Saturday, 16 January 2021

Vivarium | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Running in circles, digging for answers. And somebody’s watching, but who… or what?

In house number nine, an exhausted Gemma (Imogen Poots) sits on the floor. Clothes spin in the dryer behind her. In front of her, a boy (Senan Jennings) runs in circles and moves into and out of the frame. This seemingly benign scene encapsulates Vivarium, in which a young couple gets lured into a “forever home” in the community of Yonder. In this tract housing development, every home has the same design, the same mint shade of green, and the same fence and yard. And the perfectly spaced clouds are all shaped like… clouds. Gemma, her partner Tom (Jessie Eisenberg), and the odd nameless boy who comes to live with them are the only residents in Yonder. Most disturbing, every time Gemma and Tom try to get away, they end up back at number nine.    

Vivarium, directed by Lorcan Finnegan, brings to mind The Truman Show (1998). However, in this case, the guinea pigs are completely alone and the viewer is just as in the dark as the them. Questions accumulate: What is this place? How will this couple get out? Who (or what) is watching them? “Number nine is not a starter home,” says the awkward salesman (Jonathan Aris) who takes them on a tour. “This house is forever.”

Where this film succeeds is in its placement of an ordinary (perhaps even dull) couple in an extraordinary circumstance, as well as in its exploration of how each of the two protagonists chooses to pursue answers: Tom becomes obsessed with digging a hole in their front yard. Gemma focuses on the boy, whose adult voice, mimicry, and inhuman scream grow increasingly grating to his caretakers. More than once, Gemma tells the freakish boy, “I am not your mother.”

There are some Lost-like things happening, from cryptic television broadcasts to indecipherable symbols. In one especially unsettling scene, the boy imitates someone he claims to have met within the neighborhood. 

Both main actors offer performances that support the consequences of their situation. Poots’s resigned Gemma radiates the malaise that has taken over her life. Eisenberg, despite his reputation as a fast-talking comedy type, adequately portrays the deterioration of a normal guy – there are times when he appears downright menacing. Unfortunately, during a climactic scene, his performance wanes and end ups feeling mawkish. 

Vivarium might stand as an extended metaphor for the young couples who get stuck in parenthood and find themselves in a condition where nothing excites and nothing changes. “Do you remember the wind?” says one character. “The wind was great.” The circle theme resurfaces at the film’s conclusion, which conveys a nihilistic message.—Douglas J. Ogurek ****

Monday, 11 January 2021

Heads Will Roll, by Kate McKinnon and Emily Lynne (Audible) | review by Stephen Theaker

This Audible series is written by and stars the reliably hilarious Kate McKinnon and her sister, Emily Lynne. It is often very funny, like an 18-rated version of Radio 4’s Elvenquest, albeit without a studio audience. McKinnon plays Queen Mortuana of the Night Realm, a typical fairy tale evil queen, albeit with a foul mouth and a sex dungeon, who is warned by a soothsayer that a peasant rebellion is imminent. Lynne plays JoJo, a former princess cursed to live as a crow.

Meryl Streep, no less, is in it as the nation’s beloved actor, Catherine Staunch, who becomes a political rival as democracy starts to rear its beautiful head. As well as Peter Dinklage and Carol Kane, there are appearances from half the SNL cast, including Aidy Bryant, Heidi Gardner, Alex Moffat as romantic interest Odin, and Chris Redd as Lil Pelicayne, a prince cursed to live as a pelican. (He raps in character on Flap It Out, available as a free download from Audible.) The chaps from Queer Eye also make a fun appearance, giving Mortuana a makeover.

I hadn’t planned to review this audiobook, but when I found myself handselling it to one person after another online I realised (a) how enthusiastic I was about it and (b) that it might be somewhat quicker to tell you all about it at once in a review. It may not be astonishingly original, but it is a lot of fun, and a good deal of work has clearly gone into it. The only thing that gets a bit annoying is the Yeah Yeah Yeahs song used as the theme song at the beginning of each episode, and that’s only because it’s a bit too loud. ****

Friday, 8 January 2021

The Beasts in the Arena, by Sophia McDougall (Gollancz) | review by Stephen Theaker

In a world where the Roman Empire lasted long enough to develop trains, an animal trainer is asked to provide a lion for a celebration of the new emperor. But the lion is dead, and it died on the day the old emperor died. The new emperor might see this as an unwelcome omen. As well as this enjoyable short story, the free ebook also includes a long extract from Romanitas, a novel set 250 years later, by which time the Empire has invented “longvision”, and expanded as far as India and Mexico. Stephen Theaker ***

Monday, 4 January 2021

Assassin’s Creed: Gold, by Anthony Del Col (Audible) | review by Stephen Theaker

Aliyah Khan owes her friend’s dad a lot of money. Well, she doesn’t really – he invested in her business and it failed – but she feels like she does. Her attempts to pay him back lead her into contact with the Assassins, who fight throughout history to protect freedom and counter Templar authoritarianism and tyranny. One of the ways they do this is by tapping into the DNA of suitable volunteers, to see if their ancestors came into contact with valuable artefacts and information.

Aliyah’s ancestor, Omar (played by Riz Ahmed), was blind, and thus she is told, “all you need to do is sit back and listen”. This makes these flashbacks ideal for an audio drama, though Omar does possess the magical “eagle vision” of the games, so he is still able to get involved with the action. Much of it involves Isaac Newton, played by Antony Head in the best tradition of historical celebrity guest stars.

This was originally announced as a podcast, but was released as a regular audiobook, albeit one made up of eight episodes of about thirty minutes each. A bit like the film, which I enjoyed more than most, it’s hard to understand why this bothered with a present-day story. In the games it makes sense to have a framing device to take the player into the past, but in a narrative like this it denies the protagonist any agency during large stretches of the story. Why not just tell the whole story in the past? Aaliyah’s frequent and anachronistic interjections just remind you that we’re listening to a replay. But I quite enjoyed it. Riz Ahmed is very good as Omar, and if he returns for a sequel it would probably earn my Audible token. ***

Friday, 1 January 2021

Abigail and the Snowman, by Roger Langridge (Kaboom!) | review by Stephen Theaker

When Abigail moves to a new school, the first friend she makes is an abominable snowman. Unfortunately he is being pursued by agents who want him back in captivity. This is a charming book, with smashing art by writer and artist Roger Langridge. The bumbling agents are basically Laurel and Hardy, which is fun, the monster is very sweet, and Abigail is a cool kid, who takes time to think about things, which I always love in a character. But she is, essentially, a nine-year-old girl sneaking an adult male into her bedroom and school, making it rather unsuitable for school libraries. Stephen Theaker ***

