Friday, 18 September 2020

A Song for Quiet, by Cassandra Khaw (Tor.com) | review by Stephen Theaker


A bluesman in the sixties has a seed in his head, which, if he lets it grow, will let a being from a nearby dimension annihilate or reshape the world. A girl who is also infected finds that quite tempting, because the world she knows is so terrible. This was very good: what you might get if Philip K. Dick and James Baldwin collaborated on a Lovecraftian horror story. I particularly appreciated how it got across the kind of altered mental states that playing or listening to music can produce. ****

Wednesday, 16 September 2020

Castle Rock, Season 2 | review by Stephen Theaker

Season one of Castle Rock was one of my favourite shows of 2019. It told the story of a weird young man found in a prison basement, whose presence distorted the world around him. Though it ended with hints that we might next be taken to the Overlook Hotel, season two instead puts a thirty-something Annie Wilkes, travelling under an assumed name with her daughter Joy, in the town of Jerusalem’s Lot.

It gets off to a cracking start. Lizzy Caplan is brilliant as Annie Wilkes, desperate to get hold of anti-psychotics to keep herself on track, and you haven’t lived till you’ve seen what she can do with an ice scream scoop. The story could easily have been mistaken for a new season of Fargo, with the various members of a local family fighting over property and money. The supernatural elements, as they creep in, do not let it down at all. Tim Robbins plays Pop Merrill, while Paul Sparks is chilling as his son “Ace” Merrill – the bully from Stand By Me. Oscar-winner Barkhad Abdi and Yusra Warsama are also very good as Pop’s adopted Somalian children.

The one real problem I had was that some episodes (but not all, so it wasn’t a deliberate artistic choice) were missing the subtitles for their Somalian dialogue. The same problem happened with an episode that had lengthy sections in French, but in that case I was at least able to pause the programme and translate. (We were watching via the Starzplay channel on Amazon Prime Video.)

It feels more like a traditional Stephen King mini-series than season one, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. The first is weird and disorientating, the second has more action and more explicit ties to Stephen King’s work, and both are smashing in their own way. The only disappointment is knowing that we probably won’t see any of these characters again in season three.

And we did get to visit the Overlook Hotel in Doctor Sleep, the director’s cut of which was like the most expensive mini-series ever made. We also loved season one of The Outsider and enjoyed Mr Mercedes too, even if the villain of that one was essentially someone who had re-invented the Phillips Pronto. I saw someone joke recently about setting up a Stephen King television channel. I’d subscribe to any channel necessary to get season three of Castle Rock. Stephen Theaker ****

Friday, 11 September 2020

Athena Voltaire and the Sorcerer Pope, by Steve Bryant and Ismael Canales (Action Lab) | review by Stephen Theaker

Two British Special Intelligence agents are assigned missions in 1936. One agent is to assist a pair of archaelogists and Athena Voltaire in their quest for a relic, while the other will operate behind the scenes and try to nab the treasure first. Both are hindered by Nazis. It’s an Indiana Jones adventure with decent art, though it’s hard to tell some of the men apart. Sadly, the sorcerer pope of the title is the creator of the relic, rather than (so far as we know) an active character in this story. Stephen Theaker ***

Wednesday, 9 September 2020

A Rainy Day in New York | review by Stephen Theaker

This is effectively an English-language remake of the To Rome With Love storyline about a young couple who get separated for the day, the woman meeting a film star, the man inadvertently meeting an escort. And it does for New York and its tourist board what To Rome With Love did for that city, giving those of us in lockdown a vicarious holiday in the process.

Elle Fanning is hilarious and sparky as the ambitious and self-possessed 21-year-old journalist whose quest for a good story brings her into contact with a trio of foolish older men in the film industry. (Only an imbecile could watch the film and think Woody Allen approves of these buffoons and their clumsy attempts to woo her.)

Meanwhile Timothée Chalamet noodles around the city while he waits for her, and bumps into the younger sister of an old girlfriend. The actor’s public betrayal of the film’s director works well for him in this role; it made it easier to believe that this boyish chap was, as the film puts it, attracted to the demi-monde.

I thought this film was absolutely charming. Some newspaper reviews have complained about its nostalgic tone, forgetting that the narration begins with Woody Allen playing a much older version of Chalamet’s character; this is 2018 as it might be fondly remembered in 2078 (hence it qualifying, just about, for a review in TQF). I was also somewhat baffled by a reviewer who claimed that for Chalamet’s character to be a poker-player was anachronistic; I hadn’t heard that people had stopped playing.

As usual people who haven’t seen any Woody Allen films except Annie Hall will say it’s not as good as Annie Hall, but personally I tend to prefer his later films.

One trick I liked here was that new characters were rarely introduced with a close-up: we saw them from a distance, meaning that we met the character before realising it was, for example, Jude Law. Stephen Theaker ****

Monday, 7 September 2020

Strange Weather, by Joe Hill (William Morrow) | Review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Lightning strikes repeatedly in quartet of tales rich in character and sensory details.

In Strange Weather, a thunderstorm does not just get you wet – it gets you torn apart by crystal nails. And a photograph doesn’t simply capture your image – it steals your memories. 

Each of the four short novels in this collection not only testifies to Joe Hill’s inventiveness, but also ratchets up the tension while nimbly doling out character and setting details that firmly root the reader in the action. Whether a scene involves a botched shooting at a mall jewellery store or a man who’s about to jump out of a plane despite a paralyzing fear of heights, the reader will be fully immersed in the experience thanks to Hill’s mastery of the senses. 

Moreover, these stories can end on a hopeful note with characters experiencing new insights, or they can end abruptly, leaving the reader with a sense of dread. Kudos to Hill for defying conventions.

In "Snapshot", Silicon Valley adolescent narrator Michael Figlione encounters the Phoenician (for the script tattooed on his arms), a Cadillac-driving, Cuban heel-wearing villain who uses a Polaroid camera that steals memories from its subjects. Michael, who has a penchant for invention, deals with his own weight problems while helping his former bodybuilder neighbour and the neighbour’s longtime wife, now suffering from dementia. The story admirably balances a B movie feel with a thought-provoking exploration of memory and relationships. 

The second tale, "Loaded", registers well with today’s focus on the discrimination of people of color. After disgruntled ex-cop George Kellaway takes on a job as a mall security guard, he gets involved at a jewellery store shooting and is eventually hailed as a hero. However, both Kellaway and the reader know what really happened. 

Reporter Alicia Lanternglass, who witnessed the unjustified shooting (by a cop) of her friend in her childhood, wants to get to the bottom of the jewellery store incident. The story grows more tense as Kellaway takes increasingly drastic steps to cover up what happened. All the while, raging wildfires grow closer to the characters. 

As the only non-speculative entry in the collection, "Loaded" takes a raw look at issues like gun ownership, mental illness, post-traumatic stress, domestic abuse and racial discrimination.  

Most stories involving a character wandering around are terrible. "Aloft", the third and most fantastical story in this collection, is a rare exception. Musician Aubrey Griffin walks around a cloud that materialises a variety of cloudy objects ostensibly to entice him to stay. Aubrey considers how he’s going to return to terra firma, but he also spends time reflecting on whether Harriet will ever love him the way that he loves her. The story flips between Aubrey’s cloud adventure and flashbacks about Harriet and their dying mutual friend. While he comes to discover something about the cloud’s odd source, Aubrey also learns something about himself in this tale that explores the complexity of relationships. 

The final story, "Rain", introduces a weather system that makes the typical thunderstorm look like a few drops. Narrator protagonist Honeysuckle Speck – how’s that for a name? – is a lesbian in a fulfilling bi-racial relationship with Yolanda. Then crystal nails pour from the sky and throw Honeysuckle’s life into chaos. Apparently, other parts of the world have fared even worse. Honeysuckle goes on a physical and psychological journey during which it’s hard to distinguish who’s good and who’s bad. Among the characters she encounters are a mixed martial arts fighter with a dying cat, a Russian neighbour who pumps up the volume of a Hugh Grant film, and even an astrological cult that likes to sing Phil Collins and Peter Cetera songs. Despite its destructive downpours, the most piercing elements of "Rain" revolve around love and character. 

