Monday, 15 October 2018

Venom | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Losers unite! Defrocked reporter and brazen alien team up in latest superhero venture.

The alien Venom has a tar-like muscular body, humongous jaws, and a tongue that would put Gene Simmons to shame. One would think that Sony Pictures would be foolish to launch its Marvel Universe with such a character, who seems better suited as a Scooby Doo villain. Not so fast.

Rather than settling on a one-dimensional action film star, Sony gives the role to Oscar-nominated method actor Tom Hardy. And instead of wallowing in apocalyptic solemnity, the film embraces its own ridiculousness. The result is that Venom, directed by Ruben Fleischer, delivers an amusing story that combines a picturesque setting (San Francisco), heart-pounding action (with lots of explosions!), and a likable protagonist strengthened by Hardy’s commitment to character.

Disgraced investigative reporter Eddie Brock (Hardy) discovers that wildly successful entrepreneur (and psychopath) Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed) is using the disadvantaged to carry out biomedical research. Drake wants to find suitable human hosts for the amorphous blobs called “symbiotes” that his company Life Foundation has harvested from another planet. Unfortunately, symbiotes are picky, and if the match isn’t right, the prospective host dies. Eddie happens to be a perfect match for the symbiote Venom (voiced by Hardy). When Riot, another symbiote in Drake’s collection, decides to take over the earth, Eddie and Venom must stop him.

One of the most entertaining aspects of Venom is Eddie’s reaction to the gradual revelation that the alien has “infected” him. Venom first reveals himself as a disembodied voice, which leads to plenty of jittery confusion on Eddie’s part. Hardy’s physicality and facial expressions make his reactions believable. Watch for the restaurant scene in which a ravenous Eddie reaches the peak of his distress about his “parasite” – a word that Venom hates. 

Another refreshing aspect of the film is the normalcy of its protagonist. Viewers identify with Eddie because he’s an ordinary guy in extraordinary circumstances.

The contrast between Venom’s deep, diabolical voice and his colloquial dialogue heightens the film’s humour. Venom speaks casually about his dietary preferences (humans, that is) and even taunts Eddie when the latter refuses to jump out a window.

It’s a pleasure to watch the tenuous relationship between Eddie and Venom develop. “On my planet I was a loser like you,” says Venom. People love to root for losers – how much better when there are two of them! – Douglas J. Ogurek ****

Sunday, 14 October 2018

The Metabaron, Episode 1: The Techno-Admiral, by Alexandro Jodorowsky, Jerry Frissen and Valentin Secher (Humanoids) | review by Stephen Theaker

The first of eight volumes, with a story by original Incal writer Jodorowsky, written by Jerry Frissen, translated by Quinn and Katia Donoghue, and then given a polish by Hardware director Richard Stanley. A lot of writers involved but they don’t spoil the metabroth. The first four pages suggest that events won’t go terribly well for our hero, before the book shows us how it all began. The Metabaron, coolest character in the first Incal saga, has pledged to kill no more, and for months has stayed in his quarters. He doesn’t eat, sleep, drink or presumably go to the toilet. But eventually his spaceship, the metabunker, requires a replenishment of its fuel, epyphite, currently being mined by slaves on the Metabaron’s home planet of Marmola. This will it seems bring the Metabaron into conflict with the resurgent Techno-Techno Empire, its Technopope and Techno-Vatican, and its greatest Techno-Admiral, Wilhelm-100, whose giant robot arms, also powered by epyphite, can cut a man in half with a single blow. The overuse of techno as a prefix in this album becomes rather comical, but the story is played seriously, and although sexual assault is for once in a Humanoids book kept offstage the horrors inflicted on the losers in the techno-tussles are still extremely unpleasant. The villains are truly despicable, and one is left hoping that the Metabaron will abandon his vow sooner rather than later. As ever with Humanoids books, the artwork is stunning: detailed, full-colour and expressive. The volume is available on its own digitally, or together with volume two (The Anti-Baron) in an oversized deluxe hardback. ***

Saturday, 13 October 2018

Humanz (Deluxe), by Gorillaz (Parlophone) | review by Stephen Theaker

The Gorillaz have produced a series of innovative, experimental and listener-friendly albums, and being cartoon characters has undoubtedly helped, freeing them from many of the expectations and audience-imposed boundaries that often plague bands. Think of the pushback to Radiohead going electronic on Kid A or to David Bowie dabbling in jungle on the underrated Earthling. All we expect from Gorillaz is that they will give us something new every time – new collaborators, new sounds, new approaches – and that’s exactly what we get from them on Humanz. It’s like a top twenty from the future, a stylish album that in its variety sounds to me like a tenth generation descendant of the Beatmasters’ Anywayawanna (someone reissue that, please!), especially on tracks like Sex Murder Party, combined with a techno crispness that reminded me of Inner City’s marvellous debut album, all those years ago. There are twenty-six tracks in total, although seven are (brief) interludes. Highlights include “Momentz” featuring a turbo-charged De La Soul, “Ascension”, with an angry Vince Staples, and “Charger”, in which Grace Jones slowly uncurls, regal, like an aural version of the Alien queen. “Provocative!” It’s a joy that this song exists in the world. Apparently Grace Jones was in the studio for hours improvising her lyrics, and if there’s a four hour version of this track I’d love to hear it. It also features 2D at his most delightfully feeble. Conversely, “Andromeda” features one of 2D’s strongest vocal performances, on a track that could almost have been drawn from the Pet Shop Boys’ sleek and groovy work with Stuart Price. “Submission” contrasts Kelela’s gorgeous vocals with Danny Brown’s hyperactive cartoon rap in a way that seems inexplicably perfect. “We Got the Power” is bottled inspiration, just when we all need it. The deluxe edition (surely the version most people will want) adds six tracks (one of them an interlude) to the twenty on the standard version, including another of the very best songs, “Out of Body”, a herky-jerky dance number featuring Kilo Kish. The album is unpredictable but consistent, every song a novelty, full of weird noises and unexpected movements, with a multiplicity of voices woven into a whole by virtue of a consistently funky, tight sound. ****

