Friday, 21 October 2016

Jessica Jones, Season 1, by Melissa Rosenberg and chums (Marvel/Netflix) | review by Stephen Theaker

Jessica Jones is a private eye, and she’s down on her luck, doing jobs for a shady lawyer that don’t always bring out her best side. Traumatised by having fallen under the mental control of a powerful psychic for a long period, and the things he forced her to do during that time, she’s drinking too much and not looking after herself. She has a couple of things going for her: superstrength (though no more invulnerability than is required to punch people very hard without breaking your own arm) and a good friend, former child star Patsy Walker. (Their friendship and its history is one of my favourite things about the programme.) Sadly, we’re not joining Jessica at the point where things start to pick up for her. She does meet a new guy, Luke Cage, who seems able to deal with the worst drunks in Hell’s Kitchen without taking a scratch, but it’s not one of those relationships built on mutual trust, at least at first. And she’s beginning to think that Kilgrave, her psychic tormentor, might be back, and it’s impossible to make anyone believe her when he can just order people to forget that they’ve ever seen him. He is back (and played with a gleefully childish lack of conscience by David Tennant), and he’s going to cause a lot of trouble before the thirteen-episode series is over.

Jessica is played by Krysten Ritter, from Don’t Trust the B– in Apartment 23 and Veronica Mars (fans of that show may also enjoy this darker take on the same genre). It’s not the most obvious casting, since she’s best known for comedy, but she’s very good, conveying all the moods and troubles of her character perfectly. Everyone in the programme is equally well cast, and it’s well directed, and always interesting. Overall, I enjoyed it, but it drove me up the wall, the longer it went on. Some people might see the problems I had with it as nitpicking, but to me they were fundamental flaws. Jessica and her friends are trying to defeat an enemy who can order anyone to follow his instructions, but they don’t use earplugs, they don’t wear noise-cancelling headphones, they don’t do any of the perfectly obvious things you would do to cope with someone who has those powers. And they can’t convince anyone to believe he has powers, even though SHIELD, at the very least, know of an Asgardian with the same gimmick, and everyone would know about the superpowers of Thor and the Hulk. It might have been better if Kilgrave and his powers had been brought to the fore a bit later in the series, coming in for the finale rather than being the main antagonist for the whole thing, because, much as I like David Tennant and love his portrayal of this repellent character, his powers don’t stand up to twelve hours of scrutiny – even if the show does find interesting ways to use them. I’m looking forward to season two, though. ***

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe, by Thomas Ligotti (Penguin Classics) | review by Rafe McGregor

In issue forty-nine I reviewed Thomas Ligotti’s The Spectral Link (2014) and described him as the most accomplished practitioner of weird fiction today. As such, it is satisfying to see that he has finally been admitted to the canon of twentieth century horror fiction by inclusion in the Penguin Classics series, which has recently taken an interesting turn with the publication of relatively obscure works of classic pulp horror fiction, like Clark Ashton Smith’s The Dark Eidolon and Other Fantasies (2014). This is particularly satisfying in Ligotti’s case as although he is in his fourth decade of publishing to great critical acclaim, he has failed to achieve mainstream success – understood in terms of mass market paperback sales. I think there are two reasons for this: although he has published sixteen books to date (excluding the Penguin release, but not The Spectral Link), they have all been collections of short stories, short novellas, or poetry rather than the novel so beloved by commercial publishers. Second, there is the – and I know no better term – weirdness of the stories themselves, which I imagine will not have an appeal beyond horror aficionados in the way that, for example, Stephen King’s work does. Ligotti has nonetheless remained a firm favourite of a limited audience and I was lucky enough to pick up Volume 9, Number 1 (1989) of the long-abandoned Crypt of Cthulhu magazine, with nine short pieces by him, at a recent book fair. The price was very reasonable – too reasonable – and I wish there was more demand for his work.

Penguin have overcome the problem of the public’s preference for substantial volumes by compiling Ligotti’s first two short story collections for their series. Songs of a Dead Dreamer was first published in 1985 and contains nineteen stories and a curious (but fascinating) lecture; Grimscribe was first published in 1991 and contains thirteen stories and an (also curious but fascinating) introduction for a total of thirty-four short works preceded by a foreword from Jeff VanderMeer. VanderMeer is best known for his Ambergris and Southern Reach series and, with his wife Ann, as the foremost anthologist of weird fiction in the twenty-first century. The foreword is everything one would hope from a preface: laudatory without being slavish and informative without being pedantic. VanderMeer is quick to mention “the author’s unique way of seeing the world”, which is precisely the reason I differ from him in my description of Ligotti as a writer of weird tales. VanderMeer sees Ligotti as “always passing through” the weird to the literary, but I do not consider classification as both weird (understood as a subgenre of horror) and literary as incompatible, even if Ligotti’s work is uniquely classified as such.