In the outro, Hill comments on the difficulty of writing shorter novels. Undoubtedly, he has risen to the challenge with stories both terse and tense. This one is a keeper – multiple readings of these stories are likely to unveil new insights. – Douglas J. Ogurek *****

Saturday, 5 September 2020

Five Feathered Tales by Alison Littlewood and Daniele Serra | review by Stephen Theaker

Five Feathered Tales (Short, Scary Tales Publications) is a collaboration between Alison Littlewood and the award-winning artist Daniele Serra. A luxurious picture book for adults, rather like the Dave McKean edition of Ray Bradbury’s The Homecoming, it publishes five of Littlewood’s excellent short stories with over two dozen fully-painted illustrations by Serra. What’s more, there is also an introduction by the highly esteemed Peter Tennant, a name perhaps familiar to Black Static readers.

Each story features a feather of a different colour – black, blue, golden, brown and white – but the stories are far from as charming as that might make them sound. “Black Feathers” takes us back to territory familiar from The Unquiet House, where siblings quarrel and put one another in all too believable danger. There’s a little brother, a rope swing, and a sister who makes him a cloak of feathers… It’s almost too excruciating to read.

“Golden Feathers” is about Azusena, another girl with a little brother. When she threatens to hit him, a golden bird appears in her hand. This power comes to the attention of the Sultan, who realises that she can reveal the intentions of his enemies. “Blue Feathers” is another story of magic: Andy goes to the circus, where he is disappointed at first by the lack of real magic. Then he notices how much attention his grandad pays to a young female magician, and comes to realise that there’s more to his world than meets the untrained eye.

If the book has sold out by the time you read this, “White Feathers”, about a girl who appears to be oddly changed by a feather she places under her pillow, will appear in Best New Horror 28, and for me that’s not even the best story. That would be “Brown Feathers”, an outstanding science fiction or fantasy tale about the dwellers of buildings whose windows are deliberately obscured by the so-called outwallers. Young Mellor takes part in a sortie, but gets stuck out there among his enemies. The image that will stick with readers is of his friend Luce staring at a tiny patch of window, hoping to see a cloud, only for an outwaller to smear muck over it.

Five Feathered Tales is a remarkable collection, the unsettling mood of its stories perfectly enhanced by Serra’s eerily fluid illustrations, which feel as if they might start flowing off the page if you don’t pay enough attention. The book reflects Alison Littlewood’s ability as an author to turn her hand successfully to many genres and styles. That talent might make it hard to identify in the novels a distinct narrative style, but the themes are consistent and compelling: children in danger, broken family relationships, the dangers of the past, and the warnings buried in myths and legends.****

This review originally appeared in Black Static #60.

Friday, 4 September 2020

The Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron Saves the World Again, by A.C. Wise (Lethe Press) | review by Stephen Theaker

The Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron is a glamorous superhero/secret agent team, which includes a mixture of women, drag queens, trans women, the mysterious M (described as an animate slab of leather) and their leader Bunny, the superheroic alter-ego of Phillip Howard Craft the Third, who like Kid Miracleman prefers to live as the alter-ego full-time. It’s not entirely fair to judge a book against the expectations you had for it, but here I was expecting something rather like the Senor 105 or Iris Wildthyme books, and while it has a similar tone and sensibility, I was disappointed by how little of this book saw the team in action, most of it being side stories or flashbacks or recruitments. Nevertheless, the stories it does tell are sensitive and moving. It doesn’t present joining the team as a cure-all for the personal problems everyone faces, but it gives them a supportive place to work things out. The final story does give us a fully-fledged adventure for the team as a whole, but it’s a bit of a let-down, being a perfunctory fight against a pair of mad scientists who have created giant insects. Overall, though, I thought it was a good book. Stephen Theaker ***

Wednesday, 2 September 2020

The Walking Dead, Vol. 32: Rest in Peace, by Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard (Image Comics) | review by Stephen Theaker

And so this astonishing comic comes to an end, having inspired multiple hit games and tv shows, and no doubt hit films to come. It is a difficult to discuss the content of the book, since pretty much anything I could say – including the names of the characters involved in it – would be a spoiler for the previous thirty-one volumes and their constant twists and turns. Even knowing that it is the last book is a mild spoiler, given that when the final issue was published, no one knew it was all over till they read it. Essentially, though, this book is about a possible civil war in the largest settlement we’ve seen to date, and then we get a lengthy epilogue showing what the future holds for the survivors. I found it to be a satisfying and moving end to the saga.

Did it run out of steam towards the end? Well, perhaps a bit in previous volumes, but it had travelled a long way before that happened, and it maintained its integrity throughout. It’s almost Racinian how all thirty-two volumes flow from that one source: the dead came back to life, tried to eat us, and some of us survived. It’s not an original premise but it stuck to it, resisting the impulse to add demons, vampires, werewolves, ghosts or aliens, and in the Governor, Negan and Alpha creating three of the best villains comics have ever seen. The one thing that always bothered me a bit is that the survivors never set up abbatoirs to deal with the dead, but I suppose that wouldn’t have been as dramatic as the hand to hand fighting.

There’s no doubt I’ll be reading it all the way through again. Stephen Theaker *****

Friday, 28 August 2020

The Poppy War, by R.F. Kuang (Harper Voyager) | review by Stephen Theaker

Rin, a girl living in a horribly sexist society, realises that she only has one way out of the marriage arranged by her drug-dealing foster parents: painful sacrifice and round-the-clock study to get into a prestigious military academy. She succeeds, but further sacrifice will be required and war is on the horizon. It won’t wait for her to finish her studies. This was quite slow and long-winded, and none of it felt at all new, but I enjoyed it. Rin reminded me of Jack Vance’s capable heroes. Stephen Theaker ***

Wednesday, 26 August 2020

Space Bandits, by Mark Millar and Matteo Scalera (Image Comics) | review by Stephen Theaker

Cody is an Orcadian space bandit. She has a telepathic link to a Nibiruan White Lizard, which will no doubt come in handy, and she has led her gang on ten successful jobs in twelve months, without killing a single person. Unfortunately, when the time comes to split up the money, the four men in her gang decide that they would be better off not splitting it with her. They shoot her and leave her for dead. This all happens in the first ten pages. Over the five issues collected in this volume she will team up with Thena Kole, a con artist who has suffered a betrayal of her own, and they will have their revenge.

It’s action-packed (the reader is rarely more than a couple of pages away from someone being shot or punched), and feels a bit like a 2000 AD version of Saga, with Matteo Scalera’s art reminding me of Ian Gibson or Mike McMahon. It looks great throughout, especially the alien creatures, and the 1980s theme makes for some wild fashions. So I certainly didn’t dislike the book, but (unusually for a Mark Millar comic) it didn’t really stick with me either. If Netflix make it into a film, I would watch it for the spectacle, but I’ll wait for any comic book sequels to make their way to me, rather than seeking them out. Stephen Theaker ***

Friday, 21 August 2020

The Lost Child of Lychford, by Paul Cornell (Tor.com) | review by Stephen Theaker

Three women – a vicar annoyed with her flock, a magic shop owner, and a grumpy old lady who lives with a ghost – try to protect their village from supernatural intrusion in the run-up to Christmas. I always thought of myself as a fan of this author, but reading this and The Four Doctors made me realise that while I loved Love and War and Human Nature, five star books both, I haven’t been quite as keen on anything I've read since. This felt like Brenda and Effie without the sparkle. Stephen Theaker **

Wednesday, 19 August 2020

The Rise and Fall of the Trigan Empire, Volume I, by Mike Butterworth and Don Lawrence (Rebellion) | review by Stephen Theaker

This book collects stories of the Trigan Empire which appeared in Ranger from September 1965 to June 1966, and then Look and Learn from June 1966 to May 1967. Although Look and Learn and the strip continued to run till 1982, I first encountered it in the 1978 Hamlyn collection, lent to me for one glorious night only. As with many classic British comics, the copyright is now held by Rebellion, publishers of 2000 AD and the Sniper Elite games, who have published this chunky collection as part of their Treasury of British Comics.

This is, essentially, a tale of the Roman Empire, if it had come into contact with more technologically advanced civilisations early in its development and still managed to come out on top, accelerating them through what for us were two thousand years of changes in the space of one man’s lifetime: Trigo, destined to become an emperor. This is adventure in the classic style, as we see the founding of their city, battles with monsters, and the wars they must fight against predatory neighbours.

It’s written by Mike Butterworth (not the Michael Moorcock collaborator of that name), with wonderfully illustrative artwork by Don Lawrence. Every panel looks amazing, like the Ladybird books of the seventies, with a succession of distinctive faces, locations, creatures and vehicles. It doesn’t always read as well as it looks, since it’s not always clear in which order panels and dialogue should be read, but that’s forgivable.

