Monday, 8 April 2019

Us | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

It’s unexceptional. It’s brilliant. A mixed review for Us.

Writer/director Jordan Peele follows his captivating directorial debut Get Out with Us, another horror film that has garnered critical acclaim. I wasn’t blown away by the film, but I understand why many others praised it.

The Wilson family’s Santa Cruz vacation goes awry when scissor-wielding evil doppelgängers called “tethers” show up outside their place. The family attempts to evade these shadow people, while the film occasionally flashes back to the childhood of protagonist and matron Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o).

Consider two key viewpoints from which to approach this film. The first is that of the individual, who, like me, is looking for a solid horror film. This filmgoer wants creepiness, gore, innovation (within the realm of horror), perhaps strong characters, and maybe a few jump scares. Us offers a smattering of all of these, but nothing that stands out in the horror canon. Thus, this viewer finds the film average.

Then there is the individual who favors directors with a distinctive style… Quentin Tarantino, the Coen brothers, and the like. This viewer puts up with the horror element in exchange for strong thematic elements, symbolism, and filming technique. To this person, Us is a masterpiece.

The horror aficionado sees in Us a home invasion film that starts strong, but quickly devolves into silliness and an implausible reveal. This person dislikes antagonist Red’s (also Lupita Nyong’o) croaking voice and the elongated talk scenes. Moreover, a major twist leaves this viewer thinking, so what?

Conversely, the analyzer, more tolerant of, for instance, rabbits roaming around a hallway or juxtapositions between fighting and a children’s ballet, finds a labyrinth of a film rich in possibilities for interpretation.

One element of the film that triumphs is its soundtrack, highlighted by Michael Abels’ score. The opening scene introduces “Anthem”, a sinister child chorus in staccato, while the camera focuses on a rabbit, then gradually zooms out. In the film’s most violent scene, the music switches from The Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” to N.W.A.’s “F**k the Police”. Also enjoyable are the close-ups of characters acting odd, which is becoming a Peele signature. For example, one shadow character’s silent expression of terror slowly morphs into laughter.

Regardless of its genre, a great film offers something below the surface, which Us certainly does. However, put aside the critical acclaim that Us has achieved and the multitude of YouTube personalities explaining how this means that. Remember that a great film also has something on the surface… something to spellbind the viewer. Us does not have that something. Thus, Us is impressive, and there’s something missing in Us.—Douglas Ogurek ***/*****

Sunday, 7 April 2019

The British Fantasy Society's monthly pdf chapbook series

Did you know that British Fantasy Society members have been getting an exclusive pdf chapbook every month for the last three years? And that they are edited by none other than Allen Ashley, one of our contributors? Did you know that anyone who joins the society can download all 36 of them from an archive? It's all true, and it only costs £20 for a digital membership!

I've been working (very slowly) on a article for TQF (or maybe a booklet) to celebrate the society's 50th anniversary in 2021, and as part of that I made the following list of Allen's short story series:
  • #1: Journal of the Eldritch Plains by Allen Stroud. 20pp.
  • #2: The Drinker of Tears by Sandra Unerman. 14pp.
  • #3: Poison Tree by Gary Couzens. 16pp.
  • #4: Feast of Fools by Nicky Peacock. 17pp.
  • #5: The Travellers by M.D. Kerr. 17pp.
  • #6: Mind of its Own by Geoff Nelder. 13pp.
  • #7: The Rat Catcher's Dance by Andrew Knighton. 13pp.
  • #8: Summer of Ants by Pauline E. Dungate. 15pp.
  • #9: You Have Reached Your Destination by Peter Sutton. 15pp.
  • #10: Ella by Jemma Picken. 18pp.
  • #11: Ash Flower by James Brogden. 12pp.
  • #12: Empire Is No More by Nigel Robert Wilson. 20pp.
  • #13: Putting on a Brave Face by Rowena Harding-Smith. 10pp.
  • #14: Mycul Zas by Clint Wastling. 26pp.
  • #15: The Contract by Lisa Farrell. 19pp.
  • #16: Milk by Rowan Bowman. 14pp.
  • #17: Only the Broken Remain by Ian Steadman. 12pp.
  • #18: Our Ghost by Sandra Unerman. 15pp.
  • #19: Elise Ridley, There Are Castles in the Sky But Not for You, M.M. Lewis. 16pp.
  • #20: The Final Act by Edmund Glasby. 17pp.
  • #21: The Boom Show by Anne Wrightwell. 13pp.
  • #22: Coquetry, She Disdained by Stephen Theaker. 16pp.
  • #23: Daddy by Rowena Harding-Smith. 8pp.
  • #24: Five Black Bolts by Michael Button. 13pp.
  • #25: The Gaze of the Abyss by Edmund Glasby. 13pp.
  • #26: Bicycle by Marilyn Thompson. 12pp.
  • #27: The Silence by Lisa Farrell. 11pp.
  • #28: Emeralds of Eros by Clint Wastling. 25pp.
  • #29: Lenore! by Cheryl J. Sonnier. 15pp.
  • #30: The Curse of Narcissus by Suzy A. Kelly. 16pp.
  • #31: The Manual by Robin Lupton. 15pp.
  • #32: Soul Cages by Lucy Stone. 17pp.
  • #33: Next in Line, by A.N. Myers. 9pp.
  • #34: Afore the Master by Suzy A. Kelly. 7pp.
  • #35: Ice Heart by Marilyn Thompson.
  • #36: Monster for Hire by Jason Gould. 20pp.
Worth £20 on their own, quite apart from the other benefits of BFS membership, and I hear that #22 is particularly good!

Saturday, 6 April 2019

Armada by Ernest Cline | review by Stephen Theaker

Zack Lightman’s dad died in an explosion at a sewage treatment plant, and it made the papers so everyone knows. That was back in 1999. A bully called Douglas Knotcher once took the mickey about it, and got battered to a pulp after Zack went into a blind rage. He’s been trying to live it down, but it hurts to miss his dad so much while finding his death so humiliating. His mum kept all his dad’s stuff in boxes up in the attic. Zack watched his videos, played his games, and wore his jacket covered in high score patches.

