Friday, 23 September 2016

Days Missing, by Phil Hester, Frazer Irving and chums (Archaia) | review by Stephen Theaker

The Steward is a white-haired guy who fights like Neo and (theoretically) exists outside of time in a colossal library, watching our world go by. When a particularly disastrous day comes around, he steps in, to inspire people, to fight them, to cover up his own existence, and presumably sometimes just to relieve the boredom of spending eternity on his own. If he can fix things before the day is done, smashing, but more often he has to rewind time by twenty-four hours and reshape events. It’s as if Bill Murray in Groundhog Day learnt to activate his time-looping ability on demand. The day lost in the loop may echo in the feelings and dreams of those that live on – for example, Mary Shelley in one story, whose encounter with a reanimated corpse inspires Frankenstein – but otherwise the only record of that lost day is in the books that line the Steward’s library. He was alive before humanity existed, and seems likely to long outlive us, but he’ll do his best to keep us going. Do you have any idea how long he spent trying to talk to dinosaurs before we came along?

This is a slightly odd book, that feels like it is intended as a sales document for a television format as much as a comic: the rather foggy premise (which I didn’t understand until it was all set out very clearly in the last issue) was cooked up by Roddenberry – not Gene Roddenberry, but Roddenberry the company, run by Gene’s son and his friend Trevor, who have then pulled in a variety of creators to produce the individual stories, much like writers and directors coming in to produce individual episodes of a television show. Once I realised that, I expected it to be poor, and yet it ends up being fairly decent. The hired guns include people like Phil Hester, Frazer Irving, Dale Keown and Ian Edgington, and the stories they produce range from the okay to the actually pretty good. The best comes last, with the Steward stepping in to rewind time nine times over when an accidentally-created artificial intelligence makes plans to devour the planet. It’s rather chilling when he tells the laboratory staff how long it usually takes each of them to give in to madness, and Frazer Irving’s artwork really sells it. Other stories feature conquistadors, the Large Hadron Collider and an outbreak of ebola. Worth a read if it comes your way, but don’t seek it out unless the premise particularly appeals. ***

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Alien: Out of the Shadows, by Tim Lebbon and Dirk Maggs (Audible Originals) | review by Stephen Theaker

This full cast audio interquel places itself between two of the greatest science fiction films of all time, Alien and Aliens. That takes a good deal of ambition, but, then, it is adapted from Tim Lebbon’s novel by Dirk Maggs, whose CV, taking in everyone from Superman to Arthur Dent, shows he is not afraid of a challenge. We join Ellen Ripley (played here by Laurel Lefkow), sole human survivor of the Nostromo, as she records a message for her daughter and settles down for hypersleep. What she, and we, didn’t realise at the end of Alien was that murderous company android Ash had uploaded his consciousness to the escape pod’s computer. He hasn’t given up on his mission, and what’s worse he now sounds just like Rutger Hauer, having scraped together a new voice from what’s available in the computer system. He changes their course, taking them to LV178, a mining planet where he suspects the alien xenomorphs might be found. And he’s right. The miners disturbed something on that planet, and now, like Dracula coming to Whitby, it’s on its way up to the orbiting Marion in a shuttle. Chief engineer Chris Hooper (played by Corey Johnson) and the other surviving miners will need the help of Ripley if any of them are to survive, but the presence of Ash is just going to make things worse.

As well as the films, there have been a lot of good Aliens comics and games, and this adaptation shows how extremely well suited they are to the audio medium too, despite being fairly quiet, as monsters go. Characters talk over comms as they explore locations where the aliens might be lurking, and of course comms cut out as the aliens attack, creating a tension reminiscent of Journey into Space at its most frightening. The plot gives the characters some very difficult decisions to make, so the conversations never feel redundant. The record entries of the disembodied Ash are used cleverly to make sure listeners know exactly what’s going on in each of the ten chapters. (The Audible app’s new clips feature helps with this too.) One problem listeners may have is that a lot of what Ripley sees in this story seems to come as a surprise to her in the second film. Are we supposed to think that she kept that essential information from the colonial marines? Or is this a new timeline, branching off before Aliens? The story does answer these questions by the end, but not really in a way that’ll have anyone cheering. Nevertheless, this is a good, solid four-and-a-half-hour alien adventure that sounds terrific. It should satisfy anyone with a hankering for more of the galaxy’s second meanest bipeds. ***

Monday, 19 September 2016

Ant-Man, by Edgar Wright, Joe Cornish and others (Marvel Films) | review

Scott Lang (played with great charm by Paul Rudd) used to have principles, but he became a cat burglar to expose corporate corruption, and found he was good at it. He’s been in prison a while, and after getting out tries to go straight, but it’s tough to get or keep a job with his record, and soon he’s back with his group of criminal friends (you can’t blame him, they’re a funny bunch of fellows) and planning a new job. They’re going to break into the house of Hank Pym. Yes, that Hank Pym, the original Ant-Man, but here he is older and played by Michael Douglas. (Who has, may I say, left it way too late in his career to change his mind about acting in fantasy films. Just imagine the films he could have got made in his prime.) It’s easy to understand why the film-makers decided to skip over Pym, given his unwholesome history in the comics, and especially in The Ultimates, such an influence on the Avengers films, but at least they give him a history as Ant-Man – albeit a secret one, as a covert operative. Anyway, one thing leads to another and before you know it Scott is wearing the Ant-Man suit he stole and Hank is training him to use it. It lets him shrink to the size of an ant, and talk to them too. Also helping with the training is Janet van Dyne, Pym’s daughter, played by Evangeline Lilly, so good in Lost and the Hobbit films, and equally good here. There’s a bad guy working on the same technology, who has taken over Pym’s company, and he’s happy to kill lots of sheep to get it working. Can Scott pull himself together and save the day when he’s under more pressure than ever?

