Sunday, 1 October 2023

Klara and the Sun: a Novel by Kazuo Ishiguro (Vintage) | Review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Superhuman observational skills meet childlike naivety in moving AI story that shines light on hope

Klara and the Sun is a testament to the power of friendship, a eulogy to broken relationships, and above all, an ode to hope. Klara, the story’s protagonist, is a solar-powered artificial intelligence with the power to discern human emotions and navigate the complexities of relationships while remaining calm and somewhat detached. And yet, she repeatedly tugs at the reader’s heartstrings. 

When sickly 14-year-old Josie adopts Klara as her Artificial Friend (AF), the latter leaves the metropolitan retail shop where she’s lived her short “life” and enters a whole new, much more rural world. The book focuses mainly on Klara’s interactions with and responses to Josie, Josie’s mother and father, and a wise-beyond-his-years boy named Rick, who has known Josie for many years and plans to marry her. 

When she discovers Josie is suffering from an illness, Klara hatches a plan involving the sun and “his nourishment” for banishing the illness. The plan and its miraculous implications are preposterous from a human point of view, but not necessarily from an AI’s perspective. Josie’s mother, who is no stranger to life-threatening illness, has another plan. It involves the man – there’s something fishy about him – whom she has commissioned to do Klara’s portrait.

Not all scenes in this novel are riveting. For instance, Ishiguro details a game that Josie and Rick play. She draws pictures of children with dialogue bubbles and Rick fills in the words. It’s meant to be complex communication between the two of them, but it’s rather dull. More interesting in these scenes is Klara, who pretends to stare out the window and instead listens to and watches the reflections of Josie and Rick. 

By making Klara the tale’s first-person narrator, Ishiguro aligns the reader with her as she experiences not only her adoptive human family but also a near-future society in which some children are “lifted,” meaning that they have more opportunities to succeed in life. Not too foreign a concept, really. Moreover, the author is careful not to impose human emotions on the protagonist. What a strange brew of outrage, pity, and helplessness the reader feels when Klara remains polite and calm despite the quarrels and manipulations that surround her. When Josie and her mother use Klara as a tool against each other, for example, the AI remains neutral and attempts to handle the situation judiciously.   

One of the most fascinating aspects of Klara is the contradictory nature of how she views the world. On the one hand, she skilfully reads human emotions and intentions via their facial expressions and hand gestures. Typically, such details would weigh down a story; here they add authenticity. Ishiguro describes how Klara’s vision splits into different boxes that enable her to analyse people. At one point when talking with the mother, Klara “could see joy, fear, laughter, sadness in the boxes.” She draws from this data to make decisions, most of them wise. On the other hand, Klara has a skewed – one could even say juvenile – perception of the sun as a godlike entity that can be bargained with so it will intervene in human affairs. From her viewpoint, when the sun sets, it physically lands in a place near Josie’s home. A party pooper might question why such a technologically advanced being fails to understand the science behind the sun. A more illuminated reader, however, will recognize Klara’s sun as a powerful symbol of her hope, determination, and… um… heart?—Douglas J. Ogurek**** 

Monday, 25 September 2023

No One Will Save You | review by Stephen Theaker

Brynn, a seamstress in her early twenties, lives alone in a house in the woods. She isn’t popular. Her postman deliberately throws her packages around, anonymous callers shout abuse at her on the phone, and when she comes to town she is met with hostility and disgust. It’s unclear why, though we can guess it relates to the death of her best friend, ten years ago, at the age of twelve. She doesn’t speak to anyone, she dances on her own, she writes letters to her dead friend.

From there the film could have developed into a tedious emotional drama about isolation, trauma and small-town life, but thankfully evil aliens intervene! Brynn is woken by what she assumes is an animal going through her bins. She gets up to investigate, but then hears footsteps downstairs. It’s a grey alien, one of those with an oval head and big black eyes, and, as she unfortunately finds out, it has telekinetic powers which let it pick her up, throw her around and, erm, open and close the refrigerator doors.