Thursday, 31 December 2020

Lone Wolf 31: The Dusk of Eternal Night | review by Rafe McGregor

Lone Wolf 31: The Dusk of Eternal Night by Vincent Lazzari and Ben Dever

Holmgard Press, hardback, £19.99, December 2020, ISBN 9781916268036


If I enjoy a series and the latest instalment isn’t up to the standard of its predecessors, my usual policy is to avoid reviewing it.  Perhaps that’s what I should do with Lone Wolf 31: The Dusk of Eternal Night, the penultimate instalment of the late Joe Dever’s Lone Wolf cycle of fantasy gamebooks, which was released in time for Christmas by Holmgard Press.  Having invested so much time and energy (and a not inconsiderable amount of money) on the franchise as well as reviewing all of the New Order series (Lone Wolf 21 onwards) to date, however, I feel it would be a cop out.  Also, notwithstanding my criticism below, I will be buying the last in the cycle – Lone Wolf 32: Light of the Kai – on the basis that I am in my fifth decade of playing the books and have a need to know how it all ends (I began shortly after Lone Wolf 1: Flight from the Dark was published in 1984).  For those interested, I’ve discussed the trials and tribulations of the franchise – including why the publication of the cycle has taken so long – here, here, and here.  So let me begin with the bad news and my harshest criticism: Lone Wolf 31 simply has too much dialogue, too much description, and too little gameplay.  It’s as if the authors forgot they were writing a gamebook and wrote an experimental young adult fantasy novel instead.  Now one may think that this hybrid model of gamebook-novel is an improvement on the gamebook-only model or that the change of direction is precisely what the cycle needs for a spectacular conclusion, but I have been playing these books since the eighties because they are games.  If I wanted a novel set in Magnamund I would have collected the Legends of Lone Wolf series (novelisations of gamebooks 1 to 8, published from 1989 to 1994) – and, indeed, I did try the first and decided that they weren’t for me.  I genuinely hope that most if not all readers of this review disagree with my evaluation and if you don’t want to be put off Lone Wolf 31 please don’t read any further.  Just buy the book, read it, and make up your own mind.

The New Order series focuses on a new protagonist (whose name is randomly-generated, leaving me with “True Friend” for mine) and combines campaign and standalone adventures.  The standalone adventures are Lone Wolf 23: Mydnight’s Hero and Lone Wolf 26: The Fall of Blood Mountain.  There are four separate campaigns: books 21 and 22; books 24 and 25; books 27 and 28; and the final four books.  The final campaign began in Lone Wolf 29: The Storms of Chai and was continued in Lone Wolf 30: Dead in the Deep, which was the first gamebook published after Joe Dever’s death and was written by Vincent Lazzari and Ben Dever (Joe’s son), using notes that Joe literally wrote on his deathbed.  (On which note I should add that the story of the creation and publication of the franchise is well worth reading in its own right, even if one has no interest in gamebooks.)  In my two previous reviews of the final campaign, I noted that Lone Wolf 29 seemed to take the saga in a particular direction – the cataclysmic destruction of Magnamund by a hitherto unknown force for evil – from which Lone Wolf 30 then seemed to depart.  First and foremost, what I wanted from Lone Wolf 31 was a contextualisation in which the progress of the interplanar conspiracy was discussed even if the power behind it was not disclosed. In this, the gamebook succeeds, although I was disappointed to discover that the cataclysm is being engineered by two of Lone Wolf’s traditional foes, reincarnated on or resummoned to Magnamund.  Perhaps there is more to the conspiracy, to be revealed in Lone Wolf 32, but I thought the choice of enemies lacked originality.

The refighting of old enemies was a curious choice because in other respects the gamebook is highly original – a more positive spin on my critique is that it is too original – while the gamebook-novel hybrid didn’t work for me, I don’t deny that it is both inventive and innovative.  The first part of the gameplay is also creative and entertaining, with True Friend in command of an army at a full scale battle (reminiscent of AD&D’s Battlesystem, published in 1985).  In addition, Lone Wolf 31 begins to tie the cycle up by gathering together companions and allies from the previous New Order books, from The World of Lone Wolf miniseries, and from the various Bonus Adventures (there is no Bonus Adventure in this book).  This has a climactic feel and one of the successes of Lone Wolf 31 is the way in which it anticipates the end of the cycle, heightening the excitement that long-term fans like me are already experiencing.  Regarding gameplay, however, it is not only that there isn’t enough of it (where there are options, many of them rely on the random number table, i.e. luck) but that as a game it is too easy.  True Friend has of course undertaken every one of the New Order adventures so far, which means that he holds the rank of Sun Prince, has the powers of a demigod, and a very high Combat Skill and Endurance (the mechanics upon which the rules of the game are based).  He has also picked up some impressive weapons and armour on the way and is, especially when in the company of his allies, much harder to kill than his silly name suggests.  He had a much harder time of it in both Lone Wolf 29 and Lone Wolf 30 and invulnerability is not a virtue in player characters.  Let me conclude on the most positive note I can… at the risk of using a cliché I’ve already used once this year, this is the ‘marmite’ Lone Wolf gamebook.  It is distinct from the previous thirty and I suspect that players will either love or hate the novelty.  I hope they will love it and hate this review.  I also hope that Lone Wolf 32 will see a return to the form of Lone Wolf 29 which is, in my opinion, the highlight of the entire cycle.

Tuesday, 29 December 2020

Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #68: out now in paperback and ebook!


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

Welcome to Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #68, edited by Stephen Theaker and John Greenwood.

This issue of Theaker's Quarterly Fiction features “Network”, a complete novella by Mitchell Edgeworth, the longest entry yet in the adventures of the Black Swan. It’s been four years since the previous episode appeared in TQF53, but it’s been worth the wait. This issue also includes “The Erkeley Shadows”, a new story by Michael Wyndham Thomas, the magazine's first ever real contributor, way back in 2005 with “Valiant Razalia: Prologue” (TQF8), and twenty pages of reviews, where Jacob Edwards, Douglas Ogurek, Rafe McGregor and Stephen Theaker consider the work of Anthony Del Col, Kate McKinnon and Emily Lynne, Christie Golden, Ursula K. Le Guin, Joe Dever, Rhys Hughes, Joe Hill, Julie Travis and Junji Ito, as well as BFS Journal #21, edited by Sean Wilcock and Sarah Deeming.


Here are the magnificent contributors to this issue.

Mitchell Edgeworth lives in Melbourne, Australia. He tweets as @mitchedgeworth and keeps a blog at www.grubstreethack.wordpress.com.

Michael W. Thomas is the author of eleven titles, the latest being a poetry collection, Under Smoky Light (Offa’s Press, 2020). His Valiant Razalia duology, The Mercury Annual and Pilgrims at the White Horizon, is published by Theaker’s Paperback Library. His writing has appeared in such publications as Critical Survey, Magazine Six, The London Magazine and The Times Literary Supplement, as well as in previous issues of Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction. Website: www.michaelwthomas.co.uk.

Jacob Edwards also writes 42-word reviews for Derelict Space Sheep. His website is at www.jacobedwards.id.au, his Facebook page at www.facebook.com/JacobEdwardsWriter, and his Twitter account is at www.twitter.com/ToastyVogon.

