Monday, 21 August 2017

Pirate Utopia by Bruce Sterling (Tachyon Publications) | review by Stephen Theaker

This novella tells an alternate history story based on the anarcho-syndicalist republic that was declared in the formerly Italian city of Fiume, a city where “there were more great world causes to fight about than there were men to represent them”, that was to become part of Yugoslavia after the first world war. In our reality the republic fell after fifteen months, but in this story a clever and capable engineer, Lorenzo Secondari, having been revived from death by a medical experimenter’s “psychically advanced séance”, arrives in the city in time to get its weapons factories up and running again. They had been taken over by female workers, including the formidable Frau Fifer, who becomes a companion of Secondari. As a result of his successes, Secondari rises to become “Minister of Vengeance Weapons”, the original title of Pirate Engineer being rejected as not quite right. Eventually Harry Houdini shows up, a secret ambassador from the United States, accompanied by Robert Howard and a surprisingly chipper H.P. Lovecraft. I really liked one bit of dialogue from Secondari, when he says, “I don’t have to believe any more, because it’s the truth!” I’ve often thought that when someone says they believe in a thing, that can be a sign that they don’t think it’s actually true (or at least isn’t true yet), whether they realise that or not. I enjoyed the book while finding it a bit hard to get to grips with, much like Michael Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius and Oswald Bastable books. The book also contains an introduction by Warren Ellis, an interview with Bruce Sterling, a useful afterword by Christopher Brown, and a note by the cover artist, all of which, while interesting and often educational, does make you wish the story itself was a bit longer. ****

Annabelle: Creation | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Well-choreographed scares without the long wait.

Watching Annabelle: Creation, the latest installment in The Conjuring (2013) universe, is kind of like going to an amusement park with thrill rides. While you’re waiting in line, not much is happening. These are typically the scenes in which characters are talking. But then, there are the times when you experience the exhilaration of the ride. In this film, directed by David F. Sandberg, it’s when you’re looking into a dark space, focusing on an inanimate figure, or hiding with a character as something approaches. At both the park and the theater, the overall experience depends on how long the lines are. Fortunately, unlike its immediate predecessor Annabelle (2014) and more like The Conjuring, the pre-prequel Annabelle: Creation doesn’t make one wait long to get on the rides . . . and there are quite a few.

The film takes place in the mid-1950s. Twelve years after their daughter Bee dies, doll maker Samuel Mullins (Anthony LaPaglia) and his bedridden wife Esther (Miranda Otto) allow a group of orphaned girls and Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman) to take up residence in their rural home. The girls find Bee’s creepy-looking doll Annabelle, which was crafted by Samuel. The majority of Annabelle: Creation consists of the girls, especially the physically disabled Janice and her friend Linda, wandering the home and getting freaked out.

Most of the film’s attempts at character-driven drama and relationship exploration end up rather dull and clichéd. For instance, Sister Charlotte takes Janice’s confession, or Janice and Linda engage in overly mature dialogue about how they’re looking out for each other. One exception is LaPaglia’s Samuel Mullins, the tight-lipped bereaved father. In one scene, his attempt to bond with Janice shows how insensitive and volatile he is. In another, he stops outside the girls’ bedroom and, hammer in hand, stares at them for a bit too long.

But all this is no more than a means to pass from one scare scene to the next. That the entire story takes place at one homestead testifies to the filmmakers’ skills—they know how to tweak lighting, prop placement, and sound (or absence of it) to keep the viewer on edge. Though this film does not instill the lasting terror of some of the last couple decades’ scariest pictures, its abundance of jump scares may evoke more screams.

In one strong scene, Linda shoots a ball connected to a string into a dark room, then reels back the ball. Later, the camera focuses on a scarecrow with a burlap sack head while the lights slowly turn off and on. And there are plenty of lingering shots of Annabelle. She is wide-eyed, pigtailed, and rosy-cheeked. She is also wicked disturbing. – Douglas J. Ogurek ****

Read Douglas’s review of The Conjuring or The Boy (2016), another recommended film in the creepy doll subgenre.