Brynn knows that no one is coming to save her – that no one would even want to save her. For the entire film, through one brush with extraterrestrial danger after another, she has only herself to rely on, and we root for her as she does it. That’s partly thanks to an excellent performance from Kaitlyn Dever, previously so good as the teenage wannabe kingpin in Justified. Even without dialogue, she conveys Brynn’s desperation perfectly, and comes close to making it a very good film.

The main problem is that it is so clearly a mish-mash of greatest hits from other films: Signs, 10 Cloverfield Lane, Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, Nope, Skyline, Communion, etc. It synthesises them well to produce some alarming scenes, but it hews so close that with a few jokes at key moments it would feel like a parody. Younger viewers who haven’t seen those films will enjoy it the most, I think, and perhaps on a second viewing I would enjoy it more for what it is, rather than seeing the jigsaw pieces.

Apart from the aliens’ weird finger-toes, the most original aspect of the film for me was how it has you cheering for the violence she inflicts on the various types of alien she encounters, sometimes by luck, sometimes by design, but then asks you to consider whether that capacity for violence is a good thing, even as it is saving her life. The ending will be divisive. I thought it was perfect, but I was wholly unconvinced by the route the film took to get there. See what you think. Stephen Theaker ***

Monday, 18 September 2023

Anchor’s Heart, by Cavan Scott (Absinthe Books) | review by Stephen Theaker

Cavan Scott is a well-regarded and astonishingly productive writer of media tie-ins. A search for his name on Goodreads or Amazon brings up a panoply of books, comics and audioplay spin-offs for Doctor Who, Star Wars, Pacific Rim, Judge Dredd, War
hammer, Transformers, Assassin’s Creed, Sherlock Holmes and the Teen Titans. He was even credited, in the most recent issue of Empire magazine I read, for inspiring an upcoming Star Wars television series. This novella, however, is set in a universe of his own creation, and it’s rather a glum place.

Mark Poole is a paramedic who after seven years on the job took a call that left him seriously traumatised. He wasn’t responsible for the death, but that only seems to have made it worse. If he had messed up, he could learn to do better next time, but the inevitability of such moments, of turning up to find dead bodies, of how often it happened during the pandemic, was too much for him. And now four months later he’s staying home, helping Beryl from the downstairs apartment with her gardening. He starts to hear music no one else can hear, has visions of disturbingly erotic artwork, and becomes convinced that someone in the house next door needs his help.

I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I had hoped, given the excellent track record of PS Publishing when it comes to novellas. (Absinthe Books is a boutique PS Publishing imprint run by Marie O’Regan, who also provides a brief introduction to the book.) It isn’t terrible, but for me it didn’t rise above being a three-star book, a readable enough slice of horror that never really takes off. Part of the problem is that it’s told in the first person present tense, and Mark isn’t a very interesting narrator. His phrasing is quite humdrum (“The most I know about him is that his car is an absolute beauty”) and when describing sexual stuff his language can be off-puttingly pornified. He frequently uses short one-sentence paragraphs for dramatic effect and they tend to fall flat.

Another problem for me was that although Mark is obviously not in his right mind during the events of the story, his actions often beggar belief. As a health worker, he would have been on as many safeguarding courses as any of us. Despite the supernatural elements, he should have known perfectly well how best to go about raising the alarm over what he believes to be a mistreated child. The lack of consequences for his actions also bothered me. For example, at one point he persuades his sister, a GP, to access a patient’s medical records, with serious consequences for the patient, but none for Mark or his sister.

But the book does have its strengths. It’s very good at conveying Mark’s mounting frustration, and the reader can only share his distress as things get worse for him rather than better. It realistically portrays the way his relationships (with Beryl, Jason in the apartment upstairs, and his sister) crumble under the pressure of his obsession with the house next door. The short, intense chapters encourage the reader to share his sense of panic, since there’s never enough time in them for anything to be fixed. And the book’s revelations end up being not quite what one expects. Dedicated horror fans may find that it provides a satisfying enough portion of what they want from a book. Stephen Theaker ***

This review originally appeared on the previous version of the British Fantasy Society's website, and then in Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #72. The book is available in signed and unsigned editions from PS Publishing.

