Dark Roots was the best experience I’ve had with short fiction in long months. It is a collection of three short stories following members of the Reese family through the ages as they match wits, brawn, and steel with an assortment of supernatural foes, from demons to Tory wizards. Each story is a whirlwind of furious action, tightly plotted and suspenseful. Author Hunsinger is not just a fine raconteur, he has a definite talent for historical set pieces, with a convincing grasp of the language, tools, and attitudes of different time periods.
The first story, The Hunters, takes place in 1611 in England, following James Reese’s first encounter with the supernatural, a demon on a murder spree thru rural England. The writing is delightfully Howardian and, indeed, the story very much has the feel of a Solomon Kane adventure. The spare writing style contributes to the intensity of the confrontation, with just the right amount of descriptive detail to make the reader feel right at home in another time, and to feel the mounting terror of the encounter.
The second story, The Fox and the Hound, is set during the early days of the American Revolution, following Elias Kirby, a distaff descendant of the Reese clan with various talismanic powers and mage-like perceptions, who is running the British blockade on behalf of the revolutionaries. This was my favorite story for many reasons: the action at sea, the setting amid the rum and gun runners of coastal Carolina, but most of all because of the incredibly imaginative descriptions of the magical items and techniques that pepper the story. There are no vulgar ‘cast fireball’ spells at work here, but magic of a more subtle and therefore infinitely more fascinating nature, like Kirby’s flintlock pistol with its fixed supply of enchantments, the use of mage sight to navigate the fog-shrouded, shoal-studded Carolina coast, and the summoning of spirits and Deep One-like sea monsters to ambush smugglers. It was all wonderful and would make great inspiration for a supernatural role playing game set in the Colonial period.
The third story, The Snare of the Hunted, is more H.P. Lovecraft than Robert E. Howard, and the protagonist, Eric Reese, is a little less of a swashbuckling he-man than his ancestors. Still, it gets the 1920s pulp weird fiction feel just right. Of course, Reese manages to be much more strong-willed and successful than the usual Lovecraft protagonist, managing some impromptu spell-slinging in an old mausoleum to banish another demon-on-the-rampage.
On the down side, the book is marred by a few sloppy typos and an unfortunate historical error, but I was able to overlook these easily in light of the superior storytelling. Of the three stories, I thought the last was the weakest, as the more restrained, Lovecraftian style is not as well suited to the author as the bold, Howardian flourishes of the other two stories, but it was still a good yarn.
Overall, this is a spectacular collection of bare-knuckled, supernatural adventure fiction and I highly, highly recommend it.