Tuesday, 12 November 2019

Maleficent: Mistress of Evil | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Maleficent’s coming to dinner! Elegant antihero meets regal villain.

One can’t help but be drawn in when Maleficent’s (Angelina Jolie) vampiric face fills the screen. It is impassive, cadaverous. Shockingly prominent cheekbones frame snakelike eyes. And the lips… they’re red enough to stop traffic. Unlike the physically expressive Joker (her top box office competitor), Maleficent is perfectly poised… even, it seems, when she’s angry.

In Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, directed by Joachim Rønning, the unfairy-like fairy has met her match: Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer), duplicitous queen of Alstead. Queen Ingrith’s words and actions are as cold and calculated as her colorless wardrobe.

Prince Philip (Harris Dickinson) of Alstead proposes to a gleeful Aurora (Elle Fanning), whom Maleficent has raised and installed as queen of the Moors, home of all kinds of fantastical creatures. Philip’s parents King John (Robert Lindsay) and Queen Ingrid applaud the union, albeit for different reasons. Maleficent, wary of humans, is reluctant – rumours labelling her and her kind as killers of men have spread amongst the inhabitants of Alstead.

When the parents meet for dinner at Alstead Castle, tension reaches an apex: Queen Ingrid knows just what to say to try Maleficent’s patience. Philip and Aurora attempt to de-escalate the situation. A debacle ensues. Maleficent finds herself amid the exiled dark fey. Back at Castle Alstead, plans for the wedding move forward… as do other, more nefarious plans.

Disney’s beautifully rendered fantasy settings share the stage with the leading ladies. Examples include the vibrant moors, the pristine gardens of Castle Alstead, and a stunning cave setting. Then there are the creatures that populate this world: colourful fairies, giant tree creatures, and pixies galore.

The film’s biggest drawback is the way that the dark fey are portrayed. They are one-dimensional and theatrical – one gets the impression of high school students using exaggerated movements to compensate for a lack of meaningful dialogue. Moreover, the group’s two leaders who externalize an angel/devil battle within Maleficent are weakly drawn.

This film pulls out all the typical stops to induce emotion. Admittedly, it worked on me. Positive messages abound: forgiveness, the mother/daughter bond, self-sacrifice, cultural integration, and, perhaps most prominently, peace between the natural and human worlds.—Douglas J. Ogurek ****

Read Douglas’s review of Maleficent (2014).

Monday, 28 October 2019

Joker | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Other comic book-based movies laughable in comparison to masterpiece that emphasizes character, explores social stigma on mental illness

A Joker movie poster depicts the villain dressed in his full regalia and leaning back triumphantly at the top of an outdoor staircase. However, near the film’s beginning, Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), depressed, tired and undernourished, sluggishly ascends that same staircase. Thus, director Todd Phillips establishes a pact with the viewer: I will show you, he implies, the transformation of this struggling nobody into Batman’s vibrant archenemy.

Gotham is a crime-ridden, depressing city in the midst of a garbage strike. Clown-for-hire Arthur lives in a rundown apartment building with his shut-in mother Penny (Frances Conroy). Arthur gets beat up, lied to, made fun of, taken advantage of… and on top of all that, he suffers from severe mental illness, including a “condition” that causes him to laugh uncontrollably, even in circumstances that he doesn’t necessarily find funny.

Abandoned by society, Arthur fights back against his oppressors and begins to embrace his mental illness. Phoenix’s masterful performance renders a character with mesmerizing unpredictability. Arthur’s individuality manifests in everything from his unorthodox humour and extended bouts of laughter to his clownish run and the ever-shifting expressions on his gaunt face. When Arthur laughs hysterically after he discovers tragic news about himself, the viewer feels competing emotions – it’s funny, but it’s intensely sad. Throughout Joker, the viewer experiences something rare in today’s films: empathy with the bad guy.

Historically, Joker has been portrayed as a criminal mastermind. Phoenix’s deranged version seems incapable of such elaborate planning. Arthur, his sights set on becoming a stand-up comedian, has no grand philosophy or goal – he just wants to be noticed. Thus, it’s fascinating to watch as Gotham’s underprivileged citizens misinterpret his actions and establish him as the symbol of a movement against the rich and powerful.