It was surprising that this film wasn’t worse, knowing the little bit that we do of the circumstances in which it was made, intended director Edgar Wright leaving the picture after years of development. It’s hard not to feel it’s the ghost of the film it would have been, though it’s clearly very close to what he planned: he and Joe Cornish still get the screenplay credit, his trademark use of music (The Cure, in this case) and edits (a sequence showing how a rumour gets passed around) are still on display, and the scene of Ant-Man fighting two security guards looks exactly like it did in the original proof-of-concept footage shown at San Diego Comic-Con. An interpolated fight with one of the Avengers seems most out of place, both in the film and in Ant-Man’s career: there’s no way he should have been able to hold his own with an experienced hero yet. (Though I still enjoyed it.) This could have been one of the best of the Marvel movies, but it’s not too bad as it is, it’s decent enough.

An aside: some reviewers have commented on the misgendering of the ants in the film, with Ant-Man calling them guys and giving his favourite a boy’s name. We saw it in France, VOSTF-style, and it was interesting to see that the subtitles changed all that, with Scott shouting for les filles and calling his favourite ant Antoinette: a little example of how things can change in translation. Stephen Theaker ***

Friday, 16 September 2016

Brightest Day, Vol. 1, by Geoff Johns, Peter Tomasi and chums (DC Comics) | review by Stephen Theaker

At the conclusion of the Blackest Night, where Black Lanterns had laid siege to Earth, several dead heroes and villains were brought back to life by a blinding white light. Among them were Hawkman and Hawkwoman, Hawk (of Hawk and Dove), Aquaman, Martian Manhunter, Captain Boomerang, the Reverse Flash, Osiris, Jade (the original Green Lantern’s daughter), Firestorm and Maxwell Lord, the psychic who once brought together the Justice League International. It also brought back one character who had been dead since his debut, Deadman, who will presumably need to change his name now. This book follows them all as they adjust to being back in the world, and in the case of Hawkman and Hawkwoman, out of it in what seems to be another dimension. I’m not a particularly huge fan of any of these characters, and I wasn’t even aware that half of them were dead, so their return to life didn’t get me all that excited, but it was very good fun to read a DC comic that followed a bunch of characters in its universe without jamming them together into an ad hoc group. It’s a network drama of the DC universe, letting their stories unfold and bringing other guest stars in as the story demands it. There’s a connection, the light that brought them back having coalesced into a white lantern, which sends Deadman off to check in on each of the others, but each storyline gets its own room to breathe. The art does its job well. It’s very gory at times, with people being stabbed and skinned, and one incident (on a ship) is very unpleasant in a different way (even if Aquaman and Mera do come to the rescue), so this isn’t a book for children. People who have read quite a lot of DC comics are likely to get the most out of it. Stephen Theaker ***

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

King Wolf, by Steven Savile (Fox Spirit Books) | review by Stephen Theaker

A collection of three short stories, written years apart from each other, but sharing a common link. “The Fragrance of You” is about an illustrator, Jon Sieber, who falls in love with the daughter of the writer Hoke Berglund, author of such strange works as Princess Scapegoat, The Forgetting Wood and Angel Home, after meeting her at the old man’s funeral. As his feelings for her deepens, he becomes increasingly bothered by her habit of sneaking out in the middle of the night. Eventually he makes the mistake of following her… “All That Remains Is You” then takes us back to meet the writer Hoke Berglund when he was still alive, and preparing to pitch his second book to a publisher. It’s a book that deals with the loss of his wife, the birth of his daughter, and his own institutionalisation – not exactly the stuff of a licensing extravaganza, but the hype machine is up and running before Hoke even steps into his publisher’s office. On his way in he is stopped by an older man who begs him not to publish the book, for the sake of his daughter. But in the meeting he “signed what they wanted him to sign and walked out feeling uncomfortably like Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus”. The third story, “Remembering You, Forgetting Me”, was written a decade later and appears for the first time in this book. We return to Jon Sieber, attending something like an alcoholics anonymous meeting, having drunk himself silly for seven years after the events of “The Fragrance of You”. He tells them what he found hidden in the last seven interviews of Hoke Berglund: a terrible accusation… The book ends with an afterword placing the stories in the context of the actual author’s own life, not normally something I enjoy, but it seems appropriate in this case, after reading a set of stories that are, in my view, all about the relationship between the author, and his or her characters, and the reader. The book shows us Mr. Self Affliction, a disgusting creature who pours his words into others so that they can speak as if human; a self-lacerating view of a writer’s job, though perhaps balanced by the in-joke of having a character wonder if their story was being “written around me by the master storyteller”. Writers create fake people, and by the magic of literature we fall in love with them, or at least feel for them, as Savile makes us do here so brilliantly. ****

Monday, 12 September 2016

Under the Dome, Season 1, by Brian K. Vaughan and chums (Amazon Instant Video) | review

An invisible force field materialises around and over a small town, trapping everyone inside its dome, and keeping everyone else out. There are immediate tragedies as trucks, cars and aircraft smash into it, and one poor cow gets sliced in two. (And oh how sick you get of seeing it get bisected, since the shot is included in every subsequent “Previously…”) Some of the town’s most prominent citizens have been up to no good, albeit in a way that leaves it with enough propane to keep the lights on, and that makes it necessary for strong-arm debt collector Barbie to get more involved in keeping the town safe than he’d like. That’s made all the more awkward by him getting into a relationship with the wife of one of his previous customers. Others trapped inside include a pair of teenagers who begin to have dome-given visions, another girl with a dangerously obsessive boyfriend, and that boyfriend’s father, Big Jim, the rock on which the town relies. Can the people of this town survive each other long enough to survive the dome? Possibly not, given the townsfolks’ peculiar habit of declaring their intentions to go to the police to the very people they suspect of foul play. The viewer’s hands will frequently be thrown in the air in disbelief. Overall, this was a disappointment. I hadn’t read the Stephen King novel on which it is based, but there are few adaptations of his work I haven’t enjoyed – this comes in at the lower end of those. The mysteries of the dome provide a few jaw-dropping moments, but they’re wedded to crime and corruption stories from a third-rate Justified imitation. If this hadn’t been renewed, the ending of the season would have been an incredible letdown. (Spoiler: the dome changes colour. Well, there’s more to it that that, you find out in season two, but not a lot.) It’s at its best showing how fragile our grip on life can be, especially for those who need medical support, at its worst when it forgets that its better-hearted characters would be sure to tell each what they know about the killers and maniacs hiding in plain sight. It’s not awful, but there is lots of room in the dome for improvement. Stephen Theaker ***

Friday, 9 September 2016

Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #56: now out, in print and ebook

free epub | free mobi | free pdf | print UK | print USA | Kindle UK | Kindle US

Issue fifty-six of Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction is two hundred and forty pages long, and features six stories of fantasy, horror and science fiction: “Concerning Strange Events at the Manor of Sir Hugh de Villiers, Valiant Knight” David Penn (transcribed from the Middle English), “Three Bodies” by Cam Rhys Lay, “The Christmas Cracker” by Rafe McGregor, “Mr Kitchell Says Thank You” by Charles Wilkinson, “The Cutting Room” by Chuck Von Nordheim, and “Gliese and the Walking Man” by Howard Watts. They are arranged roughly in chronological order, so fantasy fans should start at the beginning, and science fiction fans should start at the end.

