Thursday, 12 September 2019

Carnival Row, Season 1 | review by Rafe McGregor

Detection on Different Levels?

In his latest book, Allegory and Ideology (2019), Marxist literary critic Fredric Jameson describes the patristic allegory as a system composed of four levels. The idea is that there is a single story that operates at four levels of meaning simultaneously. The first level is the literal, which in the Scriptures referred to an historical event and in the case with which I am concerned here is the steampunk world represented in Carnival Row. The second, secret, level is the hidden meaning concealed within the literal level, requiring either a mystical revelation or imaginative deciphering (or, in Carnival Rows case, perhaps a little more enciphering). The third, moral, level is concerned with individual salvation or existential experience and the fourth, anagogical, level with the Last Judgement or the future of humanity as a whole. Taking the philosophical rather than religious route we have the literal, secret, moral, and collective meanings of an allegory. At the literal level, Carnival Row is a narrative about the consequences of the battle for Tirnanoc (from the Gaelic Tír na nÓg), the land of the Fae, fought between two human powers, the covetous Burgue and the genocidal Pact. As the war progresses, the Fae begin fleeing to the Burgue for safety and the stream of refugees increases when the Burgue are defeated and withdraw from Tirnanoc. When the series opens, many of citizens of the Burgue, spanning all social strata, are displeased by the influx of “Critch”, a derisive term used to describe all Fae regardless of their species, and pursue some combination of making their lives as miserable as possible, proposing anti-immigration legislation, and using all available means to keep them offshore. In the age of Trump’s wall and Johnson’s Brexit it is very easy – perhaps a little too easy, as the didacticism is sometimes rather heavy-handed – to read the second level of meaning as being about the Coalition Forces invasion of Iraq, the subsequent destabilisation of the Middle East, and the consequent Syrian refugee crisis. The parallels between London or New York and the Burgue on the one hand and Islamic State and the Pact on the other are almost exact. The question I am interested in is not whether the secret meaning of the allegory is too obvious, but whether the simplistic similarities preclude it from reaching the moral and collective levels of meaning.

Carnival Row takes its name from a street in the Burgue that is the centre of what has become a Fae inner city, populated by faeries, fauns, centaurs, trolls, kobolds, and other refugees from Tirnanoc. There are two main plots, each of which follows the two protagonists, and two subplots involving the governance and elite society of the Burgue respectively. The protagonists are Vignette Stonemoss (played by Cara Delevingne), a faerie refugee, and Inspector Rycroft Philostrate (played by Orlando Bloom), a detective who is investigating a serial killer that preys exclusively on Fae. The two were lovers in Tirnanoc during the war and their respective tales intersect, diverge, and intertwine as the narrative progresses. Vignette made her living in Tirnanoc by selling the Fae into indentured labour, a practice that is now recognised as a form of modern slavery, but was employed by many colonial powers up until the early twentieth century. When she fears falling victim to Pact atrocities, she sells herself in order to pay for her passage to the Burgue and is placed in the home of idly wealthy siblings Ezra and Imogen Spurnrose (played by Andrew Gower and Tamzin Merchant) as a lady’s maid. When Vignette is sexually assaulted by Spurnrose, she escapes to Carnival Row. Faced with only two options for survival, sex work or crime, she joins the Black Raven, a Fae organised crime group. Vignette’s decision is to at least some extent a moral one – as the head of the Black Raven confirms by stating, ‘The law of this city does not protect us’ – but it nonetheless pits her against her police officer ex-lover.

Philo is the only police officer in the Burgue that cares about the serial slaying of the Fae. He narrows the field of suspects down to sailors, on the basis that the crimes have coincided with the return of navy vessels to the docks, and quickly finds a suspect. After an exciting chase across the rooftops of the city, the sailor warns Philo of the coming of ‘some dark god’ before jumping to his death. Shortly after, another Fae is murdered, her torso ripped open by a giant creature that emerges from the sewers, and Philo is set on his second and much more complex case. It is quickly revealed that Philo’s idiosyncratic concern for the welfare of the Fae is due to his own ancestry: he is a half-blood faerie who had his wings cut off at birth before being abandoned at an orphanage. This is one of the aspects of the series where the didacticism becomes somewhat strained, with the only police officer who cares about the Fae only caring about them because he is himself half Fae. Seriously flawed though our own world is, there are plenty of people on the right side of inequality in metropolises like London, Los Angeles, Rio de Janiero, and Johannesburg that take a moral interest in those on the wrong side.

The two subplots concern two Burgue families, the Breakspears and the Spurnroses. Absalom Breakspear (played by Jared Harris) is Chancellor of the Republic of the Burgue and the political storyline is initiated when his son is kidnapped while visiting a Fae brothel in Carnival Row. Unbeknownst to Breakspear, the crime has been committed by his wife, Piety (played by Indira Varma), for reasons that are unclear. She subsequently manipulates Breakspear into detaining and torturing the Leader of the Opposition without charge and then both murders and frames the suspect herself. Meanwhile, despite their desirable address and the many trappings of opulence they enjoy, the Spurnroses are in dire financial straits. Imogen, whose existence revolves around climbing the social ladder and finding a husband with the right mix of social, economic, and cultural capital, is initially disgusted when a faun moves into their square, one of the most exclusive enclaves in the city. She soon realises that she can take advantage of the combination of Agreus Astrayon’s (played by David Gyasi) extreme wealth and the speciesism he faces from the Burgue’s elite, however, proposing to sponsor his admittance to that elite in exchange for an investment in her brother’s failing business enterprises. In the world of Carnival Row, just like our own, money can buy respectability and social acceptance, even if one has horns on one’s head and hooves instead of feet.

I have mentioned an example of the way in which Carnival Row both achieves and fails to achieve meaning at the moral level and there are several more examples of the former, which I shall not mention so as to avoid spoilers. In fact, the first three allegorical levels are tied together rather neatly by means of a succession of plot twists in the second half of the season. My main interest is in the fourth, collective, level and whether the series so far has anything to say about the future of humanity. In In the Dust of This Planet (2011), the first volume in his Horror of Philosophy Trilogy, Eugene Thacker proposes three ways of conceiving of meaning and value. His inquiry follows the tradition of Immanuel Kant, who distinguished between the noumenal world (objective reality) and the phenomenal world (subjective experience of objective reality). In Kant’s philosophy, human beings could never gain access to the noumenal and were restricted to negotiating it indirectly, through the phenomenal. For Thacker, whose concern is with meaning rather than existence, the world-for-us is ‘the world that we, as human beings, interpret and give meaning to, the world that we relate to or feeling alienated from, the world that we are at once a part of and that is also separate from the human’.  The world-for-us does not exhaust meaning on the planet, however, and we become aware of the world-in-itself when that planet ‘resists, or ignores our attempts to mold it into the world-for-us’, most dramatically and dangerously in the occurrence of natural disasters. In other words, when faced with events such as natural disasters, human beings realise that there is a very strong sense in which this world is not for-us at all. The third and most significant conception of meaning and value is the world-without-us. The world-without-us is an attempt to conceptualise the coexistence of the world-for-us and the world-in-itself without either accepting that there is an insurmountable Kantian barrier between the two or immediately collapsing the latter into the former when we, for example, grasp natural disasters from the perspective of humanity. In Thacker’s terms, ‘the world-without-us is the subtraction of the human from the world’.  In my understanding of Thacker, the world-without-us is a world in which there is meaning and value in spite of the absence (actually subtraction) of human meaning and human values. Thacker’s aim in his Trilogy is to extrapolate and explain the world-without-us and his central thesis is that supernatural horror and science fiction succeed in this aim where philosophy has failed.

