Friday, 21 May 2010

Twisthorn Bellow by Rhys Hughes

As its subtitle explains, Twisthorn Bellow concerns itself with "the unusual escapades of a self-exploding golem with a twisted horn and attitude somewhere on the astral plane and also on foot right here". Hopefully that's clear! He's a powerful golem created to protect England and annihilate evil. The book's dedicated in part to the memory of Philip José Farmer, and though there aren't many stylistic echoes here of his work, it's easy to see why Farmer would attract Hughes' admiration. Both writers delight in high concepts, intertextuality, puns, and following nutty ideas right through to the end.

In this book the idea is a Doom Patrol or B.P.R.D. devoted to the promotion of British interests, assembled by Shylock Cherlomsky, a madman with an obsessive hatred of the French. It's at its best when the monster squad gets out and about – early episodes take place largely within the base, giving the book a more claustrophobic feel than is usual for Rhys Hughes' work. The action scenes, though sketched with a raised eyebrow, are vivid and dynamic, Twisthorn's kpinga and its "madly sprouting blades" being put to devastating use on all manner of ne'er-do-wells, including "ghouls, banshees, centaurs, abominable snowmen, warlocks, mandrakes, perytons, lamias, musicians, elves, harpies, robots, moths and sundry French things".

It's not quite as commercial as I expected – it's not at all a book where Hughes has reined himself in or tried to conform to the expectations of a wider readership – and I'm not entirely sure why that disappointed me, since I enjoyed the book all the same. This is good monster fun, with some surprising cameos, including Philip José Farmer himself and a big red fellow who has no time for Twisthorn's nonsense. I read this at about the same time as Maurice Renard's Doctor Lerne, Subgod – the first book I've read that was narrated by a table! – and how funny then to find this book narrated by... well, I won't spoil it. Though I have stood on it.

Twisthorn Bellow, Rhys Hughes. Published by Atomic Fez.

Monday, 17 May 2010

Theaker's 33 – paperback now available

After abominable delay on my part, Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #33 is now available as a paperback from Lulu. It's currently priced at £2.99, which is very reasonable, but unfortunately Lulu usually has quite high postage rates…

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Doctor Who and the Ice Warriors – reviewed

The Doctor, Jamie and Victoria land on a frozen Earth, where humanity makes a last-ditch attempt to hold back the glaciers with a computer-controlled ioniser. After a huge reptilian life form is found in the ice, the Doctor, like Gil Gerard’s Buck Rogers, must convince the humans of the future to ditch the computers for once and trust their guts.

This is a reading by Frazer Hines of Brian Hayles’ Target adaptation of his own script. The narration is slightly stilted at first; sounding at times as if different takes have been stitched together, it improves vastly once the Doctor and companions enter the scene. Hines does an uncanny Troughton, some excellent Ice Warriors, and his Jamie is undimmed by age.

The story itself is not the best the series ever produced. Though the concepts are thrilling – a new Ice Age, frozen Martians, spaceships in glaciers! – the plot involves too much back and forth between locations. Even though (as David Howe points out in the sleeve notes), the novelisation condensed the final three episodes, the story feels somewhat dragged out.

That’s not to say it isn’t enjoyable. Penley is the key to this story, the man disgusted by the way things are going who gave up on the system and turned his back on it all to live in the wild (but is persuaded to return by the Doctor). It’s the type of problem that never loses its relevance: how long do you keep trying to save a sinking ship?

In a way, you can see the Doctor here as a mediator – between Penley and the scientists he is successful, ironing out their differences and bringing Penley back to work. His attempts to reconcile humans and Ice Warriors are less successful, with predictably deadly results for the latter!

Doctor Who and the Ice Warriors. Brian Hayles, read by Frazer Hines. BBC Audio, 4xCD, approx. 4 hrs.

Friday, 14 May 2010

Doctor Who: A Cold Day in Hell – reviewed

I wasn’t reading Doctor Who Magazine when it published these stories, so these were mostly new to me. John Ridgway left the strip after the title story, ending a long period of artistic stability. For the rest of the book the art is all over the place stylistically. As Richard Starkings (now famous for his Comicraft lettering), then editor of the strip, explains in an introduction, that was partly down to a need to cut costs and streamline production, but also an artistic decision – he liked the idea of having different writers and artists for each story, just as each story of the TV had its own writer, director and flavour.