The spectacularly superheroic cover is by Howard Watts, and the emergency editorial by Howard Phillips. The issue also includes over sixty pages of reviews, and some sneaky interior art from John Greenwood.

Writers, artists and other creators whose work is reviewed in this issue include: Adam Cozad, Alberto Giolitti, Angela Gorodischer, Charles Dixon, Chip Proser, Christian Højgaard, Christopher Markus, Craig Brewer, Craig Mazin, Dennis-Pierre Filippi, Dick Wood, Dirk Maggs, Ernie Chan, Evan Spiliotopoulos, Gabriel Rodriguez, Gary Kwapisz, Guy Davis, Jean-Florian Tello, Jeffrey Boam, Jerry Frissen, Joe Hill, Joe Phillips, John Connolly, Mateus Santolouco, Michael Alan Nelson, Mike Johnson, Naimi Mitchison, Nevio Zeccara, Nick Mamatas, Nicolas Wright, Nicole Kornher-Stace, Philippe Thirault, Simon Kinberg, Simon Kurt Unsworth, Stephen McFeely, Stephen Molnar, Steven Savile, Thomas Ligotti, and Tim Lebbon.

Here are the delightful contributors to this issue:

Prior to returning to school to pursue his MFA in Fiction, Cam Rhys Lay worked for a decade doing online marketing and publishing pretentious (but beautiful) leatherbound books. His fiction has been published or is forthcoming in Eclectica, The Society for Misfit Stories, and No Extra Words. He is currently finishing his first novel. To learn more about Cam and his writing you can visit his website at

Charles Wilkinson’s publications include The Pain Tree and Other Stories (London Magazine Editions) and Ag & Au (Flarestack), a pamphlet of his poems. His stories have appeared in Best Short Stories 1990 (Heinemann), Best English Short Stories 2 (W.W. Norton, USA), Unthology (Unthank Books), Best British Short Stories 2015 (Salt), London Magazine, Under the Radar, Prole, Able Muse Review (USA), Ninth Letter (USA), The Sea in Birmingham (TSFG) and in genre magazines/anthologies such as Supernatural Tales, Horror Without Victims (Megazanthus Press), Rustblind and Silverbright (Eibonvale Press), Phantom Drift, Bourbon Penn, Shadows & Tall Trees, Prole, Nightscript and Best Weird Fiction 2015 (Undertow Books, Canada). He lives in Powys, Wales, where he is heavily outnumbered by members of the ovine community. A Twist in the Eye, his collection of strange tales and weird fiction, is now out from Egaeus Press, including stories that first appeared here in Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction.

Chuck Von Nordheim lives in northeastern Los Angeles country at the geo-biological point where chapparal merges into pure desert. Currently, he poses as an MFA fiction candidate at CSU San Bernardino on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The rest of the week, he scours Mojave Desert garage sales and antique shops for Highway 66 memorabilia that he can sell on eBay to pay his tuition. His other magreal/surreal works have appeared in Three-Lobed Burning Eye, Ealain, Twisted Tongue, and Daily Science Fiction.

David Penn has previously published fiction in the magazines Midnight Street and Whispers of Wickedness, and poetry in the magazines Magma and Smith’s Knoll. He lives in London where he also works, as a librarian.

Douglas J. Ogurek’s work has appeared in the BFS Journal, The Literary Review, Morpheus Tales, Gone Lawn, and several anthologies. He lives in a Chicago suburb with the woman whose husband he is and their pit bull Phlegmpus Bilesnot. Douglas’s website can be found at:

Howard Phillips contributes the must-read editorial.

Howard Watts is a writer, artist and composer living in Seaford who also provides the wraparound cover art for this issue. His artwork can be seen in its native resolution on his deviantart page: His novel The Master of Clouds is now available on Kindle.

Jacob Edwards also writes 42-word reviews for Derelict Space Sheep. This writer, poet and recovering lexiphanicist’s website is at He has a Facebook page at, where he posts poems and the occasional oddity, and he can now be found on Twitter too:

Rafe McGregor has published over one hundred and twenty short stories, novellas, magazine articles, journal papers, and review essays. His work includes crime fiction, weird tales, military history, literary criticism, and academic philosophy.

Stephen Theaker’s reviews have appeared in Interzone, Black Static, Prism and the BFS Journal, as well as clogging up our pages. He shares his home with three slightly smaller Theakers, runs the British Fantasy Awards (for the rest of this month), and works in legal and medical publishing.

As ever, all back issues of Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction are available for free download.

Monday, 5 September 2016

It Follows: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, by Disasterpeace (Milan Records) | review

This eighteen-track album collects the score from the film It Follows, directed by David Robert Mitchell, about a young woman infected by a supernatural curse. As with the film, there are strong echoes of John Carpenter’s early work in this electronic music, especially in tracks like “Title” and “Playpen”, while moody tracks like “Anyone” and “Detritus” will appeal to those who enjoyed the eeriness of Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works, Volume 2, but it’s an imaginative work of electronic music in its own right. I bought the album before seeing the film, and it stands alone very well. Watching the film makes it even better. On screen the music is used to create an uncanny sense of derangement in the viewer, its jarring strangeness accentuating the horror, and delicious echoes of that carry across to subsequent listens to the soundtrack. Stephen Theaker ****

Friday, 2 September 2016

Zenith: Phase Two, by Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell (Rebellion) | review by Stephen Theaker