In my previous review, I focused on two themes explored by Ligotti: the difference between things as they really are and things as we perceive them and the sinister implications of the meaning of “demoralization”. The first story in the collection, “The Frolic”, evinces both of these, but it is the former that has the greater resonance in Ligotti’s oeuvre. In my review of David Tallerman’s The Sign in the Moonlight and Other Stories (2016) in issue fifty-five, I mentioned S.T. Joshi’s definition of weird fiction as embodying a distinctive world-view by the author. There is a sense in which Ligotti’s distinctive world-view is one that explores the deconstructive criticism that was so popular and so infamous towards the end of the last century. There has been a great deal of nonsense written about (and some would say by) Jacques Derrida, who popularised the approach in the sixties, but the basic idea behind deconstruction is simple: human beings (subjective experience) can only gain access to the real world (objective reality) through concepts, which are articulated through language. The worry, which stems from curiosities such as the fact that languages not only use different words for the same concept, but have different concepts that cannot be translated in their entirety, is that no human language and therefore no human conception maps perfectly on to reality. There is obviously plenty of overlap – otherwise we would not be able to build bridges, cure diseases, invent the internet, and fly to the moon – but there is no identity relation between concept and reality. The space that this opens up is the difference between the world as we think it is and the world as it really is, where aspects of the latter are understood to remain permanently inaccessible to us. Ligotti takes this difference and scrapes away at it, making it larger and more frightening. In “The Frolic”, a prison psychologist states of his paedophile patient: “He says he just made the evidence look that way for the dull masses, that what he really means by ‘frolicking’ is a type of activity quite different from, even opposed to, the crimes for which he was convicted.” The actions of the patient are even more horrific than they initially appear for they are not only a form of torture, but a reminder that we live in a world that we are incapable of fully understanding.

One of the features of deconstructive criticism is that it undermines commonly accepted logic and Ligotti’s tales follow suit. A basic principle of logic, for example, is the law of noncontradiction, which states that something cannot be both true and false at the same time, but the narrator of “The Frolic” demurs: ‘“It’s as if I know something and don’t know it at the same time.”‘ He is subsequently shown to both know and not know – knowing where the evidence points and also knowing that his grasp of reality is subjective rather than objective. And later, from “Dream of a Manikin”: “Accredited studies notwithstanding – as I’m sure you would contest – suppose the dreamer is not a man or butterfly, but both … or neither, something else altogether.” This is the most distinctive and the most disturbing element of Ligotti’s horror, the way it deconstructs reality in the philosophical sense. Even if we have good mental health, reality is revealed only through fallible conceptions and this lack of fit between words and world is a frightening subject of contemplation, a gap through which monsters of all kinds can enter. It is not that Ligotti’s monsters are more frightening than those of other authors, but that he exposes our world as a place that remains essentially – necessarily – unknown to us and, as H.P. Lovecraft proclaimed in “Supernatural Horror in Literature” (1927), there is nothing more frightening than the unknown.

The influence of Lovecraft is strongly felt in many, if not most, of these stories – but this is a genuine influence, of his cosmic futilitarianism rather than his strangely named gods and books. Occasionally, it is explicit: the end of “The Last Feast of Harlequin” reveals the story’s dedication to Lovecraft and is a re-writing of “The Festival” (1925) without that story’s flaws (and also acknowledges the influence of Edgar Allan Poe with mention of “the Conqueror Worm”). Mostly, the influence is implicit, from the suggestion of an alien presence in “The Frolic” to the distant similarities between “The Dreaming in Nortown” and “The Shadow Out of Time” (1936) and the more obvious similarities between “The Shadow at the Bottom of the World” and “The Colour Out of Space” (1927). The latter story by Ligotti, the last in Grimscribe, is particularly interesting in that it throws up one of the two major differences between Ligotti and his predecessor: Ligotti is not only a much better writer than Lovecraft, but where Lovecraft was fascinated by rural and far-flung locales, Ligotti’s focus is on urban settings. This choice makes his writing even more unnerving for it is in the towns and cities, where we have self-evidently shaped reality to our own ends, that we should feel most at home in the world – but where the cracks between perception and reality are at their widest.

Monday, 17 October 2016

Doctor Who, Season 9, by Steven Moffat and friends (BBC) | review

Peter Capaldi returns for a second season as the Doctor, Jenna Coleman for a third as Clara, and Steven Moffat for his fifth as head writer. Not a surprise then that this feels like the work of people who really know what they are doing with these characters. The Doctor at first is travelling alone, having the party of his life in medieval times because he knows there’s trouble up ahead, while Clara is teaching at Coal Hill, where it all began. They are brought back together by Missy, Davros and the Daleks, and by the end of the year they’ll have encountered Odin, the Zygons, ghosts in an undersea base, an immortal girl running a sanctuary for aliens, and the creatures that grow from the sleep in your eyes if you leave it unwashed for too long. They’ll travel to the very end of the universe and back, while ending every other episode on a cliffhanger.

Though this is a very modern series of Doctor Who in most ways, the special effects, writing, sound design, direction and acting always excellent – I’d say film quality at times, if more films were actually this good – it feels like Steven Moffat’s stab at writing a traditional season of the original show: split these episodes in two and you could have five four-part stories, a two-parter, and a six-parter. It’s exciting throughout, different again to Moffat’s previous seasons, always looking for new ways to test the format, expand its possibilities, and hammer at the Doctor’s weaknesses, while also giving children new playground games to play and good advice for life: next season may well focus on the ramifications of the Doctor’s mistakes this time around, but an episode in there about the importance of brushing your teeth would be very helpful. And it is immensely generous, leaving galaxies of room for future writers of novels, comics and audio adventures to explore. Moffat’s plots wind up into tight little knots, but there’s always a thread left for others to follow.