Reading it now, I realise that the stories aren’t perhaps entirely original, or to put it another way, I now understand why Gods of Mars felt so familiar when I read it. There are some slightly old-fashioned aspects to it. And it’s frustrating that the Trigans can be such dunderheads, constantly being conquered or fooled or having their minds controlled. It’s baffling that Trigo ever makes his brother deputy emperor when he knows just how useless he is.

But the yo-yo fortunes of the empire inspire endlessly thrilling escapades – rescues, sneak attacks, plots, plans and desperate searches for allies – so it would be daft to complain about that aspect too much. I loved it from start to finish. And it’s a very solid read: 304 pages long, but it’s like reading an omnibus of French albums rather than whizzing through an American comic. I can’t wait to read the rest of the saga at last. Stephen Theaker *****

Friday, 14 August 2020

Atalante, la Legende, Tome 1: Le Pacte, by Crisse (Soleil) | review by Stephen Theaker

French-language graphic novel about a young woman who is trying to earn her place among Jason’s argonauts. Artemis has blessed her with strength, and Aphrodite has blessed her with beauty, but jealous Hera has cursed her to be struck by divine lightning if she ever takes a lover, so Hecate blesses her with a personality which will put off potential suitors. To get on the ship of heroes she has to rescue Jason’s mentor, the centaur Chiron. It’s okay. Art is a bit like Elfquest. Stephen Theaker ***

Wednesday, 12 August 2020

Kim Reaper: Grim Beginnings, by Sarah Graley (Oni Press) | review by Stephen Theaker

I did not enjoy this very much. Our protagonist, unfortunately, is not Kim Reaper, the young grim reaper on the cover with purple hair and an undercut, but Becka, the other young woman, who has a creepily intense crush on Kim at the beginning of the book and by the end of it is in a creepily controlling relationship with her. We’re obviously meant to think Becka is very cute, from the way she is drawn and, for example, portrayed with love hearts all around her, but she acts like the bad boyfriend in any teen romance. The very first time Becka interacts directly with Kim is to stop her doing her job. As soon as Kim realises who she is, she says, “Wait, are you the girl who’s always staring at me? ’Cos, like, it’s kinda weird and you need to stop.” It’s a fair point! When Kim says her job is to be a reaper (albeit only collecting the souls of animals so far), Becka immediately tells her to get a job working at a bakery instead. After Kim stresses the importance of her job, Becka keeps asking her for drinks, over and over, despite Kim not responding to the invitation the first, second or third time. And when Kim takes her to an undersea shipwreck Becka ignores Kim’s instructions: she tells her to be quiet again and again, and then when things go wrong Becka blames Kim and demands again that she quit her job. Later, when Becka’s male friend meets Kim, his red-faced anger at her is repulsive. But the book isn’t all bad. The art style is likeable, there are some cute moments, Kim herself is quite cool, the cat owner they tangle with is genuinely bizarre, and the last chapter takes an interesting turn. I’d read more about Kim, but not about Becka. Stephen Theaker ***

Friday, 7 August 2020

Lightning in the Blood, by Marie Brennan (Tor.com) | review by Stephen Theaker

A well-told and imaginative heroic fantasy tale, about a travelling fighter. She is an archon: created in stories, those stories continue to act upon them and draw in the people they interact with, and if they stay too long in one place they begin to warp the world around them. For example, the protagonist can’t sleep in the same bed for more than three nights. In this book she gets involved in dealing with a rebellion. Tough, neat, satisfying, and very modern. Stephen Theaker ****

Wednesday, 5 August 2020

Infinity 8, Vol. 1: Love and Mummies, by Zep, Lewis Trondheim and Dominique Bertail (Magnetic Press) | review by Stephen Theaker

A hundred-page graphic novel about an exceptionally attractive security agent, Yoko Keren, who is sent to investigate an anomalous mass of space junk encountered by an interstellar cruise ship. She is also quite keen on getting pregnant, since she has a year of paid leave coming up and it would enable her to retire early, and passengers of many species are keen to help her with this project. The artwork and colouring is quite lovely, and the sense of humour appealed to me. I liked Yoko, and found the whole thing quite entertaining. I wonder what the appeal will be of future volumes, since they all seem to be about more agents being sent into the same anomaly, illustrated by different artists, but I’ll probably give them a try. Stephen Theaker ****

Saturday, 1 August 2020

The End of the Day by Claire North | review by Stephen Theaker

The beautiful goth Death of The Sandman and the stern DEATH of Discworld are extremely popular with fantasy fans, while the versions of Ingmar Bergman (The Seventh Seal) and Piers Anthony (On a Pale Horse) are also influential. Here we have a new book (Orbit hb, 416pp, £16.99) about the one we all meet at the end of the day. Drawing on previous portrayals, this Death changes its appearance and gender depending on the circumstances. But it is, along with its fellow horsepeople of the apocalypse, just a supporting character in this story.

Our lead is Charlie, the Harbinger of Death, its Silver Surfer, the one who comes before. Unlike poor Norrin Radd, Charlie applied for this job, had to pass an aptitude test to get it, and could resign at any time. (His predecessor is thoroughly enjoying her retirement.) He gets paid, he claims expenses. It's a regular job, albeit one that's harder than most to explain on a date. When Death is coming, Charlie is occasionally (rather than always, as the book's marketing suggests) sent by the Milton Keynes office to meet the imminently deceased.

He never knows why. Sometimes there's a chance to avert an accident; he's allowed to nudge people off-course if he can. He might be sent to hear a language spoken before its last living speaker passes away, or to see a multi-faith orchestra perform before a riot forces it out of action. Sometimes he's sent to pay tribute to a good life, or to mark the passing of an idea. Some people are glad to see him, others angry, and a few hope to bargain. He brings each of them a gift from his employer, not knowing what it means; the effect is always profound.

Perhaps that's enough for you to know whether or not this is a book you would find interesting. I'd had enough by about a third of the way in. Its short, unhappy chapters put me in mind of watching a series of balloons deflate, and it was always hard to summon the enthusiasm to read another. Having said that, it was clear fairly quickly what kind of book it was going to be – a guided tour of the world's most miserable situations, with little in the way of plot beyond the effect it all has on Charlie – and in those circumstances it's perhaps unfair to blame the book if you choose to keep reading.

If anything, I liked it a little more after that point. The book takes us through a period where Charlie starts to struggle with the demands of the job, physically and mentally, and not just because he gets beaten up a lot. He gets involved in increasingly dangerous situations, as criminals and law enforcement agencies begin to take an interest in his destinations, sometimes forcing Death itself to take a hand in protecting him.

But it's hard to understand why, in a world where everyone knows about Charlie's job, this kind of thing hasn't been happening since his first day on the job. You'd expect him to be followed by a news crew at all times. This isn't a book that's interested in exploring the societal ramifications of its central idea, or showing the systems at work in its world, as opposed to ours. Eventually Charlie gets a travelling companion, a chap who wants to return to New York to see his long-lost brother, and that was when I came closest to enjoying the book.

At times it reminded me of Martin Millar's urban fantasies, which raised some similar issues, but it lacked their fun and energy. It feels the weight of its social conscience, and strains so hard for relevance it hurts itself. Chapters often begin with snatches of unattributed dialogue (“I don’t want to generalise, but Mexicans are criminals”, “The schools can’t cope, the hospitals can’t cope”), that hope to give it a ripped-from-the-headlines feel, but it starts to feel like the High School Theatre Show sketch on SNL, where well-meaning teenagers perform their buzzwordy school plays.

Readers I respect have liked the book a lot, so don't necessarily be put off, but for me this was a trudge, a sit down for a few hours and force yourself to finish it kind of book, a four hundred page Observer editorial about everything that's wrong with the world. I think it's the book it wants to be: a sensitive, thoughtful, serious novel with an admirable grasp of the big issues, about how gruelling it must be for those working close to death: doctors, police officers, environmental scientists. I just didn't enjoy reading it. ***

This review originally appeared in Interzone #270.

Wednesday, 29 July 2020

Archival Quality, by Ivy Noelle Weir and Steenz (Oni Press) | review by Stephen Theaker

Because I read this 280pp graphic novel without reading the back cover first (“a surprisingly vulnerable, intricate look at mental health”, says Kate Leth), I thought it was going to be the story of someone who discovers weird things going on in a library. That does indeed happen, but this is really about someone who is depressed and doesn’t like the way her boyfriend handles it. For me that was somewhat disappointing, but other readers may feel differently.