Zenith’s parents were a couple of superheroes, White Heat and Doctor Beat, murdered in the late sixties. In 1983 he revealed himself to the public, and after becoming popular in the tabloids “he did what all the soap stars and the page three girls were doing”. He released a pop record, and then some more, his soaraway success only interrupted by the re-emergence in the previous book of a mad Nazi super-villain. This volume, collecting stories from 2000AD Progs 589 to 606 and a winter special from 1988, shows us a Zenith who has grown up an infinitesimal amount. He still doesn’t want to miss Neighbours, he’s obsessed with Beatrice Dalle, and he’ll hook up with women two at a time in the most dangerous of situations, but he doesn’t need all that much convincing to tag along with a CIA operative on her investigation of a Richard Branson type in his mysterious Scottish headquarters. She promises he’ll learn something about his family there, and by gum he does. It’s great to finally read one of the lost touchstones of 1980s comics. While V for Vendetta and The Dark Knight Returns are by now in their three millionth and one print runs, this one was unavailable for a fair old while. It’s classic Grant Morrison, its edges overlapping with so much he’s done since, from Doom Patrol to The Invisibles to Batman, with its shadowy manipulators, interdimensional invaders and pop culture heroics. Comparing Steve Yeowell’s art to that in The Crimson Seas, I can see that it’s improved over time and become more consistent, but I love it here just as much. Essential reading. ****

Monday, 29 August 2016

The Maze Runner, by Noah Oppenheim, Grant Pierce Myers and T.S. Nowlin (Twentieth Century Fox) | review

Three years ago Alby (played by Aml Ameen) woke up in a wooded glade surrounded by immense walls, with no memory of who he was or how he got there. He remembered his name after a day or two, but that was it. Each month another boy arrived in the freight elevator, bringing with them some essential supplies, and though it got really bad at times a peaceful community slowly developed with a few simple rules, don’t hurt each other, and, unless you’re a runner, don’t go through the huge gap that opens up in the wall each morning and closes at night, because if you’re stuck in the maze on the other side when night falls, and the maze starts to shift, you won’t ever come back.

The film begins when Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) arrives. By then there are about thirty-two young men living in the glade, going by the cast list, and many others have already died (perhaps they were being vague with the talk of three years, and maybe there were months when more than one boy arrived). Thomas isn’t the kind of guy who’s happy to chill out in a lovely, peaceful glade. No, he wants to get out into the maze and find a way out. Problem is, out there in the maze live the Grievers, immense spider-cyborgs who’ll kill you just for being in their labyrinth. Gally (Will Poulter) thinks they should stay where they are and get on with living their lives. He’s totally right and the main character is an idiot.

The Maze Runner is a well-produced film, with good performances from a lot of talented young actors, but it has a lot of story problems. There is very little maze running, for a start, and it’s over an hour into the film before it begins. The maze was fully explored before our hero ever turned up, and he just leads a couple of short expeditions before getting very lucky. The maze is supposed to be a trial, a test, but for most of the young men that trial has involved a long, pleasant camping trip in a leafy field with bonfires and bacon. The only people who face any danger are those who fancy it. It could have been more aptly entitled The Guy Who Lives in a Nice Field with a Bunch of Dudes and Sometimes Pokes Around in the Maze for a Few Minutes. As part of their brainwashing it seems that the young men have been wiped clean of any desire, since the arrival of a young woman is greeted by many with dismay, as a bad sign. It’s not even suggested that her presence might be dangerous because they’ll begin to fight over her, or any thought given to what the presence of a woman might mean for the future of their colony. Do they not want to hear the noise of little runners’ feet? The monsters are well-designed, but as so often with CGI your heart knows it’s not real and they fail to truly thrill. Not an awful film, though, and it’s good to see this kind of revelatory science fiction on screen. It’s been compared to The Hunger Games a lot, but it’s much more like a little league version of the Riverworld saga. Stephen Theaker ***

Friday, 26 August 2016

Predator vs Judge Dredd vs Aliens: Incubus and Other Stories, by John Wagner, Andy Diggle, Henry Flint, Alcatena and chums (Rebellion/Dark Horse Books) | review by Stephen Theaker

Judge Dredd and his fellow lawmen here face two extraterrestrial threats from the silver screen. In the first story a Predator crashes in the Cursed Earth, and from there makes his or her way to Mega-City One, where four hundred million people are already losing their minds. The Predator quickly realises that the judges are the big game here, and begins to collect its gruesome trophies. A somewhat psychic descendant of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character from the first film is called in to help in the search. Alcatena’s artwork is very appealing, but is maybe a bit cute for this story. The Aliens story that follows is much more memorable, perhaps because the Predator doesn’t offer much of a threat to Mega-City One. It kills a lot of people, but it’s essentially a nuisance – whereas the Aliens are a plague that threatens total extinction. Henry Flint’s art looks a lot like Carlos Ezquerra’s, so this feels like authentic Dredd from the beginning. The Mega-City offers a million dark places for an alien to hide and lay its eggs. A space pirate brought them here to conquer the city, but luckily another idiot thought he could breed them for use in fighting pits and got himself infected – his exploding chest and the thing that comes out of him gets Dredd on the case. Great use of Dredd, the Mega-City, and the aliens. ***

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Contributor news: Charles Wilkinson, Rafe McGregor, Douglas Ogurek

Hope you’ve been enjoying issue fifty-five, which was as ever free to download and as cheap as we could possibly make it in print. We don’t expect anything in return, other than your unquestioning love, but if you want to show your thanks in less romantic fashion, there’s no better way than having a look at our contributors’ other publications.

Charles Wilkinson has a collection of strange tales out now from Egaeus Press, A Twist in the Eye, which includes two stories that first appeared here. In his introduction, Mark Samuels calls it “the most exciting collection of weird fiction … that I have read for many years”. Charles’s work has appeared in Supernatural Tales, Shadows & Tall Trees, Horror Without Victims and Strange Tales V (Tartarus Press) amongst other places. The book is available to buy from the Egaeus Press website.

Rafe McGregor’s seventh book, The Value of Literature, was due for publication by Rowman & Littlefield International in hardback in August 2016 and in paperback in February 2018. Learn more.