The results aren’t quite as bad as I’d expected, though the rotating artists mean none of them get time to develop a good likeness of Sylvester McCoy, leading to some truly grotesque panels here and there. It also leads to inconsistency in characterisation; it was quite a surprise to see the seventh Doctor dropping explosives on “primitives” to create a diversion in Simon Furman’s “Keepsake”.

One other problem is that Frobisher leaves at the same time as John Ridgway, leaving the Doctor companionless – and thus prone to endless, bizarre monologuing. Maybe that’s why he really needs companions: not just to stop him going off the deep end (as posited by the David Tennant episodes), but also because he likes to think out loud and doesn’t want to look like a nutcase when he does it!

Still, I really enjoyed this, as shown by the fact that it was a Christmas present and I’d read and reviewed it by the end of Boxing Day.

There are very few TV or film characters that have made such brilliant comics characters as Doctor Who, though to be fair very few have benefited from such consistently interesting creators, whether it’s Dave Gibbons in Doctor Who Weekly #1, or Paul Grist in #414. As well as Ridgway and Furman, this book features names like Grant Morrison, Bryan Hitch, Lee Sullivan, John Higgins and Dan Abnett. Even at low ebb, this is a strip well worth reading.

Doctor Who: A Cold Day in Hell, Simon Furman et al, Panini, pb, 184pp.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

The Paperback Fanatic #14

The fourteenth issue of The Paperback Fanatic has just gone out to subscribers. There's an interview with Graham Masterton, and articles on the Agent 0008 series, Ace's Edgar Rice Burroughs reprints, Fu Manchu, and Four Square SF in the sixties, all illustrated with dozens of book covers, many in colour, many of them rather saucy!

They're printing strictly to order, meaning that this issue's already sold out, so to get the next one subscribe now.

At £11.50 a three-issue subscription is excellent value.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

The Elder Scrolls: The Infernal City – reviewed

The Infernal City is a tie-in to the Elder Scrolls series of roleplaying games, of which I’ve played numbers three and four, Morrowind and Oblivion, very extensively. This takes place several decades after the latter, and the events of that game have already passed into legend.

The story concerns a flying island that approaches the coast, whipping the souls from the bodies of all it encounters, creating for itself an army of zombies that seems likely to overwhelm the entire continent. In one story thread two characters use potions to fly up to the island, but become trapped there, while in another the emperor’s cosseted son rushes to their rescue, discovering en route a number of disquieting truths.

It’s hard to judge how good this book was, when I was so delighted throughout to be back in the world of the Elder Scrolls! It’s faithful to the games, but moves the story forward in quite surprisingly destructive ways. From time to time there’s perhaps a touch of the programmed itinery as we move from one key game location to another – but that didn’t bother me at all, since those were precisely the places I hoped we would visit.

The pace is terrific, the story intriguing (especially the gradual revelations about the monstrous ecology of the floating island), and it all seems to tie in well to the games (though I was never very assiduous about reading the tomes I collected, so for all I know it plays fast and loose with the history). I was disappointed that the story’s incomplete in this volume, but I enjoyed it enough to look out for the next one.

The Elder Scrolls: The Infernal City. Greg Keyes. Del Rey, pb, 304pp.

Used Gravitrons Quarterly

The folks at Used Gravitrons Quarterly have claimed to be influenced a little by our approach here at TQF. What more reason do you need to go and check them out?

Futile Flame, by Sam Stone - reviewed by Stephen Theaker

Gabriele Caccini, "Italian by birth and vampire by nature", is on the road with great-many times over-granddaughter and lover Lilly. Pursued by a mysterious being with the ability to sap their strength from a distance, they search out another of their kind, Lucrezia Borgia, whose death in 1519 is revealed to have been the moment her brother, Caesare Borgia, turned her into a vampire. Most of the book is then given over to an account of Lucrezia's seduction and rape by Caesare, and the consequences of his actions. For the most part this is quite literally a bodice-ripper, with more rape than a Richard Laymon novel, though the last quarter takes a detour into wholly unexpected territory.