Monday, 14 August 2017

Metronome by Oliver Langmead (Unsung Stories) | review by Stephen Theaker

William Manderlay, an elderly man living in a care home, meets a Sleepwalker, March, a hunter of nightmares, in one of his dreams. March lends William his special dream compass, and tells him to go to the Capital of dreams, to chill out while March gets on with clearing out the bad dreams that are infesting his noggin. As well as helping him find his way, the compass can show whether people he meets in this world are other dreamers or just figments. Unfortunately, he runs into June, another Sleepwalker who wants to get to Solomon’s Eye, whatever that is, and for that purpose she needs a copy of the songs that William never got around to recording for his big hit album. They will provide her with directions. Eventually William gets involved in a rival quest, on board the Metronome, a clockwork-powered flying craft whose captain is willing to take him in pursuit of those stolen songs, because they happen to be the map to the centre of the storm where she lost the rest of her crew. This a nicely written piece of work, with plenty of ideas and a beautiful cover, but it didn’t really excite me. It feels unfair to say that I feel like I’ve read plenty of airship stories now, when I wouldn’t say the same thing about car stories or spaceship stories, but some of the beats did feel quite familiar from books like Empress of the Sun and Clementine. The portrayal of William in his old age is very touching, as his reaction to finding himself increasingly youthful again in the course of the dream quest. It was pleasant enough, and I’m sure there are people out there who will be more in tune with it than I was. ***

Monday, 7 August 2017

Letters to Arkham: The Letters of Ramsey Campbell and August Derleth, 1961–1971, edited by S.T. Joshi (PS Publishing) | review by Stephen Theaker

This book collects the correspondence (or so much of it as remains) from the 1960s between the prolific writer and editor August Derleth and the young Ramsey Campbell. The latter would go on to be a titan of the horror world, and the former already was, his publishing of H.P. Lovecraft’s work in hardback having done a great deal to cement that writer’s reputation. The letters are often fascinating. Campbell, fifteen at first, is importunate, full of questions – reminding us that this was a time when you couldn’t simply look things up on the internet – a virgin, somewhat testy and defensive. August Derleth, much older, is sexually omnivorous, patronising, encouraging, and exceedingly free with his opinions. One thing I had noted reading Derleth’s pastoral Sac Prairie Journal immediately before this is that August Derleth’s romantic life is completely absent from its pages, and these letters make it obvious why: he was having it off with whoever he could! Given that the letters are remarkably revealing, it’s a credit to Ramsey Campbell and to the literary estate of August Derleth that their publication was allowed. That the book would be edited by Lovecraft scholar S.T. Joshi must have helped in that regard, and he provides very useful footnotes to the letters, supplying information about everything from incorrect film titles (there is a great deal of film chat) to whether planned titles from both writers were ever published, and if so in what form and under what titles. One of their favourite topics of conversation is films, and reading the book now, when so much of cinema’s rich history is available for a few pounds and a couple of clicks, it’s almost shaming to see the lengths to which the two of them go to watch really good films, travelling for hours to get to a particular cinema on the one night that film would be shown. Since reading the book I’ve certainly been making more of an effort to watch better quality films. It’s essential reading for fans of either writer, and very interesting reading for everyone else. ****

Friday, 4 August 2017

X-Men: Legacy by Simon Spurrier, Tan Eng Huat and chums (Marvel) | review by Stephen Theaker

This twenty-four issue series, which ran from 2012 to 2014 and is available in its entirety to subscribers on Marvel Unlimited, as well as in four collections, tells the story of David Haller, the son of Professor Charles Xavier and an Israeli diplomat. He is known to the world at large as Legion, and though he isn’t keen on that name (he’d be really annoyed that it’s the title of the new television show based on the comic), it accurately reflects his powers: like Crazy Jane of the Doom Patrol, he has many split personalities, each of them with its own powers.

When he’s in control, he can use those powers. When they’re in control, the results can be disastrous. This series begins at the point in Avengers vs X-Men when something terrible happens to Professor Xavier at the hands of one of his friends, and that totally shatters David’s control, as well as giving rise to a malignant and powerful new personality that resembles his father. Over the course of the comic David will try to re-establish control of his own mind, take a pre-emptive approach to mutant hate crimes, start astral dating Blindfold of the X-Men, and try to prevent an apocalyptic prophecy of his future from coming true.

It’s interesting to see Marvel trying something like this. It is a bit like the original Vertigo comics – Shade the Changing Man, say – both in tone, and style, and in that a lot of the stories stem from David’s own problems in keeping his powers in check; if he’s not the big bad in each story, there’s always the danger that he might be. The television programme will probably need to be less all about him, but it worked well for the comic. ***



This review originally appeared in Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #59, which also included stories by Rafe McGregor, Michael Wyndham Thomas, Jessy Randall, Charles Wilkinson, David Penn, Elaine Graham-Leigh and Chris Roper.