Douglas J. Ogurek’s unsplatterpunk extravaganza “Maim Street” was selected for The Best Weird Fiction Vol. 6 (Morpheus Tales Publishing). Prick of the Spindle published his satirical piece “Thomas Sageslush’s Support of the Moronvia Heights Pit Bull Ban”. The Literary Hatchet (PearTree Press) picked up his oft-anthologized (and highly juvenile) “Stool Fool”. The Great Tome of Forgotten Relics and Artifacts (Bards and Sages Publishing) featured “The Binding Agent.”. Learn more.

Finally, check out the current Interzone #265 for my reviews of Hunters & Collectors by M. Suddain and World of Water by James Lovegrove, plus the upcoming Interzone #266 for my review of The Rise of Io by Wesley Chu and – honour of honours! – my guest editorial, where I talk a bit about running the British Fantasy Awards, where I think awards can go awry, and why I love them anyway.

Monday, 22 August 2016

The Cobbler, by Tom McCarthy and Paul Sado (Voltage Pictures and others) | review

Max Simkin has been struggling since his dad left, a long time ago now. He’s angry at the guy for going, a feeling not helped by going to work each day in the shoe repair shop where his father worked, as well as his grandfather and great-grandfather. Max’s mother suffers from dementia, and her well-meaning suggestions to take a nice girl out just drive home the point that all the nice girls he used to know have been married for fifteen years with children. A change in his life is provoked by the appearance in his shop of an obnoxious and aggressive criminal, played by Method Man of the Wu-Tang Clan, who doesn’t want the shop to close till he’s got his shoes. Max’s cobbling machine breaks down and because of the urgency he goes down into the basement and gets out an old machine – a magical machine! He discovers that when he uses it to stitch the soles of a pair of shoes, he turns into a replica of the person to whom they belong. With interesting consequences! Max is played by Adam Sandler, totally convincing in the role of this disappointed, miserable man who doesn’t resent his mother for a minute. The friendly barber next door is played by Steve Buscemi, extremely likeable in the role. The film sets out very clearly (though unobtrusively) the rules of the premise: he looks like the person as they look right now (even if they are dead), he takes on their voice and accent, he has to wear both shoes, and they must fit his size ten and a half feet.

Though I liked the film overall, a few things bugged me. The music tries a bit hard, and Max takes off his shoes in some very daft situations, places, for example, where he wouldn’t want to leave fingerprints. It feels like that’s because we might otherwise go long stretches of the film without seeing its star. Max also seems unbelievably unconcerned about the real-world consequences for the people he impersonates. Fair enough when it’s a gangster, but putting on the shoes of a young teenager or a woman and using them to talk to that gangster? That was appalling. The trailer put me off by making it look like Max would use the shoes to impersonate men to have sex with their girlfriends; while still very unwelcome, this plays a tiny part in the film and he doesn’t go through with it (albeit because he can’t get in the shower without taking off his shoes). The main plot concerns a property developer who wants to get one last tenant out of an old block. As Max disguised himself to help I couldn’t help thinking that this was essentially the same plot as the Daredevil television series. And this film does feel a lot like a television pilot, even if the actors involved give it the heft of a movie. If there isn’t a series currently planned, I’m sure it will happen eventually: easy to imagine the cobbler pulling on a new pair of shoes each week and getting involved in a new set of scrapes. Stephen Theaker ***

Suicide Squad | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Popsicles and lollipops advertised, mostly stale bread delivered.

The playful colours and reckless tone of Suicide Squad advertisements suggest a departure from the typical superhero film. Unfortunately, excepting the antics of one flamboyant couple, the film is too dull and safe to live up to the hype.

Director David Ayers presents a Gotham where one of the most beloved superheroes appears to be dead. The ruthless Dr Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) assembles the worst of the worst criminals as a safety measure. Suicide Squad starts strong, giving viewers a taste of the “metahuman” recruits’ powers, ranging from Deadshot’s (Will Smith) incredible accuracy to the pyrokinesis of remorseful gangster Diablo (Jay Hernandez).

The antiheroes get microchips embedded in their necks – they misbehave, and boom! – then soldier Rick Flag leads them on a mission to rescue an unknown operative. In the meantime, archaeologist Dr June Moone (also Flag’s girlfriend) struggles to subdue Enchantress, the ancient witch who resides within her. Moon fails, so the Enchantress sets in motion a plan to destroy the world.

The squad blasts and pounds away at Enchantress’s faceless, lumpy-skinned henchmen that an eight-year-old girl could defeat. Half of the squad consists of underdeveloped dullards with little to no backstory. For instance, Australian burglar Boomerang adds nothing to the film and swordswoman Katana seems to spend more time posing than fighting. Winning the booby prize for most annoying character, however, is Killer Croc. This sewer-dwelling goon makes comments that make you want to slap your forehead.

Enchantress spends too much time using her magic to swirl garbage in the sky to build a “machine” that will destroy humanity, while her brother, a flaming monster with elastic burning body parts, protects her. How long does it take to build this thing? Also, one has to question why Enchantress, arguably more powerful than any of the Suicide Squad members, would resort to hand-to-hand combat.

An Adorably Idiosyncratic Couple
What makes this film worth seeing is the eccentric duo of the Joker (not a Suicide Squad member) and Harley Quinn. Their effervescent personalities and their vivid costumes echo the vitality of the film’s soundtrack, which ranges from Eminem and Kanye West to Ozzy Osbourne and The Rolling Stones.

Jared Leto’s Joker admirably fills the shoes of Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger, but also puts a new spin on the beloved arch villain. This bling- and tattoo-laden Joker retains Ledger’s dramatic gestures and adds a penchant for silver-capped teeth in the style of James Bond’s Jaws.

Then there is Dr Harleen Quinzel (Margot Robbie), who the Joker seduced, then transformed into quirky criminal Harley Quinn. Quinn stands out by far as the Suicide Squad’s most entertaining character. “Huh? What was that? I should kill everyone and escape?” she says
in her Brooklyn accent before an audience of simultaneously attracted and wary law enforcers. “Sorry. The voices. Ahaha, I'm kidding! Jeez! That’s not what they really said.”

