
Tales of the Seven Dogs Society is a must read for fans of The X-files, X-men, Heroes, and Brian Lumley’s Necroscope series.
3.5 out of 5 flames
Review by Jason Thorson