Stone’s vampires are very tough. They are described as eternal, and, while not invulnerable, regenerate quickly enough to survive immolation. They are pained by sunlight, but not destroyed, and have chameleon powers. Visible in mirrors, they use their lungs to breathe air and blood flows through their bodies. Their bites tend to produce instant orgasms in their victims, and though they feel slightly bad about eating people they don't let it stop them. Three quarters of the way into the book it’s revealed that Gabriele and Lilly can fly, though I’m guessing this wouldn’t have surprised me had I read Killing Kiss, the previous novel in the series. Their advantages over other literary vampires are balanced by their reproductive difficulties, with, it seems, only those possessing a certain gene being able to survive the transformation.

That, and the notion of Lucrezia using her fangs to rape others as she has been raped, are the only slivers of originality in the book, though admittedly that wouldn't matter so much if this was the kind of thing I really loved to read. There's nothing here that you won't have seen a hundred times before. Even the final part of Lucrezia's story, though surprising in this context, offers little that's new when considered in isolation. Unfortunately the clichés extend from the plot to the prose: skin is generally olive (apart from one man who is "arrogant and shifty and of mixed race, though I can’t tell what mix"), tears are salty fluid, waves crash gently, bodies ache with desire, breasts are full and pert, and the frequent sex is all "soft folds", "pulsing warmth", "female moisture" and gushing orgasms.

Written in the first person present tense (aside from the flashbacks, which are in first person past tense), the book takes itself very seriously, and like its central figure is completely humourless. There's also a tendency to overdescribe everything. For example one typical passage reads:
"Here there is another television at the bottom of the bed on a rich mahogany unit with a DVD player and stereo: all the media conveniences any visitor could want. The bed is plush, covered in rich brown and cream cloth, with cushions resting on the brown velvet-covered headboard. Either side of the bed are two mahogany side tables. To my left is another mahogany unit, bigger than the one holding the television. I open it to find a fridge and safe. As I close it I spot two more doors, one leading to a full sized bathroom, again in black and white, which contains a bath as well as separate double shower cubicle."
The layout of these rooms never becomes an issue in the story. Later we learn that Gabriele "has OCD", which is the "curse of the vampire brain", something that's been suggested in other vampire stories. Though this curse isn't apparent from his actions, perhaps the over-description is a deliberate reflection of his character, as in Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho. If so, it never goes on quite long enough to become funny, but does go on long enough to make the book a bit of a plod at times. On the other hand, some things could perhaps have been described better; I reached p. 43 before realising with a shock that Gabriele was male, which had the unfortunate consequence of making an interesting relationship (between two female vampires, one brooding, one giggly) much more conventional (brooding bloke, giggly girl).

For a small press book the number of errors isn’t unusual, but there are more than you'd expect in a book that credits three editors: may for might, laid for lay, complimentary for complementary, incongrous, obsurd, too lapse in my duties, chaise lounges, bi-product and so on. But they wouldn’t have affected my enjoyment of the book, had I been enjoying it. If you were disappointed by Anne Rice's decision to “write only for the Lord", this may fill the gap. If Anne Rice bored you to tears, best stay clear.

Futile Flame, by Sam Stone. Murky Depths, pb, 220pp. Amazon US. Amazon UK.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Crack'd Pot Trail by Steven Erikson

Bauchelain and Korbal Broach, the Nehemoth, “quarry of ten thousand stone-eyed hunters”, travel the Crack’d Pot Trail across the Great Dry to the city of Farrog, but we travel instead with a motley group in hot pursuit: hunters of the Nehemoth, pilgrims to the Shrine of the Indifferent God, and poets heading for the Festival of Flowers and Sunny Days, in hope of being crowned The Century’s Greatest Artist (an annual event). On the twenty-third day of a twenty-two day journey the more muscular members of the party decide to start eating the artists in the party, forcing them into a competitive Scheherazade.