Sunday, 7 October 2018

Manfried the Man, by Caitlin Major and Kelly Bastow (Quirk Books) | review by Stephen Theaker

In a world where human-sized cats keep cat-sized men as pets, Steve the cat is struggling a bit. His home is a mess, he isn’t happy at his call centre job, his relationships with female felines are not purring at all, and his little man Manfried is lovable, but lazy, and doesn’t get on well with other little men. One day Steve leaves his window open and Manfried gets out. Steve’s life totally collapses, though maybe it’s necessary, since that’ll give him the chance to rebuild a better version. The relationship between Steve and Manfried is sweet, and Manfried is very cute, although the chubby little bearded fellow looks quite a lot like this reviewer so I would think that. Unlike him, I wear clothes, at least most of the day, and he looks very comical running around with his gentlemanly parts dangling around. There are no female pets in this book, and no reason is provided in the story; perhaps that’s being saved for the sequel, planned for 2019, or maybe it’s just that it would feel like a different kind of book with lots of naked women running around. The book defamiliarises our relationships with pets: it makes the reader consider just how similar our behaviour in that situation might be to theirs, how odd it is that people keep pets at all, and how much those animals mean to people, especially people who don’t have others to care for them. The cartooning is very cute, but never fails to provoke sympathy for Steve’s distress as his life goes terribly wrong, or little Manfried’s when he gets into a fix outside the house. ****

Saturday, 6 October 2018

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, by James Gunn (Marvel Studios) | review by Stephen Theaker

The writer of the slightly shocking (but mostly fun) video game Lollipop Chainsaw seemed a brave choice to direct a family-friendly space blockbuster, but as so often seems to have been the case Marvel were rewarded for their confidence, the first Guardians of the Galaxy being very entertaining, with lots of jokes, a likeable bunch of leads, and a vibrant corner of the Marvel universe to play in. Now the same director and the same cast are back for Vol. 2, thus named for the second Awesome Mix tape that Peter Quill, Star-Lord, received at the end of the first film. Music again plays an important role in the film: the opening sequence shows us Baby Groot trying to dance to ELO’s Mr Blue Sky while his colleagues battle a space monster in the background, for example. Unusually for a super-hero movie, this film doesn’t set up an ultimate villain right away. It’s refreshing for a blockbuster film to have the confidence to do that, knowing our attention won’t drift because we’re happy to hang out with these characters even if they’re just getting into everyday (for them) scrapes and getting to know long-lost family members. Kurt Russell appears as Ego, though Marvel readers will know there’s usually a few more words in that name. It’s a very pleasant film, just like its predecessor, again with plenty of laughs, though it perhaps missteps a little in not giving as many of them to Star-Lord this time – if Chris Pratt is starring in your space comedy, you need to give him a handful of jokes, even when the focus is mainly on what makes him unhappy. My overriding memory of the film is how beautifully colourful it is. When so many super-hero films of the past have been painted in shades of black, that makes a big impression. ***

Wednesday, 3 October 2018

The Predator | review by Rafe McGregor

Two lonely men too many…

Alien vs. Predator (2004, directed by Paul W.S. Anderson) confirmed that the Alien and Predator franchises (of four and two films respectively, at the time) were set in the same universe.  Although the first crossover and its sequel were both commercial successes, they were rightly panned by critics and Alien vs. Predator: Requiem (2007, directed by Colin and Greg Strause) is the lowest-grossing film in both franchises (when adjusted for inflation).  I remember my initial reaction to news of the release of Alien vs. Predator being what’s the point, quickly followed by who are we supposed to root for?  There are deeper problems with the intersection of the two franchises, however, an essential incompatibility that may explain some of the artistic failures of both films. First, Alien (1979, directed by Ridley Scott) is a paradigmatic work of cinematic art, part of the canon of not just great science fiction, but great film. While the quality may have varied, all five of its sequels have retained the thematic complexity and stylistic sophistication of the original. In contrast, Predator (1987, directed by John McTiernan) is essentially an action spectacular, a testosterone-fuelled charge through the jungle terminating in an Arnie vs. alien duel to the death.  Second, the Alien franchise has employed a wide range of cinematic effects and techniques to represent a species at the very limits of human conception whereas the predators in the Predator franchise have (up until now) clearly been men in monster suits (Kevin Peter Hall, who stood at seven feet two inches, for the first two), an updated creature from the Black Lagoon with an anthropodic mandible that looks like it would be able to hold food as effectively as a dog’s dewclaw.

In other words, the Predator franchise has, at best, been the superficial, juvenile, and action-obsessed relative to the Alien franchise, neither striving for nor achieving the latter’s artistic or technical excellence. For all its simplicity, Predator was nonetheless very entertaining, deserving of its 80% on the Tomatometer with a narrative as strong and toned as Arnold Schwarzenegger and his musclebound henchmen. Predator 2 (1990, directed by Stephen Hopkins) brought the predator to the urban jungle, which seemed like a good idea, but was poorly-executed with curious decisions to use a dystopian futuristic Los Angeles as its setting and to replace Arnie with Danny Glover. Glover was an unlikely and unconvincing action hero, in the middle of his appearances as Roger Murtaugh – whose catchphrase was I’m too old for this shit – in the Lethal Weapon franchise. In consequence Predator 2 was also deserving of its Tomatometer score, a deplorable 27%.  The third film, Predators (2010, directed by Nimród Antal) returned to the rural jungle and the hunter-turned-hunted storyline of the first. Critical responses were better, with the Tomatometer raised to an acceptable 65%, but the plot was improbable, a duplication of the original that made little or no sense. Neither the belated decision to accord a female character a significant part (Isabelle, played by Alice Braga) nor the acting talents of Adrien Brody and Laurence Fishburne were sufficient to overcome Predators’ B-movie presentation, consolidated by a disappointing climax that was also a pale imitation of Predator.

