Pocket, August 2009
Trade Paperback, 384 pages
ISBN: 9781416584124

Also available as an original e-book
ISBN: 9781416584261

Read an Excerpt from Bleak History


Subject: Gabriel Bleak. Status: Civilian. Paranormal skills: Powerful. Able to manipulate AS energies and communicate with UBEs (e.g. "ghosts" and other entities). Psychological profile: Extremely independent, potentially dangerous. Caution is urged....

As far as Gabriel Bleak is concerned, talking to the dead is just another way of making a living. It gives him the competitive edge to survive as a bounty hunter, or "skip tracer," in the psychic minefield known as New York City. Unfortunately, his gift also makes him a prime target. A top-secret division of Homeland Security has been monitoring the recent emergence of human supernaturals, with Gabriel Bleak being the strongest on record. If they control Gabriel, they'll gain access to the Hidden -- the entity-based energy field that connects all life on Earth. But Gabriel's got other ideas. With a growing underground movement called the Shadow Community -- and an uneasy alliance of spirits, elementals, and other beings -- Gabriel's about to face the greatest demonic uprising since the Dark Ages. But this time, history is not going to repeat itself. This time, the future is Bleak. Gabriel Bleak.

Interview: SciFiGuy: John Shirley Talks Bleak History


"Shirley has a gift for storytelling that emphasizes both depth of character and immediacy of vision. Verdict: This gritty and fast-moving horror urban fantasy will appeal to readers who enjoy dark supernatural thrillers."-- Library Journal

"In hero Gabriel Bleak, Shirley draws a fine portrait of a scruffy outsider who earns his living on the margins of society, as a bounty hunter, and of a young man whose psychic wounds go much deeper than his gory bad memories as a reluctant soldier in Afghanistan....Shirley is ever the master of twining plots, each with their own energy, that come at each other with the inevitability of runaway trains...What is so enjoyable about Bleak History, however, more than its head-strong plotting, more than all the spectacular and baroque metaphysics, is the way the author depicts the levels of human cruelty. I suppose the same could be said of Dante Alighieri...I consider this novel, in many ways, a work of genius... Bleak History takes the reader on a heady tour of demonology, love, crime, war, an intricate and homespun system of mysticism, the psychic surveillance state, unique variations on the Stockholm syndrome, the sorrows of every eternal misfit, and an apt critique of institutional thinking. There are plenty of thought-provoking tropes in the book, including self-enclosed realities the author calls pocket worlds, an autistic oracle, various ways a person might reach into another mind, and scientific explanations for Magic and the Occult. And like so much of Shirley's work, beneath the twisted story, the reader is treated to a Matryoshka series of dolls within lying, paranoid dolls." -- io9

"The title of John Shirley's new novel may bring Dickens to mind, but this entertaining supernatural thriller has more in common with Lovecraft and The X-Files. In its depiction of ancient entities driven by an implacable hatred for humankind, it draws on Lovecraft's brand of chilly, cerebral horror, while Scully and Mulder would be right at home in its paranoid political atmosphere, featuring shadowy government programs and arcane secret histories.

The Bleak of the title is Gabriel Bleak, a former army ranger who now works as a skip tracer in and around New York City. In both these occupations, he has been assisted by inborn eldritch abilities that grant him access to the Hidden, a "consciousness-inflected energy field connecting all life on Earth . . . the medium that provides a living environment for a spiritual ecology." In other words, it's home to ghosties, ghoulies, and other things that go bump in the night. It's the closest to us of a number of supernatural planes of existence and as such must be traversed by earthly spirits moving on to higher or lower planes, and by entities resident in those planes who may wish, for benign or sinister reasons, to influence or even invade our own. It can also be a tangible medium, made of "stuff" that can be molded into forms and given functions that have physical effects in our world. Bleak, for example, can use his powers to fashion energy bullets that he throws with preternatural accuracy and deadly explosive effect. His connection to the Hidden has also given him the ability to talk and otherwise interact with ghosts, and has conferred as well a kind of sixth sense, an ability to tell when he is being watched, and to see himself through the eyes of the watcher--a handy skill for a soldier and bounty hunter. As described by Shirley, this supernatural system is more superhero-y than spooky.