Celeste Walden lost her previous job as a library assistant after being overwhelmed by her mental health issues (variously diagnosed by doctors as anxiety, bipolar disorder and depression), when she stopped taking her medication. We find out later that she didn’t graduate from college, perhaps for similar reasons.

She finds a new position as an image archivist at the Logan Museum, which was once a psychiatric hospital. Her new boss, Abayomi Abiola, is good-looking but cold and secretive, while her direct supervisor, Holly the head librarian, seems nice. Celeste has to work through the night, and lives in an apartment on site, where she begins to have strange dreams of a woman who had a procedure in the hospital long ago.

I quite enjoyed reading this, though it was a long and drawn-out way to tell what in the end is a short and simple story. The art is nice enough, cartoonish and chunky, even if it felt a little odd to have an adult woman drawn as if she were a toddler. Perhaps that was to reflect how she felt.

The most off-putting thing for me was how she treats her long-term boyfriend. I don’t think we are supposed to like him – the first time we meet him he calls her a loser, as a joke at just the wrong time – but I found him a much more sympathetic character than Celeste, doing his best to patiently encourage and support her, while she treats him terribly. That might be a realistic portrayal of how people with mental health issues sometimes treat the people who love them, but the way the story rewards her treatment of him with a new romantic interest felt way off.

I wouldn’t queue up for a sequel, but it may find its fans. Stephen Theaker ***

Sunday, 26 July 2020

Fear the Walking Dead, Season 5 | review by Stephen Theaker

Previous seasons of Fear the Walking Dead reminded me of the Fallout games, but this one really goes for it.

This is a show that never met a status quo it liked, and so the situation established at the end of season four is immediately gone: some of the characters have crashed their plane in a new area and all the roads out are blocked. It feels like a typical Fallout DLC adventure, a self-contained location where they have a few situations to resolve before they can escape.

What makes it even more like Fallout is that some areas are dangerous because of high levels of radiation, there are radioactive zombies, and we (briefly) meet some people who seem very much like the Brotherhood of Steel. The second half of the season finds them back where they were at the end of season four, more or less, but their convoy is gathering steam. This storyline introduces an evil version of the Minutemen from Fallout 4.

The zombies in this season really were extraordinarily useless. They flail around ineffectively like the zombies in a children’s programme and (spoiler incoming) we do not see them bite, let alone eat, a single person in the entire sixteen episodes. They do manage to eat a horse at one point. We meet a new guy who got bitten before we meet him. And in a flashback we hear them get a character we never met over the radio. It’s hard to feel fear when the zombies offer so little threat to the protagonists.

Another funny thing is that at one point some kids use zombies to turn a wheel and everyone is like, haha very clever, and then they go back to fighting about petrol, not realising that the kids have created a perpetual motion machine! It could change the world! (It does raise the question of where the energy comes from if the zombies aren’t eating anything. Perhaps they feed on the bugs that crawl into their mouths. Or maybe they start to photosynthesize. Someone should do an experiment to see if zombies lose body mass when they exercise.)

The characters in this programme have always driven me up the wall with their terrible decision-making, and it’s no different this season, where everyone gets a bad case of the fates and faiths and why are we heres and this is our purposes. They do some utterly idiotic things, like wandering off to paint trees while leaving their most important resources virtually unprotected. They make a video of themselves, leave it everywhere for people to watch, and then are completely baffled to discover that their enemies now know their names and weaknesses.

But for all its flaws I loved watching it, like I do every year – I bought it outright because I couldn’t wait for it to appear on Amazon Prime Video for free. I had got to the point where I didn’t want to watch anything else till I had watched it. And after seeing how some people have behaved during the Covid-19 crisis, can we still criticise television characters for stupid, self-defeating behaviour during a crisis? Can I complain about them standing right next to zombies when everyone here seems to think a two-metre distance means two steps away?

And there were some things I liked about this season, such as Morgan’s determination to be a force for good in the world, even if he went on about it a bit too much. I admire Althea’s determination to create a visual record of what has been happening. The relationship between John Dorie and June is genuinely sweet. Colby Hollman and Karen David are very good as newcomers Wes and Grace, and Colman Domingo never met a line he couldn’t deliver in an interesting way. Not a vintage season, then, but still a show I love to watch. Can’t wait to see what communities they leave devastated in season six. Stephen Theaker ***

Thursday, 23 July 2020

Lone Wolf 26: The Fall of Blood Mountain | review by Rafe McGregor

Lone Wolf 26: The Fall of Blood Mountain (Collector’s Edition) by Joe Dever
Holmgard Press, hardback, £16.99, July 2020, ISBN 9781916268029


In my review of Lone Wolf 24: Rune War, I mentioned that I’d never played books 25 and 26 and although I’ve used Project Aon (see: www.projectaon.org) to play books 27 and 28, it’s particularly gratifying to be able to play 26 using Holmgard Press Collector’s Edition hardback (available at: www.magnamund.com). Lone Wolf 26: The Fall of Blood Mountain is the sixth (of twelve) in the New Order series of the Lone Wolf cycle. I won’t bore regular readers with details of either the cycle or its publication as they are described at length in my reviews of books 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 29, and 30, all of which are available on this blog. The New Order series turns away from protagonist Lone Wolf to focus on a new member of the Kai order, Sommerlund’s warrior elite, combining standalone with campaign adventures. The two standalone adventures are books 23 and 26. Interestingly, anyone who played the first edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons will probably notice a strong correlation between the shape of these two adventures and the Wilderness Survival Guide (1986) and Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide (1986) respectively. The latter was the supplement that introduced the Underdark, a subterranean world consisting of a vast interconnected network of caverns, tunnels, and shafts, as a campaign setting. In the world of Magnamund, the Dwarven Kingdom of Bor has a foot both on and under the earth and the action of The Fall of Blood Mountain takes place in the latter.

The greed of one of King Ryvin’s sons, Prince Leomin, led him to ignore the received wisdom of the Drodarin and mine too deep, releasing an ancient horror called the Shom’zaa. Leomin and his brother, Prince Torfan, are now beneath the capital of Boradon defending the Throne of Andarin against the Shom’zaa and its horde. The Kai have been approached to send a champion to destroy the Shom’zaa with a Sun-crystal while the King leads his army to relieve the siege of the Throne chamber and rescue his sons. Grand Master True Friend (of randomly-generated-name-fame) is assigned the mission by Lone Wolf and the adventure begins with him hitching a ride on a skycraft bound for Bor. King Ryvin offers True Friend the captain of the Royal War-thanes, Vagel, as a guide and the two soon find themselves deep in the Underdark. For a royal champion, Vagel is surprisingly fragile and doesn’t last very long at all, leaving True Friend to complete the mission by means of his wits, Kaistar (his magic sword), and the New Order Kai Grand Master Disciplines (supernatural abilities granted by the gods Kai and Ishir).

The game is quite short in length compared to other New Order adventures and has a curious narrative structure, divided into three unequal parts. The first and longest (about three-fifths of the game) is composed of True Friend’s journey to the Throne chamber. The second and shortest (about a sixth of the game) involves True Friend hunting and killing the Shom’zaa with the aid of a remorseful Prince Leomin. The final part (about a quarter of the game) is concerned with True Friend’s return to assist Prince Torfan in defence of the Throne, which is still under attack from the horde. It would be unfair to say that the structure is anticlimactic because the battle in the Throne chamber provides the most harrowing combat, but the confrontation with the Shom’zaa – and indeed the whole middle section – is disappointing. The anticipation, tension, and ‘pleasing terror’ of the Shom’zaa starts with the cover, the illustration on the front and the blurb on the back, and builds as the game progresses. The revelation that the Shom’zaa is one of the weaker antagonists of the series and that its death has little impact on the game (the most difficult part of which is still to come) makes for an unfortunate dip in the excitement of play. My second criticism is that there wasn’t much description of Drodarin customs, culture, and technology, which is a pity as the Drodarin are the only dwarves on Magnamund, the only society to have mastered the use of gunpowder.

Regarding gameplay, The Fall of Blood Mountain is probably the easiest of the New Order series so far. The combination of this feature with its status as a standalone rather than campaign adventure means that it is probably the only one to date that I would recommend playing on its own. It is, of course, better if you’ve played books 21 to 25 (and even better if you’ve played 1 to 25), but book 26 is an entry into the cycle that is both enjoyable and survivable. For players of the series, no guidance is necessary; if this is your first Lone Wolf adventure you might want to consider choosing Illuminatus (a broadsword) as your Kai weapon and selecting either Elementalism or Kai-alchemy as one of your Grand Master Disciplines. This is Holmgard Press’s sixth publication and maintains the high standard of production values begun with Lone Wolf 29: The Storms of Chai. I did, however, come across four typos, all in the bonus adventure but none so serious as to detract from gameplay (one on the page immediately before section 1, two in section 32, and one in section 124).