Quinn fills a gap in the world of female superheroes. The bubble blowing, the exaggerated swagger, and the cutesy Betty Boopesque sexuality merge with the questionable insanity, plus Quinn is somewhat of a sweetheart. She wields a baseball bat that says “Good Night”. Her necklace – it’s more like a dog collar – that says “PUDDIN” (her nickname for the Joker) in bold gold letters reveals her obsession with the villain.

Suicide Squad offers a couple of iconic raised shots featuring these two. In one, weapons and dolls surround the Joker, who lies on the floor and laughs distinctively. In another, the lovers kiss in a vat of unknown liquid – is that pudding? – surrounded by swirls of the Joker’s colourful paint.

“Would you die for me?” asks the Joker. “No, no, no. That’s too easy. Would you live for me?”

Don’t be surprised to find yourself rooting not so much for the Suicide Squad to succeed, but rather for the Joker and Harley Quinn to reunite. Interesting, isn’t it, that the most entertaining characters in this film really don’t have any super powers? A testimony to the magic of character.

Alas, despite the vibrancy of these two, Suicide Squad doesn’t make the cut when compared to this year’s other superb superhero films like Captain America: Civil War, X-Men: Apocalypse, and especially Deadpool. – Douglas J. Ogurek ***

Friday, 19 August 2016

Goldtiger: The Poseidon Complex, by Guy Adams and Jimmy Broxton (Rebellion) | review by Stephen Theaker

Lily Gold and Jack Tiger are fashion designers at London’s most stylish fashion house, Goldtiger, but have a side project: adventure. In this book, collecting newspaper strips which supposedly appeared in the Maltese Clarion during the sixties, they investigate the disappearance of a number of boats on the Thames. Eventually this will lead them to the carnivorous Mr Sobek, but before then the putative artist of the strip, Antonio Barreti, will get bored of the scripts provided by Louis Schaeffer and begin to draw whatever the heck he likes, to the point of inserting himself into the story. In reality, this is the work of Guy Adams and Jimmy Broxton. The idea of the book is neat, and the strips do a good job of recreating the feel of the actual Modesty Blaise or James Bond strips from that period. But there are so few of them: by my count just eighty-nine finished strips, appearing two to a page, which means they only fill about a third of the book, the rest being substantially padded out with text pieces, photographs and rejigged pieces of art. The Goldtiger adventure is okay, but there’s never time to get into it, while the text pieces spend a lot of time telling us how outrageous and shocking the strips are, which the strips don’t really live up to. It was a potentially interesting project, and you can see why it picked up plenty of backers on Kickstarter before finding a home with Rebellion, but it feels half-finished and scraped together. That may be deliberate, all part of the gimmick, but readers who like the sound of it will probably have more fun with Modesty Blaise herself. **

Monday, 15 August 2016

Superman: Doomed, by Greg Pak and chums (DC Comics) | review

A young Superman is dating Wonder Woman rather than Lois Lane, and maybe that’s a good thing because Lois is currently under the control of Brainiac, who is in deep space, preparing to add the people of Earth to his collection. That would be trouble enough, but what’s more Doomsday, the monstrous product of Kryptonian science, has been resurrected, this time with the brand new ability to drain the life from anything nearby. (It isn’t clear whether Doomsday has killed Superman yet in this new reality.) Superman decides that there’s only one way to stop the monster for good, and rips it to bits, and then, erm, inhales what’s left, and is thus infected himself. He has Doomsday’s rage, strength, bony bits, and tendency to suck the life out of a room. How to fight off Brainiac’s attack when it’s not safe for the Man of Steel to be on Earth any more? This is a chunky five hundred page book on Comixology, though in print it would be even longer because all the double page spreads count as one page each on Comixology. It’s surprising to see so many of them here: they are a pest to read on a tablet (and don’t look much better in a print collection). It’s almost like print issue devotees are deliberately throwing their clogs in the digital works. The book collects material from eight different titles, including five issues each of Action Comics and Superman/Wonder Woman, and there are sections where the art style changes every few pages; it’s a jigsaw where each piece was drawn by a different person, but somehow it hangs together pretty well. It’s quite contrived, since so much of the story hangs on Superman acquiring powers from Doomsday that Doomsday doesn’t usually have. Perhaps it was felt that involving Parasite in the story wouldn’t have had the same heft. The Doomsday angle feels like it’s been bolted on to beef up the Brainiac story, a feeling reinforced by the way it’s eventually resolved, as an afterthought. Many other DC characters make an appearance. Batman, Steel, Lana and Wonder Woman come across very well, and it’s interesting to see the ways that different artists cope with the shame of having to draw Supergirl in her current costume! They cover it up with her cape, draw her from the waist up, or lengthen the sides to turn it into more of a jumpsuit, which is a big improvement. We don’t get to see much of the new young Superman’s personality in this book, what with the Doomsday infection and everything, but his costume looks weirdly unbalanced without the red underpants. Stephen Theaker ***

Friday, 12 August 2016

Sherlock: The Abominable Bride, by Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat (2entertain Ltd) | review by Rafe McGregor

Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction may seem an unlikely venue for a review of the first full-length Sherlock special, shown on all small screens and some big screens across the UK on New Year’s Day 2016. Three mini-seasons (of three episodes each) and one mini-special (of just over seven minutes) in, however, the world of Sherlock is already brim-full of superhuman beings. The eponymous protagonist refers to himself as “a high-functioning sociopath” (one of the series’ most-repeated phrases, suggesting sociopaths are usually low-functioning), but his superpowers include: reading an entire life history in a glance, disarming sword-wielding assassins without breaking a sweat, destroying international crime syndicates single-handedly, successfully masquerading as an extremist in Karachi, riding a motorbike safely at breakneck speed, instantly recovering from consuming vast quantities of Class A drugs… and returning from the dead. His nemesis, supervillain Moriarty, has his own list of powers: controlling Cockney serial killers, Chinese secret societies, and Eastern European paramilitaries; breaking into the Tower of London, the Bank of England, and Pentonville Prison simultaneously; resisting “enhanced interrogation” indefinitely… and returning from the dead (which is what the special is all about). Even Mycroft, whose powers are intellectual rather than physical, can follow his brother’s clandestine footsteps across Europe, masquerade as a Serbian soldier without detection, and take charge of a Tactical Firearms Command team. In fact, poor old Watson is the foil to at least four superhumans as “His Last Vow” (season 3, episode 3) reveals that Mrs Watson is a (semi-retired) super-villain-turned-hero, able to fire a handgun with one hundred percent accuracy, pass through multiple layers of physical security without trace, evade the joint efforts of NATO’s intelligence services, instantly access information beyond the combined capacity of MI5, MI6, and GCHQ… and waltz in a wedding dress. All of which to say that the BBC’s Sherlock is very much a mix of genres, alternating between detective stories in an urban fantasy setting and high fantasy in a tragic clash of good and evil – not to mention regular dashes of comedy.