20th Century Fox kept prospective audiences of The Predator in suspense pre-release, providing very little information beyond a return to Earth (true), another tough-guy protagonist (in a manner of speaking), and a promise to fill in the gaps between Predator 2 and Predators (false). The film is directed by Shane Black, who played the part of Rick Hawkins in Predator.  Black has previously directed the underrated Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005), the well-received Iron Man 3 (2013), and the entertaining but morally problematic The Nice Guys (2016). Perhaps Black was too comfortable with his multiple roles within the franchise – starring in the first and co-writing (with Fred Dekker) and directing the fourth – but after three successful outings as a director, he has crashed and burned on the fourth. The Predator is by far the worst film of the franchise to date, including the disastrous crossovers (scoring 20% and 11% on the Tomatometer respectively). Crashing and burning is where the narrative begins, with a premise that is plausible if not particularly imaginative. The predator species is evolving such that an internecine conflict is raging between their equivalents of Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons. At an unspecified time, which seems close to the near-future of Predator 2, one of the former crash-lands on earth in the middle of a US special forces team’s hostage rescue operation in an unspecified Latin American country. The team’s captain, Quinn McKenna (played by Boyd Holbrook), is the sole survivor of the encounter, escaping, evading, and mailing the alien’s helmet to his estranged wife in order to provide evidence for the inquiry to come.  The story then switches to Quinn’s young son, Rory (played by Jacob Tremblay), who is on the autistic spectrum but has an eidetic memory and a genius for languages. Despite the segue facilitated by the mailing of the helmet, I did wonder why anyone thought a depiction of troubled childhood had a place in a science fiction thriller and the scene does indeed herald some of the many problems that follow.

There is nothing wrong with genre braiding, blending, or bending, but a film that tries to be all things to all audiences runs the risk of substantive incoherence. Black has mixed science fiction, action adventure, family drama, gross-out horror, and comedy and the mélange is as messy and self-contradictory as the list implies. The comedy is especially poor and the fact that it is initiated when Quinn is placed on a bus full of mentally-disabled veterans is indicative of its taste and wit. It is also indicative of the many inconsistencies of the film: we are invited to sympathise with some mentally disabled people (Rory), but to laugh at others (the five veterans).  The comedy is further diminished by numerous in-jokes (many of which were lost on me), but the film also fails as a parody. Aside from the genre chaos, The Predator stages a shocking waste of talent. Trevante Rhodes, Sterling K. Brown, Keegan-Michael Key, and Thomas Jayne are all accomplished actors yet they deliver dialogue that aspires to be cringeworthy. There is also an apparently appalling absence of expert advice on subjects crucial to the plot (I use the term loosely), including (but unfortunately not limited to) biology, linguistics, aerodynamics, and military hardware and etiquette. Yes, I know it’s fiction and science fiction at that, but one cannot choose what does and doesn’t pass through one’s bowels and university professors are not trained to use automatic weapons. Dr Casey Bracket (played by Olivia Munn) is not only handy in a gunfight, but can survive a tranquiliser dose designed for a predator and run as fast as a spaceship can crash-land. I must have missed those courses on the last staff training day. Somehow, The Predator has managed a wildly exaggerated 34% on the Tomatometer. A far better indication of its artistic and entertainment value is that my fellow film nerd and I were the only two people in the movie theatre… we were two lonely men too many*

Sunday, 30 September 2018

Cosmonauts of the Future, by Lewis Trondheim and Manu Larcenet (Europe Comics) | review by Stephen Theaker

First of a three-album series, this album was originally published in French in 2000 on Dargaud’s Poisson Pilot label. This English translation followed in 2016. It’s about two awkward children who struggle to get on with their peers or their parents. The girl, Martina, thinks everyone is a robot, and has a habit of twisting the skin on people’s hands to see if they will pretend to scream to seem human. The boy, Gildas, a new arrival at school, thinks everyone is an alien, and he tells Martina that he is a a “highly-trained cosmonaut”. They have a begrudging go at being friends, stop talking when the other children make fun of their relationship, but eventually team up to investigate the world and discover which of them is right. This is a really sweet portrayal of a childhood friendship, with witty and perceptive dialogue, and cartoonish but effective and emotive art. Children will enjoy it very much, although parents should be warned that it shows the children lying to their parents and going secretly on a train ride to another town, and what’s more taking a little sister with them on this jaunt, not something one would want to encourage. There’s also a scene where the boy punches a little girl at school without any consequences, which might be enough to keep this out of primary school libraries. Happily, an extremely jarring event later in the book turns out to be less serious than it seems at first, and this takes the book in a new and interesting direction that places it more solidly in TQF territory. Recommended for adults as well as children. ****

Saturday, 29 September 2018

Soulfire: Omnibus 1, by Michael Turner, J.T. Krul, Marcus To and chums (Aspen Comics) | review by Stephen Theaker

Mal is a teenage boy in the year 2211 who is, as he will find out, a chosen one, the bearer of a spirit that has moved through many lives in preparation for its ultimate destiny. A flying woman with black speech balloons comes to kill him, while another winged woman, Grace, comes to rescue him, and while a giant robot dragon attacks his home city Grace whisks him away, to meet mystics who can train him to use his powers, and then to other allies in their fight against the evil Rainier and his soldiers. He’s a bad guy who survived the end of the last age of magic by embracing technology, and now that magic is on the rise again he is ready to combine the two to ensure his dominance. Luckily Mal has a pair of excellent friends in Sonia and PJ, who have got his back in all this and are willing to follow him way out of their depth.