A notebook he found there, back when he was ten, made him think his dad had lost it, and chapter two takes us through it. A four-page chronology begins with Space War in 1962 and Star Trek in 1966, then works its way through Star Wars, Close Encounters, Ender’s Game, Battlezone, Elite, The X-Files, Contact and Galaxy Quest, to pick out a few. His dad thought they were all connected, part of a conspiracy controlled by the U.S. military, preparing humanity for an alien invasion.

Now it’s 2018. After Zack sees a Sobrukai Glaive Fighter streaking around outside his high school in Beaverton, Oregon, he thinks he might be cracking up too. It looks pretty cool, like the blade of a two-headed battle axe with a black prism sitting between its serrated wings, but it’s from Armada, his favourite video game, created by Chaos Terrain, who, in a suspiciously Watchmenesque move, hired the best of the best to work on it, people like Gabe Newell, Shigeru Miyamoto, James Cameron, Peter Jackson, John Williams and Morgan Freeman.

The gamer plays a pilot, one of many defending Earth against an invading fleet of alien ships, controlled by anthropomorphic extraterrestrial squids from Tau Ceti. Players often complain about the unbalanced gameplay and the unbeatable missions (uh-oh!), like the one where the Disrupter, with its shields that drop for just three seconds, locks on to Earth and disables all the drones, but that hasn’t harmed its popularity, and Zack, especially, and fortunately, isn’t one to give up when the odds are against him.

There’s a terrestrial spin-off where you pilot a mech, Terra Firma, and Zack plays it sometimes, but just so his pals will join him for the big Armada missions. That’s his passion: it took three years of daily practice to crack the top one hundred, a few months more to make the top ten, and now he’s the sixth best player in the world. His handle is IronBeagle. (Later on, when an attractive young woman gets that it’s a reference to Snoopy vs the Red Baron and Iron Eagle, he’ll know she’s the one.)

The alien ship he saw? Not a hallucination. An alien armada is on the way for real, and Earth really does needs Zack to defend it. Just as he’s about to wallop Douglas Knotcher with a tyre iron after another altercation, an Earth Defence Alliance shuttle arrives to scoop him up. There are more secrets in Zack’s life than he could ever have guessed, and that life will be shorter than he could ever have ever imagined if his gaming skills aren’t sufficient to meet the alien challenge.

This isn’t a book (Century hb, 355pp, £12.99) that provoked strong feelings in me. It was entertaining enough in a three-star Hollywood sort of way: the author’s previous book, Ready Player One, will soon be a Spielberg film, and this one has half a dozen roles into which you could slot a movie star. It might make a good film; it’s not as if we’re overwhelmed with outer-space action, and its conclusion, though a bit cheesy on the page, might still seem novel in cinemas.

The constant referencing of pop culture (apparently a big part of Ready Player One’s popularity) feels a bit ingratiating, and even patronising: if your characters are going to talk about losing their goram shields and being out of frakkin’ power, let us feel clever for recognising them (or at least like we’ve spent our television time wisely). Don’t have another character name the two shows, just in case we didn’t get it.

Maybe this is aimed at younger readers, though they might wonder why this teenager has the cultural touchstones of a middle-aged man. Missing your dad is one thing, but he has apparently watched all the shows and played all the games it’s taken me forty years to get through. That stuff dies down once Zack is out in space and it becomes a decent action adventure, but, even then, I’m not sure tipping your hat to The Last Starfighter makes it okay to nick its plot – even if this is in truth more of a Phantom Menace.**

This review originally appeared in Interzone #260.

Wednesday, 27 March 2019

Contributor news: The Autist by Stephen Palmer

Stephen Palmer, who contributed "The Mines of Sorrow" to Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #46 (that was an excellent issue!), has a new novel out from Infinity Plus: The Autist.

"Data detective Mary Vine is visiting relatives when she uncovers a Chinese programme of AI development active within her own family.

Ulu Okere has only one goal: to help her profoundly disabled brother, whose unique feats of memory inspire her yet perturb the community they live in.

And in a transmuted Thailand, Somchai Chokdee is fleeing his Buddhist temple as an AI-inspired political revolution makes living there too dangerous.

In 2100 life is dominated by vast, unknowable AIs that run most of the world and transform every society they touch. When suspicions of a Chinese conspiracy seem substantiated, Mary, Ulu and Somchai decide they must oppose it. Yet in doing so they find themselves facing something the world has never seen before..."

Available on Amazon here for UK readers, and here for US readers.

Monday, 18 March 2019

Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #64: now out, at last!

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

Sorry for making you all wait so long for this issue, especially the contributors, who have been so patient while I've been kept busy by freelance work. Rather than keep anyone waiting longer, we're going to put out the pdf now and return later to add extra formats.

This issue contains four stories: “September Gathering” by Charles Wilkinson, “Disappearer” by Matthew Amundsen, “The Haunted Brick” by Walt Brunston, and “Chemicalia” by me, plus twelve reviews, by Rafe McGregor, Douglas J. Ogurek, Jacob Edwards and me. One hundred and thirty-eight pages of fabulous fiction and rollicking reviews!

In this issue our team reviews Artificial Condition by Martha Wells, Autumn Snow: The Wildlands Hunt by Martin Charbonneau and Gary Chalk, BFS Journal #18 edited by Allen Stroud, Hounds of the Underworld by Dan Rabarts and Lee Murray, Pegging the President by Michael Moorcock and Kaijumax, Season Two by Zander Cannon, plus the films Spectre, Venom, The Meg and The Predator, and the television shows Agents of Shield, Season 5 and Westworld, Season 2.