The book begins bravely, testing the reader’s patience with twenty-two pages of italics, introducing a huge cast of characters in deliberately overblown language, and it never stops being brave. If Erikson’s huge commercial novels are as peculiar as this I look forward to reading them. Crack’d Pot Trail is clever, playful, subtle, tense and gruesomely funny, and a defiant rumination on the relationship between reader and writer. “What if my audience is composed of nothing but idiots?” asks the narrator. “Raving lunatics! What if their tastes are so bad not even a starving vulture would pluck loose a single rolling eyeball?” Erikson puts his poets and storytellers in a situation where their lives depend upon their ability to sway such an audience.

When the reader is asked, “Am I slave to your expectations, sir? Does not a teller of tales serve oneself first and last?” it’s hard not to be reminded of songs like the Stereophonics’ Mr Writer or Nirvana’s In Bloom, where bands rounded on the critics (“snarky homunculi”, per this book) and fans who didn’t understand them, and at times you may wonder if Erikson is taking his Amazon reviews a little too seriously. Yet he offers good advice: “To be a living artist is to be driven again and again to explain oneself, to justify every creative decision, yet to bite down hard on the bit is the only honourable recourse, to my mind at least. Explain nothing, justify even less.” Thematically and philosophically rich, exquisitely written, and extraordinarily tense: this was my favourite sword and sorcery book in years.

Crack’d Pot Trail, Steven Erikson, PS Publishing, hb, 182pp.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Showcase Presents: Superman, Vol. 4 – reviewed

I’m never going to read a Superman book that I don’t enjoy at least a bit, but with this volume the series is beginning to struggle. Despite the presence of such classics as “The Amazing Story of Superman-Red and Superman-Blue”, this also contains such appalling duffers as “Superman Meets the Goliath-Hercules”. Almost every other story here either features red kryptonite or is an imaginary story, or relies on Superman needing to keep his identity secret for all its drama. Nothing can challenge the man who can do everything.

Oddly enough, the final panel is both the saddest and the one that points the way forward for the character. “If I can’t trust the President of the United States of America,” says Superman to JFK in 1964 after entrusting him with his secret identity, “who can I trust?” Within a decade everyone would be asking the same question for different reasons. In the short term, that would leave Superman looking like a relic from a different age, but eventually writers would realise that no matter how big his muscles, ethical and moral dilemmas hit a Superman as hard as any of us.

On a lighter note, Superman shows off a couple of interesting powers in this volume: super-smoking, in “The Goofy Superman”, and super-kissing, in “The Great Superman Impersonation”. “Lois would pass out if she knew it was Superman, my other identity, who kissed her!” thinks Clark to himself after giving Lois a smacker. You have to wonder how pleasant it would be to kiss him. For example we learn in the Goliath-Hercules story that he cannot tan, because the sun cannot damage his skin that way; presumably his lips would be pretty much rock hard. He would be forced to mimic softness by reacting to the movements of your lips at super-speed, but such a calculated procedure could only ever create the illusion of passion!

Showcase Presents: Superman, Vol. 4, by Edmond Hamilton, Curt Swan et al. DC, tpb, 528pp.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Hell's Belles, by Paul Magrs – reviewed

Brenda is on her honeymoon – she is now the Bride of Frankenstein (or at least his monster) in fact as well as name – and in her absence dark things begin to stir around the Whitby hellmouth. A cursed film, one whose every copy has supposedly been destroyed, is to be remade with its original star, the devastatingly attractive scream queen, Karla Sorenson. In Brenda's absence best friend Effryggia tries to hold the fort, but Robert is being kept up all night by a mysterious gentleman and new girl Penny is thrown into a temporary coma after finding a DVD of the original film in a charity shop.

After the brainspasms brought on by Magrs' brilliant Doctor Who novels like The Scarlet Empress, The Blue Angel and Mad Dogs and Englishmen, this was disappointingly lightweight and conventional, but not a bad book for all that. The short chapters made for an easy, unchallenging read, and it's clearly written as a commercial piece; from the cover one aimed squarely at the chick lit market. Its many revelations and reunions would have more impact on readers of the first three books; new to the series, I was left largely unmoved. It left me wanting to watch the Universal horror movies again, but ambivalent about reading another in this series.

Headline, tpb, 440pp.