During the film, Arthur does a great deal of ascending and descending of staircases. Fitting, since his journey involves a descent from the “higher ground” of how the world wants him to act down to the pandemonium of the streets, where he will be king. As a film, Joker also steps down from Hollywood’s comic book pedestal dominated by one-dimensional characters, silly banter, clichés, and overblown special effects. Batman and Iron Man have their expensive technologies. Captain America and Wolverine have their strength. Spider-Man has his acrobatics. But Joker has the most potent power of all: his eccentricity.—Douglas J. Ogurek *****

Tuesday, 22 October 2019

Lone Wolf 30: Dead in the Deep | review by Rafe McGregor

Lone Wolf 30: Dead in the Deep by Vincent Lazzari and Ben Dever
Holmgard Press, hardback, £19.99, June 2019, ISBN 9781527240797

Given the many trials and tribulations experienced by Joe Dever in securing a reliable publisher for the New Order series (21 onwards) of his Lone Wolf gamebooks from the mid-nineties, my main concerns whenever a new book is released are whether I will receive it and what kind of production values it will have. The details of the first two decades of Joe’s struggle can be found in my review of Lone Wolf 21: TheVoyage of the Moonstone and the last two years in my review of Lone Wolf 29: The Storms of Chai. While I was writing the latter in November 2016, the series and its considerable fan base suffered the ultimate setback in Joe’s untimely death and it seemed like his Holmgard Press would close after less than a year in operation. The press has, however, been relaunched at www.magnamund.com and appears to be run by his son, Ben, who is jointly responsible for the completion of the series (books 30 to 32) with Vincent Lazzari. The ordering process from the website is simple with safe if not speedy delivery following. Dead in the Deep is a hefty tome (there are no page numbers in consequence of the sections used for gameplay, but it is over two inches thick) and although the paper used is of lower quality than the Collector’s Editions published by Mongoose and Mantikore, the finished product makes for a neat fit with the rest. In keeping with almost all of the series to date, Dead in the Keep consists of three hundred and fifty sections and you can perhaps imagine my disappointment when I discovered sections 319 to 330 were absent from my copy, a repeat of sections 233 to 251 appearing in their place. I contacted Holmgard about the problem and received a very quick response to the effect that a replacement would be sent to me without any extra charge or a requirement to return the defective copy (I always resent either of these inconveniences if the fault lies with the publisher or the supplier). I received the replacement in due course and I only relate the complication as evidence of why I am confident in recommending Holmgard Press to any and all potential readers. At present, they also offer the Collector’s Edition of Lone Wolf 23: Mydnight’s Hero (£16.99) and twenty-five very attractive art prints that look like alternative book covers. The Collector’s Edition of Lone Wolf 24: Rune War (also £16.99) is the next book due for release (no date given).

I mentioned my intense emotional (and, once or twice, extravagant financial) investment in the franchise in previous reviews and this investment is at its greatest now when it looks like the cycle, which Joe originally envisaged as consisting of thirty-two books, might actually be completed. I reproduce the first two paragraphs of Ben’s short foreword here:

Two weeks before my dad passed away he asked Vincent and myself to complete the Lone Wolf series. It’s a huge honour to finally be able to share with you the first part of the epic conclusion to his unique saga.

A life’s work underpins this book, and the details of the story were dictated in the palliative care ward at Whipps Cross Hospital. And so, although the first draft was produced by Vincent, and the final draft by myself, we both feel that this book is as much a creation of my dad’s imagination as any other Lone Wolf story. This is his book.

Bearing in mind the outstanding calibre of The Storms of Chai (which really was worth the seventeen year wait), the stakes for someone who has followed the series for as long as I have, and such a touching and tasteful tribute from Ben, it is very difficult to approach this gamebook with any kind of critical objectivity. So, let me cut to the chase… in summary, Dead in the Deep does not live up to the promise of its prequel. I saw my options as to either explain my evaluation in a mixed review or to stop reviewing the cycle. I decided on the latter for the Autumn Snow series following my for the most part negative review of Autumn Snow 2: TheWildlands Hunt last year. Obviously, I decided on the former for the Lone Wolf series – on the basis that, with only two books left to go, I shall buy and play them no matter what and because while Lone Wolf is partly for lifelong enthusiasts like me, it is also for a younger generation of players who deserve an honest review.