The bonus adventure is ‘Destiny Most Dire’, written by August Hahn and especially noteworthy in concluding his Dire mini-series, the only series to run through the bonus adventures. The player character is a Dire, a dead soldier who is now one of the Lifeless, denied death and doomed to walk Magnamund. This is the fifth and final adventure of the character, the previous instalments of which were: ‘Darkness Most Dire’ (in Lone Wolf 14: The Captives of Kaag), ‘A Long and Dire Road’ (in Lone Wolf 16: The Legacy of Vashna), ‘Dire Straights’ (in Lone Wolf 19: Wolf’s Bane), and ‘Dire in the Dark’ (Lone Wolf 25: Trail of the Wolf). ‘The Story So Far…’ opening recaps the entire mini-campaign in detail so the player does not have to seek out the previous instalments to understand the trajectory of the mini-series, which constitutes its own campaign. Although the game has 125 sections as opposed to the standard 350 of Lone Wolf, it has a substantial feel to it and is very well-paced. Hahn writes with flair and proficiency, providing a near-perfect balance of world-building and action throughout the narrative. There are also some interesting and innovative variations on standard combat, which spices up gameplay for regulars. In sum, ‘Destiny Most Dire’ is excellent, a fitting end to the mini-series campaign. As such, there is a sense in which the bonus adventure completes the Collector’s Edition, providing a counterbalance to what is one of the weaker Lone Wolf adventures.

Tuesday, 21 July 2020

Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #67: now out in paperback and ebook!

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

Welcome to Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #67, edited by Stephen Theaker and John Greenwood.

This issue features three science fiction stories. In "A Gift for the Young" by Elaine Graham-Leigh, a visitor from Chi!me visits a divided world. "The King of Nod" by Harris Coverley lets us join an extraction team on their way to retrieve a criminal, who was sent long ago to prepare a world for colonisation. And "Broken" by A.T. Sayre introduces us to some robots with significant issues.

In a thirty-page review section Stephen Theaker, Rafe McGregor and Douglas J. Ogurek consider books by Carlton Mellick III, Jessica Rydill, Joe Dever, Kim Stanley Robinson and Joel Cornah.

Plus comics by Ivy Noelle Weir and Steenz; Cullen Bunn and Tyler Crook; Zep, Lewis Trondheim and Dominique Bertail; Conor McCreery, Anthony Del Col and Andy Belanger; Sarah Graley; Mike Mignola and Ben Stenbeck; Mike Butterworth and Don Lawrence; Mark Millar and Matteo Scalera; and Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard.

And the films Angel Heart, The Invisible Man and A Rainy Day in New York, and the television programmes Castle Rock season two, Fear the Walking Dead season five and Westworld season three.

This issue's cover features a gouache painting by a 19th century Tibetan artist, of a Tibetan demon devouring a human, from the Europeana Collections (CC BY 4.0).


Here are the tremendous contributors to this issue.

Harris Coverley has short fiction published or forthcoming in Curiosities, Planet Scumm, Horror Magazine and The J.J. Outré Review. He is also a Rhysling-nominated poet and member of the Weird Poets Society, with verse most recently accepted for Star*Line, Utopia Science Fiction, Awen, New Reader Magazine, Clover & White and The Oddville Press, amongst others. He lives in Manchester, England.

Elaine Graham-Leigh is a writer and campaigner based in London. When not bringing down the system from within, she writes speculative fiction and has had previous stories published in Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction, Jupiter SF, Bewildering Stories and The Harrow. Her website can be found at www.redpuffin.co.uk. Her first novel, The Caduca, is planned for publication by the Conrad Press in autumn 2020.

A.T. Sayre has been writing in some form or other for over three-quarters of his life, ever since he was ten years old. His work has previously appeared in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Analog Science Fiction and Fact, and StarShipSofa. A more detailed list of his publications can be found at www.atsayre.com/fiction. Born in Kansas City, raised in New Hampshire, he lives in Brooklyn and likes to read in coffeehouses.

Rafe McGregor lectures at Edge Hill University. He is the author of two monographs, two novels, six collections of short fiction, and two hundred articles, essays, and reviews. His most recent work of fiction is The Adventures of Roderick Langham, a collection of occult detective stories.

Douglas J. Ogurek is the pseudonym for a writer living somewhere on Earth. Though banned on Mars, his fiction appears in more than fifty Earth publications. Douglas’s website can be found at www.douglasjogurek.weebly.com and his Twitter account is at www.twitter.com/unsplatter.

Stephen Theaker is known for his watertight style and flamboyant plumbing.


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

Monday, 20 July 2020

A Princess of the Linear Jungle, by Paul Di Filippo (PS Publishing) | review by Stephen Theaker

This novella begins with a quotation from A Princess of Mars (a book by Edgar Rice Burroughs), mentions in passing an exhibit called The Diaries of Cadwal Throy (referencing Jack Vance) and the lead character is called Merritt Abraham (a nod, as you might guess, to Abraham Merritt), which gives the reader an idea of what to expect.

It begins with Merritt, aged twenty-two, on a two-masted sailing boat, upon a river which runs parallel to a very long city. On the boat with her are a small group of colourful characters who are all sleeping with each other whenever they can lay claim to a quiet spot. Merritt has left her home in Stagwitz to start work at Swazeycape University.

She would rather be studying polypolisology there, but can’t afford it. She will at least be able to audit classes (attend without gaining a qualification). Unfortunately, this leads her into a relationship with louche Professor Arturo Scoria, who is planning an expedition into Vayavirunga, a borough that was over-run by plant life, walled off, and best left that way.

The ebook, which is currently available on Kindle Unlimited, as well as directly from the publisher, features some confusing errors that weren’t in the original (and sold-out) print version, such as “then on-threatening” suitor, or “my parent son the River”. There are also places where it seems like both options in a tracked changes document have been typeset.

Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed the story of this clearly doomed (as one can tell from them taking a nightclub singer along to pose for photographs!) expedition. The Linear City seems to be an ideal setting for fantastical stories, and the strange Pompatics that float above it lead the story in some startling directions. A strange and vivid book. Stephen Theaker ****

Monday, 13 July 2020

Joanna Russ, by Gwyneth Jones (University of Illinois Press) | review by Stephen Theaker

A new entry in the Modern Masters of Science Fiction covers the life and work of Joanna Russ in seven fascinating chapters. It also includes thirteen pages of interviews, a useful ten-page bibliography of her work, and an index (not available in the review copy, as is generally the case).

It provides context for the writing, telling us about her life, and doesn’t generally fall into the trap of assuming that there must be a direct connection between the two, though a clear motive is sometimes assigned to negative reviews, both those she wrote and those she received.

The book sensitively addresses some elements of Russ’s work that might prove sticky for present-day readers, such as underage sexuality in The Female Man and And Chaos Died, and what is read as a cure for homosexuality in the latter.

Where it perhaps sets a foot wrong is in asking about The Female Man, “How do you design an ideal, female-ordered world, when all the models of utopia are manmade?” Whileaway is a place where women must spend so much of their adult lives working that there is no time for art. Surely that’s not being put forward as an ideal?

That aside, this will be gold dust for any student planning to write an essay on Joanna Russ or any of her books. It’s the kind of overview that makes your eyes light up when you find it in the library, that helps you properly understand the book you’re studying, and alerts you to other works you should be looking at too.

And of course it is also useful for those of us who have read a few of Joanna Russ’s books and not necessarily felt confident of having grasped their meaning. It encouraged me to read more of her work, though unfortunately much of it is out of print in the UK.

