Mad Shadows: The Weird Tales of Dorgo the Dowser
by Joe Bonadonna
Review by David C. Smith
A passage early in the short story “Mad Shadows,” the first of the five included in this
collection by Joe Bonadonna, illustrates why I like these stories and why Dorgo the
Dowser is a sword-and-sorcery character that deserves your time and attention.
The Dowser is investigating why the mad shadows of the title are up to no good in the city of Valdar, and he crosses paths with an acquaintance and sometimes-informant, a satyr named Praxus. We get this:
In his youth, Praxus Odetti had been Valdar’s most celebrated pugilist, equally proficient with hooves and fists; he retired undefeated from the arena shortly after I came to Valdar, but I did get to see his last few bouts. He lived in a run-down tenement, yet he was far from poor. In fact, under an assumed name, he owned a massive country estate and private club outside the city. The Hoof and Horn Club, it was called. This villa provided a home and medical care for aging and disabled centaurs, minotaur, satyrs, and unicorns who had retired from racing and fighting in the Crimson Sand arena. Most of the money he earned from begging went to his fellow K’Tothians. I’d met him through a mutual friend who managed a few minotaur wrestlers.
Here is what we get: lives. Characters who have lived lives.
Here is what else we get: a voice, a trustworthy voice, the voice of authority that comes from an author through believable characters. As readers, we know that, from the first word, first sentence, first page of a story, we are in the company either of a writer we can trust or of a writer whom we cannot trust. That is the voice of authority. And it is present in the Dorgo stories.
Of course, these are fantasy stories, so we get the requisite funny names (although it must be noted that Joe B. is better than most of the rest of us at concocting fantastic-sounding names that have the lilt to them of verisimilitude). We get centaurs and satyrs, which is cool, and witches and sorcerers. And we get to everything else we want to have in such genre stories, including really weird stuff. You know how in the stories in the original Weird Tales magazine we got really weird twists? Here’s an example: there was a story in the old Weird Tales in which people were splattered to death, as though had fallen fifty stories to their deaths, when all they had done was miss a step on a stairwell. In their brains, they assumed that, by missing a step, they were falling into eternity, and so they wound up squashing themselves like bugs. You read that story and you say to yourself, Jesus Christ, really? Did the writer actually get away with that? The writer did, and it works. Before fantasy and horror became mainstreamed, corporate, and predictable, the better to serve the stockholders of profit centers, fantasy and horror stories really were weird.
I mention this because you will find twists of this type in the Dorgo stories. The mad shadows, for instance, appear in the city of Valdar to eat gold. And it works. The weird elements in all of these stories succeed in the same way. They are not the corporate progeny born of a focus group or a meeting of the marketing department, but really oddball, imaginative things dreamed up by a writer who is doing his or her job. So some of this stuff is twisted, cruel, and peculiar.
Which is as it should be.
But for me, the most appealing aspect of the Dorgo stories is that we get characters who are as real as you want them to be, characters who have lived lives, characters with histories, characters who truly have something to share with us and who are not simply puppets going through the motions of being in a story for the sake of some mechanical contrivance. (Although Joe does introduce some weird puppets in one of these stories, too . . . and even they have stories to tell. I am not kidding.)
Full disclosure: I am a friend of Joe Bonadonna’s and have been for more than thirty years. At his request, I critiqued these short stories as he was writing them. If you write, you know that this is par for the course. Back in the day—the day being the early 1970s—friends of mine and I frequently circulated stories and poems by mail as a way of learning our trade and improving our skills. It was rather in the nature of how the so-called Lovecraft circle did the same thing during the Depression, circulating copies of short stories long before they appeared in print in Weird Tales. I recall that Mike Fantina, the poet, and Fred Adams and I did this a lot, along with Dick Tierney and Ted Rypel and Randall Larson and G. Sutton Breiding. A small group of us. And Joe and I discussed stories, too, through the mail back then. The members of this group of ours used to send carbon copies of stories back and forth. Occasionally photocopies, because photocopiers were becoming available at libraries and in some business offices, but just as often, we shared carbon copies. Come to think of it, the technology available to us in the early 1970s was a lot closer to the technology available to writers in the 1930s than it was to anything we have today.
Joe Bonadonna started out writing sword-and-sorcery fiction back in the early 1970s when a number of his contemporaries, including me, were also breaking into the fanzines and publishing in the semi-prozines. Joe had worse luck that most of the rest of us did in this sense: I believe he holds the records for the number of short stories accepted by a fanzine editor but then left unpublished when the fanzine went out of business, a common occurrence in those days.
Which is too bad, because it has delayed the introduction of Dorgo by at least a generation and a half to a readership that will get what Joe Bonadonna is doing. Like most of us, Joe absorbed the postwar popular culture in big gulps: the Burroughs boom, the Conan paperbacks with the Frank Frazetta covers, the Tolkein trilogy, Creepy and Eerie magazines, the endless parade of war movies and Westerns and film noir pictures from the Thirties, Forties, and Fifties that played constantly on local television stations, the hardboiled fiction of Hammett and Chandler and Cain. In addition, Joe grew up on the mean streets of the west side of Chicago, and that is no exaggeration: at a time when I, as a boy, was walking around the woods and open fields in Trumbull County with my dad’s old .22, eating blackberries off the bush and wading shoeless in the stream down by Indian Lookout, as we boys called it, Joe was getting practice with his fists alongside some of his mates on the streets and also becoming acquainted with informal invitations from some of Chicago’s boys in blue to cool his temper overnight in the lock-up. That he did not wind up running the numbers for the local rackets and eventually work his way further up the food chain of bad boys with real heat to them is our good fortune as well as his. Instead, he wrote stories and songs and played in a number of rock bands.
But the street stuff from his youth is a big part of what informs the Dorgo character and the Dorgo milieu. Joe is wise enough to understand that the scabby side of life is palatable to readers only when mixed in proper proportion with insight and humor, wisecracks and even the occasional touch of—dare we say it?—human tenderness. So Dorgo, very much a complete, layered character and as three-dimensional a one as you are going to find in fantasy fiction, is really Joey of the Near West Side by way of the language and images we all recognize from film noir, dark fantasy, John Ford Westerns, and classical mythology. It is adventure fiction or suspense fiction or mystery fiction—the Dorgo stories borrow tones and shades from all of these genres and subgenres—that is smart, clever, masculine . . . and wise to itself. Which is exactly what good genre fiction of this order should be.
You will find, then, as you read these stories, that you are in the hands of a writer who has lived a life and who has brought elements of that colorful life to these twisted nightmares, adventures, and back-alley Chandleresque investigations into the dark side. I feel sure that you’ll enjoy them. There is really nothing else quite like them out there, so far as I know. And I hope Joe will write more of them. Surely Dorgo has lived far too much life to leave us only these five stories.
As he himself says, early in “Mad Shadows,” “My present occupation lay in discreet investigations, such as recovering stolen goods, runaway husbands, and missing heiresses. But I have a certain knack for running afoul of anyone having anything to do with witchcraft, necromancy, or any other form of magic.”
Good, I say.
And the Dowser part of his name?
“The special dowsing rod I use in my work had been a gift from a Yongarloo shaman.”
The special dowsing rod does nothing but get Dorgo into one scrape after another—but that’s exactly how I like my stories, and I suspect you will, too.