Here are the splendid contributors to this issue:

Charles Wilkinson’s publications include The Pain Tree and Other Stories (London Magazine Editions, 2000), while his stories have appeared in Best Short Stories 1990 (Heinemann), Best English Short Stories 2 (W.W. Norton, USA), Best British Short Stories 2015 (Salt) and in genre magazines/anthologies such as Black Static, The Dark Lane Anthology, Supernatural Tales, Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction, Phantom Drift (USA), Bourbon Penn (USA), Shadows & Tall Trees (Canada), Nightscript (USA) and Best Weird Fiction 2015 (Undertow Books, Canada). His anthology of strange tales and weird fiction, A Twist in the Eye, is now out from Egaeus Press and his second collection from the same publisher Splendid in Ash is available to order. A full-length collection of his poetry is forthcoming from Eyewear. He lives in Wales.

Douglas J. Ogurek is the pseudonym for a writer living somewhere on Earth. Though banned on Mars, his fiction appears in over forty Earth publications. Ogurek founded the controversial literary subgenre known as unsplatterpunk, which uses splatterpunk conventions (e.g. extreme violence, gore, taboo subject matter) to deliver a positive message. He guest-edited Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction #58: UNSPLATTERPUNK!, the first ever unsplatterpunk anthology, and then its follow-up, UNSPLATTERPPUNK! 2. He also reviews films for us. Recent longer works include the young adult novel Branch Turner vs the Currants (World Castle Publishing) and the horror/suspense novella Encounter at an Abandoned Church (Scarlet Leaf Publishing). More at www.douglasjogurek.weebly.com. Twitter: www.twitter.com/unsplatter.

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

Matthew Amundsen has published novellas previously in Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction #35 (“House of Nowhere”) and #50 (“A Murder in Heaven”) and short stories in such magazines as Cemetery Moon, Jersey Devil Press, Millennium SF & F and Starsong.  In addition, he has written literary and music criticism for alternative weeklies in Athens, Georgia, and brainwashed.com. When not writing, he is a sound engineer and musician in Minneapolis.

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

Stephen Theaker is the co-editor of Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction. His reviews, interviews and articles have appeared in Interzone, Black Static, Prism and the BFS Journal.

Walt Brunston’s adaptation of the classic television story, Space University Trent: Hyperparasite, is now available on Kindle.



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

Sunday, 3 March 2019

Ready… set… gross: seeking extreme horror submissions for UNSPLATTERPUNK! 3

Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction aims for three-pugnance with third instalment of controversial anthology that aims to shock, disgust, and morally enlighten.

Sixteenth century English poet Sir Philip Sidney encouraged writers to teach virtue and delight. If readers aren’t delighted (i.e. entertained), he argued, they’ll walk away.

Now that we’re in the twenty-filth century, the unsplatterpunk movement has put a new spin on Sidney’s advice by asking writers to teach and shock and/or disgust readers.

Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction launched the unsplatterpunk movement in 2017 with UNSPLATTERPUNK!. The British Fantasy Society called this inaugural collection “memorable and thought-provoking”. Last year, TQF upped the muck with UNSPLATTERPUNK! 2, which criminologist, aesthetic commentator, and novelist Dr Rafe McGregor called “a provocative, confrontational, outrageous, and innovative collection”.

Next year, TQF will flay new trails with UNSPLATTERPUNK! 3, edited by Douglas J. Ogurek. We challenge authors to submit short stories that submerge a positive message in filth, carnage, and whatever else shocks people.

We’ll take ultraviolent humour, perverted country bumpkin, and raw realism. We’ll take vile fantasy, gruesome sci-fi, and grossmance… anything so long as it defies contemporary sensibilities, repulses us, and integrates a virtuous message.

Bear in mind that this is not an easy task. “Unsplatterpunk is an exceptionally demanding genre in which to write, requiring an almost impossible balancing act between the disgusting and the morally uplifting”, writes Rafe McGregor in the foreword to UNSPLATTERPUNK! 2. “If it doesn’t convey a positive moral message, then it’s splatterpunk, not unsplatterpunk; if it isn’t disgusting enough, then it’s neither unsplatterpunk nor splatterpunk.”   

Also remember that gore is the new norm. Popular TV shows and films drip with eviscerations, decapitations, and amputations. Then there are the splatterpunk/extreme horror books that make those TV shows and films look like children’s programs. The most abhorrent stuff imaginable? We think not. Writers can take it to the next level.

Submissions are open to both established writers and hobbyists. Alas, the only payment we can offer is a pdf copy (available for download to all) and recognition – or is it notoriety? – for contributing to this genre-defining series.

Send your vile concoctions of 10,000 words or fewer (no poetry please) to TQFunsplatterpunk@gmail.com.

Tips
  • Try to gross out or appall the person who thinks he or she has seen everything.
  • Convey a positive message, whether blatant or subtle.
  • Make the story as attention-getting as a death metal concert in a spa.
  • Give us something we haven’t seen.
  • Avoid traditional revenge stories. Torturing a bad guy isn’t a positive message.
Some people say, “Nothing’s shocking.” Make them eat their words. Give us your worst.

Deadline: 31 July 2019

Word count: 500–10,000

Reprints: No

Multiple submissions: Yes

Simultaneous submissions: No – we’ll get back to those who submit for this project within a couple weeks.

File name: [story title]-[author surname].doc

Payment: Non-paying zine (free epub, mobi, and pdf copies available to everyone including contributors) plus participation in an emerging subgenre

Send submissions as a .doc or .rtf attachment, along with a 3rd person bio, to TQFunsplatterpunk@gmail.com. Please include UNSPLATTERPUNK! in the subject line.

After publication, you are free to reprint your story elsewhere, but please credit Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction for original publication.

See standard guidelines for additional information on rights and legal matters.