Rafe McGregor lectures at Edge Hill University. He is the author of two monographs, two novels, six collections of short fiction, and two hundred articles, essays, and reviews. His most recent work of fiction is The Adventures of Roderick Langham, a collection of occult detective stories.

Douglas J. Ogurek is the pseudonym for a writer living somewhere on Earth. Though banned on Mars, his fiction appears in more than fifty Earth publications. Douglas’s website can be found at www.douglasjogurek.weebly.com and his Twitter account is at www.twitter.com/unsplatter.

The cover art is a detail, which we have tinted red, from a piece by Etienne Leopold Trouvelot: “The planet Mars: Observed September 3, 1877, at 11h. 55m. P.M.” From the New York Public Library Digital Collections.


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

Friday, 25 December 2020

Blood on Satan’s Claw, by Mark Morris (Audible) | review by Stephen Theaker

Audio drama produced by Bafflegab. The young people in a eighteenth-century village fall under the sway of a malevolent force. The original film (mysteriously popular with Doctor Who fans) was a product of its time, the year of Charles Manson’s trial, which it echoes. This new version is still about the horror of sexually active women. The cast is excellent, including Mark Gatiss, Reece Shearsmith and Alice Lowe, and it does interesting things with sound, music and effects. Stephen Theaker ***

Friday, 18 December 2020

The Witcher, Season 1, by Lauren Schmidt Hissrich et al. (Netflix) | review by Stephen Theaker

Unashamedly derivative of Elric, right down to calling its main character the White Wolf, this eight episode series was nonetheless very enjoyable. It’s as if they took the time that Henry Cavill reloaded his biceps in Mission: Impossible – Fallout and made it last eight hours. It’s daft as a brush and leans into it. In this series the Witcher runs through a series of entertaining one-off adventures, while we see what a wizard and a princess were getting up to before they met him. Rollicking stuff. Stephen Theaker ***

Friday, 11 December 2020

Preacher, Season 4, by Sam Catlin and chums (Amazon Prime Video) | review by Stephen Theaker

The final season of a show that wasn’t quite the equal of its best moments. Preacher Jesse Custer, his partner in many crimes Tulip and vampire Cass head for Masada to stop the apocalypse, while God and Herr Starr do their best to make it happen. It frequently feels like an extended game of Marco Polo, with episodes often driven by the need to recover whichever member of the gang has gone missing this time, but it’s still entertaining: where else will you see Jesus in a fist fight with Hitler? Stephen Theaker ***

Saturday, 5 December 2020

Provenance by Ann Leckie | review by Stephen Theaker

Ingray Aughskold of the planet Hwae has come up with a daft plan, because she feels obliged to compete with her obnoxious brother Danach for her mother’s approval. Her mother’s affection seems entirely out of the question, but there’s still an outside chance of her selecting Ingray as the inheritor of her name, and names are important on Hwae. So the young woman comes to Tyr Siilas, and hands over everything she owns – and more besides that she has borrowed – to a criminal organisation, Gold Orchid.

She wants them to extract the notorious criminal Pahlad Budrakim from Compassionate Removal. E was left there to rot for stealing eir own family’s prestigious relics, or vestiges as they are called, and replacing them with fakes. She assumes that e knows where they are, and that once e’s out and feeling grateful enough to disclose their location, she’ll be able to use the vestiges as leverage to earn her mother the position of Prolocutor of the Third Assembly, which Ingray would hope to subsequently inherit.

Ingray knows it’s a long shot, but she doesn’t expect her plan to go off the rails quite so spectacularly or quite so quickly. Pahlad is delivered to her unconscious in a box. Captain Uisine, owner of her getaway ship, refuses to allow em on board in that condition, in case it’s a kidnapping. And once woken, the person she has rescued denies even being Pahlad. What’s more, after she manages to get em back home e becomes a suspect in a case of murder.

The author’s debut Ancillary Justice, a rare publishing success to emerge from the thousands of novels written during NaNoWriMo, was the first book to win the Hugo, Nebula, Arthur C. Clarke and BSFA awards for best novel, as well as best newcomer awards from Locus, the Kitschies and the British Fantasy Awards. Knowing all that, but not having read that book or its two sequels, I was a bit surprised by how straightforward Provenance (Orbit hb, 448pp, £16.99) turned out to be. It is in the same territory as other sf adventures I’ve reviewed recently for Interzone, such as The Collapsing Empire, or going back a bit further, the juvenile novels of Robert Heinlein, albeit with modern social attitudes.

One such aspect is how e is used as a personal pronoun, and everyone in the book respects its use. This isn’t explained to the reader, but eventually the book describes one of the people for whom it is used as a neman. Again, it isn’t explained whether this means non-binary, gender neutral, a third sex, or possibly something else altogether. This is science fiction, after all – and it is a fertile place to try new words out, or to popularise existing but obscure words. This is a good example of that, even if it sometimes has the effect of making it seem as if everyone’s from Yorkshire: “E said e’d searched the kitchen.”

Where the book excels is in its remarkable and thoughtful degree of thematic unity, the title Provenance being reflected throughout. Its hero is an adopted orphan of unknown origin from a public crèche, putting her at a disadvantage compared to her ambitious sibling. The provenance of the relics being fought over is in question, and there are questions about the origins of the people of Hwae themselves. The murder involves an archaeologist who wanted to investigate Hwae’s ancient ruins. And where did the friendly captain get his spaceship and spider-like mechs, which resemble so much those of the alien Geck? It’s all about provenance.

The conclusion is very tidy, almost Harry Potterish, right down to a spell in the infirmary to recover from the injuries incurred in the course of the adventure. Perhaps it’s a bit too tidy, its murder plot and surrounding shenanigans being slightly too simple to hold the reader’s attention, but the sweetness of the relationships between Ingray and her understanding and supportive allies – Captain Uisine, her Nuncle Lak, Garel Ket and romantic interest Officer Taucris Ithesta – make it a pleasant and enjoyable read.

It works fine as a standalone novel, though there is a suggestion of sequels to come: a conclave is being convened, in an attempt to keep the peace between humans, aliens and AIs with a taste for revolution, and it doesn’t take place in this book. One other unresolved issue concerns Ingray’s problems with hairpins, mentioned so frequently that it feels like heavy-handed foreshadowing, though it isn’t. Perhaps the difficulty she has keeping them in place reflects how she is for the first time striking out on her own, and struggling, metaphorically, to keep her hair straight. ***

This review originally appeared in Interzone #273.