That the new programme is still going a decade on is an incredible achievement, that’s it’s still so brilliant is unbelievable. A credit to everyone who worked on it. Stephen Theaker *****

Friday, 14 October 2016

Fear the Walking Dead, Season 1, by Robert Kirkman and chums (AMC) | review by Stephen Theaker

Travis Manawa (played by Cliff Curtis) and Madison Clark (Kim Dickens) are a married couple trying without much luck to blend a family. He is divorced, she is a widow. Travis has a son who lives with his ex and doesn’t want to see him at the weekends, Madison has a son, Nicky, who loves heroin and a daughter, Alicia, who hates long trousers. When Nicky wakes up in a drug den to find his girlfriend eating someone’s face, he thinks he’s gone mad, and so does his family, but it won’t be long before everyone is caught up in that madness. When a riot breaks out in the city centre, Travis and his son take refuge in a hairdressers with a family of three, emigrants from El Salvador, not realising that from now on, all refuge will be temporary.

American television has a lamentable tendency to suck the vitality out of any successful television programme by creating licensed rip-offs and copycats. For every worthwhile Xena or Angel there are a dozen NCISes: LA or CSIs: New York that overstretch the premise or divide the writing staff. Fear the Walking Dead spins out of a programme that itself has sometimes been spread a little thin, despite its quality, having to ration the appearances of some cast members. But this spin-off has one big selling point: where the usual colonates just show us slightly different people doing a slightly different job under a slightly different colour filter, Fear the Walking Dead can show us a crucial part of its parent’s story, one that viewers missed while Rick Grimes was sleeping in hospital: how the apocalypse went down. Part of the reason we didn’t see that before was that it had been shown in so many films, so why repeat it? Get to the stuff we don’t know! But that world means more to us now. We know how bad it is going to get for these people, we shout at the screen as they waste batteries, and cringe at their pitifully small fences!

As slowly becomes clear, there is another difference: while the characters on The Walking Dead have generally made the right decisions, have usually been the good guys, these people aren’t. They aren’t the kind of people who think to close the door behind them after they escape a zombie hideout, not all of them would rush out to warn people in danger, and some of them don’t care about the consequences of their actions at all. This first season is only six episodes long, and while the first couple are more about junkies and family drama than the undead, it gets better as it goes on, and from the beginning it has a undeniable heft, borrowed from its parent show, admittedly, but very real nevertheless. It doesn’t yet have a central performance to match Andrew Lincoln’s in The Walking Dead, but neither do any other programmes, and these characters haven’t yet been stripped so raw as Rick Grimes. It will come. ***

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

A Song of Shadows, by John Connolly (Hodder & Stoughton) | review by Rafe McGregor

A Song of Shadows (464pp, £3.85) is the thirteenth “Charlie Parker thriller”, as the series is described by Hodder & Stoughton, first published in hardback in 2015. First and foremost – and quite possibly because of rather than in spite of the criticisms I shall make – the series is extremely successful, regularly ranking high on various bestseller lists and regularly receiving rave ratings from the most trusted crime fiction reviewers. I must confess to not having read all of Parker’s cases, which began with Every Dead Thing in 1999 (and was, as an example of my previous claim, the L.A. Times Book of the Year), but I have read the first two and most recent two and can confirm that there has been no fluctuation in quality. Connolly is not one of those writers who rests on his laurels, resorts to repeated uses of the same formula, or tires of his protagonist. My gripe, and I think it is more than mere whimsy on my part, is the idiosyncratic mix of crime and horror Connolly has weaved around Parker.

In his helpful guide to the series on the Crime Fiction Lover website, David Prestidge writes that: “The books are peopled with genuinely mean human criminal types, but Connolly introduces supernatural foes in the novels as well.” The books are billed as dark crime fiction in the same way that dark fantasy is now a distinct subcategory of the fantasy genre. To sacrifice accuracy for brevity, dark crime fiction is crime fiction written by a horror writer or a mystery told as a horror story or crime fiction that gestures towards but does not quite cross over into horror fiction… basically, a crime fiction series that is situated just this side of the crime–horror border. The two genres are, of course, complementary to a great extent and it is no surprise that Edgar Allan Poe was such an important figure for both, that Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles is billed as both a great crime story and a great horror story, or that may of H.P. Lovecraft’s weird tales take investigators of some sort as their protagonists. Prestidge continues: “Yet he never uses the paranormal to explain away loopholes in the plot.”