This is not the kind of comic I usually read, but I can rarely resist a five hundred page omnibus or a comics Humble Bundle and this combined both. It turned out to be a pleasant surprise, very much in the vein of the Final Fantasy games. It shares some contributors with Top Cow’s The Darkness, and there are plenty of pin-up pages of beautiful women, but it’s not as sleazy or grotesque as I found The Darkness to be (see TQF41 for the review). It would actually be fairly suitable for a young teen. The publisher Aspen is planning to add age ratings to their comics, which has provoked some dismay, but it’s possible that, rather that warning children off mature content, their goal is to alert school librarians and parents to the fact that they are publishing books that are suitable for children and that children would like.

It’s a simple story told quite well. The experienced Jeph Loeb writes the earlier issues, with J.T. Krul then taking over. Michael Turner draws most of Volume One (the first ten issues collected here), and gets a story credit on them, while Marcus To, whose appealing style suits the story a bit better, takes over on pencils for Volume Two (the next nine issues). It’s light, frothy nonsense, and I wouldn’t recommend it to our more serious readers, but it was a nice way to spend a few hours. It’s colourful and pretty: many scenes take place by the ocean, and the blues of the seas and the sky and the exotic locales give it something of a holiday feel. Like Laura Allred’s work on Madman, Beth Sotelo’s colours and effects in Volume Two are so good that they become a reason to read the comic in their own right. I loved Grace’s shimmering Star Trek teleporter hair. ***

Sunday, 23 September 2018

Chasma Knights, by Boya Sun and Kate Reed Petty (First Second) | review by Stephen Theaker

In the cute and colourful world of Chasma Knights, discarded toys roam free in the wild like Pokemon. Everyone goes through a lot of toys, as many as eight a day, because of the fun of catalyzing with them. “Oxygen, chrome, recognize!!” they might shout, “Meet, merge catalyze!” Then they merge with the toy and gain special abilities. It’s a lot of fun. Beryl, however, is a Neon Knight, supposedly too low-powered to catalyze, so she catches toys in the wild for a secret project. She is especially thrilled to capture a cute little dinosaur with a gold core, but no sooner has she stored it within her meowpack than three bad boy sulphur knights show up and steal it from her! To get it back she goes to the toy market, but there she also meets Coro, an oxygen knight who follows Beryl back to her amazing workshop and sneaks in. It’s the beginning of a beautiful friendship, although it will have its ups and downs (literally so at times). This is a bright and charming adventure for children that will particularly appeal to fans of Princess Bubblegum and Marceline the Vampire. The art style is very pretty – imagine a combination of Adventure Time and Katamari Damacy – and as usual with First Second books it would make a great gift. Any parent or school would be happy to see their children learning the lessons of this story. It encourages recycling and repairing, kindness and resilience, recognising everyone’s contributions to a joint project and sharing the credit fairly, making amends for bad decisions, and (most important of all) following safety instructions carefully. ****

Saturday, 22 September 2018

Working for Bigfoot, by Jim Butcher (Subterranean Press) | review by Stephen Theaker

This collection of three short stories seems like a handy introduction to the Dresden Files, a highly successful series of novels about the work of Harry Dresden, a professional magician. These tales take place at different points in his life, Harry being hired three times by a bigfoot with the brilliant name Strength of a River in His Shoulders, to look in on his half-human son, Irwin Pounder – a scion, as they are known. Although these stories have very different sources – “B Is for Bigfoot” first appeared in a book for young readers (Under My Hat: Tales From the Cauldron), while “Bigfoot on Campus” debuted in a book of erotica (Hex Appeal) – there’s no difference in tone or style, just in content. The last story is especially steamy, but not inappropriately so given that the young half-bigfoot is by then the right age for such matters. It’s clear from these stories why the character of Harry Dresden is so popular: he’s very capable and reliable, and the same goes for the writing. It reminded of the Jack Reacher books I’ve read, but with all the fantastical elements that are so sadly missing from the thrillers of Lee Childs. A good little book. ***

Sunday, 16 September 2018

Conan Omnibus, Vol. 1: Birth of the Legend, by Kurt Busiek and chums (Dark Horse) | review

Conan is a burly, quick, strong and sharp fellow who wields a broadsword and wears a horned hat. He is a great thief, a great warrior, and eventually a leader of armies and a great king. He never gets the hang of magic, though, and over the years plays a pretty big part in ending its dominion over humanity. But that lies ahead. An unobtrusive framing device – a wazir reading tales of Conan to his prince in the distant future – takes us back to Conan’s birth, on the battlefield, after his pregnant mother Fialla rushes to help his father Conaldar. He is a month premature, but is still a very big baby. He already has a mean stare. To some extent, he is already the man he will grow up to be, even as a child. Rather than seeing him formed as he grows up, we see him revealed, through interactions with other children, adults, wild animals. He is as keen to learn as he is to fight. After bringing war upon his people, he leaves home, and then we see his first travels, with the traditional enemies of his people, and then being enslaved by the Hyperboreans.

This 456pp book collects issues 0 to 15, 23, 32, 45 and 46 of the monthly Conan series from Dark Horse. You can’t tell, however, which issue you are reading; a contents page would have been nice, or for issues to be separated by their original covers, or for artists to be credited for particular issues, but this format is standard for Dark Horse’s omnibus series, and probably appeals to people who just want the story without the apparatus. The artwork, by Greg Ruth for the early years, by Cary Nord and Thomas Yeates for the Hyperborean story, who are joined by Tom Mandrake for the third set of tales, is consistently magnificent. I’ve read that its distinctive visual style was produced by Dave Stewart and Greg Ruth applying the colour directly over pencils.

The book’s cover, by another artist altogether, undersells it, and led me to expect a glossier retread of the Marvel comics, but it’s meaty, smart, visceral and stylish. This is Conan at his best, not the lunkhead seen on the cover. He feels like a character, not just a fantasy. But it is a fantasy, of course, and there’s plenty of bedding beautiful women, none of whom seem to worry about getting pregnant. The lettering is worth a shout too, by Richard Starkings and Comicraft. There’s quite a lot of narration, and if that had appeared in a pseudo-handwritten font or (as in early issues of Savage Sword of Conan) something hard-to-read like thin white text on black backgrounds, it would have quickly become a chore. Instead, after the prologue, a typewriter font is used, as if the captions were torn from the manuscripts of Robert E. Howard. It’s easy to read and evocative of the pulps.