If Thacker is right and such a world exists, the crucial question is if and how the world-for-us and world-without-us can coexist without one system of meaning and value eradicating the other. Early into the twenty-first century it seems unsurprising that we have such difficulty conceiving of the world-without-us, so competent have we become at destroying the world-in-itself. We find the world-for-us at its most conspicuous and most arrogant in the city, where the natural environment has been replaced rather than adapted by the human population and where ecology has been reconfigured to sustain human life alone. In Carnival Row, Philo assumes the role of an occult detective attempting to solve a mystery set in the metropolis of the Burgue and the combination of protagonist and setting provides an opportunity to chart the relation between the world-for-us and the world-without-us. Despite his faerie blood, Philo appears as human and serves as an agent of social control, preserving the metropolitan world-for-us in all its biological, cultural, and economic complexity. The detective, both a symbol and an implement of human values, is pitted against an antagonist that is neither human nor Fae, but some dark god, an apparently unfathomable and inconceivable creature that dwells and kills in the city, where everything – alive or lifeless – is supposed to serve only human ends. Significantly, the creature’s lair is in the sewers, the foundation upon which the city is built, in the same way that the world-without-us underpins – and sometimes undermines – the world-for-us. As the story of an occult detective solving a series of murders in a metropolis, Carnival Row stages the world-without-us, setting up a narrative framework firmly grounded in the world-for-us – the detective as an agent of social control seeking to restore the anthropocentric status quo the murders have disrupted – and then using that framework to investigate a nature that refuses to be tamed and resists conception in human terms. The creature, called a Darkasher, is disclosed as having a closer connection to humanity than initially suspected and the potential for exploring the world-without-us is to some extent sacrificed for less problematic meaning-making at the fourth and final allegorical level. Notwithstanding, the pitting of the two worlds of meaning and value represented by the detective and the Darkasher respectively gestures towards some kind of mutual recognition between the world-for-us and the world-without-us. My hope is that the tension created by this pairing will be developed in more detail season 2, although as the occult detective mystery is solved by Philo season 1 this may well not be the case. Given that season 2 was commissioned prior to the release of season 1, Legendary Television and Amazon Studios must both be congratulated for bringing that season to a conclusive (and compelling) end in the final episode. *****  

Tuesday, 10 September 2019

Ready or Not | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Think you’ve heard the worst wedding night catastrophe? Think again. 

Ready or Not, with its cozy mansion and eccentric characters, brings to mind the comedy/mystery Clue (1985). However, this time it’s comedy/horror, and directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett dispose of the mystery, escalate the intensity, and align the viewer with one character: young bride Grace (Samara Weaving), who’s brought into the fold of the wealthy Le Domas dynasty or, as one member prefers to call it, “dominion”. The family has built its fortune in games: playing cards, board games, and eventually, the ownership of sports franchises.

Still in her wedding dress, Grace gets thrust into a game of hide-and-seek – she’s the one who’s hiding – on the family estate. The stakes are high: if the Le Domases find Grace, they kill her. Husband Alex (Mark O’Brien) wants to help his new wife; alas, he has seven family members and a butler intent on finding her.

The film takes a bit long to get to the game. However, once it does, it’s a riveting experience, due in large part to Weaving’s performance. The heroine fights back, but still convincingly conveys the terror, shock and pain she undergoes as the sick game unfolds. She’s not too dainty to drop an f-bomb or throw a punch, nor does she entirely shed her womanhood to become Rambo in a dress (despite the movie poster that shows her clutching a rifle and wearing a bullet sash). Listen for Weaving’s animalistic scream – it almost sounds like a goat bleating – when things reach a boiling point.

Much of the film’s beauty lies in its contrasts: wood-panelled walls, candelabras and dumbwaiters merge with crazed screams, corpses and big weapons. No candlesticks and lead pipes here… Instead, it’s axes, crossbows and shotguns.

Some family members are tepid about the game, while others embrace it with a murderous glee. Among Grace’s pursuers are high-strung, drug-abusing sister-in-law Emilie (Melanie Scrofano) and her disinterested husband Fitch Bradley (Kristian Bruun), sarcastic brother-in-law Daniel (Adam Brody) and his gold-digging wife (lightheartedly named) Charity (Elyse Levesque), and exuberant father-in-law Tony (Henry Czerny) and his hard-to-read wife Becky (Andie MacDowell). The two standouts are battle axe-wielding Aunt Helene (Nicky Guadagni), whose heavy black eyeshadow and jerky movements give her a demonic presence, and Stevens (John Ralston), a butler with a passion for Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture.” Also notable is MacDowell’s performance as matron Becky Le Domas – her dramatically tilting eyebrows convey a mock sympathy.

If there is one theme that permeates Ready or Not it is loyalty… between parents and children, between siblings, and between spouses. The only bond that’s certain is the one between filmmaker and viewer.—Douglas J. Ogurek ****

Tuesday, 3 September 2019

Interview Questions: Tim Major

In the first of what we hope will be a regular feature, Stephen Theaker asks Tim Major a few questions.

What do you use for note-taking in preparation for new writing – paper, apps, or is it all in your head till you begin? If you use notebooks, do you have a favourite brand?

I’m not at all particular. My current notebook is a cheap lime green one that came in a multipack, but is usually used for notes at lectures or conferences rather than writing ideas. I tend to jot things in the Notes app of my phone, which is frustrating and impractical, but I’m more likely to actually note down the idea if the means to do so are always on my person. I rarely need much of a description to be able to retain an idea until the next time I’m at my desk.

In terms of more detailed preparation, I work entirely onscreen. I write copious notes in Word documents, as well as transcriptions of imagined conversations with myself whenever plot obstacles arise, if my wife is too busy to engage in that sort of conversation.

Where do you do your writing?