Monday, 3 May 2010

Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #33

I don't think it's at all a stretch to say that this is one of the strangest issues of Theaker's Quarterly Fiction we've ever published!

Our lead story is "NON", by Douglas Ogurek, a dizzying blur of new words, new fashions and new ideas, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory as written by Anthony Burgess. I guarantee that by the end of it you'll be thinking of certain people as dreadfully uncleused.

Then we have Steve Redwood's "Nose Trek", the story of a nose that implodes upon itself, and the brave souls who go inside to investigate. What happens once the mass of mucus in a nostril has passed the Chandrasekhar limit?

"Houseguest" by D. Harlan Wilson is as odd – and exciting – as anyone who's read his other work would expect, while "El Aullido del Diablo" by Dean M. Drinkel is so entertainingly barmy that I have to confess I'm not entirely sure what it's about, but I know I enjoyed it!

By these standards, "Bird Talk" by Mark Lord is almost incongruously normal, despite its mix of witches, clerics and boozy tramps.

The issue is rounded out by a relatively normal selection of reviews (as long as you think there's nothing unusual about lengthy discussions of whether Superman can move his lips quickly and skilfully enough to mimic the softness of a human kiss, that is).

The cover is by the wonderful Howard Watts.

Download the pdf of this issue here. Ebook versions are available for free from Feedbooks. The paperback is available from Lulu.

Sunday, 2 May 2010

Douglas Thompson's up for some awards...

Some of my very favourite stories of the last year in TQF and Dark Horizons were by Douglas Thompson, who I think is a very exciting writer. And others seem to agree!

His story, Anatomy of a Wounded House, from Theaker's #28, has been selected as one of the Notable Stories of 2009 in the StorySouth Million Writers Awards. The StorySouth award celebrates online fiction, and is administered by Jason Sanford. The list of notable stories every year is a fantastic guide to the breadth of online fiction currently being published.

And secondly, his collection Ultrameta (from Eibonvale Press), featuring (among others) stories that originally appeared in Theaker's Quarterly and Dark Horizons, is up for the Edge Hill Short Story Prize, won last year by Chris Beckett's The Turing Test.

The biographical information on the Edge Hill website seems to be for a different Douglas Thompson, but as long as they're reading the right book everything should be okay!

Saturday, 1 May 2010

Five Forgotten Stories, by John Hall

Astute readers will recall that in the winter of 1934–1935, Robert Harrison Blake – whose last days are recorded in H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Haunter of the Dark” – wrote five weird tales. There has been some controversy over these stories, notably the question as to whether they were published under different titles or lost when Blake met his untimely demise. Some ten years ago, now, I acquired an old exercise book which belonged to a certain “Robert Blake” of Providence. The document has been reliably dated to the 1930s and appears to have taken sixty-odd years to make the journey from his hands in Rhode Island, New England to mine in Yorkshire, old England. Although it is impossible to verify the identity of the author beyond a reasonable doubt, the book contains outlines for five tales with the titles mentioned by Lovecraft.

These present tales are offered as my own attempts to reconstruct them.

The second book in Theaker's Paperback Library, Five Forgotten Stories, by the mysterious John Hall, is now inching its way out into the world. It's available from Lulu (here: Five Forgotten Stories), Amazon and many other fine bookshops.

The five stories in this collection – The Stairs in the Crypt, Shaggai, The Burrower Beneath, The Feaster from the Stars and In the Vale of Pnath – previously appeared in Theaker's Quarterly Fiction.

John Hall is best known as a Sherlockian scholar, and a member of the International Pipe Smokers’ Hall of Fame. His numerous literary interests include Raffles, Sexton Blake, H.P. Lovecraft and M.R. James. He is the author of Special Commission, a medieval murder mystery.

The cover art is by John Shanks, who draws on demand at Homegrown Goodness.

"Required reading for the Lovecraftian fanatic." – The eNovella Review

Moving over to Blogger

If you're wondering where the usual Silver Age Books website has gone, for now it's still there – see We don't have any plans to take it down, but as time goes by we will where practical move the content over here. Or most of it, at least. Fond as I am of the Invasion of the Eggmen, it's not really the direction we're moving in nowadays!