Monday, 4 September 2023

Blue Beetle | reviewed by Stephen Theaker

When Jaime Reyes returns from college, having successfully graduated, he gets the warm welcome from his family (mum, dad, grandma, sister, uncle) he expected, but they have bad news for him. His dad has been unwell, and has lost his auto-repair shop, and the family is about to lose their home. Jaime sets his plans for post-graduate study aside, and via one twist and another his quest for a well-paid job brings him home with a cybernetic blue beetle in a takeaway box. As soon as he touches it, it crawls into his spine and transforms him into the armoured, agile Blue Beetle, able to create any weapon he imagines.

I was predisposed against this film. It was a tv movie released for some reason in cinemas. The trailer was nothing special. It wasn't my Blue Beetle, Ted Kord, the funny one from Justice League International – the guy who inspired Nite Owl in Watchmen. It was the new guy, albeit a new guy who first appeared in the comics 17 years ago. I read Blue Beetle: Jaime Reyes, Book One a few weeks before watching the film and wasn't that impressed. But then the title sequence of the film showed pictures of Ted Kord in action as Blue Beetle, and I was ready to give it a chance.

Turns out I loved it. The film is better than the trailer, and everything you see in the trailer works better in the context of the film. My favourite moment was the Cypress Hill needle drop during a marvellously kinetic fight scene, but there was plenty of competition, not least a visit to Ted Kord's secret lair. Jaime Reyes is played with immense charm by Xolo Maridueña, who was also immensely likeable in Cobra Kai. He proves himself adept at everything the film requires of his character: action, angst, grief, romance, humour, he does it all with panache. And those playing his family are equally good, each of them getting a chance to shine.

We saw it on an Imax screen, and you would never have guessed it began as a tv movie. The effects were superb, and the suit looked great, whether Blue Beetle was flying, fighting or throwing up shields to protect his family from a hail of bullets. The only hints of its television origins is perhaps that Blue Beetle had just one super-powered enemy to fight, Carapax, cursed with OMAC technology, and that there was just one big boss, Susan Sarandon as Ted Kord's evil sister. But the film was no worse for it. I'm amazed to see that it was 2 hours 7 minutes long, because it felt so streamlined.

Overall, a delight. I laughed all the way through. It will be a shame if there isn't a sequel. For a tv movie released in cinemas I think it's done very well, though nowhere near as well as it deserves. It knocks the likes of Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania and Eternals for six. My prediction is that it'll find its audience on television, Blue Beetle will pop up in upcoming DC universe films, and then we'll get another. Unlike Henry Cavill's Superman or Ben Affleck's Batman, the Blue Beetle refuses to kill, so I think he'll get on well with the new Superman. ****

Thursday, 31 August 2023

TQF74: UNSPLATTERPUNK! 6: out in paperback and free to download!

Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction #74
is now out in paperback and ebook!

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

This issue features “Kung Fu Sue: Origins” by Harris Coverley, “Man-Eating Mother of the Year” by DW Milton, “The Fall and Rise of Donna Harrington” by LJ Jacobs, “The Great Him-Horse / Horsehekin War” by Antonella Coriander, “We Who Are About to Die” by Jack Thackwell, an editorial and reviews from Douglas J. Ogurek, reviews from Stephen Theaker, and a cover by Edward Villanova.

Optimism smothered in ghastliness!

Sometimes to learn a lesson, you need to get a little dirty, or in this case, covered in bodily expulsions. The UNSPLATTERPUNK! smearies continues with a new batch of gore-infused horror with a positive message. This sixth instalment introduces five stories about women who take a stand (or stand back as men destroy themselves). Brace yourself for shattered teeth, smashed bones, ruptured organs, plucked eyeballs, torn-off limbs, and for the first time in the USP catalogue, spaghettification.