On my computer, at my desk in the attic of my house. It’s where I conduct my day job (I’m a freelance editor) so I can switch freely between work and writing. There’s a very thick soundproofed door at the bottom of the attic stairs so it’s nice and calm up here. I work on a laptop hooked up to a monitor with an extended desktop, and my laptop screen is a more or less permanently a display for Spotify.

What type of desk do you use when writing, and what type of chair?

Cheap Ikea desk, but it’s stable; swivel chair I got for free from my brother-in-law, but it’s comfy.

What do you write on, or with? What software or apps do you use?

I use Scrivener for anything longer than a short story. I’m evangelical about the software, despite the fact that I use barely any of its functionality. The ability to see a folder-structure overview of scenes of a my novel on the left-hand side of the screen is enormously important to me, so that I’m always clear of the context of the scene I’m working on, at any time. I’ve become more and more of a planner when I’m preparing novels, creating long synopses, so I rarely need to reorder scenes and I usually know where I’m going. But knowing where I am is just as important.

What time of day do you usually write, and how often do you write, and for how long? Do you write year-round, or does it tend to be in spells?

As I say, the hours allocated to my writing and my day job tend to be fluid. Also, my wife and I share the childcare of our two young children, so my desk time is rarely more than half of each week day. But when I’m in the midst of a novel I like to prioritise writing, usually managing an hour and a half just after doing the nursery drop-off. I usually write between 1000 and 1500 words an hour, so drafts tend to accumulate fairly quickly and satisfyingly. I write all year around, though this year is my first parental experience of school summer holidays, and I can tell you that my productivity has taken a big hit.

Who are your inspirations? Whose writing career would you like to have?

There are a lot of writers I love, of course. I came to SF as an eleven-year-old via John Wyndham and H.G. Wells, and their novels echo throughout all my work, I suspect. I love the playfulness of Vladimir Nabokov and Italo Calvino and the precision of John Updike. I think Patricia Highsmith’s character work is outstanding and I adore Shirley Jackson’s unsettling tone. This is a terrible admission, but until seven or eight years ago, I rarely read modern novels. I do now, of course, and if I had ambitions of simulating a writer’s career it would be somebody working currently, as it’d be fruitless to yearn for an entirely different industry and readership, and different expectations of sustainability. The people I most envy are those who have many strings to their bow, producing novels, short stories, non-fiction books and also editing anthologies and performing other roles on that side of the editorial divide. I love being a freelance editor, but the closer I can bring my hobby and my more “legitimate” work, the happier I’ll be.

Imagine that a hundred years from now, a researcher into the work of Tim Major discovers this interview. Can you tell us something that she would be delighted to learn?

Oh, good grief. I don’t want to be too self-effacing, but that doesn’t strike me as a plausible scenario at all. I’m not a surprising person. I’m honest, I think, and I’m tenacious in a professional sense. Although this isn’t scandalous or surprising, I don’t think I’ve mentioned it in a writing interview before: I’m a decent bassist. The band I was in, The Hired Sportsmen, was named after a children’s book by Russell Hoban, who also wrote the SF classic Riddley Walker. When we played on the radio show hosted by Paul Heaton (the lead singer of the Beautiful South, who was very friendly), the studio wasn’t really set up for live performances of bands, so me and the drummer were relegated to performing in the bathroom, not even able to see the other band members.

You've co-edited three issues so far of BFS Horizons with Shona Kinsella for the British Fantasy Society. How has that been, and what have been your favourite stories so far?

It’s been lovely. Shona’s terrific to work alongside, and we had no trouble finding a groove in terms of responsibilities from the start – and more importantly, we tend to agree on story selections. I wouldn’t want to pick favourites, though I will say that I was very pleased that we decided to print Val Nolan’s story “Green Skies” in the most recent issue (#9) – it was a much longer story than our submission guidelines encourage, but we were both determined to include as soon as we read it. It’s a terrific story.

Is there a kind of story that you don't see enough of in the BFS Horizons submissions?

Fantasy stories, oddly enough! This isn’t a complaint, exactly, and of course fantasy is a very broad genre that can be defined in all sorts of ways. But it always strikes me as strange that we get so much weird fiction, SF and horror, but far fewer examples of traditional epic fantasy, say. Also, humour. We always look for lighter stories to balance out the grimmer stuff, but there never seem to be many to choose from.

Is there anything you can tell us about upcoming issues?

Not much, no! As soon as one is delivered we turn our attention to the next, but right now we’re at the very start of the process for #10. I do know that the cover is going to be great, though.

I loved the story you let us publish in TQF61, “To Ashes, Dust”: what of your other work would you recommend to people who enjoyed that one? Is any of your other work in the same continuity?

Yes, that story is one of several all set on the same nostalgic, idiosyncratic version of Mars, many with loosely interrelated elements. I’ll have to check my own website to figure out how many there are – bear with me… Ah, there are eight short stories so far, maybe nine at a push. Four of them have been published in Shoreline of Infinity, the excellent Edinburgh-based SF magazine that won Best Magazine at the British Fantasy Awards in 2018 and is nominated again this year. Two of the Mars stories (“The Walls of Tithonium Chasma” and “Throw Caution”) have been selected for successive editions of Best of British Science Fiction, published by NewCon Press. I’ve recently completed a novella in the same series – a Martian murder mystery – but that doesn’t have a home yet.

Could you tell us about your recent novel, Snakeskins? It feels so rare now to see a standalone novel from a new science fiction writer published by a mainstream UK publisher.

Do you know what? That hadn’t occurred to me, about standalone SF titles being rare. I would say that Titan Books, who published Snakeskins, may be bucking the trend on that score. I’m a huge fan of their recent output – novels by writers such as Nina Allan, Matt Hill, Helen Marshall, James Brogden and many more, all of which are standalone.

Anyway. Snakeskins is an SF thriller about a group of British people who have inherited the ability to rejuvenate every seven years, and in the process produce a short-lived “Snakeskin” clone of themselves, which possesses all of their memories and characteristics and may live for minutes, hours or days. So it’s about identity – the shock of coming face-to-face with yourself, and wondering whether you’re the most effective version of yourself. But it’s also a political novel. Over generations, this strange power has had the effect of Britain shutting itself off from the world to protect its secrets, and the corrupt British Prosperity Party now rules uncontested. So, without fear of giving away too great a spoiler, it’s about Brexit too.

Congratulations on your PS Publishing book about the film Les Vampires being up for a British Fantasy Award! How does that feel? (Nine years since our last nomination so we've forgotten!)