The Storms of Chai began in the early spring of MS 5102, seventeen years after the conclusion of Lone Wolf 28: The Hunger of Sejanoz, with Lone Wolf holding a council in which he revealed that Magnamund was under a coordinated attack by an unknown force. There were six armies attacking six different locations and the six Kai Grand Masters were despatched accordingly. Mine, True Friend (whose deadly Kai powers are only exceeded by the silliness of his randomly-generated Kai name), proceeded to the remote Bhanarian city of Bakhasa with the intention of recovering the new Claw of Naar before the Nadziranim sorcerer Zashnor could use it to create a weapon of mass destruction. There was a real sense of urgency in The Storms of Chai, the feeling that the Kai were fighting to save the whole of Magnamund rather than just Sommerlund (as was the case in the consecutive Kai and Magnakai series, books 1 to 12). This urgency and import created the expectation of a rapidly-paced push to the conclusion of the whole cycle in the last four books and the expectation was exceeded to the extent that my only criticism of The Storms of Chai was that it took several attempts before True Friend survived to the very end.

The first indication that Dead in the Deep will not continue to meet these expectations is in “The Story So Far...” section, which is quite simply not as well-written as in previous books. This is not a major flaw in a gamebook aimed at a young adult audience, but it makes for a disappointing beginning.  Lone Wolf’s Grand Masters have been reduced in number from six to three (including True Friend) and the survivors are all sent on missions whose goals are deliberately withheld from one another. True Friend is despatched on a rescue mission, to find missing Grand Master Steel Hand. Unfortunately, this plot has already been used thrice in the cycle (in Lone Wolf 14: The Captives of Kaag, the graphic novel The Skull of Agarash, and Lone Wolf 25: Trail of the Wolf) and takes him to the Maakengorge, a location that has already been used twice (in Lone Wolf 4: The Chasm of Doom and Lone Wolf 16: The Legacy of Vashna). The combination of these factors put me in a pessimistic mood for play, pre-primed for sensitivity to a lowering of quality and lack of originality. My pessimism was exacerbated by the fact that the adventure has a slow start, with very little action and a largely linear narrative.

Dead in the Deep nonetheless grows on one as the game becomes progressively more exciting and challenging. As such, it is very much a narrative of three parts. The first, which is slow in comparison to The Storms of Chai, involves the journey to Emolryia. The second involves the exploration of Emolryia, the Hidden Citadel, the Maakengorge, the Lake of Blood, the Underworld, and the Chaos Prison. As soon as True Friend descended beneath the lake to the Underworld, I felt I was back in the midst of the an original, complex, tense, and exciting game that might reach at least some of the promise of The Storms of Chai. The third and final part involves the escape from Emolryia, which returns to the frenetic pace of its predecessor and has obviously been crafted with great style and skill. In this part the pace literally never lets up, continuing right to the final section of the adventure. Dead in the Deep cannot compare to The Storms of Chai, but in retrospect it is entertaining, satisfying, and well worth the cost in both money and time when judged on its own merits.

Regarding gameplay as opposed to the literary or narrative elements of the volume, Dead in the Deep is much easier to survive than The Storms of Chai, with combat less frequent and for the most part less challenging. There are nonetheless several other ways to fail the mission – too many, in my opinion. Where a tedious opening can be forgiven and forgotten in the heat of a climactic dénouement and resolution, gameplay problems are of greater concern. With the gaming pleasure of future players in mind, I thus offer the following advice:

1.      You cannot gain access to the Hidden Citadel without an Amulet of Fealty, but by the time you arrive in Emolryia it is too late to secure one.

2.      You must hang on to the Platinum Amulet at all costs.

3.      You must give Steel Hand your Nyaxator armour when presented with the opportunity to do so.

4.      The New Order Kai Grand Master Disciplines of Assimilation and Kai-Alchemy are very important for successful completion of the mission.

I noted my reservations about writing this review above and I hope that neither Ben nor Vincent will feel that my criticisms have been unfair should they read it. No, Dead in the Deep is not nearly as good as The Storms of Chai, but when one considers the tragic circumstances of its conception and publication, it is a truly remarkable achievement by the two authors.

