Christopher Golden (Editor), Hellboy:
Oddest Jobs
(Dark Horse, 2008)

Licensed property anthologies are tricky things. As one well-respected author told me at a convention, they're a convenient place to dump trunk stories -- just file off the serial numbers, add a few italicized terms, and voilà. That's the worst-case scenario. The best case is that the property is one that genuinely interests the contributors, who then provide their unique takes on the license in question to great effect.

Fortunately, Hellboy: Oddest Jobs is one of the latter. Spiced with illustrations by Hellboy creator Mike Mignola, and edited by frequent Hellboy contributor Christopher Golden, Odder Jobs demonstrates not only the versatility of Mignola's creations, but also the breadth of its admirers. Contributors to the book range from Joe R. Lansdale to China Mieville to actress (and Golden collaborator) Amber Benson. It is, to borrow a baseball metaphor, a loaded lineup, and even if some of the stories don't knock it out of the park, there's still plenty of quality here.

The book doesn't waste any time, starting off with one of the highlights -- Lansdale's "Jiving With Shadows and Dragons and Long, Black Trains." Riffing on the notion of a ghost train, Lansdale skillfully evokes sympathy for the sad-sack whose subconscious is summoning forth the monstrous railroad. That is, until said nebbish learns a bit more about himself, and we about him, as the black railroad and its inhuman inhabitants ride. Gary Braunbeck's "In Cupboards and Bookshelves" hits the other end of the spectrum, a look at what Hellboy does when he's not bashing baddies. The key to Hellboy's appeal has always been in his humanity, and Braunbeck puts that on full display in a heartbreaking story of what else Big Red can do to help besides let fly with the fists. Brian Keene's "Salamander Blues" is an enjoyable slice of pulpy goodness that reminds the reader that even monsters have rights sometimes, while Steven Volk's "Monster Boy" uses the Hellboy character as inspiration for its protagonist, a victim of schoolyard bullying who finds a way to fight back.

Not every story is quite as successful. Garth Nix's "Strange Fishing In the Western Highlands" takes a fun premise and drains the life out of it with too much exposition, while John Skipp and Cody Goodfellow's "Second Honeymoon" is a confusing action mish-mash that rushes what feels like a forced ending. Rhys Hughes' "Feet of Sciron" is another miss, a grandiose conception with an out-of-nowhere punchline for an ending and an awkward moment of Tuckerization.

Still, there are a lot more hits than misses, and the range of the stories -- one can bounce from Barbara Hambly's subtle desert tale "Repossession" to Mieville's amusing "A Room of One's Own" to Mark Chadbourn's genuinely sweet zombie jazz romance "Straight, No Chaser" -- ensures a pleasantly diverse reading experience. Best of all, most of the stories seem genuinely comfortable with the Hellboy universe and take advantage of its unique qualities, rather than trying to force something inappropriate into it or remake the world for the sake of a short story. And for a themed anthology, it doesn't get any better than that.

[Richard Dansky]