Thank you! It feels very nice. I don’t think of myself as a non-fiction writer, and it felt like a huge indulgence being allowed to spend so long thinking about a film I love, but I’m proud of the book. My approach wasn’t wholly academic – while I did a lot of research, I spent an equal amount of time trying to unpick and explain my fascination with the film, which is a 10-part silent crime serial from 1915–16. There are also ten pieces of weird fiction included in the book, one following each episode of the serial, and I’m very fond of those. They’re very weird. But hey! You should find a copy of the film and watch it, which would be the most satisfying outcome of the book getting attention. Les Vampires has everything: proto-horror, car chases, sequences that rival David Lynch for weirdness, plus Musidora, the greatest female action star of all time…

Finally, the most important bit, your newest book: And the House Lights Dim. What can you tell us about it? And is that a cover by the esteemed Daniele Serra?

Yes, it is a Daniele Serra cover! I love the image so much, and I was floored when Daniele allowed Luna Press to use it. A copy of the painting is hanging on the wall beside my desk, next to an illustration of Musidora, in fact.

And the House Lights Dim is a short story collection, featuring stories written over a four-year period (plus another three written solely for the collection), spanning the years in which my two sons were born. That timing explains the thematic through-line, I suppose – the stories are all concerned with houses, homes and families. One story is actually narrated by a sentient house, and there’s also a lonely space station guarded only by a married couple, a post-apocalyptic holiday village, a supernatural Greenland shark that threatens a mother and her son, a camping trip that turns a family feral… it’s all very jolly. The Greenland shark story, “Eqalussuaq”, was selected by Ellen Datlow for Best Horror of the Year, so that’s a solid recommendation, and the novelette “Carus & Mitch”, which was one of my first publications, was shortlisted for a This is Horror Award back in 2015. Also included in the book are commentaries on the origin of each story, and also links to a couple of soundtracks to accompany the two longest stories – I produce book soundtracks for any of my longer work, an obsession that sometimes takes almost as long as editing the manuscript!

For more information:

Website: https://cosycatastrophes.com

Twitter: https://twitter.com/onasteamer

ISFDB: http://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/ea.cgi?207943

BFS Horizons submission guidelines: https://www.britishfantasysociety.org/bfs-journal-submission-guidelines

Wednesday, 7 August 2019

BFA Shadow Juror: Comics and Graphic Novels

I've finished reading the items nominated for the British Fantasy Award 2019 for comics and graphic novels, and thought about how I would rate and rank them, if I were on the jury for this category.

The usual disclaimer: this is entirely unofficial and purely for fun. I have no involvement in the real awards this year, other than as a member of the society and thus a voter. I have no insight into what the current juries are saying, the criteria they will apply or the methods by which they will come to their decisions.

Also worth saying that if I were actually on the jury, I'd be talking to people who had also read the books and so I would go into more detail with regard to specific events, but here I want to avoid spoilers.

That said, here are my thoughts:

100 Demon Dialogues, by Lucy Bellwood. Enjoyable, for the ten minutes it takes to read it: rather than a comic or graphic novel, it's a book of single-panel cartoons, with no sequential storytelling, other than that each individual cartoon takes place on a different day. And it only barely counts as fantasy: it's an apparently autobiographical book where the demons are a metaphor for the author's more downbeat thoughts. There's nothing to suggest that they are actually real, that the protagonist is living in a fantastical world any different from ours. So although I thought it was good, perspicacious and wise, it's a bit surprising that it made the shortlist. Plus, it was first published in November 2017, according to its copyright page, so that makes it ineligible. My rating: three stars. To-win rating: 0/10

The Prisoner, by Robert Malan, illustrations by John Cockshaw. A guard interrogates an odd prisoner over thirty thousand words of miserable prose. Art is used to illustrate a few of his dreams. It would be ludicrous to call this a comic or a graphic novel, and downright offensive to vote for it as the best one of the year. From the suggestions list, it looks as if the publisher (or a supporter) submitted this for both the novella category and the comics category at the same time. It didn't make the novella shortlist, and it definitely shouldn't have made this one. It's not a comic, it's not very fantastical (what few fantasy elements there are could be explained away by the influence of drugs), and it's not terribly good. My rating: two stars. To-win rating: 0/10

Widdershins, Vol. 7: Curtain Call, by Kate Ashwin. Seems to begin in the middle of a story, with a large cast of rather too similar-looking characters dashing about the town of Widdershins, trying to catch the deadly sins. Inoffensive and pleasant, but a bit out of its depth here. Quite odd to see a book on the shortlist which is only available to buy from the author's own website. Probably much more enjoyable for people who have read the previous six volumes. To a new reader it feels like a lot of running around, all busy work without a lot of depth. My rating: three stars. To-win rating: 3/10

Saga, Vol. 9, by Fiona Staples and Brian K. Vaughan. About a family of people from both sides of an interplanetary war. It's usually hard to say much about this comic without giving away lots of spoilers for previous volumes, but in this one, basically, everyone waits for a news story to be published. I loved this comic when it began. Now it's not so much like it's gone off the boil, it's more like someone switched off the kettle. Art is still terrific, but I can only imagine that inertia is what's kept it on the shortlist for another year. My rating: three stars. To-win rating: 4/10

B.P.R.D. Hell on Earth, Vol. 1, by Mike Mignola and chums. After Hellboy got fed up of working with the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Development, he went on his way alone while his former colleagues (Abe Sapien, Roger the homunculus, firestarter Liz Sherman and ectoplasmic spiritualist Johann Kraus) spun off into their own comic, which rather like Xena ended up being even more epic than the original. This book sees them dealing with the aftermath of the Plague of Frogs storyline, and a proliferation of new monsters. Guy Davis's artwork is especially great. As with Hellboy, there were several more volumes of this out last year, all of them eligible and equally good. My rating: five stars. To-win rating: 9/10

Hellboy: The Complete Short Stories, Vol. 1, by Mike Mignola and chums. The collected work of one of comics' greatest geniuses. I considered, for a very brief moment, whether to rate this lower because of its contents having been previously published in other books, but that seemed unfair when the British Fantasy Awards didn't have a comics award at all when most of these stories were first published, or even when they were first published in books. In any case, new collections of previously published material are eligible for this award, and at least some of the other nominated works in this category could have been nominated for previous publications too. So although it's an omnibus, it's not a second bite of the cherry. Artistically, creatively, this and B.P.R.D. tower over the other nominees. It'll be a surprise if I read anything better in any of the categories. What's more, there were I think five more omnibus volumes of Hellboy out in 2018, all of them fantastic, all of them better than the rest of this shortlist. My rating: five stars. To-win rating: 10/10

Will that book win the award? It'll be a massive shock if Mike Mignola doesn't win the award for one book or the other. My bet is on HellboySaga is the only other serious contender, but it would be a surprise to see something so far off its peak win against the definitive editions of two of the greatest fantasy comics of all time. And Mike Mignola is due a win in this category: his combination of fantasy, horror and science fiction is as BFS-orientated as it is possible to be! But surprises do happen. After all, two of these books were added as egregious omissions (unless there was a draw after the members voted and more than four books went through): fair enough if they were Hellboy or B.P.R.D., but a jury that picked any of the others as egregious omissions might well choose an unexpected winner.