Friday, 4 December 2020

Legion, Season 3, by Noah Hawley and chums (Fox) | review by Stephen Theaker

The third and final season of Legion makes no effort to cater to those who found previous seasons obscure and self-indulgent, and is all the better for it: beautiful, unique and innovative. It introduces time traveller Switch, as David Haller tries to fix what went wrong in his life, but stops caring about right and wrong as he does it, assuming that everything will be undone when he is successful. We also meet the Legion universe Professor X, played perfectly by Harry Lloyd. Stephen Theaker ****

Sunday, 29 November 2020

November novel-writing: a few thoughts about what worked well this year

I didn't officially take part in Nanowrimo this year -- I deleted my account earlier in the year in dismay at their tweets about J.K. Rowling -- but in November I always write novels, and that didn't change. This year, I finished two novels off, Rolnikov the God, which I began writing in November 2019, and We Slept Through the Apocalypse, which I began back in November 2008. Finishing a book on which I'd been stuck for so long made me very happy, and that means I've now finished writing eleven of these daft novels. I think I'm going to keep going, and see if I can finish a few more, after catching up on my book reviews.

Anyway, for my own future reference as much as anyone else's interest, here are a few of the things that worked for me this month, roughly in order of where they came in the writing process:

Leaving Twitter and Facebook. I left Twitter and Facebook at the beginning of November and stayed off completely until I had finished a novel. To be honest, I wish I had stayed off until I had finished both novels. It's not just reading the posts on social media that is a drag on concentration -- though Twitter especially does offer a never-ending succession of interesting people with interesting thoughts -- it's writing my own posts, and then thinking about the responses to my posts, and then thinking about how to respond to those responses. I spent an entire week earlier this year arguing about the canonical sexuality of Velma from Scooby-Doo, for example. All thinking time better invested in the novels. I've become a big fan of just reading Twitter on the television, via the Fire TV stick, not logged in. It becomes like reading a newspaper then, much more enjoyable, with no sense of an obligation to respond to anything.

Moleskine squared cahiers. I love these. I've been using them for a few years now. I have one for each novel. I draw a front cover and write a blurb for the back cover, both of which help keep me focused on what the book is supposed to be about. The first few double-page spreads are for brainstorms, character lists, maps, mysteries that need to be resolved, and other things I need to remember. Then each chapter gets a double-page spread. On the left-hand pages go the things that are supposed to happen in that chapter, and on the right go the things that did actually happen, if different. It's so useful having my notes in these self-contained little booklets. I can take them anywhere, and they make it immensely easier to resume writing an unfinished book. I've just ordered another set of three, to help me finish off The Mysteries of Mygret Zend, The Triumphs of the Two Husbands and I Couldn't See Past the Spider.

Routine. I got into a very nice routine this year, helped, I have to admit, by one of our children having to quarantine in her room after being in close contact with a Covid-19 carrier. (Don't worry, both children seem to be fine.) That meant I didn't have to get up early with her, and also that the other daughter was sleeping on the sofa, so I couldn't play on the Xbox after half nine or so. Every night I would go in my office between nine and ten, start writing, and carry on till that chapter was done. I like writing in the mornings too, but that's a bit harder without a pub to go to, and if I don't get a chapter done in the morning it can be a drag on the whole day.

The Freewrite and the Freewrite Traveler. I wrote for most of the month on the original Freewrite, and then switched seamlessly to the Freewrite Traveler when that superb device arrived. Using the same device every day helped me to get into a routine, and it helped that the Freewrites are focused entirely on writing. There's literally nothing else you can do on them. When I sat down to write, everything else was already switched off and the Freewrite was waiting for me.

Alexa. I set up a routine on Alexa called Novel writing, with music. It tells me to write a hundred words, then plays a long, wordless song for seven and a half minutes, which is usually more than enough for me to write a hundred words. Then it tells me to aim for two hundred words and plays another long, wordless song, and so on until I reach my target of 1666 words for the day and the chapter. It's like putting myself on a train track. Once I'm on, I can't get off, I just have to keep going till I reach the station.

Hundred-word chunks. It's hard to write 1666 words, but it's easy to write 100. I marked each 100 words off with a cross on that chapter's page of the cahier.

Treats. Each 100 words earned me a treat. I'm getting a bit sick of Haribos at this point, but I finished two novels so they seem to have done the trick!

Playing cards. After each 100 words I also get to turn over a playing card. (I do the same thing with proofreading, where I turn over a playing card for each page read.) This acts as a surprise and a treat, but I think it also provides a physical manifestation of progress through a project that you don't get when writing or reading digitally. I have various sets of playing cards that I use (Doctor Who, James Bond, Star Wars, Judge Dredd, etc), but this year I mainly used a (possibly unlicensed) set that featured paintings of Tarzan, John Carter, Game of Thrones and Vampirella.

The Kindle. I have things set up so that when I finish the chapter, and press the SEND button on my Freewrite, it gets automatically forwarded to my Kindle. It was such a pleasure to go to bed each night knowing that I would have a new chapter of my own novels to read! I wouldn't recommend them to anyone else, but I find them hilarious. I would annotate the chapter while reading, then in the morning take in those corrections to the text file. It was good preparation for writing the next chapter, but also meant the novels were in pretty good shape by the time I finished writing them. Expect to see them in future issues of TQF!

Not reading anything else. I didn't read other books this month. I got that out of my system in October! I read the new chapters of my books, and the old chapters of those books, and chapters of other books I've written about the same characters. That meant I was constantly refreshing my memory of their lives, and noticing details I could work back into the story. It also meant that I didn't get drawn into thinking about other people's plots instead of mine, or get distracted by writing book reviews instead of fiction.

Friday, 27 November 2020

The Expanse, Season 3, by Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby and chums (Amazon Prime Video) | review by Stephen Theaker

Thirteen episodes of top-flight space adventure. They begin with Earth, Mars and the Belters at loggerheads, heading for war, and later put their people in a situation where co-operation is their only hope. In the middle of it all is James Holden and the capable crew of the Rosinante, pushed and pulled by forces they barely understand. Acting, storylines, effects, dialogue: all brilliant. It was dramatic, funny and epic, with a generous helping of sense of wonder. Stephen Theaker ****

Tuesday, 24 November 2020

Splatterpunk’s Not Dead, edited by Jack Bantry (Splatterpunk Zine) | Review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Splatterpunk may not be dead, but if this is the measure, then it’s only half alive. 

Splatterpunk’s Not Dead purports to reignite the presumed dying art of the splatterpunk horror subgenre. However, only half the stories within the anthology offer something both inventive and splattery. The remaining stories range from so-so to forgettable, plus there are quite a few mistakes.  

After a tepid foreword by Jeff Burk, the anthology kicks off with Nathan Robinson’s “Another Bunch of Flowers by the Road,” a plotless, shallow affair in which a guy goes on a killing spree using a souped-up, weaponized vehicle. Not the collection’s best story, but certainly entertaining as the crashes and body count accumulate. 

In “High Fashion” by Robert Essig, a washed-up fashion designer feels the pressure to create dresses as well as he did in his younger days, when he was constantly partying and hopped up on drugs. So he returns to this lifestyle and does whatever it takes to reclaim his prominence.  