Dark Horse’s licence to publish Conan comics ends this year – if the rest is as good as this, they can look back on a job very well done. So frequently their licensed products don’t just live up to the source material, they outshine it. Much as I have loved what I’ve read of Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian and Savage Sword Sword of Conan, this is the best adaptation of Conan I’ve read. Volumes two to five are already available, with six and seven to follow later this year. Stephen Theaker ****

Saturday, 15 September 2018

Waking in Winter, by Deborah Biancotti (PS Publishing) | review by Stephen Theaker

In this science fantasy novella, reminiscent in good ways of Whiteout or The Thing, Muir is working on an alien planet, part of a group of glacionauts working from the Base Station. She’s a couple of days away from going home, though she isn’t keen because her mother’s funeral awaits. On what would have been one of her last trips in her twin-seater flying Otter she sees something under the ice: a gigantic woman, a mermaid with a six-metre-wide tail and miles of hair. She assumes it’s been carved into the ice, but when other team members look at it they each see something different, something rooted in their own cultural heritage. No one wants to talk about it, and Muir doesn’t think it’s a good thing. When a colleague says he sees a lotus flower, “Muir felt something slip inside her. The beginning of an avalanche.” The book never lets us forget how cold it is there, so the reader understands very quickly how dangerous the situation could become. There are only two days until winter sets in, and it’s going to get dark, but her colleagues are keen to dig up what they can. As you might imagine, that’s a mistake. I enjoyed this a lot: it was frightening, and awe-inspiring, and very good at showing how co-workers who spend too much time together can wind each other up. Available here.  ****

Tuesday, 11 September 2018

Schedule update

We had been planning to have a big catch-up with TQF over the next few months, putting out monthly issues till we were back on our original schedule.

But a combination of workload, new responsibilities (I am now the vice-chair of a school's governing body!) and realising that after all we've already published three quarterly issues this year has changed my mind.

So instead of having an issue a month till Christmas to get back on our original schedule, we're going to just have issue 64 in December and then carry on with a quarterly schedule after that.

As a result, we've re-opened to submissions for TQF64, and will remain open until the end of October 2018. Hope that's all okay. It'll be nice to end each year on a multiple of four!

Monday, 10 September 2018

UNSPLATTERPUNK! 2 (TQF63): now out in paperback and ebook!

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


“Ghastly.” “Bloodthirsty.” “Transgressive.” “Over-the-top violence and sexual deviation.” So said the reviews of UNSPLATTERPUNK!, the first official collection in the unsplatterpunk subgenre.

Now, seven goreslingers and propriety defilers have grossed up their game to deliver UNSPLATTERPUNK! 2. True to the unsplatterpunk subgenre, these stories deliver a moral message while shocking or repulsing the reader. The collection includes a foreword by criminologist, philosopher, and aesthetic commentator Rafe McGregor.

Returning contributor Drew Tapley kicks off the awfulness on an impressively juvenile note with the anthology's most straightforward story. In “First Kiss”, a high school student deals with an expulsive situation with as much stoicism as Conan the Barbarian… maybe “Barfbarian” is more relevant. Trophy hunting is Triffooper Saxelbax’s target as his protagonist, a designer of controversial augmented reality games, takes on the corporate obsession with teamwork in “The Villainy of Solitude”. Hugh Alsin’s satirical piece “Convention Hitler!” explores intolerance run amok when the story’s namesake attends a British horror convention. In “The Music of Zeddy Graves”, Stephen Theaker brings his planet-hopping duo of Rolnikov and Pelney to Melodia, whose inhabitants participate in an endless music festival, and whose main attraction goes to gruesome extremes to achieve her compositions. Douglas J. Ogurek’s “Gunkectomy” alternates between an embittered architect/author and a husband hunter who finds commercial and social value in her earwax. “The Tapestry of Roubaix” by Howard Phillips seems to come off the shelf of a nineteenth century library, until it reveals what the protagonist does in his washbasin. M.S. Swift, another returning contributor, closes out the collection with “The Bones of Old England”, an extravaganza of mania-induced carnage.

Delve deep into the cesspool that is UNSPLATTERPUNK! 2, and remember – sometimes to learn a lesson, you might have to get dirty.

Here are the unsplattered contributors to this issue:

Douglas J. Ogurek is the pseudonym for a writer living somewhere on Earth. Though banned on Mars, his fiction appears in over forty Earth publications. Ogurek founded the controversial literary subgenre known as unsplatterpunk, which uses splatterpunk conventions (e.g. extreme violence, gore, taboo subject matter) to deliver a positive message. He guest-edited Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction #58: UNSPLATTERPUNK!, the first ever unsplatterpunk anthology. He also reviews films at that same ezine. Recent longer works include the young adult novel Branch Turner vs the Currants (World Castle Publishing) and the horror/suspense novella Encounter at an Abandoned Church (Scarlet Leaf Publishing). More at Twitter: @unsplatter

Drew Tapley is a copywriter, journalist and filmmaker based in Toronto.

Howard Phillips is the author of His Nerves Extruded, The Doom That Came to Sea Base Delta and The Day the Moon Wept Blood.

Howard Watts provides the exceptional wraparound cover for this issue.

Hugh Alsin is a writer who now stays away from conventions, although he stresses that the events in his story are completely fictitious, and any resemblance to people living or dead is either unintentional or for the purposes of satire or parody.

M.S. Swift’s work has been published in a wide range of horror and fantasy anthologies, including the first TQF unsplatterpunk collection. Swift’s writing is inspired by the landscape and mythology of his native Britain. He recently completed a witch hunter novel set in an alternative medieval Britain and is seeking a publisher courageous enough to back it.