A modern-day Cinderella stumbles across a rare book containing the secrets to physical and spiritual empowerment. A bounty hunter couple that uses toilets to travel between times and dimensions discovers something unexpected about their latest target. A sex-starved jerk confronts his grieving wife at the zoo just before things go apeshit. Women in a futuristic society turn an analytic eye on how 21st-century men wiped each other out… because of a cartoon. A gladiator imprisoned by aliens and stuck in a cycle of killing, drinking and fornicating meets his match in a fed-up sex slave.

Edward “Eddie V” Villanova's cover art makes us question everything about this volume: Is this death, or is it life? Is it dark, or is it light? Sinner or saint? One thing is for sure: these stories won’t just drop your jaw – they’ll rip it off and hurl it!"
Here are the tremendous contributors to this issue.

Douglas J. Ogurek is the pseudonymous and sophomoric founder of the unsplatterpunk subgenre, which uses splatterpunk conventions (transgressive/gory/gross/violent subject matter) to deliver a positive message. His short story collection I Will Change the World … One Intestine at a Time (Plumfukt Press), a juvenile stew of horror and bizarro, aims to make readers lose their lunch while learning a lesson. Ogurek also guest-edits the wildly unpopular UNSPLATTERPUNK! “smearies”, published by Theakers Quarterly Fiction. These anthologies are unavailable at your library and despised by your mother. Ogurek reviews films and fiction for that same magazine. Publications have rejected Ogurek’s work nearly 2,000 times. However, some of the world’s leading literary journals thanked him for submitting manuscripts in (form) letters. One highly respected publication even said, “We want to thank you for your kindness in letting us see your work.” Thus, Ogurek is a kind author. More at Twitter: @unsplatter

Harris Coverley has had more than eighty short stories published across dozens of periodicals including Curiosities, Hypnos, Penumbric Speculative Fiction Magazine and Rivanna Review. A former Science Fiction & Fantasy Poetry Association Rhysling Award nominee, he has also had over two hundred poems published in journals around the world. He lives in Manchester, England.

DW Milton is a pen name. The author has a day job but would rather be writing fiction.

LJ Jacobs was born in Chester, England and raised in North Wales. He lives in a small Welsh hamlet and enjoys the quiet life with his lovely family. He enjoys playing and listening to music and writing. His heroes are the bluesman Robert Johnson (the creator of rock ’n’ roll!) and author Ernest Hemingway (pioneer of the iceberg theory). Jacobs has contributed to numerous anthologies and online journals with publishers such as Mind’s Eye Publications, Wicked Shadow Press, redrosethorns and New Edition. He hopes to assemble his work for his own collection one day.

Antonella Coriander knows when you've been naughty, and she's going to use that information against you. Her work previously appeared in TQF47, TQF48, TQF49, TQF50, TQF51, TQF55, TQF57, TQF58 and TQF62.

Jack Thackwell is an up-and-coming writer from the south coast of England. He has been spinning splattery stories about human misery and grotesque creatures for as long as he can remember and shows no signs of stopping. Jack has been featured in several episodes of The NoSleep Podcast but is keen to diversify and find homes for his more visceral stories.

Born into a large Italian family in the Arts District of Dallas, Texas, Edward Villanova is the product of culture and chaos. He began writing at the age of four, and credits reading Harlan Ellison’s I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream at the age of six as the definitive moment that he fell in love with horror. Edward hosts the comedy horror podcast Eddie V’s Horror Show, where he discusses terrifying happenings, scary movies, and the art of writing, all with a comedic bent. His published works include political nonfiction under another name, as well as fiction in The Scarlet Leaf Review and via Kindle Direct Publishing.

Stephen Theaker was entirely responsible for the delay in publishing this issue.

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

Wednesday, 16 August 2023

Inspection: A Novel by Josh Malerman (Del Rey) | Review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Don’t mess with puberty: Orwellian tale takes unconventional narrative route to show repercussions of assuming too much control over children’s lives. 