Next: Not sure which will be the next shortlist I finish. I'm currently reading one of the collections and one of the horror novels, both good so far.

Monday, 5 August 2019

Crawl | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Quarter-sized brains and close quarters: gator flick swamped with suspense

Monster films sometimes suffer from several maladies: a too-large cast of players, lack of character depth, bad acting, horrible dialogue, and an attempt to mask these shortcomings with elaborate settings.

Crawl, directed by Alexandre Aja, deviates from each of these to hatch a creature feature that not only keeps the viewer on edge, but also goes beneath the surface by exploring a strained father/daughter relationship.

Hurricane Wendy intensifies its attack along the Florida coast. Collegiate competitive swimmer Haley (Kaya Scodelario) and her father Dave (Barry Pepper) get trapped in the crawl space beneath their family’s former home. Massive alligators wait to tear them limb from limb. Attempts to escape get thwarted. Jump scares mount. Protagonists take a major beating. Water rises. Tension mounts. No matter what your bladder tells you, you can’t walk away.

The film’s strengths lie in its minimal cast (i.e. two main characters) and its confined setting, which, during breaks in the action, enable exploration of Haley’s childhood—perhaps Dave pushed too hard to advance his daughter’s swimming career. Both Scodelario and Pepper convincingly convey the emotional and physical pain they confront . . . and there’s no shortage of physical pain in this one.

Dave points out that Haley is an “apex predator” and that her swimming limitations stem not from physical inadequacies, but rather from mental blocks. The calamity in which they find themselves will repeatedly put to the test Haley’s ability to swim past her fears—it’s no coincidence that she’s a member of the University of Florida’s Gators swim team.

Forget that the alligators in this film are way too big. Ignore that creatures with quarter-sized brains make coordinated attacks. Crawl delivers enough conflict and suspense to make it a satisfying monster movie.—Douglas J. Ogurek ****

BFA Shadow Juror: Novellas

I thought it might be fun this summer to read as many of the British Fantasy Award nominees as I could, as a kind of one-man shadow jury. That is, reading the nominees that the actual jurors do and applying the same criteria to them that I would if I were on the jury, but posting my (spoiler-free) thoughts here for people to read instead of keeping them secret.

Last time I did something similar was with the best novel category back in 2009, and the surprise then was how few of the nominees featured any fantasy at all, let alone being what anyone would call fantasy novels. One was a London detective novel, and another was a historical novel about Vincent Van Gogh, both by authors with strong ties to the BFS and FantasyCon.

BFA juries use a lot of different methods to come to their decisions: the awards constitution doesn't set out a specific way. Here I'll use one that consistently seems to work well, where each member (after a group discussion of the nominees) rates each out of ten for how much they want it to win the award, taking everything into account.

"Everything" would include how good the item is, of course, but also whether the nominee fits the category (e.g. is an item nominated for best magazine actually a magazine? is a publisher nominated for indie press actually independent?) and whether it is fantasy, given that these are fantasy awards.

The BFS takes a wide view of fantasy, taking in science fantasy, weird fantasy, dark fantasy, literary fantasy, and so on. Fantasy, science fiction and horror get specific mentions in the society's constitution, which explains why the latter two show up in the nominees more often than you might expect for a fantasy award.

For me, certain types of horror count as fantasy, but others don't. Friday the 13th (last few minutes aside): not fantasy, because the killer is human. Halloween: fantasy, because Michael Myers is said to have no soul (and hence also I guess lives in a world where souls are real). I would regard aliens, ghosts, demons, elves, gods etc as fantastical elements.

Just in case a disclaimer is needed: this is entirely unofficial and purely for fun. I have no involvement in the real awards this year, other than as a member of the society and hence a voter. I have no insight into what the current juries are saying, the criteria they will apply or the way that they will come to their decisions.

Anyway, I've started off by reading the nominees for best novella. Here are my thoughts on how I would vote if I were on that jury:

The Last Temptation of Dr Valentine, by John Llewellyn Probert. The highly entertaining story of a serial killer with a flair for the cinematic, and the people trying to catch him. I loved its wit and its structure: a chapter will often act as a macabre short story focused on a particular victim. I enjoyed this as much as any of the other books on the shortlist: it was a pure, over-the-top audience pleaser. And I'll definitely be going back to read the first two Dr Valentine stories. But this is a fantasy award and this isn't a fantasy story. It's about a serial killer who adopts unusual methods; there are no fantastical elements at all. So for me this wouldn't be in the running. Also, the ebook version seems to be about 45,000 words long, and this category is for stories up to 40,000 words, so unless the initial print version was much shorter I don't think it's eligible. My rating: three stars. To-win rating: 0/10

Binti: The Night Masquerade, by Nnedi Okorafor. Third adventure of the girl who leaves her home in Africa to attend a university on another planet, and then comes back again with an alien friend. It's just as good as the others. I'll keep reading these as long as the author keeps writing them. I would have given this quite a high rating, because although it might be a bit impenetrable for new readers it's full of ideas and very good. But by my reckoning it's over 47,000 words long, so it's ineligible for this category. Blame people like me who voted for it in the wrong category without checking the word count. My rating: four stars. To-win rating: 0/10

Breakwater, by Simon Bestwick. Kind of an unofficial sequel to The Kraken Wakes, this very short novella scrapes into this category by a couple of hundred words, and feels very slight compared to the rest. Two women try to escape an undersea base following the latest attack by an unseen ocean species, while taking the time to comment on each other's bottoms, e.g. "Move that sexy bum of yours, Doc." It's an old-fashioned way of writing about women given a pseudo-progressive spin by having another woman say it. This isn't really good enough to be on an awards shortlist, but at least it's eligible. My rating: two stars. To-win rating: 1/10

The Only Harmless Great Thing, by Brooke Bolander. Elephants are more intelligent than in our world, and were made to work with radioactive materials. This was the second Tor.com novella I've read this year that presents terrorists attacking a civilian target as righteous and justified. The idea of more intelligent elephants is interesting (and can also be found in Binti: The Night Masquerade), and the prose is good, but there's very little distance between where the story begins and where it ends, and a big part of it is driven by an idea that makes very little sense: to make elephants glow when they are near radiation, to warn future generations of humans to stay away. My rating: two stars. To-win rating: 3/10

The Tea Master and the Detective, by Aliette de Bodard. Sherlock Holmes and Watson recast in the far future as Long Chau and The Shadow's Child (the mind of a spaceship), team up for the first time to investigate a corpse found in the deep spaces. It's very good, though the mystery takes a back seat to the origin story of the partnership. I hadn't realised that the same author's In the Vanishers' Palace was also from 2018 when voting. This is good, and I'd be very happy to see it win, but that would have been an even stronger contender, being much more fantastical. My rating: three stars. To-win rating: 6/10