The issue isn’t using the para-normal to fill normal loopholes in the plot, but rather integrating the mystery and horror elements of the narrative such that they complement rather than counteract one another and this is where several weaknesses emerge. First, the books are longer than most mystery novels, the length exacerbated by the often slow and leisurely build-up to the main plot. This would not be problematic were the denouement worth the wait, i.e. a clever or original mix of mystery and magic, sleuthing and the supernatural. But, as Prestidge correctly notes: “There aren’t any [loopholes], and the Charlie Parker books all offer solid and original mysteries. He is a PI, after all.” Crime fiction readers, particularly those who prefer “thrillers” to “mysteries” are accustomed to fast-paced plots and the slower the action, the more drama they demand in the climax. The fact that all supernatural elements are always (at least in the four I have read and according to Prestidge) peripheral to the main plot – always, in other words, a subplot at best – makes me think of the series as crime-dressed-up-as-horror – in a pejorative sheep-in-wolf’s-clothing sense. Parker’s living daughter (Sam) can see the dead and sense evil and the spirit of his dead daughter (Jennifer) communicates with both him and Sam in A Song of Shadows. There are at least two events in the novel – a young girl sleepwalking and the earth opening up under a villain – that are presented as supernatural, but then quickly rationalised (as the dream of a young girl with a neurological disease and as a rare but not improbable geological phenomenon respectively). I found the subsequent debunking of these at times gripping supernatural scenes something of an anti-climax and that term really sums up my whole experience of the book.

Connolly takes a big risk with his villains in using war criminals from the Second World War. Assuming that the events of the narrative are supposed to be contemporary (there is nothing to suggest otherwise) and that National Socialist Germany in extremis may have used sixteen-year-olds as concentration camp guards – and granting that the camps were maintained until the very end of the war – the youngest possible war criminal would be eighty-six. Given the separation of the supernatural from the main plot, the criminals involved are men rather than demons and eighty-six-year-old men are not very frightening – unless, of course, they are million- or billion-aires at the head of a new evil empire. The Nazi-turned-businessman is something of a cliché, but in avoiding the cliché Connolly presents his readers with a group of evil old men doddering around New England, unworthy antagonists for super-sleuth Parker even if he is recovering from the multiple wounds sustained in his previous case. What makes this even worse for me is that the revelation of the main villain occurs relatively early on (for a mystery, that is), which once again creates a sense of… anti-climax.

Connolly’s fans – and there are dozens, probably hundreds, of thousands of them – may well think I haven’t read the book because Goodreads (to name but one forum) has many reviewers writing about the suspense being maintained to the last page and the jaw-dropping conclusion. I think I know what they have in mind, but I am baffled that it should generate such excitement. And yes, I have read all four books carefully from first page to last. Parker is a likeable sort of chap who leads an interesting sort of life, but neither Parker nor his life justifies the many hundreds of pages that each case generates. As mystery stories, the series is far too slow-paced; as horror stories, the continual and continued relegation of the supernatural to the side-line is disappointing; as a combination of mystery and horror, I can’t help but feel that a writer of Connolly’s undoubted skill could have merged a hardboiled PI with a setting that is both gritty and realistic on the one hand and populated by the angels and demons which the series often promises but never delivers on the other. It is only the worry that I have missed some obvious virtue of the novels that kept me coming back, but I’m afraid I’ve decided that life is too short to attempt a fifth… I’m sure Parker and Connolly will both do fine without me.

Monday, 10 October 2016

Trials Fusion Awesome Max Edition, by RedLynx (Ubisoft) | review

The Trials series of games are, to the casual glance, so simple that they could have been made on a Spectrum, and, indeed, pretty much were, as fans of Codemasters’ ATV Simulator will remember. You’re just driving a bike along a straight line that sometimes goes up, sometimes goes down, while you lean back and forth to keep it balanced. It’s like the old TV show Kickstart, except you can’t even turn the handlebars. And yet that’s just on the surface. The Trials games put that simplest of ideas into a world built with individual objects and subject to physics, where the slightest nudge here or there can make the greatest difference, and where your rider dies horribly at the end of each level. On some levels it’s a thrill ride, hurtling down a snowy mountain like you’re chasing James Bond, while on harder levels it’s the world’s toughest platformer, as you take a hundred attempts to get over one gnarly jump. And since the levels (once you get the hang of them) only take a few minutes to complete, the games are endlessly replayable in search of a better time. This Xbox One expansion of Trials Fusion improves upon the Xbox 360 version to the extent that it’s well worth a separate purchase. It includes all the DLC, so immediately has an immense range of tracks to ride on, from deserts and ski resorts to various distant, destroyed futures. To cap it all there’s a series of incredible levels where you play as a cat riding a unicorn! These were so popular with my children that one suspects an entirely equestrian spin-off could be very popular – they also liked being able to create a female rider for the regular levels. Another improvement is that loading times are much improved. Part of the appeal of Trials HD was the way you could rattle through half its levels in a half hour lunch break, something lost in the slovenly Xbox 360 version of this game. The checkpoints in Trials Fusion are much closer together than they were in Trials HD, making it possible to muddle your way through hard levels in a way that would have been impossible before. At first this seems disappointing, a sop to lightweights, but it’s as hard as ever to set a good time, and it’s easy to understand why the game’s makers would want lots of players to see all of the cool stuff they have created. And for anyone who misses the real teethgrinding challenges of old, the extreme difficulty levels here are as hard as ever – I’ve yet to pass the first checkpoint in any of them. The game also includes a brilliant local four-player multiplayer mode (allow bailout finishes for maximum fun), a level creator and online game modes, including tournaments where you post your best time and then wait to see where you came, prizes being awarded to those who reach certain positions. I’ve yet to mention what a pretty game it is, but it is, and it really shines with the higher definition of a next-generation console. Stephen Theaker ****

Friday, 7 October 2016

Ash vs Evil Dead, by Ivan Raimi and chums (Starz/Virgin Media) | review by Stephen Theaker