To get The Adventures of Alyx and Extra (Ordinary) People, I had to buy tea-stained secondhand copies of the same Women’s Press editions my mum had when I was a child. Russ didn’t write a colossal amount of science fiction. A Library of America edition gathering it all together would be just the ticket. Stephen Theaker ****

Friday, 10 July 2020

The Art of the Tingle, by Chuck Tingle (self-published) | review by Stephen Theaker

A collection of book covers and plot summaries from the world’s leading purveyor of post-modern, metatextual, magical realist erotic literature for homosexual gentlemen. With titles like My Billionaire Triceratops Craves Gay Ass, Pounded in the Butt By My Own Butt, I’m Gay for My Living Billionaire Jet Plane and Angry Man Pounded By the Fear of His Latent Gayness Over a Dinosaur Transitioning into a Unicorn, and hilarious covers to match, this book is joyful and hilarious throughout. Stephen Theaker ****

Monday, 6 July 2020

My Boyfriend Is a Bear, by Pamela Ribon and Cat Farris (Oni Press) | review by Stephen Theaker

A woman falls in love with a 230 kg American black bear and he moves in to live with her. He doesn’t say much, but he’s cute, strong, huggable, and a good listener, and however much of her stuff he breaks, he doesn’t break her heart. But what happens when it’s time for him to hibernate? This sweet, romantic book reflects and models how people who are very different can get along in a relationship, dealing with roadbumps and individual needs. The art by Cat Farris is marvellously expressive. Stephen Theaker ****

Sunday, 5 July 2020

Questions and Answers, 5 July 2020

Here are Stephen's answers to the less urgent questions that the world has been asking this week. Feel free to supply your own answers in the comments!

You've been given the power to instantly greenlight any sequel you want… What are you choosing?Fandom

So many to choose from. Bacurau 2. Annie Hall 2. Blade 4. Tron 3. John Carter 2. Riddick 4. Charlie's Angels 3. Assassin's Creed 2. The Thing (2021), which would be a sequel to both The Thing (1982) and The Thing (2011). But, if I could only pick one, it would be Spider-Girl, as a sequel to the Sam Raimi Spider-Man trilogy, with Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst returning as Peter Parker and Mary Jane.

How often would you say you fall asleep while reading?A Facebook user

Reading Washington Square by Henry James I fell asleep every forty pages, on the dot. It was bizarre. During the daytime, didn't dislike the book, it just made me sleepy! And if I'm listening to an audiobook and not doing anything else I'll be asleep within ten minutes.

Pick up the book nearest to you. Add 'Harry Potter and' as a prefix to the title of the book.Various Jams

Harry Potter and Why Women Are Blamed for Everything. Seems quite appropriate! Really was the nearest book to me – still on my desk after opening the parcel and reading the prelims. Runner-up would be Harry Potter and the New Oxford Dictionary for Writers & Editors.

Describe your own novel in as boring a way as possible.Nikesh Shukla

The one I'm currently writing: an assistant realises that his boss is still alive. Rolnikov the God, coming to TQF in about three years time at our current rate of publishing my novels!

If you could genetically weaponise one part of yourself (Hanna-style), what skill would you pick?Amazon Prime Video UK

I would want the power of Batroc the Leaper, to jump on things very hard. I have an idea for a more original superpower, but that one is staying in my file of story ideas.

Can you describe your favourite movie as boring as possible?Romina

A dog gets sick at night-time.

Are you the same person in real life as you are on Twitter?Super Mark

I would have said yes about myself, more or less, but then I created a private Twitter account for making review notes and the contrast made it obvious how polite (relatively) I am on Twitter about the stuff I don't like.

Shall we do our first official #TrueReadingName since reopening? Using your current book: AUTHOR'S SURNAME, followed by FIRST WORD OF THE TITLE (ignore 'the', 'a' etc).Waterstones Swansea

Dworkin Pornography? I think not. Far too disrespectful! It's a good book, though.

Saturday, 4 July 2020

The Hidden People by Alison Littlewood | review by Stephen Theaker

The Hidden People (Jo Fletcher Books) is in my view Littlewood’s best novel yet [mid-2017]. While her earlier books from this publisher seemed to be aimed in part at the thriller market, this is a sustained and convincing work of traditional gothic horror. Posh Albie, who ran into his attractive cousin Elizabeth Thurlston at the Great Exhibition of 1851, is floored years later to hear that she has been murdered by her lower-class husband, and not murdered in any ordinary way, but roasted over an open fire, in the belief that she was a changeling and cooking the creature would bring back his wife. Albie travels to Halfoak (“our folk”) in Yorkshire to attend her funeral, and then, angered by the lack of respect he sees, stays to investigate her death, making the peculiar decision to live in her cottage while her husband and murderer sits in prison.

Albie might have married Lizzie himself if she hadn’t been of a slightly lower class, and he thoroughly regrets it. Such class differences play a major role in the book: telling the story in the first person, he obsessively apostrophizes each time an interlocutor fails to enunciate a letter, and upon eventually reading Lizzie’s hidden journal, he has “some small gratitude that although she may have neglected in life to pronounce her aitches, she had not forgotten to write them”. On the train to Halfoak, he ruminates on “the unease … between progress and country, rationalism and superstition”, and the book is all about his attitude to those superstitions, how beneath him these ideas (and these people) are, even as he arrives step by step at believing them himself. This creates a maddening tension in him, and when his wife comes to join him at the cottage, things only get worse.

One of the book’s most terrifying scenes shows him dashing frantically around the cottage on a stormy night, stuffing pages torn from her copy of Wuthering Heights into every nook and cranny in hopes of stopping “the hidden folk” from entering. We feel his fear, but we also know how much the book means to his wife, and for all we know he might be ripping it up for nothing. By this point he has become an unreliable narrator, and the book refuses to confirm for us whether Albie lives in a supernatural universe or not, so readers are forced into the same situation as him, unable to know what has really happened, not knowing who can be trusted, and not knowing the right decision.****

This review originally appeared in Black Static #60.

Friday, 3 July 2020

Always North, by Vicki Jarrett (Unsung Stories) | review by Stephen Theaker

In the year 2025, Isobel is on board the Polar Horizon, a ship surveying for oil at the north pole. A nuclear-powered icebreaker joins them, to force a way through what ice remains. This first part of the book is exciting and tense, the atmosphere rather like The Thing on a boat, with a similarly characterful crew, and with a highly focused polar bear as the threat. It feels very grounded in reality, albeit with references to Where the Wild Things Are: “We’ll sail off through night and day, in and out of weeks for almost over a year. Only this time there will be no nights.”

Then something big and devastating happens, and we move into a new phase of the book, showing the consequences of a story we only half-know and taking us to some weirder places. Eventually the book returns to telling the original story, but in a more fractured way, and it’s a little bit frustrating – as if someone cracked the television screen halfway through watching a film. Another consequence is that from this point on the reader has reason to doubt what we are being told is happening, which inevitably places a barrier between the story and our emotions. But it’s still a good story, even told this way.

The ending was disappointing at first, then a bit less disappointing after thinking about what it meant for earlier parts of the book, and then disappointing again when I started to ask myself what the plan was ever meant to be. But as a warning of environmental catastrophe, the book is very effective, and its portrayal of social breakdown is convincing. And I loved its depiction of the high-pressure situation on board the Polar Horizon, the effect that loneliness, lack of sleep, secrets, money and sex would have on people spending far too long together in close quarters. Stephen Theaker ***

Monday, 29 June 2020

The Señor 105 Adventure Book, by Joe Curreri (Manleigh Books) | review by Stephen Theaker

Señor 105 is a Mexican wrestler and an international man of mystery, whose various elemental masks grant him special powers. He is also reputedly a botanist, a scientist, a stuntman, a magician and an escape artist. His colleagues are a sentient balloon named Sheila and Officer Lori Flaherty of the Canadian Mounted Police. He is distantly related to the Doctor Who franchise, having I think originated in stories about Iris Wyldthyme (imagine a cross between Mrs Cornelius and River Song; she may well have partly inspired the latter), a creation of Paul Magrs who appeared in several fine Doctor Who novels. This book was part of an ebook-only series, the Periodical Adventures of Señor 105, and is still available from the Obverse Books website.

It is a book of two halves. The first is described with a wink as Stories for Her and is entitled “Ciao, Fantastique!” For the most part this takes the point of view of Officer Flaherty, who gets involved with Fantastique, a Diabolik-style thief in a white rubber costume, whose uncles are trapped in a painting. The Stories for Him half of the book is from the point of view of a villain, who is very fond of the frogmen he sends out to pillage. He tells us about his disastrous encounters with Señor 105 and his allies. These are “The Iguana Diaries”.

It’s worth acknowledging that a few years have passed since the book was first sent in for review, and the goal posts have moved: one could imagine the book being eviscerated today by reviewers who would have lauded its diversity a few years ago. But I enjoyed it very much. What I love about the Señor 105 stories (and similar titles from Obverse Books, Manleigh Books being their ebook imprint) is their immense sense of fun, their high spirits, their anything goes energy, and that’s all abundant in this book too. The answer to what happens next is always the same: whatever would be most interesting. Stephen Theaker ***

Sunday, 28 June 2020

Questions and Answers, 28 June 2020

Here are my answers to the less urgent questions that the world has been asking this week. Feel free to supply your own answers in the comments!