The Land of Somewhere Safe, by Hal Duncan. On a shortlist with four science fiction books and one horror novel, it's good that there is at least one outright fantasy novella. A boy and girl shipped out from London during World War II get involved in the adventures of a gang of eternal, archetypal urchins, mashing up Peter Pan, Narnia, the slippery slide from the Magic Faraway Tree and lots of other bits and bobs from children's literature. This author's Susurrus on Mars was my absolute favourite of all the novellas I read in the course of judging this category for real last year, but it didn't make the final shortlist. I'm glad this one did. But while the story is full of adventure and scrapes, derring-do and ideas, it's not an easy read, thanks to being told by one of the urchins, with a plethora of slang, phonetic spellings and neologisms. I thought it was worth the effort. I also thought it was the best of the novellas, and the one I would most want to win. My rating: four stars. To-win rating: 8/10

Will that book win the award? I don't know - bear in mind that even if I were on the jury, I would be just one person among five, and to win a book needs some degree of support from all or most of the jurors, and the narrative style of that one might put some people off. A previous Dr Valentine book won the award so that would clearly be in with a shout if it were eligible. I think my bet would be on The Tea Master and the Detective, but since two of the books on the shortlist seem to be ineligible we might well see two new novellas thrown into the mix before the jury makes its final decision.

Next up: comics and graphic novels!

Saturday, 3 August 2019

The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture by Glen Weldon | review by Stephen Theaker

Glen Weldon is a respected writer on books and comic books for NPR, the American equivalent of Radio 4, and a panellist on their excellent weekly podcast, Pop Culture Happy Hour, where his enthusiastically lugubrious voice, ad hoc taxonomies, and ever-readiness with an overarching theory make his contributions always entertaining. Though this sadly isn't a review of the audiobook edition, his distinctive voice can still be heard in every sentence, making this book (Simon & Schuster, hb 336pp, £16.99) a real pleasure from start to finish. Literally to the finish, since the bibliography is annotated with comments from him, and because he's a very interesting chap those comments are very interesting too.

The book is dedicated to Bill Finger, the original Batman writer, and it does a great deal to show how important his contributions to the character were. Even those who have read Batman books by the dozen may be surprised to learn that Bob Kane, “creator” of the Bat-Man, did so by tracing an Alex Raymond drawing of Flash Gordon on a rope swing, colouring his outfit red and blue, and giving him a domino mask. Milton “Bill” Finger was a quiet kid who wrote the scripts, and none of Bob Kane's editors even knew he existed, but Weldon tells us that Finger suggested the ears, the cape, the gloves and the colour scheme.

The dark knight's lack of regard for human life in his latest cinematic outing, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice – the result, perhaps, of a death in the family – has provoked much controversy, but it's worth remembering that this is a guy who even at his jolliest still punches and kicks a number of people very hard in the face every night. Chances are, that would be enough to rack up quite the body count even without guns mounted on the Batmobile.

From Weldon we learn how little that violence conflicts with the character's early days: in his first year he killed twenty-four men, two vampires, a pack of werewolves and several giant mutants. Weldon argues that it's to this “grim, violent proto-Batman” that Denny O'Neil returned in 1970, establishing that as the “real” Batman once the swinging sixties were over: making the loner, badass Batman the default inspiration for later retellings by Frank Miller, Tim Burton, Christopher Nolan and Grant Morrison.

This isn't a book that trundles along with the critical orthodoxy; it has its own ideas at every turn. Apparently the Batman tv series was not well-liked among American fans, despised even, which may be a surprise to those of us brought up to think of it as a bona fide television classic. But this book sticks up for it, and identifies the neverending (and not so positive) effects of the ensuing backlash, which even now has barely petered out. When Weldon talks about Dr Fredric Wertham and his crusade against comics, readers may be shocked to see him say that, at least with regard to Batman, “The guy had a point.”

Being gay, the young Glen Weldon didn't just notice the “subtle atmosphere of homoeroticism” in the comic, he rather enjoyed it. Of course he notes how Wertham manipulated and misrepresented the evidence (for example deleting statements that the young men were much more strongly aroused by Tarzan in his loincloth and Marvel's Sub-Mariner in his skimpy swim trunks), but also praises how passionate and progressive he was in calling out racist and sexist stereotypes.

What Weldon really tries to get at is why Batman works. Why he appeals to nerds and why he is popular with normals (to use his words for those groups), why virtually all his films are huge financial successes, why so many of the comics, games and cartoons work so well, whatever the mood, whatever the style, from the sublime Batman: the Animated Series, which Weldon adores, to the technicolour team-up Batman: The Brave and the Bold, the finale of which he describes as a tour de force.

Partly, of course, this is because the character is owned by a huge multimedia company which can invest in paying the best talent to work on him. Put all that talent to work on Bouncing Boy and you'd still end up with some great comics, games and movies. For Weldon, though, what sets Batman apart, what creates the bond between Batman and Batfans, is a very specific thing: “the oath”, Bruce Wayne's candlelight vow to spend the rest of his life warring on all criminals to avenge the deaths of his parents. That is to say, he is just as obsessed as his fans. ****

This review originally appeared in Interzone #264.

Tuesday, 23 July 2019

British Fantasy Awards 2019: nominees

The nominees in my favourite awards were announced today!

A bit of boring stuff first: note that the announcement on the BFS website (not, I think, posted by the awards administrator, whose email to BFS members did not contain the same mistakes) is once again incorrect as regards the nomination procedure. What actually happens:

  1. Anyone, including authors, publishers, editors, fans and passers-by, can contribute to a list of suggestions. (It was only open quite briefly this year.)
  2. BFS, FantasyCon 2018 and FantasyCon 2019 members vote for their three preferred items in each category.
  3. The top four eligible items in each category (occasionally more if there’s an unbreakable tie) go through to the shortlist.
  4. The jurors are appointed and are able to add up to two further items as egregious omissions to the shortlist. This gives them the opportunity to fix the shortcomings of the list: a lack of any fantasy books, of any books by women, of (to be blunt!) any books that are actually good, etc, whatever the jury feels is missing. This has to be done unanimously, though the unanimous decision can be made by a vote.
  5. The administrator checks the eligibility of everything, and the shortlists are announced.

And here they are!