As with all the other Collector’s Editions, there is a bonus adventure, “Kaum Before the Storm”, written by Vincent and long-time Lone Wolf collaborator August Hahn. I was hoping that the supplement would pick up where the previous bonus adventure left off, with Lord Elkamo Doko, a Vakeros warrior-mage, but the player adopts a new persona here, that of Kai Grand Master Blazer. I cannot comment on the game as the publication of Dead in the Deep found me in the middle of my first house move in nearly fifteen years and I only had time to play the main game before bubble-wrapping the book. The penultimate adventure in the cycle is Lone Wolf 31: The Dusk of the Eternal Night, which will be published by Holmgard, but for which no publication date has yet been announced. With Ben and Vincent at the helm, I’m cautiously optimistic that True Friend’s next mission won’t be too long in coming. In the meantime, my next mission is to work out which box I put Dead in the Deep in…

Sunday, 20 October 2019

British Fantasy Awards 2019: the Winners!

The British Fantasy Awards have just been announced, at FantasyCon 2019 in Glasgow. I had a go at reading this year's nominees and failed abysmally, only finishing three categories. All the other half-finished blog posts will be repurposed into reviews for a future issue!

The British Fantasy Awards are decided by juries, who before reading the nominees have the option of adding up to two additional items to those placed on the shortlist by the votes of British Fantasy Society members (including me) and FantasyCon attendees (not me this time).

Note that the jurors given below are those that were originally announced to BFS members. I haven't seen any announcements that anyone dropped out or was replaced, but it does happen sometimes, when people realise that there's a conflict of interest.

Here are the winners:

Anthology: Year’s Best Weird Fiction, Vol. 5, ed. Robert Shearman & Michael Kelly (Undertow Publications)

The jurors were Roz Clarke, Ian Hunter, Susan Oke, Steve J. Shaw and Joni Walker. Always a bit disappointing when year's best volumes win this award, after cherry picking the best of work that was already eligible the previous year, but despite much debate they are still eligible and so you can't blame the jurors, who have to pick the best of what's on the shortlist.

Artist: Vince Haig

The jurors were Astra Crompton, Alexandra Gushurst-Moore, Kaia Lichtarska, Catherine Sullivan and Paul Yates.

Audio: Breaking the Glass Slipper (www.breakingtheglassslipper.com)

The jurors were Alicia Fitton, Thomas Moules, Susie Pritchard-Casey, Abigail Shaw and Neil Williamson. I only got around to listening to one of the nominees in this category, Blood on Satan's Claw, based on the film. It had terrific sound design.

Collection: All the Fabulous Beasts, by Priya Sharma (Undertow Publications)

The jurors were Ben Appleby-Dean, Amy Chevis-Bruce, Marc Gascoigne, Laura Newsholme and Chloë Yates. The only book I managed to read in this category was Lost Objects by Marian Womack, which was excellent. Looking forward to reading the winner and other nominees.

Comic/Graphic Novel: Widdershins, Vol. 7, by Kate Ashwin

The jurors were Kate Barton, Emily Hayes, Steven Poore, Alasdair Stuart and Kiwi Tokoeka. I read everything in this category and this is an utterly baffling decision. How could anyone possibly conclude that this nice enough book was better than Hellboy: The Complete Short Stories, Vol. 1? Suppose it could have been worse: one of the other nominees in this category was a prose novella.

Fantasy Novel (the Robert Holdstock Award): The Bitter Twins, by Jen Williams (Headline)

The jurors were Sarah Carter, Shona Kinsella, Devin Martin, Pauline Morgan and Andrew White. I only read Empire of Sand in this category.

Film/Television Production: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Phil Lord & Rodney Rothman

The jurors were Rebecca Davis, Pat Hawkes-Reed, Rachelle Hunt, Robert S. Malan and Sammy Smith. My pick for this one, having watched them all, would have been Annihilation, but my guess was that Into the Spider-Verse would win. And for once I was right!

Horror Novel (the August Derleth Award): Little Eve, by Catriona Ward (W&N)

The jurors were Charlotte Bond, Emeline Morin, Gareth Spark, Mark West and Zoe Wible. Little Eve would have been my pick of the three I read in this category. I listened to the audiobook and Carolyn Bonnyman's reading of the audiobook added immensely to the atmosphere. The Way of the Worm is the one I haven't finished yet, but I'm enjoying it very much so far.

Independent Press: Unsung Stories

The jurors were Helen Armfield (chair of the BFS), Andrew Freudenberg, Daniel Godfrey, Elaine Hillson and Georgina Kamsika. I'm currently reading a new book from this publisher, Always North, by Vicki Jarrett.

Magazine/Periodical: Uncanny Magazine

The jurors were Jenny Barber, Peter Blanchard, Theresa Derwin, James T. Harding and Rym Kechacha.