Saturday, 9 February 2019

Contributor news: Allen Ashley seeking submissions for The Once and Future Moon

Allen Ashley is editing a new anthology for Eibonvale Press, The Once and Future Moon, and it is open for submissions on that theme till 30 April 2019. Pay: £10 per story. Length: 1000-5000 words.

Here's what he has said about the project:

"This will be an anthology of stories set on/dealing with the abiding influence of the Moon.

You can take a literal or non-literal approach.

The 'Once' aspect will deal with how older cultures/earlier civilisations/ people in history saw the Moon, considered and reflected upon the Moon. Think Verne, Wells, Godwin. Think mythology. Think the Sumerians. Think the Ancient Greeks. Think beliefs held by vanished cultures. These stories do not have to be factually, scientifically accurate; the Moon element could be seen as poetic, figurative, imaginative, etc. These stories will likely form one-third of the book. Possibly half.

For 'Future', I am looking at both the liveable near-future (e.g. up to 50 years’ time)and slightly further ahead as well. I want stories grounded in how we will live on/adapt to/use the Moon in the near and further future. What issues might we face – some of which have yet to be even thought of by NASA?

I will also look at stories about how the Moon will affect our lives going forward. Will it be the site of the next war? Will it be the focal point of a conflict between science and religious forces (consider how the Moon is central to many religious practices)? What happens if the Moon starts to move closer to us or to move further away? What if the Moon was badly damaged or destroyed? What if the Moon acquired a companion?"

More information here: https://eibonvale.wordpress.com/2019/02/01/the-once-and-future-moon-open-for-submissions/

Sunday, 3 February 2019

Glass | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

McAvoy steals the show in trilogy finale that takes message too far.

The unconventional superhero film Glass, written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, unites in a Philadelphia mental institution three characters from his previous films: good guy David Dunn/the Overseer (Bruce Willis) from Unbreakable (2000), bad guy Elijah Price/Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson) also from Unbreakable, and ambiguous guy Kevin Wendell Crumb (along with his many personalities) (James McAvoy) from Split (2017). Psychiatrist Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson) wants to convince them that they’re all suffering from delusions of grandeur. They are not superheroes, she argues, but rather ordinary people who’ve unconsciously manipulated their perceptions of reality to convince themselves of having superhuman capabilities.

Supergenius mass murderer Mr. Glass, so called for the brittleness of his bones, is wheelchair-bound and near catatonic due to the drugs in his system. David, quiet and stoic, merely wants to get out (while avoiding his weakness of water) so he can continue his brand of vigilante justice. The true standout is Kevin—each time the lighting system in his room flashes, a new member of “the horde” (his collection of personalities) emerges. McAvoy shows his versatility in Kevin’s rapid shifts in voice, facial expression, and body language as he flips between nine-year-old Hedwig, prim and proper Ms. Patricia, an impassioned intellectual, and many others. Meanwhile, David wants to keep at bay and Glass wants to bring out Kevin’s most destructive personality: the Beast, who seeks to devour those who are impure and have not suffered.

Another character in this story is the Osaka Tower, a fictional Philadelphia skyscraper—now the world’s tallest—that the film repeatedly references. The tower, with its sustainable advancements and intriguing shape, symbolizes mankind’s ability to create engineering wonders. Perhaps that is a kind of superheroic feat.

As with his previous films, Shyamalan interjects metatextual statements regarding what’s happening in the film. In this case, it’s comic book storytelling techniques. Unfortunately, when Mr. Glass’s mother starts doing so, it seems completely out of character.

The film’s biggest fault is that it gets so caught up in delivering its message about human potential that the story goes on for too long. What could have been a profound statement about the societal obsession with superheroes morphs into a Hollywoodesque rainbows and butterflies ending.

There is much to like in Glass: twists, conflict, distinctive music, compelling backstory, and less ostentatious superhero outfits. Nevertheless, if a film like Glass hits the viewer over the head too hard with its message, its creator’s vision might end up shattered.–Douglas J. Ogurek ****

Saturday, 2 February 2019

The Great Bazaar & Brayan’s Gold by Peter Brett | review by Stephen Theaker

Thousands of years ago humanity was almost wiped out by the nightly attacks of coreling demons, and saved at the last by the discovery of wards which turned the magical power of the demons back upon themselves. The monsters crept back to the centre of the planet, to regroup, recuperate and procreate while humans slowly forgot about them. Eventually many thought the demons nothing but pub tales, so their Return (it is always capitalised) three centuries ago came as an unwelcome surprise.

This book (Tachyon Publications pb, 192pp, $14.95) collects two novellas about Arlen, previously published by Subterranean Press as collectible hardcovers. He is in these stories a young man with a passionate interest in rediscovering the lost wards, not least because he is pursued by a four and a half metre tall rock monster he once managed to injure – accidentally knocking off its arm – which rises up each night and makes a beeline for his current location. A darned inconvenience, but of course he’s clever enough to use it to his advantage at times.

Arlen has studied the books in the Library, and gleaned what knowledge he could, but it’s fragmentary and he needs more. Working as a Messenger, he travels between the Free Cities, taking notes and making sketches of the demons, always on the lookout for new information, and for chances to test in practice what he already knows, or thinks he knows. Given time to prepare, Messengers can prepare a safe place to sleep in the open, surrounded by wards against which the coreling demons smash throughout the night, but that’s no way to live!

“Brayan’s Gold” takes place 324 years after the Return. Arlen, still an apprentice at this stage, and Curk, an older colleague, have taken on a challenging job, to transport a load of thundersticks – what we would call dynamite – to the most remote mining town in the duchy. It’s ten nights’ travel into the height of the mountains, but the reward is fifteen hundred gold suns, an absolute fortune.

As each night falls, mist seeps “from invisible pores in the ground, reeking and foul, slowly coalescing into harsh demonic form”, demons made of wind, rock and wood. The monsters aren’t Arlen’s only problem. There are bandits and betrayal on the route, he can’t rely on drunken Curk, and he is entreated to help two sundered lovers reunite. To top it all will be an encounter with a snow demon that catches him out on the mountain, unprepared and unprotected.