Rafe McGregor lectures at Leeds Trinity University and the University of York. He is the author of The Value of Literature, two novels, six collections of short fiction, and two hundred articles, essays, and reviews. His most recent book is The Adventures of Roderick Langham, a collection of occult detective stories.

Stephen Theaker has written several novels, but does not recommend reading them.

Triffooper Saxelbax is an emerging (and often grating) voice in the unsplatterpunk subgenre. When he is not writing, he stir-fries vegetables and decorates pine cones. His work has not been translated into any other languages. Neither has it been nominated for nor appeared in the year’s best so and so. Saxelbax’s mental exertions have caused numerous regional power outages.

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

Sunday, 9 September 2018

Amatka, by Karin Tidbeck (Vintage) | review by Stephen Theaker

Amatka is a settlement which readers might assume is on an alien world, though it could perhaps be somewhere like a warmed-up version of Antarctica. Brilars’ Vanja Essre Two, information specialist with the Essre Hygiene Specialists, and Vanja for short, is sent there to research whether it is a suitable market for the export of cleaning products. She gets on with the work but neglects to utter the name of her suitcase, with the result that it dissolves, and from then she becomes more interested in a budding relationship with her host, Nina, and with what is going on in the world. Why does everything need to be named? What happened to the fifth colony? Questions like these are forbidden, but a friendship with a librarian (as is so often the case in our world too) proves a useful source of information.

One of the first Philip K. Dick novels I read was Time Out of Joint, where a chap in a picture perfect American town starts to notice that things are wrong, that things aren’t really there, just pieces of paper bearing the names of things. This excellent novel, originally published in Sweden in 2012, and translated by the author for this edition, is about a world where people must name things in order for them to exist. That makes for a riveting plot, a Kafkaesque mood, and a real mystery, and it also reflects how language works in our world too, how it divides reality up into manageable portions. For example think how the colour orange didn’t exist as a separate entity until the fruit gave it that name.

It’s also a book about romance, oppression, intellectual curiosity, the effect of separating children from their parents (all children here are brought up in dormitories), and it fits all that into an efficient two hundred pages. The best praise I can give the book is that it lives up to the author’s excellent short story collection, Jagannath. ****

Tuesday, 4 September 2018

Final Girls, by Mira Grant (Subterranean Press) | review by Stephen Theaker

Virtual reality horror scenarios are being used to heal family wounds. Sisters like Kim and Diane go in hating each other, and their relationships are reforged in the fire of being hunted by by a serial killer. A journalist, Esther Hoffman, comes to investigate the process, concerned by the power of such false memories, a deeply personal concern because of what happened to her father when she was young. Unfortunately her visit coincides with that of an industrial spy and so her trip into virtual reality becomes even more horrific than expected. It’s a good novella that explores the interplay between memories and emotions and relationships and asks whether, if we could tweak those things to make them better, we should. The horror scenes are frightening enough to convince the reader that going through them would have the claimed effect. ****

Sunday, 2 September 2018

Acadie, by Dave Hutchinson ( | review by Stephen Theaker

It’s the day after the president’s one hundred and fiftieth birthday, and a crisis presents itself. An object has passed the dewline, the solar system’s defensive border, which comprises a billion satellites. The object is a highly radioactive fifteen metre long cylinder, with a shield of ice and a fission engine, and it looks like it’s from the Bureau of Colonisation. The Colony was established in secret hundreds of years ago, founded by genetic engineers fleeing from a right-wing theocracy, and the Bureau of Colonisation has been hunting it ever since. As the cover puts it: “The first humans still hunt their children across the stars.” Now they’ve been found. Duke Faraday got the job of president because no one thought he wanted to do it, making him the ideal candidate, but will he be up to the challenge of protecting this hippie paradise, where people happily turn themselves into orcs, elves, vampires and lions? Though it is a very good novella – large-scale science fiction, full of ideas, crammed into a hundred or so pages, with a brilliant ending, just the way I like it – this is quite a tricky book to review, and people who have read it will know why. You will want to have read it before hearing any spoilers, and this review has been redacted somewhat to reflect that. One thing I can talk about is the book’s title: some reviewers have assumed Acadie is the name of the Colony, but I don’t think that’s mentioned in the text. My guess is that it’s a reference to the doomed seventeenth century French colony. ****

Tuesday, 28 August 2018

Spectre | review by Rafe McGregor

Weird Bond.

Like Conan Doyle with Sherlock Holmes, Ian Fleming seemed to tire of his literary creation quickly. After three novels presented almost exclusively from James Bond’s point of view, he is absent from the first chapter of the fourth, the first ten chapters of the fifth, and the latter – From Russia, with Love (1957) – ends with him dying at the hands (or, rather, the foot) of Colonel Klebb of the Soviet Union’s SMERSH. Bond was resurrected in Dr No (1958), but there were a series of departures and experimentations after Goldfinger (1959): For Your Eyes Only (1960) is a collection of five short stories; Thunderball (1961) is Fleming’s novelisation of a screenplay, which he wrote with four collaborators; The Spy Who Loved Me (1962) is written in the first person, from the point of view of a Canadian woman, with Bond appearing only in the final third; On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1963) ends with Bond being married and immediately widowed; and You Only Live Twice (1964) ends with Bond en route to the Soviet Union where – we imagine – imprisonment, torture and death await. The remaining two books were published after Fleming’s death. Bond was resurrected for the second time in The Man with the Golden Gun (1965), but Fleming had completed only a first draft by the time of his death and the novel is slim and unsatisfying. Octopussy and The Living Daylights (1966) is a collection of four short stories, two of which are very short indeed. I cannot recommend any of the fourteen books because although Fleming was a master storyteller whose clean, crisp prose is reminiscent of Hemingway, the narratives all betray implicit and explicit racism and homophobia and a misogyny that borders on sexual sadism. I mention them, however, because of the “SPECTRE Trilogy”, which comprises Thunderball, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and You Only Live Twice. The trilogy provides the most comprehensive portrayal of Bond’s private life, fleshing out his personality beyond his profession as an authorised assassin. It also stretches the espionage thriller genre to its very limits, spilling over into speculative fiction.