The Parenthood has withdrawn a group of boys from society to test the organisation’s premise that the opposite sex is an impediment to intellectual advancement. Thus far, the experiment is working: the twelve-year-old Alphabet Boys are already reading at a college level… and they have no idea that females exist. How jarring a juxtaposition: the same boys on track to become the most advanced scientists and engineers the world has ever seen think babies grow on trees. 

There is, however, one major threat to the Parenthood’s plan: puberty. Because of the absence of females, the boys are understandably confused. In one charming scene, they observe what they call “fighting bugs”. The reader knows the bugs are doing something else that starts with an f. 

Part of the book is told from the perspective of J – each Alphabet Boy is named a letter – who is concerned that headmaster Richard (known by the boys as D.A.D.) and other members of the Parenthood are withholding something from the boys. Some boys are completely devoted to D.A.D., while others are more open to J’s inquisitiveness. One particularly intelligent boy, Q, is developing a kind of religion and starting to bring in other boys. Eventually, J has a pivotal meeting that puts into overdrive his quest to unveil the lie in which the students have been raised.

Richard, who oversees activity within the campus and the dormitory high-rise called the Turret, is intent on maintaining power and keeping his boys in the dark despite their blossoming sexuality. For the boys, the moniker D.A.D. has no fatherly connotations – it is simply a combination of letters assigned to their administrator. Richard/D.A.D.’s refusal to use videos to monitor boys says something about the extent of his megalomania; he wants psychological power over the boys, wants them to trust him so much that they will readily share their inmost thoughts.

Inspection reads partly like an adventure story, with its young protagonists venturing into unknown passages, running into strange characters, and gradually unveiling bits of information.

Will they bring down the lie that’s been built around them? It sounds like young adult fiction. It’s not. It does not sound like horror. It is. By the time you finish, you’ll understand why.  

The authorial temptation with a story like this is to restrict the reader’s point of view to that of the victims… in this case, the boys. Thus, the reader is just as much in the dark as the victims and comes to discover the full extent of the world along with them. That’s the typical pattern. Malerman, however, makes a bold narrative move by also sharing the perspective of those who have perpetrated this experiment. He explains why they’re doing it and how it got started. Getting the victims’ and the perpetrators’ viewpoints makes the reader both sympathetic and complicit: What adult hasn’t been a child? And what adult hasn’t withheld something from children?

The Alphabet Boys have been duped into thinking they will contract a disease if they stray from the compound. The Parenthood conducts daily inspections ostensibly to determine whether the boys have “vees”, “rotts” or other diseases. The hocus-pocus inspections put the boys in fear about overextending their boundaries. If an inspection does turn out badly (i.e. the boy has discovered the other sex), he gets forced to walk through the door in the Corner, a mysterious, undesirable place in the Turret’s basement. Nobody knows what’s behind that door, nor what happened to A and Z after they walked through it. 

Another obstacle to the Parenthood’s master plan is in-house novelist Warren Bratt, who’s fed up with churning out cookie-cutter female-less adventure stories under the pseudonym of Lawrence Luxley. He’s tired of selling himself out, and his creative side yearns to produce something that will shake things up. But there is a risk: the difference between Bratt writing in a yellow notebook as Luxley versus writing in a white notebook about his true thoughts could mean the difference between life and death. 

Inspection appeals to the exploratory side in all of us, the side that seeks to unshackle whatever binds us and venture out into the unknown. The work also forces us to “inspect” the present-day tendency to helicopter parent children. Do that for too long and you risk running out of gas and crashing.—Douglas J. Ogurek ****

Saturday, 29 July 2023

Terrifier 2 | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Knives, hammers, and scissors speak louder than words: gore exhibition holds a mirror up to visceral horror and carves out new slasher villain superstar.