Ash Williams is a sexist jerk with an unfortunate tendency to unleash the forces of hell upon the world. Thirty years ago he found a Necronomicon while on a trip to a cabin in the woods with his girlfriend, and ended up having to squash her head in a vice and cut off his own hand with a chainsaw. Neither has forgiven him. As this ten-part series starts, the Deadites have been quiet for a while, but he still keeps a boomstick in his mobile home. It proves handy after the idiot gets high with a sozzled friend and reads from his Necronomicon… The evil dead return in force, and so Ash, reluctantly, gathers friends to help in the fight. It’s all a bit daft – the spirits seem to be able to take over anybody whenever they like, so the only reason Ash survives is presumably because they like playing with him – but it doesn’t quite reach the stark raving lunacy of Evil Dead II. There are lots of good jump scares, some excellent monsters and one-liners, and it is refreshingly gory. The half hour format works well for the show – it would be hard to keep up the intensity for an hour. Ash’s boorishness and the misogyny of the language used when female characters are possessed is partly balanced by a diverse cast. Ash develops an appealing relationship with Special Agent Fisher, an African-American cop who seems to like him for the idiot that he is, and the scenes with his two likeable protégés are always watchable – they’re a bit like the Doctor, Rory and Amy, if the Doctor were a buffoon and Rory worshipped him anyway. ***

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Innerspace, by Jeffrey Boam and Chip Proser (Warner Bros. et al.) | review by Jacob Edwards

Dir. Joe Dante. 1 July 1987 (Amblin Entertainment). Genre: SF Comedy. Ratings: 81% (Rotten Tomatoes) 6.7 (IMDB).

Obstreperous test pilot Tuck Pendleton (Dennis Quaid) volunteers for a miniaturisation experiment that should see him and his ship injected into the bloodstream of a laboratory rabbit. Instead, thanks to some industrial espionage gone badly wrong, he finds himself inside hypochondriac no-hoper Jack Putter (Martin Short). Aided by Pendleton’s ex-girlfriend, journalist Lydia Maxwell (Meg Ryan), and guided from within by Pendleton himself, Putter must overcome his inhibitions, thwart the villains and recover the microchip necessary to extract the ship before Pendleton’s oxygen runs out.

Steven Spielberg virtually owned the 1980s, and as executive producer added a tenuous sort of clout to several films in which he had no real involvement. Innerspace was one such production, its title invariably being sandwiched between the words “Steven Spielberg presents” and “a Joe Dante film” (this combination having in 1984 brought Gremlins to the cinema and thus being judged likely to wow prospective viewers into the right frame of mind). But Innerspace was no Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) or E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982). It was, rather, an unabashedly silly reworking of Fantastic Voyage (1966), the cold war SF-adventure that provided Raquel Welch with her breakout role and by way of its novelisation added considerably to Isaac Asimov’s renown. Although Asimov did his best to make the written version more palatable, Fantastic Voyage sacrificed science for adventure and presented audiences with several indigestible, illogical dollops of plot tripe. Innerspace proved equally loose in favouring comedy over accuracy, and despite winning an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects – the internal landscape of Putter’s body is impressively realised – clearly made no effort at all to keep the scale of miniaturisation either believable or consistent. (Hence, in accordance with industry standards for advertising, the tagline: “An Adventure of Incredible Proportions”.) But this should come as no surprise; after all, the entire movie is a paean to the culture, filmmaking and associated extravagances in kitsch of the 1980s, where over-quirky meets over-the-top and the minor characters are served up as a layered profiterole cake of coiffured oddballs. Fans of The Blues Brothers (1980) may take some heart in seeing Henry Gibson (Nazi leader) cast here as Putter’s affably anxious boss, but whereas there was a dreamlike quality in the Illinois Nazis having driven past the back-flipping Bluesmobile and off an unfinished highway ramp, thence to fall over a hundred storeys and land directly in front of that same speeding Bluesmobile, the incongruity throughout Innerspace tends more towards that of an overt, in-your-face surrealistic slap. Recently contemporaneous comedies such as Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) and Running Scared (1986) had shown what could be achieved by injecting a measure of absurdity into real character types, but Innerspace writers Jeffrey Boam and Chip Proser clearly missed this point and instead merely jabbed themselves, their butterfingers ensuring that the inherent craziness of the film becomes blurred, rather than put into sharp focus, by an extraneous excess of background weirdness. This may have been less evident to moviegoers at the time – there still being, needless to say, Martin Short jangling prominently in the foreground – but it is jarring in retrospect, and becoming more and more so as the eighties continue to recede, the perky novelty of the decade fading away amidst a Cyndi Lauper-load of bangles, leg warmers and erupting hairstyles into the nostalgic embarrassment of history.