These days there is nothing unusual about mixing crime, thriller and mystery fiction with horror, fantasy or science fiction, but the elements of strangeness stand out like a sore thumb in Fleming, whose success was built on a hard and fast realism authenticated by his service with Royal Naval Intelligence during the Second World War. Thunderball introduces the SPecial Executive for Counter-intelligence, Revenge and Extortion (SPECTRE) and its sinister head, Ernst Stavro Blofeld. The novel begins with an incredible and unlikely coincidence that turns out to be entirely supplementary to the central narrative. Bond just happens to be recuperating in the same spa as an undercover SPECTRE agent at the same time as SPECTRE launches its first global operation and the feud between the two men, which is unrelated to the subsequent search for nuclear missiles, occupies the first third of the story. Coincidence is central to the narrative of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. The novel opens with Bond fed up with his failure to find Blofeld. He happens to have a fleeting romance with Teresa di Vincenzo, who happens to be the daughter of the head of the Unione Corse (Corsican mafia), who happens to be one of the only people in Europe with the resources Bond requires. The conclusion is even more unlikely. After Bond and his criminal cronies destroy Blofeld’s Alpine retreat, he arranges to meet Teresa in Munich, where they intend to marry. Blofeld and his sidekick-cum-lover Irma Bunt not only escape, but decide to flee to Munich as well and – in a city with a population of more than a million – just happen to bump into Bond on the street. The surreal, strange and coincidental reach their apotheosis in You Only Live Twice. The novel opens with Bond on his last legs professionally, bungling jobs as he pines for Teresa. In an act of kindness, M sends him on a diplomatic mission to negotiate British access to a Japanese cipher machine. The head of the Japanese secret service agrees to provide access if Bond performs a service for him. That service is the assassination of a man who has established a garden of death – containing deadly plants, insects and fish – where hundreds of forlorn Japanese have flocked to commit suicide. In the most incredible coincidence of the entire series, the gardener – the ludicrously-named Guntram Shatterhand – turns out to be Blofeld in his third incarnation, complete with Bunt in tow. As if this wasn’t fantastic enough, Fleming saves the most surreal part until the end: Bond becomes an amnesiac, Bond fathers a child with Kissy Susuki, and Bond leaves Japan for the USSR.

Thunderball (1965, directed by Terrence Young) was the fourth Bond film and was followed by You Only Live Twice (1967, Lewis Gilbert) and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969, Peter R. Hunt). The film version of You Only Live Twice bears little resemblance to the novel, conforming to what had already been established as the template for the series: Bond discovers the lair of a supervillain, Bond infiltrates the supervillain’s lair, Bond and his allies battle the supervillain’s army, and Bond saves the world from (usually nuclear) destruction. The villain in this case was indeed Blofeld and the battle set in Japan, but he is holed up in a volcano attempting to provoke World War Three by interfering with US and USSR spaceships. Sam Mendes’ Spectre actually has much more in common with Fleming’s novel, which is why I have described the SPECTRE Trilogy in so much detail. Casino Royale was the first Bond novel (1953) and twenty-first film (2006). Director Martin Campbell took advantage of the coincidence of the prototypical title with Daniel Craig’s first appearance as Bond to reboot the Eon Production series. The series was also revitalised by presenting Casino Royale as the first half of what appeared at the time to be a two-part narrative: Quantum of Solace (2008, directed by Marc Foster) begins minutes after Casino Royale ends and sets the new Bond up against a new enemy, a mysterious organisation called Quantum. While the third Craig film, Mendes’ Skyfall (2012), appeared to return to the previous standalone format, it also emphasised a monumental change in the series since the Roger Moore films of my youth. Yes, directors were making Bond more palatable to contemporary audiences, but the quality of the films was almost incomparable. Take the cast of Skyfall as an example: Craig, Judi Dench, Javier Bardem, Naomie Harris, and Ralph Fiennes – it is no exaggeration to say that all six of these are great actors. And that ignores Albert Finney, Ben Wishaw, and Rory Kinnear in supporting roles. Skyfall turns attention to Bond’s aging, exploiting Craig’s aging in real life (potentially problematic for the physicality with which he plays Bond) and the four year interval between the second and third instalments of the reboot to the director’s advantage. With aging comes reflection and, in a similar manner to the SPECTRE Trilogy, the audience discovers a great deal about Bond and his childhood. As Spectre will show, Skyfall is not in fact a departure from the Quantum narrative, but a setting up for the final instalment, where Bond will be faced with a battle that is personal rather than professional.

Spectre offers us even more information about Bond’s childhood: we already know he is an orphan; now we find out that his parents died in a climbing accident and that an Austrian man named Hannes Oberhauser became his legal guardian until the death of Oberhauser and his own son, Franz, in an avalanche. One is immediately struck by the weirdness of Spectre – weird as in strange and fantastic like You Only Live Twice, but also weird in the speculative fiction sense, specifically China Miéville’s definition of the weird in terms of the cephalopod nature of its monsters (set out in his essay “M.R. James and the Quantum Vampire”, published in Collapse IV in 2008). Quantum is revealed to be cover for a more pervasive and powerful organisation, SPECTRE, and in the opening scene the emblem of this organisation is disclosed as a seven-tentacled octopus. The title sequence, a significant part of the film series since it began, features giant black octopuses, sucker-studded tentacles, and cephalopod ink bullets. In an interview about his creation, title designer Daniel Kleinman said: I thought the bit with the lovers and the octopus’s arms coming ’round them just had the right level of sensuality but creepy weirdness to it. Creepy weirdness is right and continues long past the credits as it becomes evident that this film is not about Bond’s professional endeavours, but about the personal battle between Bond and Franz Oberhauser (played by Christoph Waltz). Franz, Bond’s childhood companion, faked his own death in the avalanche and recreated himself as Blofeld, soon to be head of SPECTRE. Oberhauser/Blofeld has in fact orchestrated all of the key events of not only this narrative, but the entire reboot and has been enjoying tormenting the child he hated for becoming the cuckoo in the Oberhauser nest. Reciprocally, we discover that Oberhauser/Blofeld actually killed his father out of jealousy, in consequence of which the young Bond literally created his own archenemy.