Early in Terrifier 2, the part-mime/part-clown known as Art the Clown (David Howard Thornton) uses his own blood to write “ART” on a mirror as his latest victim struggles to stay alive. Yes, this is the deranged villain’s name, but it’s also an announcement that this sequel will hold a mirror up to the cinematic phenomenon known as torture porn. Is Art solely a vessel for shocking the viewer? Or is he an artist? Is Terrifier 2 simply another bloody entry in the pantheon of pointless violence, or is it commenting on the splatterpunk subgenre?

When Art, constantly on the brink of breaking that fourth wall, rapidly raises his eyebrows twice, the mute murderer acknowledges other characters, but he also enlists the viewer and dares them not to turn away from the atrocities he is about to commit. And he takes those atrocities far… really far. 

Terrifier 2 bears the distinction of being both terrible and brilliant. Its weaknesses include bad dialogue, a flimsy plot, poor acting, female objectification, and a fair amount of senselessness. Why, for instance, does the electricity of a haunted house at an abandoned carnival still work? Why is there a little girl version of Art that only he and a few others can see? Also, why aren’t any cops following up on Art’s horrific murders?

High schooler protagonist Sienna (Lauren LaVera), who is destined to encounter Art, has no real goal other than to design a warrior princess Halloween costume that her deceased father sketched. He also left her a sword apparently endowed with special powers. Sienna’s nerdy younger brother Jonathan (Elliott Fullam) is obsessed with the Miles County Massacre that Art committed the previous Halloween. Their moody mother Barbara (Sarah Voigt) tends to berate both Sienna and Jonathan.

The interest level takes a dramatic shift the moment Art enters a scene. What he lacks in words he makes up for with his Ace Ventura-level exaggerated facial expressions and gestures. When he laughs (at the physical or psychological suffering of others), he throws his head back, shakes his shoulders, or puts his hands on his knees. When he sneaks up behind someone, he does so with a cartoon character’s panache. But there are also moments when Art stands motionless, creating a contrast to his typical flamboyance, a contrast that is both creepy and at times funny. 

When the time comes for Art to take centre stage, the story comes to a halt so he can indulge in his art: the brutal, prolonged, unrelenting, over-the-top maiming and killing of people. Art doesn’t just hit, whip or stab someone once. He does it over and over and over. Moreover, the camera doesn’t turn away. The film also empowers victims with near-supernatural stamina that enables them to stay alive and conscious during the attacks. And just when you think Art’s done, he might just come back and do more. 

Despite a contemporary setting, the film has an eighties feel thanks largely to its synthesizer-heavy music, aligning it with the classic horror films and villains of that era. If Art the Clown, with his tiny askew top hat secured with a rubber band, his weapons-filled black garbage bag, his terrible teeth, and the black dot on his nose, continues to appear in films, he may become a name as recognisable as Jason and Freddie. 

Terrifier 2 is Art.—Douglas J. Ogurek *****

Saturday, 15 July 2023

Nate Southard: Selected Stories by Nate Southard (Independent Legions Publishing) | Review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Stories for guys who like stories: collection offers equal parts action and depth.

Here in the States, TBS used to have a television programme called Movies for Guys Who Like Movies. It featured films high on the action scale and low on the depth scale. A good chunk of Nate Southard’s Selected Stories would make the cut for the high-octane nature of these films. However, unlike those TBS selections, these stories also offer themes and deeper insights to impress the more intellectually inclined.

Within this collection, you will encounter speeding cars, rapid-fire tough guy dialogue, baseball bats and sawed-off shotguns, and men falling for prostitutes (usually not a good idea). Characters range from a gigantic fire monster to a couple having an intimate conversation, albeit under unconventional circumstances. Several stories involve people waiting to die. Characters who are weak or prone to panic don’t stand much of a chance of survival. 

Whether he’s detailing a bloody interdepartmental battle royale within an office building or a mysterious object in a barn, Southard balances action and intrigue while sprinkling in the right number of sensory details. In one story, he reveals a creature’s menace not by its appearance but rather by its diesel engine sound. Another character has a “record scratch laugh”. The reader will encounter a bar that smells like hot dirt and an alley that smells like dead fish, gunpowder and disease. 