Bleak is a loner, a semi-burned-out case bearing scars from childhood--his twin brother, Sean, was abducted when he was only three, and he's been haunted ever since, Mulder-like, by the tragedy of that disappearance--and from his time in the army, fighting down and dirty in Afghanistan.

Bleak is not the only one with a connection to the Hidden. There is a loose group of misfits and outlaws in the New York area that calls itself the Shadow Community, led by a beautiful black woman named Shoella. Other communities and gifted individuals presumably exist around the world. Some of these people have an inherent ability to access the Hidden, while others seem open to contact from entities within or beyond the Hidden, who act through them.

Troy Gulcher, an inmate in a New Jersey maximum security prison, falls into the latter category. Gulcher is a man ruled by violent emotions, but he is not entirely without intelligence or a rudimentary moral sense, debased and twisted though they are. An entity from beyond the Hidden imbues Gulcher with the power necessary to escape from jail--which Gulcher does in bloody fashion. Outside, as he pursues the agenda of the entity that soon identifies itself as Moloch--yes, that Moloch--he begins to feel a certain...frustration, as if he has simply exchanged one prison for another. Gulcher may be a sociopath, but his yearning for freedom makes him vaguely sympathetic; he's like a vicious beast caught in a trap and willing to gnaw its own leg off to get loose.

The U.S. government is aware of the Hidden. A secret arm of Homeland Security--9/11 took place in this reality, as in our own--called the Central Containment Authority, or CCA, is devoted to monitoring the Hidden and those who manifest a connection to it. They are especially interested in Bleak, whose connection is among the strongest known. The head of the CCA, General Forsythe, wants Bleak for reasons that are not entirely clear at first: perhaps his powers are seen to be threats to national security, or perhaps, on the contrary, they may be used in the service of the country. In any case, Forsythe has dispatched an attractive young CCA agent, Loraine Sarikosca, to track Bleak down and bring him in.

This is complicated not only by Bleak's ranger skills and "magical" abilities, but by the romantic sparks that fly when the hunter and hunted come face to face. As time goes on, and her feelings for Bleak grow stronger and more confusing, Sarikosca will come to question her allegiance to the CCA, whose methods become increasingly brutal and arbitrary, in what is a clear allusion to the decay of moral and legal standards in the CIA during the presidency of George W. Bush.

Bleak, too, is troubled by the attraction he feels toward his pursuer, yet is equally unable to deny it. But as a kind of barbed romance blooms between these characters, Shirley is deftly weaving together darker threads of plot that will draw in Gulcher, a mysterious artifact buried in the Arctic tundra, and even Bleak's missing brother. At stake is--what else?--the fate of humanity itself.

As in many such thrillers, the end of Bleak History feels rather perfunctory and by-the-numbers, but getting there is a fun and sometimes surprising ride. This is, after all, a John Shirley novel: anarchic in spirit, politically engaged with the real world, and shot through with gonzo weirdness. Yet not too weird: Shirley is in mainstream mode here, writing for the widest possible audience, with the clear intent of launching a series. And with its likeable characters, an occult system that manages to be both fresh and familiar, and a fast-moving plot whose action is spiced with romance, the prospects for that would seem to be anything but bleak."--Locus, November 2009, Review by Paul Witcover

"I could tell just from the blurb on the back that Bleak History by John Shirley was going to be one heck of a story. I certainly was not disappointed. This book was full of tension, suspense, and a wonderful touch of the paranormal. Throw in a little romance as well as a little self discovery and we get a thrilling story with enough adrenaline pumping action to get every heart pumping." -- A Journey of Books

"The world-building is challenging and different...Action scenes are frequent and varied ranging from the fascinating whenever paranormal powers are demonstrated to the horrific...Events are not without their moments of levity, especially scenes with Gabriel and ghosts he encounters....Bleak History is strongest on the action and it sometimes overwhelms the character development, but still delivers an energetic thriller that will satisfy readers with a craving for something a little different on the urban fantasy landscape." -- SciFiGuy