By 1987 Martin Short already was familiar to television audiences as a performer on seasons 4–5 (1982–1983) of Canadian sketch comedy programme SCTV and season 10 (1984–1985) of America’s Saturday Night Live. His big screen breakthrough had come in 1986 alongside Steve Martin and Chevy Chase in ¡Three Amigos! while an effortless penchant for physical humour and a seemingly endless supply of woebegone expressions would later see him teamed up with Nick Nolte in Three Fugitives (1989) and then Danny Glover in Pure Luck (1991), the spirit of the times being to cast Short several times over as the hapless victim of some great cosmic irony. Innerspace, however, was very much his film and his alone, and all things told he succeeds quite splendiferously in carrying it along. The persona of Jack Putter has been scripted with a heavy hand, established only in broad caricature and then prodded to walk jerky steps along the plank and dive off into an ungainly character arc, while the plot map bears evidence of that same hand carefully marking out big Xs in crayon. Dennis Quaid’s Tuck Pendleton is not merely a ne’er-do-well, roguish stereotype, but in fact a shameless attempt at reprising (in all but name) Harrison Ford’s Han Solo (in fact, the Pendleton-Putter-Maxwell love triangle is so manifestly the same as that of Solo-Skywalker-Leia that one wonders if even today the writers are washing off stains from the carbon paper). The movie is overly manipulative in its music (Jerry Goldsmith), underwhelming in its attempts to build tension, and then again over-reliant for its impact on peak moments rather than sustained, coherent storytelling. But what moments they are: pratfalls and injuries à la Short; madcap stunts sans modern effects but heavy on flailing, panicking, Chaplinesque Short; facial transmogrifications that if played out in the political arena would have seen a Martin Short puppet battling to exorcise itself on British satire show Spitting Image; and, of course, the Jack Putter dance – that iconic, joyous, elastically uninhibited flailing about and letting loose of the inner hallelujah, Short’s comedic chutzpah burning as red-hot-poker-bright behind retinas today as it did back in 1987, and indeed having gained some extra kudos along the way through dint of blueprinting a few of Mike Myers’ moves in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997). This, in short (ha!), is Martin Short in his finest hour (and fifty-five minutes), and his performance is enough to make something eighties-memorable out of what otherwise would have been merely an over-long piece of second-rate children’s television.

Prior to Innerspace, Dennis Quaid featured in paranormal thriller Dreamscape (1984) and SF drama Enemy Mine (1985). Kevin McCarthy (head villain) had starred in SF classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). Vernon Wells (psychotic henchman) played in the post-apocalyptic Mad Max 2 (1981), while Wendy Schaal (disinterested second love interest) survived an Alien-spawned turkey, Creature (1985). Robert Picardo (ostentatious latin cowboy) had a minor role in Ridley Scott’s dark fairy-tale Legend (1985), as did William Schallert (confounded scientist) in SF thriller Colossus: the Forbin Project (1970). Even William Bean (Lydia’s editor) had warbled his epiglottis in the waters of fantasy, voicing Bilbo Baggins in an animated version of The Hobbit (1977). Nor were writers Jeffrey Boam and Chip Proser entirely without spec-fic experience, the former having adapted Stephen King’s The Dead Zone (1983) and the latter having co-scripted Iceman (1984). Cinematographer Andrew Laszlo had worked on horror movie Poltergeist II: The Other Side (1986), as had composer Jerry Goldsmith, who also scored dystopian classic Logan’s Run (1976) and SF horror masterpiece Alien (1979), among many others. But, of course, none of that made a scrap of difference to Innerspace, which remained steadfastly a comedy, its science fiction elements having little raison d’être beyond providing an idiosyncratic vehicle by which to convey Martin Short’s virtuoso performance to the silver screen. Yes, the bunny rabbit schematic is a nice touch, but when the history books are written Innerspace might just warp blithely past the SF chroniclers and instead stooge its way into the tome dealing with humour, banging heads with the silent comics and going, “Nyuk-nyuk-nyuk!” as the first film ever to deliver a poke in the eye from the inside.

Monday, 3 October 2016

Showcase Presents Ambush Bug, by Keith Giffen, Robert Loren Fleming and friends (DC Comics) | review

A 488pp black and white collection of comics, mostly from the mid-eighties. The bulk of it comes from two mini-series, Ambush Bug (1985) and Son of Ambush Bug (1986), plus a couple of specials, his story from Secret Origins, and earlier guest appearances in Superman titles. Ambush Bug is the costumed identity of Irwin Schwab, who knows he’s in a comic, talks to his writers and artists, and doesn’t necessarily go from one page to the next in the usually accepted order. His best friend and adopted child is Cheeks the Toy Wonder, a stuffed toy, and his greatest foes are the Interferer, who messes with comics continuity because he can, and Argh-Yle, a sock from a spaceship that got squashed by a radioactive space-spider, came to life and became a supervillain, and now tries to conquer the world with living socks from a chest of drawers (The Bureau) orbiting the planet. Reading that back, it’s hard to understand why I didn’t like it very much. It sounds like a lot of fun, and Deadpool has had great success with a similar shtick. But I laughed only three or four times in the course of all these pages (the best being when Keith Giffen’s famous nine-panel layouts are said to be inspired by Celebrity Squares). Maybe it’s the lack of colour in this edition, which makes all the busy, busy pages a bit hard to read, or that there’s so much frantically packed in, which might have worked better taken in single issue doses. A lot of the humour is aimed at comics and controversies in the field from the mid-eighties, and though I’ve read enough of those to get the gist, I didn’t find them funny. Maybe the clue is in the panel five pages from the end where Ambush Bug declares “I hate British humour”. Though I do appreciate the cleverness there of spelling it with a U. Stephen Theaker **