What is a pop-culture reference you assume everyone else gets but you find yourself repeatedly having to explain?Duncan Jones

"I know what goes where, and why" — Gene Wilder in Silver Streak.

What do you think about lower than 5-star reviews? Would you be happy with 4 stars or 3?Ulane V.

I'm happy with one star, as long as they've read it. When your novels are as little-read as mine, you celebrate even when people are hate-reading them!

When I'm rating books myself, three stars is my default rating for a book that was good, and my most common rating by far. Four stars is for something special. Five stars for all-time favourites. Two stars for sub-par books. One star for terrible books (and sometimes that might mean well-written but morally repugnant). Or to put it another way: bad, not very good, good, very good, excellent.

I've only given one star to 27 books in my life. 435 books got five stars from me, 1574 books got four stars, 1857 books got three stars, 270 got two stars, and there are 179 books I haven't rated, usually because I worked on them, or because they weren't out yet when I marked them as read.

In general, I love star ratings. As a reader, I like them because they stop reviewers who don't like a book from dodging the most important question (is it good?) because they don't want to upset their social group.

And as a reviewer, it frees me to spend the review talking about what I liked, or what I didn't like, without worrying that I'll be misunderstood as to how good I think the book is. I once saw a chap on Twitter complaining about a book he thought I had raved about in an Interzone review, but I had just said what I liked about it. So now I'll sometimes work the words "a three-star book" into my reviews for venues that don't have star ratings, to avoid that kind of confusion. I can have lots of positive things to say about a book without thinking, overall, that it's an all-time classic.

I don't insist on other reviewers using them in TQF, though, and I don't tell the ones who do use them what scale they should use. The rating is just one aspect of the review as a whole, and if the review as a whole conveys their honest response to the work in question, I'm not fussed if they use that particular tool or not.

Buying books as gifts, reading them and then regifting 'as new' is acceptable, according to @WhichPennySmith. We're conflicted. Please advise.Scala Radio

It's a bit like when you buy a CD for someone and receive the Amazon Auto-Rip MP3s yourself. I think it only counts as half a present…

What are you reading?Reading Glasses Facebook group

Driftwood by Marie Brennan, about a place where what seem to be the ghosts of dead planets cluster before disappearing forever. Very good.

What's the best TV show with the worst pilot episode?Amazon Prime Video UK

Babylon 5.

What are your favorite book adaptations?NetGalley

The Thing. Dune. Lord of the Rings / The Hobbit. Starship Troopers. Blade Runner. The Godfather. The Silence of the Lambs. Bosch. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. I'll watch any Stephen King miniseries. I am really looking forward to Foundation. Least favourite adaptation: maybe the Riverworld tv movie? Talk about wasting a great premise.

What’s the worst movie you’ve ever seen in theaters?Chris

I won't say any of those I walked out of, like Thunderbirds or Sweet November, because that wouldn't be fair. I didn't see them to the end and they might have improved. I asked to leave The Age of Innocence but Mrs Theaker wasn't having it. And was it as excruciatingly boring as I remember, or was that feeling caused by the two people whispering behind us and a projector problem that made my eyes ache every time the camera panned? There are lots of other things that I'm less keen on now, like Batman and Robin and Lost in Space, but I didn't hate them at the time. I think it's got to be The Nut Job, one of many, many unremarkable CGI films I watched with the children over the last decade.

If you had 6 minutes left to live, what's the last song you'd listen to?Fred the Fish

My choice would be Time to Pretend by MGMT. It's one of my favourite songs, I'll never tire of hearing that keyboard riff, and it's always felt like an apocalyptic goodbye song to me. It's a big influence on the novels of Howard Phillips.


What's the longest amount of time past publication date you've taken to read and review a NetGalley ARC?Roxanne Michelle

Just reviewed Kim Reaper and Archival Quality, both from March 2018. The oldest book still on my list is from 2013, Hell to Pay by Matthew Hughes. I've reviewed several of his other books, though. My worst example is Bitch Planet Triple Feature, which I think was from Edelweiss. I sat down to review it a week or two ago, and realised it had been 837 days since I read it. I'm going to read it again before trying to write a review.

Friday, 26 June 2020

Jeff Wayne’s The War of the Worlds: The Musical Drama, by H.G. Wells (Audible) | review by Stephen Theaker

Do we really need a new version of The War of the Worlds, one might ask? Do we really need a new version of Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds, one might also ask? After remixes and live shows and re-recorded versions of what remains one of my favourite albums ever, I thought not. If only Jeff Wayne would do a new album in the same vein instead. Even Spartacus had its moments!

But once I began to listen to this version (adapted by Doreen Wayne, Richard Curtie and Bev Doyle), I came around very quickly. Because what could be better than a two-hour musical version of The War of the Worlds? A five-hour version! Starring Michael Sheen! He is, as ever, perfectly brilliant as the journalist, giving his voice here some rich, deep notes that make him sound rather like Tom Baker at times. Taron Egerton of Rocketman is good too, as the artilleryman.

Unfortunately neither of them get to sing. The music is instrumental, extended versions of the tracks from the original album. There are ull-ahs, of course. And some dubstep elements! There are great sound effects, and the whole effect is much more dramatic and less cheesy than I expected. Much more of the original story is included, and that the narrative follows the journalist’s wife Carrie (played by Anna-Marie Wayne) as well as the narrator is very welcome.

It’s all very well done, and I’ll be certain to listen to it more than once. What could possibly be better than a book you can dance to? Stephen Theaker *****

Wednesday, 24 June 2020

Angel Heart | review by Rafe McGregor

Angel Heart, by Alan Parker (Tri-Star Pictures)

Hellishly hardboiled detection.

The story of the occult detective is the tale of a turn of two centuries.  In the late nineteenth century, magazine contributors on both sides of the Atlantic began to explore ways in which the relatively new and incredibly popular figure of the private detective could be merged with the much older but still entertaining milieu of the ghost story.  One of the progenitors of this exploration was Sheridan Le Fanu (1872), with Dr Martin Hesselius.  The combination of detective protagonist and ghostly setting saw the initial blossoming of the subgenre of ghost-finders, paranormal physicians, and occult psychologists with notable contributions by Arthur Machen (1894) with Mr Dyson, L.T. Meade and Robert Eustace (1898) with John Bell, E. and H. Heron (1899) with Flaxman Low, Algernon Blackwood (1908) with Dr John Silence, William Hope Hodgson (1913) with Thomas Carnacki, and Aleister Crowley (1917) with Simon Iff.  The occult detective became a staple of the cheaper weekly and monthly magazines of the Golden Age of the Pulp era, particularly Cassell’s Magazine and Weird Tales.  The first female occult detective was most likely Ella Scrymsour’s (1920) Sheila Crerar, whose adventures appeared in The Blue Magazine.  As the pulp era came to an end, interest in the subgenre waned, being sustained through the nineteen fifties, sixties, and seventies by three main sources: Dennis Wheatley’s series of eleven novels featuring the Duke De Richleau (published from 1933 to 1970 and including The Devil Rides Out in 1934); the dogged persistence of short story writers such as Seabury Quinn, whose Jules de Grandin appeared in Weird Tales from 1925 (“The Horror on the Links”) to 1951 (“The Ring of Bastet”) and were frequently reprinted and collected during the nineteen sixties and seventies; and the successful migration from short story to small screen evinced by the popularity of Adam Adamant Lives! (1966–1967), Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) (1969–1971, remade in 2000–2001), and Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974–1975).

The revival of interest in the occult detective at the end of the twentieth century was heavily influenced by migration to another medium, the graphic novel.  Precursors to this revival included William Hjortsberg’s (1978) Harry Angel, Douglas Adams’ Dirk Gently (1987), and Tiziano Sclavi and Angelo Stano’s Dylan Dog (a comic series that began in 1986).  The revival came with the publication of the Hellblazer and Hellboy comic series, the first created by Jamie Delano, based on Alan Moore's Swamp Thing character John Constantine, (from 1988 to 2013) and the second created by Mike Mignola and featuring the eponymous half-demon investigator (from 1994 to 2019).  The last decade of the twentieth century saw the subgenre regain some of its mainstream appeal, appearing in the most popular contemporary literary form, the serial novel.  Notable occult detectives include Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake (twenty-six novels from 1993 to 2018), Phil Rickman’s Merrily Watkins (fifteen novels from 1998 to 2019), Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden (fifteen novels from 2000 to 2015), and Kim Harrison’s (actually Dawn Cook) Rachel Morgan (thirteen novels from 2004 to 2014).  Several of these series have been adapted for television, with popular series such as Supernatural (fifteen seasons from 2005 to 2019) and Penny Dreadful (three seasons from 2014 to 2016) being created exclusively for the medium.  While the occult detective has traditionally held no official status, there has been a recent interest in police detectives in a combination of the police procedural with the ghost story that can be traced back to Fox’s The X-Files (eleven seasons from 1993 to 2018), for example Ben Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant (beginning in 2011), Grimm’s Nick Burkhardt (played by David Giuntoli, beginning in 2011), Paul Cornell’s James Quill (beginning in 2013), and Paul Crilley’s Gideon Tau (beginning in 2016).