No surprise to this reviewer that Jeff Strand’s “Beware! The! Beverage!” stands out as the collection’s best work, even if its ability to meet splatterpunk qualifications is questionable. Most of it is a conversation between two men about Rocketship, an energy drink spiked with Martian blood… from the planet of Martia, of course. Like many of Strand’s works, the dialogue-heavy story features one character pointing out the stupidity of the other. For instance, when Malcolm tries Rocketship for the first time, he proclaims, “I am the most powerful human being the world!” His friend Charlie points out that there are professional athletes who spend their whole lives training, so Malcolm is “probably not even top twenty”. Within the last two pages, Rocketship leads to the downfall of humanity. Funny tangents, lack of segues, matter-of-fact descriptions… all the things that make Strand’s work such a pleasure to read.

The anthology’s other gem is Saul Bailey’s “Eggbeater”, in which a Forrest Gump-like young man is born with an eggbeater instead of a penis. He stops by the home of an attractive young housewife, and the two of them engage in some hypersexual baking. Entertaining and unexpected. 

In “Please Subscribe” by Adam Cesare, an adolescent girl starts video blogging with the hopes of gaining a large following. The story is written in collective first person: the “we” speaking are the viewers watching the girl deteriorate from innocence to mental instability over the course of a month.  

Shane McKenzie’s “Abstinence” follows Christian teens exploring their sexuality in a closet. One wonders why this story is in this collection — though it’s written well enough, it’s just not splatterpunk. 

“The Androgyne” by Brendan Vidito introduces a couple literally attached at the hip and the lengths to which they’re willing to go to separate themselves. The story takes itself a bit too seriously for all the ridiculousness that’s happening within.

In the final and longest story, Paul Shrimpton’s “Walter’s Last Canvas,” a drunken, washed-up artist finds a book called Diabolist — it contains spells and incantations — and uses it to create a painting that enables him to be reborn as a young man. Either the author missed or was inspired by Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. The most impressive thing about this story is the author’s graphic description of a suicide attempt from the individual’s perspective. On the whole, the story gets bogged down in lengthy paragraphs and too much detail. — Douglas J. Ogurek ***


Monday, 23 November 2020

The Devil, by Ken Bruen | review by Rafe McGregor

The Devil by Ken Bruen. Transworld Ireland, 304pp, £12.99, May 2011, ISBN 9781848270206.

I first came to Ken Bruen in 2002.  I was researching for a military police procedural series that I hoped would launch a writing career and was reading or watching every mystery with a military setting I could find.  I read a review of The Guards (2001), the first Jack Taylor novel, and because either the review or my concentration were lacking came away with the impression that it was about a murder in a London barracks.  Not even close – it’s actually about an alcoholic ex-guard (Irish police officer) who works as a private investigator in Galway, a small city on the west coast of Ireland.  I devoured it anyway and immediately sought out the second in the series, The Killing of the Tinkers (2002), which had just been published and which I read in a single sitting.  Like his protagonist, Bruen has suffered from addiction and his no-holds-barred noir fiction is nothing short of addictive itself – extremely difficult to stop once one starts, even if one later wonders if it was the wisest use of one’s time.  While I was waiting for the third Jack Taylor, The Magdalen Martyrs (2003), to be released, I got stuck into Bruen’s Detective Sergeant Brant series, police procedurals set in south-east London: A White Arrest (1998), Taming the Alien (1999), The McDead (2000), and Blitz (2002).  I also read two excellent standalones, The Hackman Blues (1997) and London Boulevard (2001).  The fourth Jack Taylor, The Dramatist (2004), won the Shamus Award, but it was at this stage that my appetite for Bruen started to wane.  First, there was simply too much personal tragedy in The Dramatist and too little mystery for my taste.  Second, it was at about this time that I realised The Magdalen Martyrs, which I had also loved, was essentially an inferior retelling of London Boulevard (which is an adaptation of Billy Wilder’s 1950 film, Sunset Boulevard).  I read the next three Jack Taylors and Brants with a strong sense of diminishing returns and gave up in 2008 with Sanctuary (the seventh Jack Taylor; the Brant series ended with Ammunition, published the previous year) and Once Were Cops, a disappointing standalone.

One of my problems with both the Jack Taylor and Brant series is that all of Bruen’s characters are not only deeply flawed, but seriously self-destructive.  In consequence, their lifestyles soon take tolls on their physical and mental health, which is not conducive to a lengthy series without some authorial innovation.  Taylor, for example, has most of his teeth knocked out and is left with a permanent limp by the end of The Killing of the Tinkers, adds Class A drug addiction to his alcoholism in The Magdalen Martyrs, and is deaf in one ear by the time I left him in Sanctuary.  Which is not to say that he can’t still be a detective – Cormoran Strike is missing half of one leg before J.K. Rowling’s wonderful Strike and Ellacott series even starts – but that Bruen adjusts neither the style nor the substance of the stories as the series progresses.  Taylor is still trying to be an Irish Philip Marlowe, but is increasingly unable to imitate him with conviction as his physical capacities deteriorate.  On reflection, I think Bruen is best suited to the standalone and that his best work is a set of three noir thrillers themed around different poets: Rilke on Black (1996), Her Last Call to Louis MacNeice (1998), and Dispatching Baudelaire (2004).  There is something about the way in which he combines poetry and noir in both his form and content that makes these novellas exceptional and it’s such a shame that they are all out of print.

In spite of my unfaithfulness, I was delighted when Bruen hit the big time two years after I stopped reading him.  In 2010 (the year in which The Devil was published in hardback) the Jack Taylor series was released as a television series of the same name by TV3 Ireland, with Iain Glen in the title role, and London Boulevard was released by Entertainment Film Distributors as a feature film directed by William Monahan and starring Colin Farrell, Keira Knightley, Ray Winstone, and Ben Chaplin.  The following year the fourth and best Brant – Blitz – was released as a feature film by Lionsgate, directed by Elliot Lester and starring Jason Statham and Paddy Considine.  A second season of Jack Taylor was screened in 2013, a third in 2016, and a fourth is currently in production.  Blitz is pretty much what one would expect from a Statham vehicle, which is not necessarily a criticism, but London Boulevard is one of the most underrated crime films of the twenty-first century, perhaps of all time, with outstanding performances from both Farrell and Knightley.  As such, Bruen’s critical success has finally been matched by commercial success and the Jack Taylor series is currently on its fifteenth instalment, Galway Girl, which was published in 2019.  I decided to return to Bruen because of my interest in occult detective fiction, reading in reviews that I attended to more carefully than in 2002 that the supernatural elements of The Devil made it Bruen’s ‘marmite’ novel, meaning that it polarised fans of the series (though apparently didn’t do his sales any harm.)