Friday, 30 September 2016

Ex Machina Book One, by Brian K. Vaughan and Tony Harris (Vertigo) | review by Stephen Theaker

The mayor of New York isn’t a Republican or a Democrat. He was a superhero, and before that an engineer, sent to investigate something weird and green glowing underneath the Brooklyn Bridge. Whatever it was blew up in his face, and he gained the ability to talk to machines and (perhaps more usefully, since we can all do that) have them follow his instructions. He grew up reading Justice League of America comics, so naturally, with the addition of a rocket pack, helmet and alien blaster, he became the Great Machine. It didn’t go very well, and after his secret identity was blown he decided to run for mayor, to put himself in a position where he could effect real change. He won, though not for reasons he would ever have wanted, and now he’s trying to run a city where psychos want to kill him, the commissioner of police and the state governor both hate him, and a publicly-subsidised gallery is about to display a painting of Abraham Lincoln with a racist word scrawled across his chest. His powers are only going to help with some of those problems. This 273pp book collects the first eleven issues of the original comic, and it got off to a terrifically confident start. The narrative bounces around the mayor’s timeline without ever confusing, and mixes ongoing plots with shorter self-contained stories with an apparent ease that must have required a good deal of work. The artwork is striking and unusual, looking almost as if photographs of actors have been rotoscoped to produce it. However it was produced, the result can be peculiar, but only because it has led to such a surprisingly varied range of expressions, faces and poses. I’d read parts of this book before, out of order, borrowed from the library, but it’s a real treat to start from the beginning, knowing I have books two to five waiting to be read in my Comixology library. The entire set cost me just £15 in a sale. I won’t often get the chance to spend my money more wisely. ****

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

The Devil’s Detective, by Simon Kurt Unsworth (Del Rey) | review by Rafe McGregor

Back in issue twenty-four, I reviewed Mark Valentine’s The Black Veil and Other Tales of Supernatural Sleuths (2008), an anthology that has since come to define the specific area of overlap between crime fiction and speculative fiction known as either the supernatural sleuth or the occult detective. In his introduction, Valentine explains how the magazine contributors of the late nineteenth century began to explore different ways in which the relatively new and incredibly popular figure of the private detective could be merged with the much older but still entertaining milieu of the ghost story. This combination of detective protagonist and ghostly setting saw the initial blossoming of the subgenre, which included such greats as Arthur Machen’s Mr Dyson, Robert Eustace and L.T. Meade’s John Bell, E. and H. Heron’s Flaxman Low (the Herons were actually the Prichards, a mother and son team), Algernon Blackwood’s Dr John Silence, and William Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki.

The particular and peculiar mix of genres embodied by the occult detective made the transition from short stories to television in the second half of the twentieth century with Adam Adamant Lives! (1966–1967), Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) (1969–1971, remade in 2000–2001), and Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974–1975, remade in 2005). The recent revival of the subgenre was perhaps most firmly established with The X-Files (1993–2002), the tenth season of which was released earlier this year, coinciding with both the fifth season of Grimm and the third season of Penny Dreadful. The graphic novel has been especially influential in maintaining the public’s interest, with two particularly long-running series standing out, Hellblazer (beginning in 1988) and Hellboy (beginning in 1993). Strangely, there has been less of an interest in the occult detective in mainstream novels, although three long-running series characters have emerged. Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden was introduced in 2000 and the fifteenth Dresden File was published in 2014. John Connolly’s Charlie Parker was introduced in 1999 and his fourteenth case was published this year – although I have reservations as to whether Parker can accurately be called an occult detective (see my review of his thirteenth case, A Song of Shadows, in this issue). Phil Rickman’s Merrily Watkins series began in 1998, with her thirteenth investigation published at the end of last year. The popularity of the occult detective is further evinced by the many failed and few successful attempts to combine Sherlock Holmes and the Cthulhu Mythos and the fact that a large minority – if not the majority – of new Holmes stories are works of speculative fiction rather than crime fiction.

One of the reasons for this popularity is that the subgenre has the potential to literally offer the best of both worlds, combining the cognitive demands of a clever mystery with the emotive atmosphere of a frightful horror story. What distinguishes the occult detective story from the crime fiction subgenre of the psychological thriller – the work of, for example, Thomas Harris, Mo Hayder, and Steve Mosby – is that there is at least the possibility of a genuine supernatural element. In the short story form, this introduces an extra element of suspense in that some cases have natural solutions and others supernatural solutions and Hodgson exploited this duality brilliantly with Carnacki (albeit briefly, courtesy of his death on the Western Front in 1918). The essence of the occult detective story is a mystery that must be solved by means mundane or magical in a setting that is either real or fantastic, with all possible permutations of this basic formula permitted. Whichever option the author selects, he or she faces the tricky task of relatively quickly establishing the internal logic of the almost-real or unreal world in order that the reader can play the mystery game, which is usually the game of working out who the killer is.