“The Great Bazaar” is set four years later, between chapters sixteen and seventeen of The Warded Man (The Painted Man for UK readers). Arlen can now travel freely on his own, and is on the outskirts of the Krasian Desert. The merchant Abban has him searching for Baha kad’Everam, a hamlet long abandoned to clay and wind demons, which “drop like silent stones from a mile in the sky, snapping their wings open at the last instant to sever a man’s head, snatch him in their hind talons, and take back off without ever touching ground”.

Arlen is after the precious pottery that might with luck still be there unbroken: one pot from a master’s wheel would make his trip. If he makes it back to Abban in Fort Krasia, there will be more trouble, but also the chance to learn the location of Anoch Sun, the lost city, ancient home of Kaji the Deliverer, who conquered the known world and united humanity in its first great war against the demons. A few scraps of defensive magic have kept humanity hanging on, but Anoch Sun might hold the secret of combat wards, for creating magical demon-killing weapons.

Brett’s books are endorsed by Paul W.S. Anderson (“Inspired, compelling and totally addictive!”), which is a recommendation to me if no one else, and like Anderson’s always enjoyable films these novellas reminded me a bit of video games. Pulling a trailer of explosives up a bumpy road, fighting demons in ruins among smashed urns, questing for ancient manuscripts; these are pleasantly familiar scenarios to gamers. The novellas also share with his films an uncomplicated and earnest desire to entertain. I think they succeed.

In an introduction Brett says that he hopes these short adventure stories will offer newcomers a convenient introduction to the Demon Cycle series and its characters, while giving existing fans a broader look at his world and a fix between full-length novels. I can’t speak to the latter, but for newcomers they are perfect; including a dictionary and ward grimoire helps with that. No book in my collection is fatter than The Daylight War, third in the Demon Cycle, and that had put me off reading it. Now it looks like a feast. ****

This review originally appeared in Interzone #259.

Wednesday, 30 January 2019

Douglas J. Ogurek’s top five mass market science fiction/fantasy/horror film picks of 2018

Superheroes continue their assault on moviegoer pocketbooks, while innovative suspense/horror quietly captivates audiences.

America loves its superheroes… and so does the rest of the world. In 2016, four of the top ten grossing films at the box office (US) were of the superhero variety. The following year, superheroes claimed half the top ten spots. Last year, the masked, caped and clawed adventurers broke the halfway mark with six top ten spots. Will this upward trend continue until superheroes occupy all the top ten? Or will the kryptonite of sameness finally strike a blow to these films?

The infatuation with these films makes sense – they have huge advertising budgets, a well-established fan base, and a universal appeal stemming from the fusion of humour, drama, action, special effects, engaging plots, compelling characters and, in most cases, good guys beating the bad guys. Moreover, what would the average person rather see on the big screen: people sitting around talking, or a collection of eccentric superhumans fighting and destroying things?

Other films in this year’s top ten included an arguably underappreciated Jurassic Park entry, an animated remake of The Grinch, the latest Mission Impossible film, and Solo: A Star Wars Story. All these films rode the coattails of others, whether they were part of a series, a cinematic universe, or a remake. Remember, though, that the number of people who go to see a movie is by no means a measure of the quality of that film.

I was somewhat disappointed by the mass market genre film offerings in 2018. Only a couple films – not surprisingly works that aren’t connected to another film – stood out as truly innovative. Following are my top five selections, along with an honorable mention:


#5: Rampage
Don’t expect some profound truth to be unveiled with this one. Do expect to be thoroughly entertained. Dwayne Johnson, Jeffrey Dean Morgan (with some of his The Walking Dead swagger), and gigantic monsters tearing apart Chicago – that’s a hard combination to resist on the big screen. Additionally, Rampage promotes environmental conservation by having the world’s leading action hero (Dwayne Johnson) play a character who fights for animal rights. Full review.


#4: Mary Poppins Returns
The umbrella-clutching nanny returns over fifty years after the original film to reignite the magic that caused the world to fall in love with her. Like its predecessor, Mary Poppins Returns is full of sage advice, iconic imagery, and toe-tapping songs. It’s hard to walk away from this one without feeling uplifted. Full review.


#3: Avengers: Infinity War
This is the Vegas-style, pull-out-all-the-stops superhero film of 2018. It brings together most of Marvel’s beloved characters, several of them at odds, to take on their most formidable foe yet. Thanos is a Hulk-like purple brute who plans to wipe out half the human population. What makes Avengers: Infinity War especially admirable is its focus on an antagonist – the story really is about Thanos – with a respectable goal (i.e. achieve ecological balance) muddied by an abhorrent method, as well as its departure from the rosy ending common in superhero films. Full review.


#2: Deadpool 2
The wisecracking antihero returns with a barrage of gore, vulgarity, and cultural references. Ryan Reynolds’s chatty Deadpool takes the viewer on a metatextual ride as he obliterates not only the bad guys, but also superhero film clichés. What other character would joke around with the viewer before blowing himself up? Full review.


#1: A Quiet Place
John Krasinski’s directorial debut silenced theaters, yet critics and the general public alike loved talking about it. This post-apocalyptic suspense/horror chronicles a family’s attempt to survive amid creatures with supersensitive hearing. It combines the suspense of Aliens (1986) with the tight focus on one family of Signs (2002). From the tragedy at its beginning to the triumphant open ending, A Quiet Place sets itself apart in a filmscape dominated by explosions and crumbling cities. Full review.


Special Mention: Hereditary
I limited my top five selections to films that I saw in the cinema. If I had done so with Hereditary, I may very well have included it among my top five. Again, this one follows a family in the wake of a tragedy. However, whereas A Quiet Place covers the themes of strength and perseverance, Hereditary explores deterioration and madness. Several scenes exhibit superb acting in which the characters convincingly convey shock or extreme grief. And it all builds to an ending that gives Rosemary’s Baby (1968) a run for its money.