In The Weird and the Eerie (published in 2016), the late Mark Fisher describes the weird as a signal that the concepts and frameworks which we have previously employed are now obsolete, producing feelings of both disapproval and pleasure in the audience. Spectre is, in this sense, essentially weird, staging such encounters on both the dramatic and thematic levels: the Secret Intelligence Service, run by M (played by Fiennes) is about to be absorbed into a new National Security Service, to be run by the current head of the Security Service, C (played by Andrew Scott); and Bond’s entire career with the Secret Intelligence Service is exposed as nothing more than the pursuit of his adopted brother, whose career in organised crime and terrorism was inadvertently initiated by Bond himself. Aside from the ever-present symbol of the octopus, there are several more subtle allusions to the weird: the man without a face motif; the rats in the walls in Tangier (or, rather, one very important mouse); the reminder of cosmic indifference in the meteorite display; and the surreal sequences in Blofeld’s North African lair. The film is also striking in two other aspects. First, the number of cinematic references to previous films. Spectre manages, in one way or another, to provide visual quotations of the majority of its twenty-three predecessors, perhaps even all of them. (The most obvious sources being You Only Live Twice, Live and Let Die and The World Is Not Enough.) Spectre also references the SPECTRE Trilogy, reproducing the novels’ shift from professional and public to personal and private, from Bond with free agency to Bond’s life as determined by destiny, and from hard-bitten realism to fully-fledged fantasy. The second aspect is, once again, the quality of acting and actors – if anything, an improvement on Skyfall as Craig, Fiennes, Harris, Wishaw, and Kinnear are joined by Waltz, Scott, Léa Seydoux and Monica Bellucci. My single reservation about Spectre has nothing to do with the film itself. Craig is returning for the as-yet-unnamed Bond 25, which was being directed by Danny Boyle until he withdrew from the project earlier this month, and is due for release late next year. The reboot has told the new Bond’s story from recruitment to retirement, but now he’s back. Will there be a rehash of previous recalls from retirement, cinematic and literary? If so, that will be disappointing given the ingenuity and innovation that have characterised the reboot so far – an achievement all the more impressive for being based on novels that have been past their sell-by date for more than five decades. *****

Closet Dreams, by Lisa Tuttle (infinity plus) | review by Stephen Theaker

Part of the infinity plus singles series, which aim to bring back the feel of buying a vinyl 45, and then liking it so much you would buy the album too. Short stories are the singles, collections the albums. In this case the single has already been a hit, having appeared in Postscripts, been shortlisted for a Bram Stoker Award, and and won the International Horror Guild Award. It’s the chilling story told by a young woman, who says, “Something terrible happened to me when I was a little girl.” Held captive in a small closet by an abductor, she describes the miraculous escape that baffled her family and the police. It’s not a long story, so it’s hard to say much more without giving too much away, but it certainly achieved the goal of making me want to read more by the same author. ****

Sunday, 26 August 2018

The Penny Dreadfuls, Volume 2, by David Reed and Humphey Ker (BBC Audio) | review by Stephen Theaker

The Penny Dreadfuls are a comedy troupe – Humphrey Ker, David Reed and Thom Tuck – three chaps who retell classic tales in comedic fashion. The stories are scripted, rather than improvisational: Reed writes the plays, with additional material from Ker. This volume collects three of their productions, which originally appeared on Radio 4: Macbeth Rebothered (2014), The Odyssey (2015) and The Curse of the Beagle (2016). A typically appreciative Radio 4 audience is audible throughout, and adds to the atmosphere. Volume one was published concurrently, but, since it looked to be more focused on spoofing actual history, I went straight to the more obviously fantastical volume two. Margaret Cabourne-Smith appears in all three stories, performing most of the female roles, and getting many of the best lines. Susan Calman, Robert Webb, Greg McHugh and Lolly Adefope also take part.

Calman narrates the story of the Scottish play. They call it that as if it’s the only one, she observes, and at the end declares: “This has, without any doubt, been a tale, told by some idiots, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing, but at least it had some jokes in it.” They were good jokes too, but The Odyssey had the most and biggest laughs, for me, because Robert Webb’s foolish and vain Odysseus is such a funny character, who never fails to rush into trouble in search of spoils. Eventually he comes to a realisation: “I had always believed my actions to be good and honourable because I had followed my heart. Not once had I considered that my heart might be a bit of a bell-end.” In The Curse of the Beagle, a young Charles Darwin travels on the ship of that name, but there seems to be something supernatural going on, involving a hairy beast that uses its long gentleman’s part as a belt. If he doesn’t sort it out, he will fail his degree. It was a bit hard to relax into this one: it’s odd to hear comedy cannibals with funny voices in a modern day radio programme, even if it ends up undermining the old stereotypes.

Listeners who haven’t read the original texts won’t be lost, since the stories are kept quite intact and given room to be told properly – each audio play is about an hour long. Even where jokes are based on the quirks of the original texts (e.g. Odysseus having implausibly repetitive adventures), the plays quickly key listeners in so that everyone can get the next joke about the same thing. It should appeal to anyone who has been enjoying Upstart Crow as much as I have (which is quite a lot): the plays have a similar mixture of clever literary jokes and very silly ones, and they are also narratively very satisfying, with proper heartfelt moments. ****