The novel opens with Taylor at Shannon Airport, attempting to fulfil one of his long-term ambitions by emigrating to the US.  He has exchanged some but not all of his previous addictions for Xanax and is managing to keep a lid on his alcoholism.  When he is refused entry to the US, he nonetheless heads straight for the airport bar, where he is joined by a mysterious ‘Kurt’.  One of the airline staff tells Taylor that Kurt has been following him ever since he arrived at the airport and she subsequently dies in suspicious circumstances.  Several reviewers have made much of this prologue and three chapters in which Bruen uses third person omniscient narration instead of his usual first person from Taylor’s point of view.  If one applies Occam’s razor to one’s literary criticism – the principle that the simplest solution is usually the right one – there is nothing to suggest that Kurt, who also calls himself Mr K and Carl, is anything other than a very dangerous psychopath.  Taylor is Galway’s most famous (if not most successful) private investigator so it is little wonder that a serial killer seeking attention would stalk him.  When Taylor returns to Galway he is hired to find a missing student, who becomes Kurt’s second victim.  The shape the story takes as a work of crime fiction is not the whodunnit – we know Kurt dunnit from the prologue – but the howdunnit, with the suspense created by the question of if and how Taylor will catch or kill him.

In chapters nineteen to twenty-one (of twenty-three), the howdunnit suspense is intensified by Taylor’s self-confessed unreliable narration (regarding what actually happened to Sawyer, the meeting with Father Ralph, and the purchase of the Zippo).  By the time the narrative reaches its climax – the confrontation between Kurt and Taylor – Kurt has killed six people and Bruen has suggested three possibilities as to his identity.  The first and most likely is that Kurt is a serial killer pretending to be the Devil who has, in consequence of his personal magnetism, acquired a small cult following.  In order for this solution to be plausible he would also have to have some command of magic (the art of illusion rather than genuine occult power) and to research his victims carefully, neither of which would be out of character.  The second and third possibilities are that Kurt is either a man who has been possessed by the Devil or is the actual Devil incarnate on Earth.  Whipping out Occam’s razor again, there is no compelling evidence for the existence of the supernatural until the final chapter, which is deliberately – deliciously, perhaps – ambiguous.  The eleventh-hour twist (often, but not always, including a reversal of fortune for the protagonist) is a trademark of Bruen’s narratives and in this instance the last chapter is discontinuous with the rest of the novel.  Keeping one’s razor stropped, I think the answer is to read that chapter and that chapter alone as a case of unreported unreliable narration, too much Xanax, a post-traumatic breakdown, or some combination of the three.  Others might prefer to take the conclusion as retrospectively infusing the occult into the rest of the narrative and, in truth, there is little to choose between the two interpretations.

Bruen provides a metafictional clue as to his intent, but it is just as ambiguous as the conclusion.  In chapter twenty-one, Taylor recalls a conversation with a man from years before, who told him: ‘It’s known as horror.  Occult fiction, I call it the Further-Out genre, like in David Lynch movies.  You’re in the middle of a crime story.  But then the camera finds, say, a painting.  Pushes into it.  Turns a corner into the realm of the metaphysical.  Which, in the sense of the real origins of suspense, might actually take us closer than men with guns ever could.’  Is The Devil noir fiction with occult misdirection or Bruen’s first stab at further-out fiction?  Either interpretation is valid, but I think I’ll give the last word to another Irish crime fiction writer, Declan Burke.  In his review of The Devil, he writes that everything ‘that happens in (all the) Taylor narratives are subordinate to the needs of Taylor himself.’  Taylor, according to Burke, combines both self-loathing and narcissism in equal measures and that is why, while I thoroughly enjoyed my return to Taylor’s world, I also remembered why immersing oneself in that world becomes tedious if indulged too long or too often.

Friday, 20 November 2020

Burials in Several Earths, by Radiophonic Workshop (Room 13) | review by Stephen Theaker

The Radiophonic Workshop created electronic music for BBC programmes, innovating all the while, and inspiring more than one generation of electronic musicians. After some surviving members reunited for live performances, they went on to make this excellent instrumental album. Four of the tracks are so long that two CDs are required, and when it is playing I’m never quite sure what is happening, but I like it a lot. It reminds me of classic Tangerine Dream albums like Alpha Centauri and Zeit. Stephen Theaker ****

Sunday, 15 November 2020

Ragged Alice, by Gareth L. Powell | review by Rafe McGregor

Ragged Alice by Gareth L. Powell

Tor.com., 202pp, £9.99, April 2019, ISBN  9781250220189

It would be an exaggeration to state that Tor.com rescued the novella as a literary form in the twenty-first century, but that form certainly appeared to be in an irreversible decline by the end of the last century and Tor.com’s series of speculative fiction novellas has made it a commercially-viable option for authors again.  The revival of the novella (and, to a much lesser extent, the short story) may also be a consequence of the shift from hard copy to hard and digital copy over the last two decades, however, as the chunky – and often clunky – ‘airport’ novel seems to be as popular as ever.  Notwithstanding, Tor.com deserve credit where it is due and the renaissance in which they have at the very least played a significant part has been achieved in the simplest and most effective way possible, by publishing great novellas.  In the last four years alone, these have included: Victor Lavalle’s The Ballad of Black Tom (2016, reviewed in TQF here), Cassandra Khaw’s Hammers on Bone (2016) and A Song for Quiet (2017, TQF review here), David Tallerman’s Patchwerk (2016, TQF review here), and Caitlín R. Kiernan’s Tinfoil Dossier (2017–2020) series.  Personally, I couldn’t be more pleased about this.  If one follows Stephen King’s definition, the novella as a narrative of between twenty and eighty thousand words, it is my preferred form for most genre fiction.  It not only suits speculative fiction, but crime fiction too and almost all of Agatha Christie’s ‘novels’ as well as all four Sherlock Holmes ‘long’ stories were in fact novellas.  This review is of a particular combination of the two, an outstanding occult detective story that fits the novella form with pleasing perfection.

Holly Craig left Pontyrhudd, a small fictional town on the south-west coast of Wales, for London fifteen years ago, after she nearly drowned in a river at the scene of her mother’s unsolved murder seventeen years before.  Holly’s near-death experience coincided with her discovery of a supernatural gift, her ability to see the good and evil of people’s souls in the same way that other people see light and dark.  She refers to the object of this sense as ‘souls’ only because she cannot find a more appropriate secular term.  ‘Selves’ might be closer, but her description of it as ‘a talent for picking up on a person’s shame and remorse’ is probably the best, although it fails to do justice to the full extent of her extrasensory powers of perception.  When psychiatrists and counsellors failed to ease the burden of the gift, Holly discovered that exhaustion and whisky were the only things that could provide relief and has been working and drinking to excess ever since.  The longest explanation of the gift is only a single page and this is in keeping with Gareth Powell’s crisp, economical style of writing.  He makes use of the minimum number of words required to drive the plot forward and no more, just enough to prompt the reader’s imagination before moving quickly to the next character, setting, or action.  Powell has an enviable affinity for evoking a rich combination of sensory, affective, imaginative, and intellective experiences with a single phrase, for example: ‘pub regulars with roll-ups dangling from faces hacked out of boiled ham’; her ‘hands looked like sausage skins filled with walnuts’; and his ‘beard was the speckled colour of a badger’s ass’.  Motivated by her mother’s murder, Holly joined the Metropolitan Police Service, specialised as a detective, and rose quickly through the ranks, reaching detective chief inspector by the age of twenty-seven.  The suggestion is that this career trajectory is courtesy of her analytical mind and relentless work ethic, but the gift couldn’t have done it any harm either.  Following an incident at a school where she was unable to prevent a multiple murder, Holly left the city for Dyfed-Powys Police, the largely rural force that covers central and south-west Wales.  No sooner is she back in country – before she can even unpack her bags or visit her late grandfather’s house – than she is leading another murder inquiry.