Best Anthology (jurors: Roz Clarke, Ian Hunter, Susan Oke, Steve J. Shaw and Joni Walker)

The Devil and the Deep: Horror Stories of the Sea, ed. Ellen Datlow (Night Shade Books)
Humanagerie, ed. Sarah Doyle & Allen Ashley (Eibonvale Press)
New Fears 2, ed. Mark Morris (Titan Books)
This Dreaming Isle, ed. Dan Coxon (Unsung Stories)
Year’s Best Weird Fiction, Vol. 5, ed. Robert Shearman & Michael Kelly (Undertow Publications)

Best Artist (jurors: Astra Crompton, Alexandra Gushurst-Moore, Kaia Lichtarska, Catherine Sullivan and Paul Yates)

Vince Haig
David Rix
Daniele Serra
Sophie E. Tallis

Best Audio (jurors: Alicia Fitton, Thomas Moules, Susie Pritchard-Casey, Abigail Shaw and Neil Williamson)

Bedtime Stories for the End of the World (endoftheworldpodcast.com)
Blood on Satan’s Claw, by Mark Morris (Bafflegab)
Breaking the Glass Slipper (www.breakingtheglassslipper.com)
PodCastle (podcastle.org)
PseudoPod (pseudopod.org)

Best Collection (jurors: Ben Appleby-Dean, Amy Chevis-Bruce, Marc Gascoigne, Laura Newsholme and Chloë Yates)

All the Fabulous Beasts, by Priya Sharma (Undertow Publications)
The Future is Blue, by Catherynne M. Valente (Subterranean Press)
How Long ’til Black Future Month?, by N.K. Jemisin (Orbit)
Lost Objects, by Marian Womack (Luna Press Publishing)
Octoberland, by Thana Niveau (PS Publishing)
Resonance & Revolt, by Rosanne Rabinowitz (Eibonvale Press)

Best Comic/Graphic Novel (jurors: Kate Barton, Emily Hayes, Steven Poore, Alasdair Stuart and Kiwi Tokoeka)

100 Demon Dialogues, by Lucy Bellwood (Toonhound Studios)
B.P.R.D. Hell on Earth, Vol. 1, by Mike Mignola, John Arcudi, Guy Davis, Tyler Crook & Dave Stewart (Dark Horse)
Hellboy: The Complete Short Stories, Vol. 1, by Mike Mignola and others (Dark Horse)
The Prisoner, by Robert S Malan & John Cockshaw (Luna Press Publishing)
Saga #49-54, by Brian K Vaughan & Fiona Staples (Image Comics)
Widdershins, Vol. 7, by Kate Ashwin

Best Fantasy Novel (the Robert Holdstock Award) (jurors: Sarah Carter, Shona Kinsella, Devin Martin, Pauline Morgan and Andrew White)

The Bitter Twins, by Jen Williams (Headline)
Empire of Sand, by Tasha Suri (Orbit)
Foundryside, by Robert Jackson Bennett (Jo Fletcher Books)
The Green Man’s Heir, by Juliet E McKenna (Wizard’s Tower Press)
The Loosening Skin, by Aliya Whiteley (Unsung Stories)
Priest of Bones, by Peter McLean (Jo Fletcher Books)

Best Film/Television Production (jurors: Rebecca Davis, Pat Hawkes-Reed, Rachelle Hunt, Robert S. Malan and Sammy Smith)

Annihilation, Alex Garland
Avengers: Infinity War, Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely
Black Panther, Ryan Coogler & Joe Robert Cole
The Haunting of Hill House [season 1], Mike Flanagan
Inside No. 9, series 4, Steve Pemberton & Reece Shearsmith
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Phil Lord & Rodney Rothman

Best Horror Novel (the August Derleth Award) (jurors: Charlotte Bond, Emeline Morin, Gareth Spark, Mark West and Zoe Wible)

The Cabin at the End of the World, by Paul Tremblay (Titan Books)
Little Eve, by Catriona Ward (W&N)
The Way of the Worm, by Ramsey Campbell (PS Publishing)
Wolf’s Hill, by Simon Bestwick (Snowbooks)

Best Independent Press (jurors: Helen Armfield, Andrew Freudenberg, Daniel Godfrey, Elaine Hillson and Georgina Kamsika)

Fox Spirit Books
Luna Press Publishing
NewCon Press
Unsung Stories

Best Magazine/Periodical (jurors: Jenny Barber, Peter Blanchard, Theresa Derwin, James T. Harding and Rym Kechacha)

Black Static
Gingernuts of Horror
Interzone
Shoreline of Infinity
Uncanny Magazine

Best Newcomer (the Sydney J Bounds Award) (jurors: Colleen Anderson, Rosie Claverton, Lee Fletcher, D Franklin and Peter Sutton)

Tomi Adeyemi, for The Children of Blood and Bone (Macmillan Children’s Books)
Cameron Johnston, for The Traitor God (Angry Robot)
R.F. Kuang, for The Poppy War (HarperVoyager)
Tasha Suri, for Empire of Sand (Orbit)
Marian Womack, for Lost Objects (Luna Press Publishing)
Micah Yongo, for Lost Gods (Angry Robot)

Best Non-Fiction (jurors: Laura Carroll, Megan Graieg, Katherine Inskip, Kev McVeigh and Graeme K. Talboys)

The Evolution of African Fantasy and Science Fiction, ed. Francesca T Barbini (Luna Press Publishing)
The Full Lid, by Alasdair Stuart (alasdairstuart.com/the-full-lid)
Ginger Nuts of Horror (www.gingernutsofhorror.com)
Les Vampires, by Tim Major (PS Publishing)
Noises and Sparks, by Ruth E.J. Booth (Shoreline of Infinity)

Best Novella (jurors: Ruth E.J. Booth, Elloise Hopkins, Stewart Hotston, Steve Howarth and Laura Mauro)

Binti: The Night Masquerade, by Nnedi Okorafor (Tor.com)
Breakwater, by Simon Bestwick (Tor Books)
The Land of Somewhere Safe, by Hal Duncan (NewCon Press)
The Last Temptation of Dr Valentine, by John Llewellyn Probert (Black Shuck Books)
The Only Harmless Great Thing, by Brooke Bolander (Tor.com)
The Tea Master and the Detective, by Aliette de Bodard (Subterranean Press)

Best Short Fiction (jurors: Donna Bond, Amy Brennan, Andrew Hook, Richard Webb and Mairi White)

"Down Where Sound Comes Blunt", by G.V. Anderson (F&SFMarch/April 2018)
"Her Blood the Apples, Her Bones the Trees", by Georgina Bruce (The Silent Garden: A Journal of Esoteric Fabulism)
"In the Gallery of Silent Screams", by Carole Johnstone & Chris Kelso (Black Static #65)
"A Son of the Sea", by Priya Sharma (All the Fabulous Beasts)
"Telling Stories", by Ruth E.J. Booth (The Dark #43)
"Thumbsucker", by Robert Shearman (New Fears 2)

Seems like a good list at a glance, but then I would think that: sixteen things I voted for made the shortlist, compared to only five last year! The m/f balance of the nominees is surprisingly good: about half of the nominees have male creators, slightly under half have female creators, and a few per cent have both male and female creators.