See Douglas’s top five SF/F/H picks from 2017, 2016, and 2015.—Douglas J. Ogurek

Wednesday, 23 January 2019

Mary Poppins Returns | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Over 50 years later, the magic returns in respectful sequel that celebrates positive thinking and the power of the imagination. 

Since she floated down to London to help the Banks family in the 1964 film that bears her name, Mary Poppins has been an internationally beloved representation of patience, wisdom and imagination. Mary Poppins Returns, directed by Rob Marshall, stays true to the inventiveness of its predecessor, while presenting a more 21st century-relevant (i.e. economically-driven) story-worthy problem.

Mary Poppins Returns takes place in the mid-1930s, 25 years after the original story. Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw), one of Mary Poppins’s original charges, is now a widower raising his three children with some help from sister Jane (Emily Mortimer), another Poppins protégé. When Michael falls behind with payments on his family’s home, William Weatherall Wilkins (Colin Firth), the malicious CEO of Fidelity Fiduciary Bank, gives Michael a few days to pay the entire mortgage. Otherwise, the Banks lose the home.

While Michael and Jane attempt locate a possible inheritance, Mary (Emily Blunt) and Michael’s three children, often joined by Jack the lamplighter (Lin-Manuel Miranda), go on musical adventures, but also try to help Michael. Among their destinations are a bathtub portal, an animated world depicted on a porcelain bowl (listen for the clinking as they walk), and the shop of Topsy (Meryl Streep), Mary’s presumably Eastern European cousin who can fix anything except on second Wednesdays, when everything in her life goes upside down. Guess what day they visit her.

Emily Blunt does justice to the iconic nanny with her economy of movement, quiet confidence, and impressive vocals. As with the first Mary, this one is just as likely to remain silent as she is to dole out advice (spoken or musically) to children and adults.

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Jack, with his Cockney accent and always-chipper mood, gives a nod to the effervescent chimney sweep Bert (Dick Van Dyke) of the original. Street lamps are not the only thing Jack lights up – from the time that he kicks off the film singing “(Underneath the) Lovely London Sky” (despite riding his bicycle through a gloomy cityscape) until the buoyant “Nowhere to Go But Up” at the end, Jack maintains a positive outlook.

The upbeat tunes that dominate this film seem designed to embed themselves in viewers’ heads… especially younger viewers. The toe-tapper “A Cover Is Not the Book” has several parables and even a (near) rap performed by Jack. In “Trip a Little Light Fantastic”, Jack and his fellow lamplighters, accompanied by Mary, do an atmospheric number that pays tribute to the chimney sweeps’ “Step in Time” in the original film. The most serious number is “A Conversation”, Michael’s heartrending message to his deceased wife.

With its abundance of inspirational quotes and didactic songs, Mary Poppins Returns, like its forebear, entertains and teaches. Here’s to Mary Poppins and her umbrella protecting us from rainy days for another 50 years. – Douglas J. Ogurek *****

Saturday, 19 January 2019

Twin Peaks: the Return, by David Lynch (Sky Atlantic) | review

The original Twin Peaks was a remarkable programme, easily liked for its quirky characters in a lovable town, but utterly terrifying as that lovable town’s dark secrets bubbled to the surface. It was said to have lost its way after the revelation of Laura Palmer’s murder, but I don’t remember ever being anything less than desperate to watch the next episode. I remember talking about it in the school library with other fans, lending out my copy of The Diary of Laura Palmer. The film came after I had gone to university, and I was very unhappy when the promised follow-ups never appeared. (We didn’t have ww.boxofficemojo.com back then, so I had no idea that it had not been a financial success.) Like many who enjoyed the show, I was extremely excited to hear that a third season was on the way, with David Lynch writing and directing, and many of the original cast returning. My feelings while watching the revival varied from scene to scene. I never stopped being glad that the new episodes existed. I was glad that a television channel had given a genius and his clever colleagues the money, time and space to indulge himself. But it did sometimes feel like it was taking the mickey.

The return begins where the last show ended, with Agent Dale Cooper trapped in the Red Lodge, and his evil doppelganger at large outside. The details of the plot are often hard to follow (all part of the fun), but, essentially, Cooper gets out, with help from bizarre supernatural beings, and is damaged on the way, and thus takes the place of a second doppelganger, who was married with a child. As Dougie, he lives on instinct, speaks few words, is baffled by the world, shepherded by his wife, Janey-E Jones (Naomi Watts), and yet treated like a genius. (One might suspect that this is an allegory for how Lynch often feels.) This state of affairs carries on for much, much longer than most viewers will appreciate, even if Kyle McLachlan’s performance is superb. Far more enjoyable are the scenes involving FBI Deputy Director Gordon Cole (played by Lynch) and FBI Agent Albert Rosenfield (Miguel Ferrer), as they investigate murders, track down the evil Cooper doppelganger, visit mysterious locations, and introduce us to mythical Diane, to whom Dale would dictate his messages, played brilliantly by Laura Dern.


Not much of this happens in Twin Peaks itelf, and it often feels more like a spin-off from the original programme (like the one originally planned for Audrey Horne) than a sequel. The scenes that take place in Twin Peaks are reminiscent of Arrested Development season four, where characters appeared in their own storylines but rarely interacted, due to the production difficulties involved in getting them on set together. That’s understandable with the actors in this who died after production began – it’s wonderful that a way was found to include them – but even with other Twin Peaks characters it feels like all their scenes are with the same few people every time, or with no one.