Originally I built the Silver Age Books site in Microsoft Word, if you can believe it, creating each page individually. Then I moved on to FrontPage, and there it's been stuck. For a while I've wanted to update things, to make it more attractive and make updating it less tedious, and behind the scenes I've built prototype websites using Joomla and Google Sites, but for various reasons I wasn't satisfied with the results.

One big factor in the change was that over the last couple of years the book reviews have come to be an important  part of the magazine, and presenting them in an attractive way on the old website was a nightmare.

Using Blogger will have its downsides, but it will be much easier for me to update, leaving me more time to spend on the actual publications we produce. Let's see how it goes!

Stag Night (DVD)

Stag Night, out this week from Kaleidoscope Home Entertainment, is a film steeped in horror history. It would have you think it's where Death Line meets The Hills Have Eyes, and begins with a scene reminiscent of An American Werewolf in London's Underground encounter. Picture that classic scene in your head: the panicked commuter, running for his life… Now imagine it overlaid with the sound of the cookie monster snuffling for biscuits!

Stag Night is relentlessly average, except for when, as above, it's just rubbish. Loose editing leaves the characters – four obnoxious dudes and the girls they harassed on a train – standing still for an eternity when faced with danger, as if they can't decide whether to run away or wait where they are to be murdered. The plot is reliant on their stupidity, not least when they find themselves in a room full of weapons and leave without taking any of them.

At one point the survivors encounter a community of homeless people; surely the point at which the film would have something worthwhile to say. The roles now reversed, would the homeless people show greater humanity than our heroes would when passing them on the street, or would they say "Sorry, not now" and walk off ignoring them? The answer was neither; the film really did have nothing at all to say.

It's a mystery why a good, funny actor like Breckin Meyer is in it - unless it was to deliberately confound the people who said his career couldn't sink lower than the Garfield films. Maybe he wanted to break his typecasting as a nice guy. If it was a favour to a friend, from the evidence on screen it was one reluctantly granted.

As a film school project, it would have been alright, but no one goes all the way to Bulgaria to make a film school project. My previous reviews show that I can usually find something good to say about anything, but I'm afraid I've nothing good to say about Stag Night. It disappoints at every turn. Of interest only to completists of the sub-genres to which it belongs.

US, 84 mins, directed and written by Peter A. Dowling. Starring Kip Pardue, Vinessa Shaw, Breckin Meyer, Karl Geary and Scott Adkins.

Dark Horizons #56

Dark Horizons #56 was recently sent out to members of the British Fantasy Society.

This 128pp bumper issue featured stories by Val Gryphin, Ian Hunter, Jim Steel, Niall Boyce, Philip Meckley, Rafe McGregor, Ralph Robert Moore, Patrick Whitaker and Andrew Knighton, interviews with Brian Stableford and Simon Bestwick, and poetry by Charles Christian, Jan Edwards and Peter Coleborn, Diana Lewis, Allen Ashley and Ian Hunter, and illustrations by Inna Hansen, Mark Pexton and Howard Watts, who was responsible for the cover.

The guest editorial, on gender bias in fantasy and the BFS in particular, came from Jenny Barber, while Mike Barrett provided sundry observations on Arkham House.

Professor Challenger in Space - [no longer] free on Feedbooks

By way of advertising our newer books, we've made our very first publication, Professor Challenger in Space, available for free download from Feedbooks.

Arthur Conan Doyle's great science-hero, Professor Challenger, sets off on new and terrifying adventures across the galaxy! First he gathers together the old gang – Professor Summerlee, Lord Roxton, and the journalist, Edward Malone – and then they are off on the one journey they never before undertook – into space! They meet unusual new friends, encounter vicious new enemies, and at least one of the party falls victim to violence! Another may well fall in love! And the others are sure to talk, argue, drink whisky and smoke cigars, if nothing else!

Though I'm much prouder of the things we're publishing nowadays, I have to admit I still have a soft spot for this silly book.

Update (26/9/12): after a couple of years - and over four thousand downloads! - we've taken this book down from Feedbooks. You can now find it on Kindle. Here it is on, and here it is on