Newcomer (the Sydney J. Bounds Award): Tasha Suri, for Empire of Sand (Orbit)

The jurors were Colleen Anderson, Rosie Claverton, Lee Fletcher, D Franklin and Peter Sutton. I'm stunned by this result: it's one of the most tedious, bloviated books I've ever read. My pick of the four books I read in this category would have been Marian Womack for Lost Objects, but my guess was that Tomi Adeyemi would win for Children of Blood and Bone, which was a lot of fun and packed solid with adventure. The books I hadn't read yet were Lost Gods and The Traitor Gods.

Non-fiction: Noise and Sparks, by Ruth E.J. Booth (Shoreline of Infinity)

The jurors were Laura Carroll, Megan Graieg, Katherine Inskip, Kev McVeigh and Graeme K. Talboys.

Novella: The Tea Master and the Detective, by Aliette de Bodard (Subterranean Press)

The jurors were Ruth E.J. Booth, Elloise Hopkins, Stewart Hotston, Steve Howarth and Laura Mauro. Unusual to have something I voted for actually win the award! And I guessed correctly that it would win, although my pick, after reading the other nominees too, would have been The Land of Somewhere Safe, by Hal Duncan. I'm glad the award didn't go to either of the ineligible nominees; that would have been awkward.

Short Fiction: "Down Where Sound Comes Blunt", by G.V. Anderson (F&SFMarch/April 2018)

The jurors were Donna Bond, Amy Brennan, Andrew Hook, Richard Webb and Mairi White.

The Special Award (the Karl Edward Wagner Award): Ian Whates

The jury for this award is the BFS committee (currently: Katherine Fowler, James Barclay, Andy Marsden, Lee Harris, Shona Kinsella, Tim Major, Helen Armfield, Karen Fishwick, Allen Ashley, Sean Wilcock and Christopher Teague; though not everyone necessarily participates and the decision could have been taken at any point in the course of the year). For the third year running, the BFS membership wasn't invited to make suggestions, contrary to the rules of this award, putting a question mark over its validity, but Ian Whates would be a deserving winner.

There was no mention on Twitter of a Legends of FantasyCon being awarded: I'm told the announcement was delayed as the recipient did not attend the convention.

The physical award has changed this year: rather than the handmade bookends used from 2014 to 2018, the new award, also handmade, looks like this. They were created by Morag Hickman, who describes them as "a bolted sandwich of laser-cut acrylic, containing the archway and rocks in birch plywood and layers of hand-cut green vellum ivy leaves".

Congratulations to all the winners, and all the nominees, and as a BFS member, thank you to the jurors who devoted so much of their summers to helping out with our society's awards, and also to Katherine Fowler, the British Fantasy Awards Administrator, for doing a fine job again.

I don't think I will try to read all the nominees again next year. It was interesting to do once, but it was quite expensive and took a lot of time. Next time I think I will just pick out a few nominees that look good and review those as normal.

BFA Shadow Juror: Film and Television Productions

One last post in this failed series before the actual awards are announced!

An odd thing about this category is that it is an all-male shortlist, meaning that the jury was presented with an all-male preliminary shortlist, and despite the idea of egregious omissions being to rectify such situations, they decided to add two more items written by men. Perhaps they felt that the items they added were just so good that they had to be considered egregious omissions, regardless of the creators’ sex. Anyway, here's what I thought of the nominees:

Inside No. 9, series 4. This is such a great show. Innovative in its structure and storytelling, and telling a wide variety of stories. There's a wonderfully-observed story about a former comedy duo that went bad. Another about a house full of dead bodies, told in reverse. The problem with regard to this award, though, is that only one of the six is a fantasy story, and this is a fantasy award. A Halloween special out in 2018 was a supernatural story (and a very good one too), but isn't part of series four. Even if included, that would still only be two episodes out of seven: a typical example of the tendency of BFS and FantasyCon members to treat these as awards for things and people they like, regardless of genre. My rating: five stars. To-win rating: 1/10

The Haunting of Hill House, season 1. I started watching this when it came out but stopped after a couple of episodes, not at all grabbed. Watching it now for this project, it was definitely better than I had thought at first. Watching on my own late at night gave the scares quite a boost, but also it all become more meaningful once I had a handle on which kids were which adults. It had some extremely effective scares, both jump scares and slow creeping terror scares. Episode six, with what gives the impression of being one long shot for its first half, is an absolute tour de force. Some of the ghostly appearances are made even more frightening by being so subtle and unnoticed by the protagonists. But the ending isn't great: it gets quite soapy, there isn’t much of a pay-off for some things, and by the end the house starts to feel rather like a retirement home. My rating: three stars. To-win rating: 5/10