Simon Kurt Unsworth has opted for a fantasy world, a post-Paradise Lost Hell where there is a truce between God and Satan, and his detective is Thomas Fool, one of Hell’s three Information Men (one of whom is a woman). The Information Men are the only police in Hell and no more than three are required because their job is simply to record demonic crimes against humanity rather than investigate them. The Devil’s Detective (368pp, £5.99) begins with Fool on escort duty, responsible for the safety of a delegation from Heaven which is negotiating with the (Infernal) Bureaucracy for human souls. My sole criticism of the work is that its thematic content remains opaque throughout. What, I wondered – and still do – is really driving the plot forward? There are several fascinating options: the world-mapping of a new Hell where humans serve demons for all eternity in an amicable equilibrium with Heaven; the solution to the mystery of the murder of a human prostitute in this occult setting; a morality tale describing a Hell that is characterised by the absence of free will for its human occupants; or an allegory that is either pro- or anti-religion describing how human beings have already built Hell on Earth or how ridiculous the conception of an afterlife is. All of these disparate strands run through the narrative, though there is little to unify them.

Aside from the ingenuity of the setting and the way in which the rules of the mystery game played in Hell are established without resorting to lengthy swathes of exposition, the quality of Unsworth’s writing reaches outstanding heights at times. An example is the death of one of the main characters, who is accosted by a group of minor antagonists that gradually becomes more and more dangerous until one suddenly realises that he (or she, I’ll avoid spoilers) is in mortal danger. The brilliance of this particular piece is in the way in which Unsworth somehow manages to combine the pace and tension of the thriller with the slow-building apprehension of horror and he is both competent and comfortable with a foot in each genre. Ultimately, and this is why Fool is such a fine example of the occult detective, the novel works well as a traditional murder mystery because there are just enough clues for the reader to realise that he or she could have worked out the solution had they paid more attention to detail as well as the link between plot and subplot that is de rigueur.

Returning to my criticism about thematic content, the question I wanted answered was not the identity of what soon emerges as a serial killer in Hell, but the whereabouts of Satan. What, post-war, is he up to? There is a suggestion that he has retired to Crow Heights, a kind of gated community where the ancient and powerful have locked themselves away, but the truth is more interesting and – along with the final twist of the narrative – sets up a fascinating milieu for the rest of the series. The Old Hell was fire and brimstone, the New Hell was chaos and uncertainty for its human citizenry, but following Fool’s interest in actually solving crimes, the Hell of the future is a Hell with a completely powerful and entirely unaccountable police force. The mysteries of this forthcoming Hell will be revealed in The Devil’s Evidence, due for publication in October.

Monday, 26 September 2016

Don’t Breathe | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

So tense it doesn’t need a true protagonist.

Don’t Breathe, a turn-the-tables tale about three burglars who become their blind victim’s prey, offers no superb dialogue, no complicated internal struggles, and no computer-generated imagery-heavy superhero battles.

So what’s with all the glowing reviews from critics and audience members alike? It all comes down to the one thing that the film, directed by Fede Alvarez, delivers masterfully and relentlessly: tension.

The tenseness starts immediately with an aerial view of a seemingly vacant street bordered by houses. Unsettling music plays as the camera slowly zooms in on something disturbing happening in the middle of that street. The tone is set, and that tone will remain until the end.

Rocky (Jane Levy), the closest thing Don’t Breathe has to a protagonist, lives in a dilapidated Detroit neighborhood with her poverty-stricken mother and her younger sister. She wants to get enough money to whisk away her sister to California. The problem is how Rocky makes her money: by burglarizing wealthy people’s homes with her impulsive boyfriend Money (Daniel Zovatto) and their quiet accomplice Alex (Dylan Minnette), who has an obvious crush on Rocky. When Money gets tipped off about a big score at the blind man’s house, Rocky’s dream is within grasp.

As the group explores the home, floorboards creak, characters whisper, and the camera lingers on potential weapons like tools on a pegboard or a gun under a bed. The rest of the film offers, if you’ll pardon the expression, a blindingly vast array of twists, narrow escapes, violent beatings, claustrophobic encounters, and, most nerve-wracking, characters’ attempts to stifle their own cries of pain or fear in the presence of the blind man.

Early in the film, Money says, “Just because he’s blind, don’t mean he’s a fuckin’ saint.” That assessment, albeit crude, turns out to be right on the money. Sorry.

The antagonist, played by Stephen Lang and known only as “the blind man”, may be older, but he’s no Mr. Magoo. He’s a Gulf War vet who got a bad lot in life: first he lost his sight in battle, then he lost his daughter to a car accident. With his ripped arms and his hulking Rottweiler, the blind man is an imposing fellow. He tosses people around like rag dolls, repeatedly punches them in the face, and doesn’t hesitate when it comes to pulling the trigger. He is brutish and unrelenting.

The title Don’t Breathe serves as a warning to the characters in the film, but it’s also a warning to you, the viewer, who becomes an accomplice by indirectly participating in this crime of a disabled vet. There are several severely tense scenes with no music and no sound during which the characters strive to remain silent… to not even breathe. And you, too, don’t want to breathe. – Douglas J. Ogurek *****

Friday, 23 September 2016

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

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

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

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

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

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

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

Monday, 19 September 2016

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

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

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

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

Friday, 16 September 2016

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

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

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

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

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

Monday, 12 September 2016

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

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

Friday, 9 September 2016

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

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

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

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

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

Here are the delightful contributors to this issue:

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

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

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

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

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

Howard Phillips contributes the must-read editorial.

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 5 September 2016

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

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