Looking at the jurors, there are a lot of names I don't recognise, though that isn't necessarily a bad thing if it keeps it fresh. It looks like about three-fifths of the jurors are female, and about two-fifths are male. The BFS chair is on the independent press jury, and I think that's inappropriate (have we forgotten 2011 already? the whole reason juries were introduced?), but at least there's only that one committee member on there this time, a big improvement on last year.

Though we aren't nominated ourselves, there is some interest for TQF readers, thanks to two contributors making the shortlist. Allen Ashley co-edited Humanagerie with Sarah Doyle, up for best anthology, and Tim Major's book Les Vampires is up for non-fiction. Best of luck to both of them! And as usual I wrote a tiny percentage of Interzone, up for best magazine.

Worth noting that all but nine of the nominees were on the suggestions list, so be sure to add the stuff you like (and your own stuff!) to that list next year. The nine not on the list were Bedtime Stories for the End of the World, The Future is Blue, 100 Demon Dialogues, Saga, Widdershins, The Children of Blood and Bone, Binti: The Night Masquerade, "Down Where Sound Comes Blunt" and "In the Gallery of Silent Screams". I'm guessing that quite a few of those were added as egregious omissions, but I could easily be wrong.

It’s a bit frustrating to see categories with only four nominees, meaning that those juries passed up the chance to add anything. But the decision has to be unanimous, and if one juror digs their feet in, there’s nothing that the rest of the jury can do about it. I remember one juror who thought it was in principle wrong to add egregious omissions, because it was overriding the will of the BFS membership, and I had to explain at no doubt boring length that it was the BFS membership who gave the juries that power, and explain why we did it: so that the juries could make up for our myopia.

To be fair, last year the juries were only given a couple of weeks to decide their egregious omissions. If that was the case this year, it meant that the jurors would have had a lot of work to do very quickly. Not adding anything is perhaps most understandable in the horror novel category, where only fifteen suggestions in total were put forward for the award this year.

Having made those excuses, the best artist category is a shocker. I admire David Rix of Eibonvale Press and the work he does very much, but he produces a handful of covers for his own books each year. In that context, a jury that couldn't come up with any full-time, professional artists who were egregiously omitted wasn't doing its job properly.

Anyway, the winners will be announced at FantasyCon 2019 on Sunday, October 20, in Glasgow. So that gives me ninety days to read, watch and listen to as many of the categories as I can, as my summer reading challenge, acting as a kind of one-man shadow jury. I’ll talk about the nominees, and what I’d be voting for and why if I were on the jury.

It won’t be in any order other than when I get my hands on the material. I won't be as brutal as the juries can be, given that the authors could read the blog. And it won't give you any indication at all of what might win, because jurors can have such wildly different tastes, and indeed the juries might choose entirely different ways to come to their decisions. But it should be fun for me to do. I've started reading the best novella nominees first.

Saturday, 1 June 2019

If Then by Matthew de Abaitua | review by Stephen Theaker

James is the bailiff of Lewes. When the Process decides that people – a village, a family, a child – must be removed, he cannot resist for long the urge to put on the armour and abandon himself to it, stomping around the countryside, scooping up those who refuse exile. He tries the peaceful approach first, popping round for a chat to see if they will leave freely, but of course even then he wears personal body armour in case of ambush.

Taking this job was the price of being allowed into Lewes after the economy collapsed and everyone became unemployed, destitute, desperate and homeless. Ruth, James’s wife, worked in a library in Hackney in the run-up to the great Seizure, and as other public institutions closed she saw it become the final destination of hundreds of people with nowhere else to go for help – and then there was nowhere at all.

Now that Ruth and James, and about ten thousand others, are a part of the Process, she works as a seamstress in the evenings and a schoolteacher in the day. The other people in town, all of them bearing the telltale data stripe from their crowns to their necks, fear her, because of her husband, believing that the Process will want to keep him happy, and thus will keep his wife happy. They also pity her: he’s not quite the man he used to be.

This relationship, which has already survived so much, faces a new crisis when the name Agnes appears on the eviction list. No one is surprised to see drunks, criminals and other undesirables on the list, though their families may fight tooth and nail to prevent their eviction, but Agnes is a child, one of Ruth’s pupils. “If you evict Agnes,” she says, “it will be difficult for me to love you.” James wonders, “Are we evil? Is this what evil looks like?”

The Process does have a benevolent side. On allocation day everyone, from Lewes and the nearby estates and villages, comes to the old supermarket, where “peeling posters showed bleached photographs of bygone normality, goods and prices, smiling faces, times of plenty, the strangeness of the lost everyday”. Now the shelves are filled by transparent boxes, containing the goods allocated to each person by the Process, sometimes even scraps of advice.

The strangeness of this life, this peculiar society, and the pressure it puts on this couple and everybody else, would be interesting enough in itself – this part is called If – but where a science fiction novel of the sixties or seventies might have stopped, this book takes a new direction: Then. The Process isn’t simply concerned with its participants’ wellbeing, it’s not something that happens to them: they are a part of it, and of each other, and it’s drawing them further in.

At the book’s beginning James finds Hector, a new-made soldier, hanging from barbed wire, “not quite a man”, a creation of the Process. His wounds reveal “spokes of tightly-packed crimson seeds like a pomegranate”. He wears a khaki tunic, puttees, hob-nailed boots, woollen trousers and an overcoat; a lifesize World War I toy soldier. James takes him to the Institute, an addled group of scientists on the fringe of the Process, mutated by their own experiments.

But Hector is only the beginning. Later come rifles, shells, cannons, “miles of barbed wire, legions of horse”, and, as the need for production overtakes capacity, men “with greatcoats fused to their skin and no feet in their boots”, until at last the humans of the Process themselves are co-opted into a phoney war, their memories muddled, their behaviour reshaped like the landscape, so that they fight and die in a replica of the coastline of Gallipoli.

This is a powerful novel (Angry Robot pb, 416pp, £8.99), both in its portrayal of the horrors of World War I, the wasteful loss of life, the dreadful conditions, the failures of those who let the war happen, and also in showing how easily the systems that support our modern-day lives could fall apart. And of course the book is all about the correlations between the two, about what happens when people get to experiment or play war games with the mass of human life, when we are treated as an expendable resource.

When Ruth enters the war in search of James, she meets a replica of Noel Huxley. “Every day is strange, threatening and uncertain,” she says of the future. “We are not in control of our lives.” To which Huxley replies, “That is a description of the soldier’s life.” The book suggests how much of ourselves we’d give up for a quiet life, and it’s hard to argue with its conclusions. ****

This review originally appeared in Interzone #261.

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.