Often the lack of background music, long scenes and earnest acting make it feel like a parody of bad, low-budget films like The Room – or are those scenes just plain bad? They often feature women who are shrill and hectoring. Women are generally not shown in a good light, and there is a great deal of violence towards them. Perhaps both of these things could be explained by this all drawing on the stuff of nightmares, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if many viewers stopped watching for that reason. Another group of viewers likely to be disappointed are those for whom the original was a quirky soap, the predecessor of shows like Northern Exposure and Gilmore Girls. There’s not a lot of that here, and it’s easy to understand why US channel Showtime almost had second thoughts about making it.


At times it is quite boring, at others nasty and unpleasant, and it’s not a lot like the original programme, and yet, overall, I loved it. It was genius, unmissable television. Those who loved the weirdness of the original, who adored the even weirder Fire Walk With Me, will find a lot of what they have been waiting for. Even if the rest had been a total disaster, the new episodes would have been justified just by the scenes in the black lodge before Cooper is released. That tree! And the flashback episode, surely a contender for greatest television episode of all time! At times it was literally necessary to remind myself to breathe, and I couldn’t let myself think about the programme at night. Stephen Theaker ****


Sunday, 13 January 2019

The Punisher, Season 1, by Steve Lightfoot et al. (Netflix) | review

Jon Bernthal returns as The Punisher, Frank Castle, after being so good in the second season of Daredevil. That makes this that rarest of things, a non-fantasy spin-off from a fantasy show. (NCIS is another, being a spin-off of JAG which featured, at least in the episodes I saw, a psychic whose powers helped her solve crimes.) There are no resurrected ninjas in this one, no super-powers, just lots of violent people with lots of guns. The events of Daredevil left everyone thinking that Frank Castle was dead, and he’s pretty much finished wiping out the organised crime gangs involved in the gunfight that led to the death of his wife and family. However, a guy going by the name of Microchip (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), who is also pretending to be dead, has tracked him down, and wants help clearing his name, so that he can return to his own lost family. What’s more, Dinah Madani of Homeland Security (Amber Revah) has returned from Afghanistan with a mission of her own, to find who killed her partner, and that’s going to lead her into Frank’s sights. This is a very well made action programme. Bernthal, a serious actor, is given lots to chew on, and he conveys both Frank’s heart-rending pain over losing his family and his bottomless rage concerning everyone involved. When he’s upset, you believe it, and when he lashes out, it looks like it hurts. The action, whether it involves guns, knives or fists, is always well-staged, clear and exciting. There is a formula to these Marvel shows, with the airtime divided between the titular heroes, their allies and the villains, and Iron Fist showed how it could hurt the show if any of those are less than compelling. Here, all the story threads are compelling, and viewers are unlikely to feel that there hasn’t been plenty of Frank in the show. It’s really good. Stephen Theaker ****

Saturday, 12 January 2019

Preacher, Season 2, by Sam Catlin et al. (Amazon Prime) | review

Jesse Custer (played by Dominic Cooper) used to be a preacher, albeit not a very good one. His life was turned upside-down, and not for the first time, when he gained the power of Genesis, a heavenly being. It had previously tried to join with Tom Cruise, with explosive results, but seems quite comfortable with Jesse. It gives him the power to command anyone, as long as they can hear him, and as long as they have a soul. By season two he has an uneasy romance with with passionate criminal Tulip O’Hare (Oscar nominee Ruth Negga) and an uneasy friendship with dissolute vampire Cassidy (Joseph Gilgun). (Church helper Emily from season one does not return.) God has wandered away from heaven, but he loves jazz music, so they come to New Orleans in search of him. Meanwhile, the Grail tries to get its teeth into Jesse Custer, the Saint of Killers is on his way, Cassidy has to learn a bit of responsibility, and poor old Eugene Root has to deal with Hitler (a brilliant Noah Taylor). It’s a season that features some of the most shocking scenes ever seen on television. Maybe it’s not quite up to the extremely high standards of season one, but it’s still a great show, and it looks like season three will be a corker, drawing on the comic’s very best issues. Stephen Theaker ****

Monday, 7 January 2019

Aquaman | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Tiaras, tridents, and explosions: latest DC Universe film goes deep into the ocean to achieve shallow, yet engaging story. 

After underwater princess Mera (Amber Heard) magically extracts water from Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa), then uses it to activate a glowing key, Arthur says, “You could’ve just peed on it.” Then Arthur watches the projection of a deceased king dramatically deliver a message. When Mera quizzes him on what he just heard, Arthur says, “Something, something, trident.”

These reactions exemplify what makes director James Wan’s Aquaman such a pleasure to watch. Arthur’s gruff manner makes him a glaring counterpoint to the melodramatic underwater beings that populate this film. It’s kind of like watching a biker at a ballet.

Arthur, with his superhuman strength and ability to breathe underwater, lives a simple life brawling and drinking brewskis. Then Mera shows up to enlist his help in preventing an impending Atlantean/human conflict by becoming Ocean Master. Aquaman initially resists, considering himself unworthy of such a position. Unfortunately, Arthur’s half-brother and Mera’s fiancée Orm (Patrick Wilson) wants to unite seven underwater kingdoms to wage war on land dwellers. He considers Aquaman a “half-breed” because of Arthur’s human father. The majority of the film chronicles Arthur and Mera’s journey to stop Orm and find the trident. Among the diverse settings are a cramped submarine, visually stunning underwater empires, and the streets of Sicily, Italy.

Though Aquaman is predictable and contains nothing new, one can’t help but be taken in by its schoolboy charm. Examples include the bug-like costume of villain Black Manta, the raising of weapons and shouting triumphantly, well-timed explosions, and the rubble that Aquaman leaves in his wake as he kicks ass and gets his ass kicked.

Another delight of Aquaman is the presentation of the protagonist’s ridiculous backstory, including the meeting and courting of his completely incompatible parents: Maine lighthouse operator Tom Curry (Temuera Morrison) and Princess (eventually Queen) Atlanna (Nicole Kidman).