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. I thought this was very good fun, though it felt like the Superior Spider-Man was missing – it might have been hard to work him into the film, but the tension he created in the original comic was one of the best things about it. Maybe they’re saving him for the future. And where were the monsters eating spider-people? As a comics fan, it did feel a bit like this was praised to the heavens for doing things that actual comics have been doing for decades. It was a nifty film, though, and all the spider-people in it were a lot of fun. My children have watched it lots of times and still want to watch it again. My rating: three stars. To-win rating: 6/10

Avengers: Infinity War. Most of you have probably seen it. It’s a stunning achievement in film-making. It’s the culmination of a decade of big budget storytelling on a scale that cinema has never seen before. And it’s fine. I enjoyed watching it a lot. It made me laugh lots of times. It had lots of my favourite characters. It had that astonishing ending, the kind of ending you can only have when you know that there’s going to be a sequel. I appreciate that it showed me things no other film could have managed. But Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Thor: Ragnarok were just that bit better. My rating: three stars. To-win rating: 7/10

Black Panther. After watching this, I said to my family that what Jack Kirby was to comics in the twentieth century, he might well be for cinema in the twenty-first. Now we also have New Gods, Eternals and one hopes a real Fantastic Four film on the way. I thought this was by far the most Kirby-esque of Marvel’s films I had seen at that point, in look and feel and kineticism, and as well as all that it was a good adventure with an excellent villain and supporting cast. Black Panther himself was maybe a bit overshadowed. My rating: three stars. To-win rating: 7/10

Annihilation. I loved this film. It was beautiful and strange, with a tremendous cast doing brilliant work. More than any of the other nominees it addressed our future, and the likelihood that there will come a point where we’ll lose control of our environment and be faced with the necessity of adaptation. I really would love this to win. My rating: four stars. To-win rating: 8/10

Will that win? I’m guessing it probably won’t. It’s been a bit of a marmite film, and some people really don’t like the last bit. It would be barmy for Inside No. 9 to win, and I don’t think Hill House was quite good enough to win, but I think it could go to any of the three Marvel films. I’ll guess Spider-Verse, because the people who love it really, really love it.

My children (having seen everything but Hill House and Annihilation) reckon that Spider-Verse should win, but that She-Ra and the Princesses of Power should have been on the shortlist and it is better than any of them. ("Obviously!")

Saturday, 5 October 2019

Hunters & Collectors by M. Suddain | review by Stephen Theaker

The mother of Jonathan Tamberlain threatened to kill him if he ever squandered his gifts on criticism, and she wasn't just speaking metaphorically, he tells us, she told him exactly how she would do it. She was an art collector, his father a poet; the two of them met at a boxing match. Sparring with his father left Tamberlain in a coma, and he woke up with an amazing nose, one that can catch the scent of a wine from half a mile away.

So he did exactly what his mother didn't want: he became a food critic, though that's not what he calls himself. He follows the example of his hero, Eliö Lebaubátain, in claiming the title of "forensic gastronomer". It's not entirely clear why, since there's no legal aspect to his work – or at least there wouldn't be, if he didn't always get himself into so much trouble.

The book (Jonathan Cape pb, 506pp, £14.99) begins with snatches of writing from and about his early career, showing his rise to fame, but by the time the narrative settles down to its main adventure, he's had the time to develop a long and intense relationship with his bodyguard, the marvellously formidable Gladys. To her he's "like a grandpa you spend time with out of guilt", and for him she's like the annoying cousin your family takes on day trips, but they share an utter dedication to their respective jobs that is one of the novel's most interesting features.

Unfortunately, Gladys wasn't there the day he went to the Fair.

While Tamberlain grew up in the Western Hemisphere with a pair of liberal parents, the Eastern Hemisphere lived under the absolute control of Vlada Yinknokov, the Great Butcher. She had a billion people murdered during her revolution, including thousands of architects and doctors. She outlawed hospitals, declaring that from then on diseases would be cured by the will of the people. And she came to the Fair too.