A young, local woman named Lisa has been run over by a car and killed and Holly is the only police officer to recognise that the evidence points to murder rather than manslaughter.  With the exception of Detective Sergeant Scott Fowler, she finds her squad of officers severely lacking in both experience and expertise, placing the burden of responsibility for solving the case firmly on her shoulders.  One of the many aspects of the narrative that I loved was the way in which the plot begins with a case that is like the vast majority of murder investigations handled by the police, contrary to what we are used to seeing on television or reading in crime fiction.  The murder has been planned poorly, the suspect – Lisa’s boyfriend, Daryl – is obvious, and the focus quickly shifts from mystery to manhunt.  When Daryl is found, he is not only dead but has been murdered in the same bizarre, ritualistic manner as Holly’s mother three decades ago.  At this point the plot takes a more sinister and more complex turn, the already brisk pace picking up with a second ritual murder.  Holly and Scott identify a single suspect that is connected to all three of the deceased and the possibilities once again appear to be narrowing in her favour.  There is an attempt on her life on her way back from police headquarters at Carmarthen and when she is discharged from hospital hobbling on a crutch she is told that there has been a third ritual murder – of that very suspect.  Holly and Scott decide that the murderer must either be a jealous spouse or someone connected to her mother’s death and, for the first time in her life, she begins to seek answers to the latter.  Her mother, known locally as ‘Ragged Alice’, has passed into local lore as a ghost who haunts the riverbank where her body was found and when Holly identifies a suspect with links to past and present, he disappears.  There is a danger that the narrative is going to tip from the thrilling to the ludicrous at this stage – there have been four murders in as many days and the novella is just over the halfway point – but Powell avoids this with great skill, maintaining the suspense of the second half with clever detection rather than gratuitous corpses.

My only criticism, which is minor, is that while the dénouement is both compelling and plausible, the narrative does not offer any clues to it.  In other words, Powell deprives his readers of the intriguing irritation of realising that had they only been a little more astute, they could have worked it out for themselves.  This lack detracts from Ragged Alice as a murder mystery, but Powell more than makes up for this failing with a setting that combines the eerie and chilling with the everyday and commonplace in an entirely convincing manner.  His conclusion, too, is very satisfying indeed, leaving one with the sense that the novella ceases at precisely the right place and that this destination has been inevitable from the very first page.  These days it is rare that I pick up a book that hasn’t been recommended to me or whose author I am unfamiliar with and am nonetheless immediately and relentlessly gripped by the narrative.  Ragged Alice is the first in a long time.  As such, I can honestly say that this novella was a total joy to read and I can’t recommend it enough to anyone who likes either horror, murder mysteries, or combinations of the genres.

Friday, 13 November 2020

The Vision, Vol. 1: A Little Less Than a Man, by Tom King and Gabriel Hernandez Walta (Marvel) | review by Stephen Theaker

This was an unexpected treat, and I can see why it got a lot of attention. The art is terrific, and the story is a real tragedy, as the Vision tries to set up a home with his synthezoid family and step by step things get worse and worse. It reminded me of The Leftovers in that way, and was somehow just as moving despite the protagonists being robots. Stephen Theaker ****

Thursday, 12 November 2020

Sherlock Holmes and the Beast of the Stapletons, by James Lovegrove | review by Rafe McGregor

Sherlock Holmes and the Beast of the Stapletons
Sherlock Holmes and the Beast of the Stapletons by James Lovegrove

Titan Books, 408pp, £11.75, October 2020, ISBN 9781789094695

Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles was serialised in The Strand Magazine from August 1901 to April 1902 and then published as a novel (or, more accurately, a novella) by George Newnes the following month. The tale is probably the best known of all the Sherlock Holmes stories and is certainly one of the most filmed, with big and small screen adaptations stretching from 1914 to 2016 at the time of writing, including retellings in both BBC One’s Sherlock (2010-2017) and CBS’s Elementary (2012–2019) series (The Hounds of Baskerville in 2012 and Hounded in 2016 respectively). I think it may also be the narrative about which I have written the most, in terms of number of publications: a review of one of the sequels, David Stuart Davies’ The Tangled Skein (1995) in TQF24 (2008); an article for Crime and Detective Stories (2008) in which I propose an alternative solution to the case; a review of SelfMadeHero’s graphic novel in TQF29 (2009); a chapter in Josef Steiff’s Sherlock Holmes and Philosophy (2011) in which I suggest that the novella is primarily a work of horror rather than crime; and a short story sequel, “The Wrong Doctor”, first published in TQF50 (2015) and reprinted in Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine 20 (2016) and The Adventures of Roderick Langham (2017). The reason for my fascination – or perhaps I should say fixation – is my interest in crossover between crime and horror fiction (particularly, but not exclusively, the occult detective) and my agreement with Christopher Frayling’s claim that The Hound is one of the four great Gothic horror stories of the first century of the genre, alongside Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; Or, The Modern Prometheus (1818), Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). In the chapter for Sherlock Holmes and Philosophy I examined both the creative context of the novella, which was originally intended to be a supernatural story co-authored with Bertram Fletcher Robinson, and the narrative itself to show that the mystery plot is underpinned by tropes much more common to the horror genre.

If my fascination is a fixation, I am at least not alone in my neurosis. My alternative solution (which made the case for Dr Mortimer as the mastermind behind the conspiracy) followed Arthur Robinson’s “Justice Deferred: Deaths on Dartmoor” (2006), also in Crime and Detective Stories, which identifies Henry Baskerville himself as the villain, and Pierre Bayard’s Sherlock Holmes was Wrong: Reopening the Case of The Hound of the Baskervilles (2007), in which Beryl Stapleton takes centre stage.  Until reading James Lovegrove’s novel, which is advertised as ‘Continuing the story of The Hound of the Baskervilles’ on the cover, I had read three sequels: Michael Hardwick’s The Revenge of the Hound (1987), Davies’ The Tangled Skein, and a short story I have been unable to track down since. Though I enjoyed The Tangled Skein when I first read it, in retrospect none of the three comes close to doing justice to Doyle’s original.  If anyone can, Lovegrove seems to be the author to do it. He has been publishing novels since 1990, has written for children, young adults (as Jay Emory), and adults, has a military science fiction series called The Pantheon, and currently writes for the Firefly franchise. He is also the foremost writer of Sherlockian pastiche, publishing three separate sets of novels in imitation of Doyle: six titles in Titan’s The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes series; The Cthulhu Casebooks Trilogy, the first of which I reviewed for TQF here; and two standalone novels, Sherlock Holmes and Christmas Demon (2019) and Sherlock Holmes and the Beast of the Stapletons – all since 2013.