Like most action movies, Aquaman has dialogue-heavy parts during which the modern moviegoer’s attention begins to wane. However, in this case, Arthur Curry is the viewer’s ally in distraction. What will one remember about Aquaman? Something, something, fun.–Douglas J. Ogurek ****

Sunday, 6 January 2019

The Love Witch, by Anna Biller (Anna Biller Productions) | review

“I’m the love witch. I’m your ultimate fantasy!” Elaine Parks (played by Samantha Robinson) is a witch and a former burlesque dancer who comes to a new town, having left behind a poisoned husband. She has buried bodies before, she tells us, and she’ll do it again. She befriends Trish (Laura Waddell), and will later betray her. At the park she lays the whammy on Wayne (Jeffrey Parise), a louche professor. A love potion proves surprisingly successful, leaving him profoundly desperate for her. The strength of her powers is perhaps fuelled by her sublimated fury at the behaviour of men, including a scuzzy former mentor. Eventually her shenanigans will bring a police officer, Sergeant Griff Meadows (Gian Keys), into her life, as an investigator, and a lover.

Her professed submission to the desires of these men places them completely in her power. The message seems to be that what men think they want in a woman isn’t what they need: given everything they want they will lose their minds. Men are at best selfish buffoons, at worst dangerous brutes. Like children, they need boundaries. Women need to show solidarity with each other, and Elaine does not, which is what marks her as a villain.


Anna Biller writes the script and a song, directs, produces, edits, dresses the stunning sets, paints artwork, and makes the wonderful costumes. This is clearly the work of an auteur if there ever was one, and an auteur with a unique vision. It’s as stylish and as distinctively creepy in its way as a David Lynch film, but it feels authentic and sincere: it’s not a retro spoof like The Brady Bunch Movie (though that was brilliant too), and it’s easy to see why Biller has been rather put out by people calling it a parody or a comedy. It is absolutely not a film that’s so bad it’s good or anything like that. Viewers coming upon it unawares will honestly think it a product of another time till they see Trish using her mobile phone.


It’s heartbreaking to hear stories of Biller being treated badly by the crew, who for example she said crowded around the monitors for the (tastefully done) nude scenes. Hopefully the critical success of this film will give her more clout on set in future; one doubts the people who gave Ridley Scott a hard time on Blade Runner would get away with it now.


To a science fiction fan, this horror film was reminiscent of the original Star Trek series: intense, brightly-coloured, and deliciously ripe. A sequence set at a renaissance faire made this reviewer imagine her adaptating Jack Vance’s work (if she could find something of his with decent parts for women – a bit of gender-swapping might be necessary). She would do wonderful things with the stylized society of The Moon Moth, for example. But whatever she comes up with next will be worth a look. This movie is a true work of art. Stephen Theaker ****


Saturday, 5 January 2019

Death Note, by Charley Parlapanides and chums (Netflix) | review

In this American adaptation of the Japanese saga, dropped by Warner Bros but then produced by Netflix, Light Turner – yes, that’s his name – is plying his trade, homework for cash, while watching the cheerleaders practice, when out of a cloudy sky falls a battered book with the words Death Note on the front cover. He picks it up, then gets himself punched in the face confronting some bullies. He gets punished for the homework service, the bullies go free, and in detention he has his first encounter with what we will learn is the death god Ryuk, in a scene where the shrieksome Nat Wolff as Light Turner makes you wonder if this is going to be a horror comedy. It’s not, or at least I don’t think it is meant to be, but then, once Ryuk has made his first entrance, it’s not very scary either. It’s more a thriller with supernatural elements. The chatty, persuasive, spiny-backed monster (voice by Willem Dafoe, body by Jason Liles) tells Light that if he writes a name in the book, that person will die. If he specifies how they will die (and it has to be physically possible – no sharks in toilets, he is told), that is how they will die. There are lots of other rules, and bit by bit the film tells us those that will be relevant to the plot. Ryuk tempts Light into using the book, and it’s an easy sell: those bullies are harassing a cheerleader, Mia (Margaret Qualley, from The Leftovers). Soon Light and Mia will become close, and start using the book, but you know she’s a bad influence because she’s smoking in her first scene, and as they expand their death noting it’s not long before L, trained since the age of six to be the world’s greatest detective, is on the hunt for them. L, easily the best character in the film, is played by Lakeith Stanfield, also great last year in Atlanta and Get Out. I wouldn’t have minded seeing a film just about him, and apparently there is a spin-off of the previous Japanese films about the equivalent character.

I haven’t seen the anime versions, or the live action Japanese films, or read the comics, but you would think that with so many previous versions to consider that the film-makers would have been able to get a pretty good idea of what worked and what didn’t before starting work on this one, which despite that ends up being pretty unremarkable. For one thing, Light is is a very unsympathetic lead character. The film was criticised by some for whitewashing, by casting a white actor in the lead, and maybe that played into my feelings when watching it. No one’s saying that when adapting a title from another country you must keep the setting and ethnicities of the characters exactly the same, and there’s certainly more diversity in this film than in the Japanese version, but when you cast a blonde white guy in an American remake of a Japanese film, it can feel like you are making a statement about the blonde white guy being more typically American than the alternatives. He certainly didn’t come across as the genius the film needed him to be.


What I did like about the film was how it opened out very quickly from what could have been a straightforward Final Destination kind of film to exploring the wider possibilities of the death note power, but I have to say I liked the Final Destination films much better. As well as vividly demonstrating perfectly the importance of good health and safety, they brim with suspense. There’s nothing in this film that comes close to the set pieces in those, though the conclusion has a crack at it. Ryuk is good company but you could replace him with a series of bombs without affecting the plot very much. It’s not a classic film, but it’s sweary and gory, and music is deployed very well throughout. It’s watchable enough to pass a couple of hours, and I could see a sequel being better, especially if it played up the horror. The part most likely to stick with me is the excellent advice of L’s right-hand man, Watari: “Sleep is key to strong thought.” Stephen Theaker **