Tamberlain only attended to make amends to an old friend. In that he failed miserably, and after a contretemps involving a bomb threat he didn't mean to make he was taken away to the Great Butcher's yacht, waking up to find a gas mask on his face and everyone including the dictator dead, following a nerve gas attack. Arrested and taken to the Eastern Hemisphere for interrogation, he fell into another coma, and it's when he wakes up that the story proper begins.

Dr Rubin Difflaydermaus is a batty psychiatrist with a habit of showing up in Tamberlain's head. He also has his book (Infinity Remastered: Engineering the Post-Human Species (and Why Our Great-Grandchildren Might Not Even Need Bodies)) delivered wherever Tamberlain is sleeping. The copy waiting after the critic's latest coma contains a clue: a laundry ticket from the legendary Hotel Grand Skies.

Tamberlain has long dreamt of eating at its famous restaurant, the Undersea. Nothing will stop him getting to the hotel, and once he gets there, nothing will stop him eating that meal. He'll literally wade through blood to get it, and he'll need to, because the staff have completely lost their minds and every interaction brings with it the threat of ultraviolence. Ace literary agent Daniel Woodbine and bodyguard Gladys will do their best to keep him alive as the severed heads pile up, but he won't make it easy for them.

Hunters & Collectors is quite reminiscent of Transmetropolitan, by Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson, and may appeal to the same people. Instead of political writer Spider Jerusalem and his filthy assistants we have here a food critic, but he adopts a similarly misanthropic worldview ("To me the greatest possible horror is not that humanity might end, but that our Empire of Stupidity might last forever") to protect a heart similarly sensitive to the horrors of his world. Like that comic, this is not an entirely serious book, but it does have moments that are truly shocking, and others that feel surprisingly sincere.

The sf ideas at its heart, on the other hand, may not come as great surprises, at least not to people who have a holodeck episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, but the book is after all being sold as modern contemporary fiction rather than sf, and it uses its rusty tools to tell quite a sharp story. Equally, what seems at first to be quite an experimental novel, beginning with a hundred-page flutter of notes, letters, fragments and diagrams, settles down after that to provide quite a conventional first-person narrative that nevertheless does the job.

That's the book in a nutshell: a bit less ambitious than it looks, but still quite good, and rather well executed. Just like the guests at the Hotel Grand Skies. ***

This review originally appeared in Interzone #265.

Wednesday, 25 September 2019

It Chapter Two | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Blockbuster horror soars when it clowns around, stumbles when it gets serious

Any horror aficionado worth his salt will scoff at a horror film that shows adults holding hands and chanting or, even worse, partaking in a group hug… unless, of course, those things are meant to be humorous. Unfortunately, both handholding and a group hug appear in It Chapter Two (directed by Andy Muschietti), and it’s this reviewer’s opinion that neither of them is meant to be funny. These two more glaring horror faux pas encapsulate the key shortcoming of the film: sacrificing silliness, the film’s strength, for touchy-feely posturing.

Twenty-seven years have passed since Pennywise the Dancing Clown (aka It) wreaked havoc on a group of friends in Stephen King’s fictitious town of Derry, Maine. Now they’ve gone their separate ways and become successful adults. Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa), the only one who has remained in Derry, convinces the others to return and defeat Pennywise – they did, after all, make a blood pact when they were kids.

On the positive side, It Chapter Two retains and intensifies one of the first film’s greatest assets: creepy, yet funny manifestations of Pennywise. This time around, the viewer gets treated to a large statue that comes to life, a crazed fiend that makes fun of one character’s sappy poem, a bodiless pair of legs, and much more.

Alas, the film takes a nosedive when the friends revisit a setting from the first film in a climactic scene that goes on for far too long. There is a shift from playfulness to melodrama. A voice-over offers a message about friendship. First, these “friends” haven’t seen each other in 27 years, so how close can they be? Second, this is a film about a supernatural clown. Let’s not get too deep.

The film’s saving grace is Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård). The monster has a complete lack of compassion for characters who are discriminated against or bullied. As in the first film, the best scene involves Pennywise manipulating an unsuspecting child. This time, it’s underneath the bleachers at a baseball game. However, It Chapter Two eventually squanders Skarsgård’s acting talents by heaping special effects upon the clown.

I didn’t go to see It Chapter Two to get some grand gesture about friendship among a group of “losers”; I went to see Pennywise’s antics. I got a healthy dose of the latter, but the former got shoved down my throat.—Douglas J. Ogurek ***

Read Douglas’s review of It.

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!