The Hound was published after Doyle had terminated Holmes’ career and life (albeit half-heartedly, with no corpse) in “The Final Problem”, which was published in the Strand in 1894 and explicitly dated to 1891. The Hound was not intended to be Holmes’ resurrection – that would come in “The Adventure of the Empty House”, published in the Strand in October 1903 – and, as such, is one of the cases undertaken by Holmes and Watson prior to the detective’s apparently fatal clash with Professor Moriarty. The dating is somewhat vague, prompting much speculation among Holmes enthusiasts, and my own choice is autumn 1888. Lovegrove has selected the equally convincing autumn 1889 and begins his novel with a foreword by Watson that addresses precisely this question and is itself dated to 1903. The foreword, as well as Lovegrove’s occasional discussions of Sherlockian lore – solving, for example, the mystery of Watson’s disappearing dog in A Study in Scarlet (1887) – will endear him to the audience to which he has dedicated his novel, ‘HOLMESIANS AND SHERLOCKIANS EVERYWHERE’. What might not endear him to that audience is his representation of Watson, who is more petty and more timid than Doyle’s original and, maybe more importantly for contemporary readers, than either Martin Freeman or Lucy Liu’s Watsons. This is a personal preference and, in consequence, a minor criticism, but I favour pastiche that recognises Watson’s own extraordinary qualities. He is, after all, something of a polymath – a doctor, a soldier, a detective, and a bestselling author.

Let me state at the outset that Beast of the Stapletons is by far the best of the three sequels to The Hound that I have read (I exclude my own from the comparison, of course). My main – and only substantial – problem with the novel is its structure, to which I must draw attention before proceeding to its content. The novel is composed of three parts of six, sixteen, and eighteen titled chapters respectively (for a total of forty). Part I begins with an incident that establishes the personality of Lovegrove’s Watson, is followed by four chapters in which Benjamin Grier, Baskerville’s friend, consults Holmes, and ends with a detailed recap of the first case. I understand the need for the recap, but it constitutes an entire chapter and, combined with the preceding four chapters of exposition, facilitates a reading experience in which we are told rather than shown the sequence of events. This experience extends to Part II, the whole of which is a summary by Watson of Holmes’ recounting of the week he spent on Dartmoor while Watson remained in London. Lovegrove’s play of similarity and difference to and from the original is inspired, but his reversal of the Holmes–Watson dynamic in The Hound (in which it is Holmes who – ostensibly – remains in London) detracts from the suspense of the narrative. As readers, we immediately know that whatever may have transpired during that week, Holmes has escaped entirely unscathed. Part III employs a more engaging style of storytelling, involving a more active and adventurous Watson, but Lovegrove applies the brakes as soon as the pace picks up: Chapters 26 to 29 are all set aboard a Transatlantic steamer as Holmes, Watson, and three accomplices pursue the villain, who has been revealed in Chapter 25. It is very difficult not to read these chapters as, at best, a distraction and, at worst, a delay in the narrative that has no parallel in the original.

The premise of Beast of the Stapletons is straightforward but intriguing: history is repeating itself in Dartmoor, with the victim being Baskerville’s wife rather than uncle and the murder weapon a huge Calyptra moth rather than a giant black dog. The appearance of the vampiric moth seems to implicate Stapleton, the villain of the original, who was an entomologist by inclination and whose body was never discovered. Whether the moth (if it exists at all) is Stapleton’s ghost or a corporeal servant he has spent the last five years breeding, is (like the true nature of the hound in The Hound) all part of the mystery, but given that Doyle never involved Holmes in the occult, it is fairly obvious that Stapleton has not returned from the dead (which is not to say that he has not returned at all). Lovegrove revisits the pleasures of the original by setting up a similar pool of suspects: Mortimer, Frankland, Laura Lyons – and of course Grier and Stapleton (if he survived). As soon as this pool is established, however, it is drained almost as quickly as Grimpen More, which is being emptied by an enterprising Grier in search of Stapleton’s skeleton. One of Holmes’ suspects commits suicide by the same method used to murder Audrey Baskerville and conveniently leaves the solution to the puzzle of the moth in a cupboard (readers familiar with Stoker’s unfinished The Lair of the White Worm will have anticipated this particular dénouement). Case closed, or so it seems until Holmes concludes his recitation with: “There is something about it that I cannot put my finger on. I feel that I am missing something obvious, something so glaring that by rights I should have seen it long ago.” Three days later Baskerville’s son, Harry, is kidnapped and one of his servants, Mrs Barrymore, poisoned. Once the perpetrator of the crimes is identified, the novel changes form from a murder mystery to a crime thriller, with the thrills coming courtesy of the dual attempts to rescue the child and apprehend the suspect – or, suspects. Once the sea voyage is over, the action rises quickly and there is a tense climax consisting of a spectacular variation on a Mexican standoff. The novel concludes with a deathbed confession that imbues retrospective meaning into the narrative and foregrounds the depth of Lovegrove’s engagement with the original and with the Sherlock Holmes canon as a whole.

While avoiding spoilers, I am compelled to commend the author for noticing two features about both the canon and The Hound. The former is concerned with Doyle’s recycling of certain names and certain syllables within those names. This was probably unconscious on his part as he did not keep any kind of database or even detailed notes on the stories, in which there are numerous inconsistencies (the most famous of which is probably the location of Watson’s war wound). The latter is concerned with the physical similarity between one of the canon’s villains and a character in The Hound. I cannot say any more, but as far as I know, Lovegrove and I are the only ones to have both identified these phenomena and put them to use in fiction. As his novel will have a much greater readership than my short story, I look forward to the idea reaching a wider audience and maybe even being used in future pastiches and adaptations. Lovegrove has nonetheless made an error in Beast of the Stapletons, albeit a forgivable one: he appears to have forgotten that Dr Mortimer had a wife. The following is by Holmes from Chapter 6 of The Hound: “There is our friend Dr Mortimer, whom I believe to be entirely honest, and there is his wife, of whom we know nothing.” The mysterious wife is only mentioned once more in the novella (by Mortimer) and never seen at all or, strangely, considered to have played any part in the case whatsoever. My suspicion is that Doyle himself forgot about Mrs Mortimer – he wrote very quickly and used very few drafts – and was not the last author to forget the details of his own plot (Raymond Chandler’s comments on the murder of the chauffeur in his 1939 novel, The Big Sleep, spring to mind).

In closing, the compilation of a history of my own engagement with The Hound inspired by Lovegrove’s striking sequel reminded me that I’ve now been reviewing for TQF for twelve years…which is two years longer than I’ve ever committed to any job, though not quite as long as my marriage… long may they both continue.