The mix of crime and speculative fiction is by no means a flaw (though I hope to have conveyed a mildly disapproving tone) and may well account for the show’s popularity – along with the star qualities Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman, and Andrew Scott (recently Bond villain Max Denbigh in Spectre) bring to the small screen. The generic motley also serves, conveniently, to distinguish Sherlock from Elementary, CBS’s contemporary Holmes series, which is pure crime fiction and currently in its fourth season (of twenty-four episodes each). Given the template of detective-story-within-urban-fantasy, The Abominable Bride is exemplary, with murder mystery and high fantasy prised apart for most of the episode. Prior to the original screening, much was made of Cumberbatch and Freeman appearing in Victorian garb, suggesting that the special would be outside the overarching narrative of the series, but the first few seconds drop this pretence and story picks up precisely where “His Last Vow” finished. Minutes after Holmes’ departure into exile (and certain death) for the murder of Charles Augustus Magnussen (a particularly nasty villain), Moriarty’s face appears on all the television screens across the country asking, “Did you miss me?” Holmes is recalled, the plane turns around… and we appear to go back in time to 1895. The (Case of the) Abominable Bride takes its title from Conan Doyle’s “The Musgrave Ritual”, where Holmes mentions “Ricoletti of the club-foot, and his abominable wife” as a case he investigated prior to meeting Watson. Doyle was fond of making these references to unpublished cases in order to give the impression that Holmes had a life beyond the printed page and they are scattered throughout the original short stories and novellas. Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction contributor John Hall (whose stories from issues 23 to 29 were collected in Five Forgotten Stories, published by Theaker’s Paperback Library in 2011) analysed them all in The Abominable Wife and Other Unrecorded Cases of Mr Sherlock Holmes (Calabash Press, 1998). Drawing attention to the fact that Doyle either let his imagination run away with him or was flexing his sense of humour – aside from abominable wives, there are remarkable worms, trained cormorants, red leeches, and flying false teeth – John takes “abominable wife” as a metaphor for all the references. The abominable wife serves a similar supplementary purpose in Sherlock, the idea being that if Holmes can solve the 1895 case he can work out the 2014 case of Moriarty’s resurrection.

Back in 1895, Emelia Ricoletti (made up to resemble Heath Ledger’s Joker from The Dark Knight in an already over-used trope) fires two six-shooters into a crowded London street from her balcony before blowing her brains out. Her body is removed to the morgue, but that evening she conspicuously gives her husband both barrels of a shotgun in front of a police constable. Holmes, Watson, and a shaken Lestrade arrive at the morgue to find that Mrs Ricoletti’s corpse appears to have written “You” on the wall in blood after the murder of her husband. Holmes doesn’t get very far with the investigation, but a few months later Lady Carmichael hires him to protect her husband from Mrs Ricoletti, whose ghost has been seen walking in the grounds of their estate. Holmes and Watson fail to save Lord Carmichael, giving them two murders to solve. By two-thirds of the way through The Abominable Bride, it becomes clear that the Victorian case is taking place in Holmes’ “mind palace” (where he retrieves information from his near-eidetic memory) and that he is fixating on the (very) cold Ricoletti case because he thinks Moriarty has used the same method to fake his own death in “The Reichenbach Fall” (season 2, episode 3). The solution to the 1895 case is rather disappointing and I disclose no spoilers when I say that Mrs Ricoletti was indeed dead by the time of the second murder (where she was not positively identified), but not the first (where she was). This suggests that Moriarty is actually dead. Holmes shouts “There are no ghosts!” in 1895 and confirms “Moriarty is dead, no question” in 2014, but there are plenty of questions left unanswered, not to mention some ambiguity, at the conclusion of the 2014 case. If Moriarty is indeed dead, then The Abominable Bride is a giant red herring in much the same way as John characterises all of Doyle’s teasers (the references as abominable wives to the admirable husbands of the published stories). More likely it is just that, a teaser of suitable ambiguity aimed at whetting audience appetites for season 4. Unfortunately for fans, filming hasn’t yet begun and Sherlock won’t be on screens until 2017 at the earliest. In the interim, I recommend Elementary for a gritty and realistic contemporary take on the Great Detective. The Abominable Bride DVD contains two discs and if, like me, you are not enticed by the prospect of “over an hour of Bonus Features” there is always the double-sided poster to colour in (advertising Sherlock: The Mind Palace, published by BBC Books last year).

Monday, 8 August 2016

Planetary Brigade, by J.M. DeMatteis, Keith Giffen, Julia Bax and chums (BOOM! Studios) | review

The Planetary Brigade is a team of mismatched superheroes from the writers of Justice League International. Captain Valour, the Grim Knight and Earth Mother are analogues of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, the first two played for laughs, as if the chummy Superman of the fifties teamed up with the Batman of the nineties. Purring Pussycat is a former supervillain who joined the team after becoming disenchanted with mentor Mister Master, two feuding brothers in one body who will destroy the world if he can’t conquer it. Mister Brilliant is an obese genius in a weaponised hoverchair who runs a comic book store in his spare time.

The standout characters are the Third Eye, the team’s female Phantom Stranger/John Constantine/Doctor Strange, and the Mauve Visitor, an ambi-sexual acerbic alien with a taste for the finer things in life.

The book is a bit of a jumble, collecting a two-issue series illustrated by several artists in each issue and a three-issue series that jumps around the group’s timeline. On the whole it works, and though the art styles change from page to page it’s all good. It’s not as funny as the JLI, but I devoured dozens of issues of that comic all at once so there was time for the running jokes to hit top speed. A scene at the end hits a bum note, where a kiss with a trans character is said to be less scandalous because she’s has sex-change surgery. Not my place to forgive it that clumsiness, but at least the book is trying to be progressive and accepting.