"Fast-paced and action-packed, Bleak History reads like a movie. John Shirley carefully built up the alternate reality and the references to New York locations adds to the book's appeal. Gabriel Bleak and Agent Sarikosca are strong, sympathetic characters. Gabriel Bleak's strong sense of humanity is one of the best parts of the novel...Bleak History reminded me at times of the TV series Heroes and of the movie The Matrix.--StartingFresh

"[S]et in a near future New York, allows Shirley to show off his action film sensibilities while having the freedom to engage in political and social commentary. What comes out is solid execution in a mix that...makes for an exciting ride...While the underpinnings of this story are familiar, Shirley shows his skills in pulling them together into an exciting story with believable and sympathetic characters....Shirley also shows an exceptional knack at building a strong sense of place throughout the story, reminding me of the world-building prowess of Stephen King. Shirley grabs all the fantasy, other-world elements from popular fiction and molds them with great skill into his own quickly moving tale." -- SciFiDimensions

"Bleak History was definitely a surprising read for me. I was expecting an urban fantasy that is pretty similar to a lot that I've read recently but Shirley really kicks it up a notch with Gabriel Bleak and the ShadowComm members. It's really different than any urban fantasy that I've ever read. There is a lot of detail in the numerous characters and the story has a lot of depth. It isn't the usual puff piece that has every cliche in the genre. And the book has its own unique theories about the paranormal and spiritual afterlife...I really enjoyed the way Gabriel wasn't your average hero. He was just a guy trying to get through life with an amazing talent." -- ReadingWithMonie

"In many ways Bleak History is about how we as a society or a country deal with threats. What if the threat was not terrorists, but magic?... Shirley is the master of the horror novel as political allegory. These are not beat you over the head-in your face-allegory, and despite the obvious statements on rendition and torture there is deeper message. His novel Demons may be his more biting socio-political satire, but I am hoping that Bleak History will be a bridge that will bring new readers to his long chain of brilliant novels. Read it!"--Postcards from a Dying World

"...if there's one thing John Shirley is good at, it's colorful characters. This novel is populated by a quirky cast which befits the novel's urban environment, a melting pot of the unique, the troubled and the independent, all dealing with the troubles of this world and the one next door. And speaking of the paranormal, this aspect of the story is handled cleverly throughout, at times tipping from the strictly spooky into superhero territory; for instance, the protagonist can form energy bullets in his hands and is able to briefly walk on air....To sum up, it's all a jolly good time regardless of whether you're into it for the chills or the thrills. This book can be readily recommended to those who crave a little meat in their urban fantasy reading diet." -- Grim Rictus Reviews

John Shirley has written a strong contender in the urban fantasy genre. The characters are well-drawn, and Gabriel in particular is an intriguing hero. The plotlines are made believeable and the suspense and horror is well done. This book is recommended for readers of thrillers and urban fantasy." -- Bookisie's Blog

"[Shirley] is very good at describing the paranormal abilities of his characters, and it drew me in. This novel was action packed, and I'm hoping there will be a sequel, as I would love to know more about Gabriel Bleak and the Shadow Community." -- Falling Off the Shelf

"I found myself unable to put the book down once I reached the last few chapters... The story is well-written and doesn't disappoint. I like the book and recommend it. The characters have complexity and I was able to empathize with them, even the villains..."-- Dark Discoveries

"I very much enjoyed Bleak History because the concept is so unique.... Shirley has managed to make a distinctive and interesting world of his own within the genre....There is a lot of action in the book between getting chased, darker forces committing crimes, and seeking out the truth of what is happening. The book barely lags or takes a breath, but there are a few moments of quiet reflection for the characters." -- Morbid Romantic

"The action is fast here. The bad guys are everywhere Gabriel turns, and they aren't above using local law enforcement to assist in Gabriel's location and detention. So who can he trust? Guess you'll have to read and find out. I did like Bleak History, but I'm thinking I'd probably prefer a screen version--lots of explosions to ooh and aah at..." -- DreysLibrary

"Reads like a...summer blockbuster, loaded with action... Steeped in its own detailed mythology, Shirley's fast-paced romp through the occult is clever..." -- Publishers Weekly

"If you like to read about spirits, demons, etc. I think you should pick up this book." -- Readaholic