The essence of occult detective fiction has remained largely unchanged since its initial popularity, the combination of a crime fiction character with a horror fiction setting.  This combination creates an immediate narrative tension because ever since Edgar Allan Poe introduced C. Auguste Dupin in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841), the detective has been the man or woman of reason, a rational agent who restores the moral and social order following its disruption by harm or crime.  Poe referred to all three of Dupin’s cases as “tales of ratiocination” and the same could be said of the cases of Dupin’s most illustrious descendants, Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot.  In contrast, the setting of horror fiction may be more or less like the real world, but there is at least one aspect of that world into which the irrational in the form of the divine, the supernatural, or the paranormal intrudes.  One may only catch the briefest of glimpses of it, as in M.R. James’s Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1904), or it may be supervenient upon science, as in H.P. Lovecraft’s revelation that the monsters in his Cthulhu Mythos stories were actually aliens in At the Mountains of Madness (1936), but the divine, supernatural, or paranormal is always in excess of human reason, rationality, and ratiocination.  One of the advantages of occult detective fiction is that creators can introduce an additional layer of suspense in having the detective investigate both criminal and supernatural cases and Hodgson employed this device with Carnacki very successfully.  The world of the occult detective must nonetheless be one in which the supernatural intrudes into the natural in some way, whether or not that intrusion is revealed in every case.

In Hjortsberg’s gripping and innovative novel, Falling Angel, Angel is hired to find a missing person and framed for a series of murders by his client.  Alan Parker’s brilliant and inventive adaptation (he wrote the screenplay as well as directed), the feature film Angel Heart (1987), takes Hjortsberg’s novel a step further, a step that could perhaps only be taken on the screen (as opposed to the page).  In this respect, I am reminded of Adrian Lyne’s Jacob’s Ladder (1990), where it seems highly unlikely that the three simultaneous realities being experienced by the protagonist – suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, spending an afterlife in hell, or being in a coma – could be sustained with equal conviction for the full length of the narrative.  Parker’s adaptation is ingenious, superior to the novel, and I recommend that first-time viewers watch the film before reading the novel as the similarities are sufficient for each to spoil the other.  Angel Heart is one hundred and ten minutes long from opening credits to end credits and set in and around New York and New Orleans in 1955. Angel (played by Mickey Rourke) is a thirtysomething private investigator who has spent his whole life in Brooklyn, except for a brief period of military service in North Africa during the Second World War.  He is a somewhat stereotypical private eye, chain-smoking, gum-chewing, unshaven, untidy, and unambitious, but well-known and well-liked in his neighbourhood.  He is single, with no apparent family or close friends, and prone to lasciviousness, albeit charming enough for women to find his lechery flattering rather than predatory.  Angel was both physically and mentally wounded in the war.  He recovered from the former with the aid of reconstructive surgery, but not the latter, his “shellshock” resulting in an early discharge, in consequence of which he was one of the first combat veterans to return to America, at the end of 1942.  Angel seems to have overcome his post-traumatic stress disorder in the intervening years, although he refuses to “get involved in anything really heavy”, intending to keep out of harm’s way for the rest of his life.  The majority of his work is for insurance companies and suspicious spouses.

Angel Heart opens with Angel being contacted by Herman Winesap (played by Dann Florek) of Winesap and Mackintosh attorneys with a job offer.  He meets Winesap’s client, Monsieur Louis Cyphre (played by Robert De Niro), who hires him to find Johnathan Liebling, a singer with the stage name of Johnny Favorite, who was also wounded in the war but never recovered.  Angel goes to the hospital where Liebling has spent the last twelve years and finds that he has been missing for some time.  He breaks into Liebling’s doctor’s house, discovers that Albert Fowler (played by Michael Higgins) is a morphine addict, and questions him.  Fowler tells him that Liebling left the hospital in December 1943.  Angel thinks he is concealing information so he locks Fowler in his bedroom in the hope that he will be more truthful after a few hours of morphine withdrawal.  As Angel walks to a nearby diner, there is a strange sequence, variations of which will be repeated four more times, and which signify the intrusion of the occult into Angel’s world, which otherwise appears to be entirely historically accurate.  These sequences involve shots of a lift descending and the sound of a beating heart combined with either shots of a fan, a veiled woman in black, or both.  Viewers who are able to decode Parker’s sequence will be able to work out the occult intrusion and penetrate to the secret at the core of the narrative – which is highly unlikely until its fourth occurrence, in the final fifteen minutes of the film.  Parker makes expert use of these sequences as well as his other cinematic clues, meeting the detective story ideal of misdirection without deceit.  Ideally, the dénouement of a murder mystery should come as a surprise to most of the audience, but they should not feel cheated.  Agatha Christie was famously accused of cheating her readers in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) and while I disagree with this assessment any reader who has a basic knowledge of gunshot wounds (which, it seems, Christie did not) will feel cheated by And Then There Were None (1939), her bestselling novel (and, I suspect, the bestselling novel of all time).  On the other hand, readers do not want to be able to work out the identity of the killer too soon or the murder mystery will end in an anticlimax, which is true of Christie’s weaker works, such as Lord Edgware Dies (1933) and Cat Among the Pigeons (1959).  In other words, as readers or viewers we want to feel that sufficient clues were made available to us by the author or director and that if we had only been that little bit more astute, we could have solved the case.  When Angel returns to Fowler’s house, he finds him murdered, his death faked to look like suicide.  

Angel meets Cyphre and resigns, but is persuaded to continue with a five thousand dollar bonus.  He learns that Liebling was engaged to Margaret Krusemark (played by Charlotte Rampling), a wealthy socialite, while having an affair with Evangeline Proudfoot, the African American proprietor of Mammy Carter’s Herb Store.  Margaret has moved to New Orleans and Angel leaves New York for New Orleans, where the remaining two-thirds of the film is set.  He interviews Margaret, who tells him that Liebling died in 1943.  He finds another herb store of the same name and interviews Evangeline’s seventeen-year-old daughter, Epiphany (played by Lisa Bonet), who tells him that her mother died in 1947.  Angel then interviews Toots Sweet (played by Brownie McGhee), who was in Liebling’s band and is still working as a musician.  When Sweet refuses to talk, Angel follows him to a Louisiana Voodoo ceremony in which Epiphany takes the lead and then ambushes him when he returns home.  Sweet informs him that Epiphany has been a “mambo”, a powerful priestess, since she was thirteen, but insists that he hasn’t seen Liebling since before the war.  As Angel walks down the stairs, the strange sequence begins again and the remainder of the narrative is best summarised by Angel himself, in his third and final meeting with Cyphre: “there’s a lot of religion going around with this thing, it’s very weird… and I don’t understand it; it’s ugly.”  Ugly indeed, but a great work of cinema and possibly unique in succeeding as both a sinister murder mystery and an erudite horror story.  But why the interest now, thirty-three years later?  I first saw the film on video a few years after its release and have never really lost interest, as will be obvious to anyone who has read the third story in my occult detective collection, The Adventures of Roderick Langham (2017).  Recently, however, I discovered that No Exit Press is due to publish Angel’s Inferno, a sequel to Falling Angel, in October this year.  This came as a surprise for two reasons.  First, I have read as much as I could find about Hjortsberg, who died in 2017, online and all of his novels and screenplays were standalones.  Second, Falling Angel (unlike Angel Heart) ends with Angel being arrested for a murder that he did not commit, but for which there is conclusive evidence of his guilt and for which the arresting officers are seeking the death sentence.  Angel is stoic and resigned to his fate, hardly fertile ground for a sequel.  If that sequel is any good, then I’ll be returning to these pages; if not, then we still have Hjortsberg’s original and Parker’s adaptation, both of which are five-star fare.*****