A more cohesive follow-up with a longer present-day adventure for the team would be very welcome. Stephen Theaker ***

Friday, 5 August 2016

Fallout 4 (PS4) by Bethesda Softworks (Bethesda) | review by Howard Watts

I didn’t mention this in the editorial to TQF55, but Bethesda are partly responsible for a huge distraction when it came to putting that issue together. Having bought a PS4 with Fallout 4 as part of the package, and being a bit of a Fallout 3 and Fallout New Vegas vet, I was eager to load the game, having watched various YouTube first playthrough and guide vids. Time exists as an entirely different entity when playing this game, as your perception of the outside world is taken over by this new reality. Crazy!

The game is an astonishing achievement, certainly a leap far beyond that of Fallout 3 and the latter Fallout New Vegas. Obviously the visual and audio aspects are superior due to the PS4’s processors, but Bethesda have built upon the unique gaming concept of the previous Fallout offerings and improved upon the idea superbly. Not that Fallout 4 is without its minor faults – but these can be excused as the game is just so damn good, and looks absolutely beautiful. Reading back through this review, I can honestly say that I’m only scratching the surface of the whole experience – to go into great depth would be impossible within these pages, and any attempt by me to do so would only serve to spoil the game. I’m just gonna stick to some of the core aspects, just to give you a flavour.

The backstory is simple: In a 1950sesque U.S. / future alternate history mashup, atomic war begins. You run with your family to a Vault where you will be protected from the devastation. You awake early to witness your (in my case) wife being killed in her hypersleep chamber and your infant son kidnapped. Escaping the vault to track down your son, you are greeted by an atomic wasteland. Various mutated beasts and creatures inhabit this wasteland, and as the story unfolds you – as per previous Fallout outings into the wasteland – establish yourself with the many and varied inhabitants and factions you encounter. There’s a great depth here. The game’s narrative provides a convincing array of human and non-human groups and settlements, all with their own unique take on life in the wasteland. It’s easy to get caught up in the dialog of these characters – where before with Fallout 3, I found myself skipping a lot of the dialog and interactive conversation choices to just get on with it. With 4, I find myself listening more, taking in all the information, interacting more with the characters. This is down not only to the visuals, but also the voice acting. There’s a lot of info dumping here, but it all knits together to form this vast tapestry which is the wasteland. Bethesda have removed the You’re good for doing / saying this / that, you’re bad for doing / saying this / that / idea which could instantly stall the game as you hit pause to consider the ramifications of your actions. New Vegas suffered from being bogged down with so many choices of which character or group to befriend, it became a real problem, taking away from the enjoyment of actually moving around the environment and, well, playing. Saying this, Fallout 4 is hardly a “game” as such – it’s more of a simulation. You’re out there in the wilderness, trying to find your son, trying to stay alive. On the way you’ll be offered companionship, but I chose to stick with my first companion offering, an Alsatian called Dogmeat. He helps you through tough spots, sniffs gear out for you to pick up, and provides a few lighter moments as he rolls around in the dirt, or finds a teddy bear to play with. All this love for a digital dog, from a cat man!

This survival concept is but a small part of the whole. As before with Bethesda’s Skyrim, you can craft weapons, harvest food to cook potions for healing and power-ups. But the experience is far more than just that. Now you can build settlements, encourage settlers to be part of your community, but hey – if you don’t provide basics such as food, water, shelter, electricity, defence, a bed to sleep in and a roof over their heads, they get grumpy. This is where the “game” really sets itself apart. Suddenly you the participant have changed the pace. You can ignore a mission asking you to defend another farm or plant nursery from rampaging raiders, and build, slow the game down and enjoy the addictive pleasure of constructing a community and looking after these poor souls that have chosen to join you, and at your pace. Shacks, small houses, animal pens, bridge walkways, fenced off gardens can be built to name a few. This is where the “game” sets itself above others, as practically every item in the wasteland has a value – not only monetary, but also (and more importantly for this aspect) as a material commodity. Steel, plastic, wood, oil, glass, electronics, you name it, they can all be scavenged and stored to be utilised to build your settlement. These materials can also be used to upgrade weapons and power armour. Once a settlement thrives, you can move on to another, help them, plant more food to attract more settlers and then set up trade routes between them to provide income for yourself. It’s a bonkers concept, but one we can all identify with. No player settlement will be identical to another’s. My daughter decided for her game, the most important aspect of her settlement are small “personal” shacks with just two beds, rather than my large dormitory building holding 17 beds. Opposite her curved metal bedrooms she built toilets, replete with “his” and “hers” signs, and if I know her, to follow will probably be a bloody great white picket fenced garden, growing corn, potatoes, melons, gourds, defended by a couple of machine gun turrets.

If this all sounds a little too twee, then the options are there to just go out and explore and pick up missions to up your XP and level up. Set a marker on your map and you’ll come across beautiful vistas of devastation. Towns and cities you cannot refuse to explore, as exploration’s in our nature. And in these highly detailed locations, when the sun’s going down and the rain courses through the streets, lightning momentarily illuminating the damp bricks and rusted cars as the thunder booms, you’ll round a corner and find…

Well, absolutely anything really. It’s up to you to find out.


Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Authors: One Month Left to Submit to TQF Unsplatterpunk Anthology

It’s gore… for goodness’ sake! 

We’re looking for writers with the most demented imaginations to be part of the first anthology in the festering subgenre of unsplatterpunk. However, you only have one month: the submission window closes on August 31.

NB: TQF is a non-paying hobby zine, so if writing fiction is your job, this isn’t the project for you; this is for the dilettantes, the hobbyists, the Saturday afternoon softball players and Sunday morning footballers.

Check out the submission guidelines, then get your head into the gutter and start writing. Just remember the one thing that distinguishes an unsplatterpunk story from a splatterpunk story: a positive message.

Plot, character, setting… they’re all important, but they’re all peripheral to gore and violence. And the message. Don’t forget the message!

So write something that would make readers of pop fiction cringe… something that would make the sword and sorcery geeks gag and the sci-fi nerds squirm.

Not gore for gore’s sake, but gore for goodness’ sake. See guidelines here.