My favourite works in this collection are straightforward and fast-moving. In “It Burns”, young adults wake up in their cabin to discover a raging forest fire has surrounded them. What follows is a desperate attempt to outrun the fire. The real challenge starts when they hear something that sounds like a bass drum. “A Team-Building Exercise” puts a supernatural twist on the film The Belko Experiment (2016).

Several of the stories deal with apocalyptic situations. After an event that has “made everyone and everything equal”, the gruff protagonist of “His Start” wants to find a plot of grass to bury a woman and fulfil a promise. What appears to be a tale about heroism and devotion turns out to be something entirely different.

“Three Two One” is an epistolary piece in which a man releases a powder that introduces “the complex”, a disease that causes people to go berserk. He is one of the few who has been chosen to stay behind and document the experience for future generations. The dangers he faces escalate as he observes the disease’s effects.

“Armageddon, Now Available in High Definition” offers a humorous take on celebrities who think that the rest of the world hangs on their every word. After an apocalyptic event enrages people, a self-absorbed, drug-addled heiress notices on her TV that the “ravagers” are outside her mansion. She thinks she can change all this by going out on her balcony and talking to them. Thinks is the operative word here.

Southard shows his versatility with a few pieces that are slower moving and even cryptic. In “Work Pit Four”, for instance, prisoners confined for minor infractions – twenty years for stealing a goose? – are digging a pit with their bare hands, but they’re not sure why. The narrator, who is in there for stealing a coat and a hat, is losing his mind. “Bottle. Paper. Samurai.” is an odd story told from the perspective of a homeless Japanese woman who spends time in a dumpster and thinks she’s a samurai preventing demons from entering a bottle of whiskey an angel gave her. The story evokes many questions. Does this woman have some form of dementia or insanity? Are the demons real or imagined? Are her origami dragons, gorillas, and scorpions actually helping her? 

Another story that leads the reader to wonder whether what the main character experiences is real is “Insomnia Is My Only Friend”, in which a man in a hospital awaits the condition of his severely injured wife after a car accident. He’s convinced that if he chugs enough coffee and forces himself to stay awake long enough, he can see what is really causing harm to the hospital’s patients.

If you’re the type who likes twists and breathtaking endings, you’ll find several strong examples in this collection. “Why I Do It”, a supernatural Vietnam story about a guy who likes to sleep under his bed, has one of the most shocking closing lines in horror fiction that I’ve encountered. The squatter narrator in “Yellow Triangles” describes a bleak urban landscape. Yellow triangles with the pointed side facing down keep showing up on rusted doors with no handles. The ending is appropriately foreboding. 

Throughout the collection, Southard withholds information to keep the reader on edge. One of the best examples is “Working the Bag”, which takes on themes of anger, religion and blame. In the middle of the night, Jerry, who lost his wife and his job, shows up drunk in his friend Marshall’s bedroom (while Marshall is asleep next to his wife!) with a strong desire to “work the bag” that’s in the barn. As the two men argue and constantly reference the bag, the reader craves to know what’s in it. The answer is a shocker.—Douglas J. Ogurek ****

Sunday, 18 June 2023

Goblin by Josh Malerman (Del Rey) | Review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Six-novella collection reignites the magic of dark woods, mazes and graveyards in a perpetually rainy city.

It’s fitting that the final story in Goblin, Josh Malerman’s collection of six interconnected novellas, features a maze – the collection is, at its core, a kind of labyrinth challenging the reader with many dark passages, foreboding corners, and shifts in direction.

All stories focus on the eccentric residents (both likable and unlikable) of Goblin, a fictitious Michigan town where people are buried standing up and where significantly more rain falls compared to surrounding towns. At many points, the collection is thrilling and hard to put down… especially in those scenes involving excursions into the forbidden North Woods, where a witch is rumoured to haunt. 

The stories explore a lifelong friendship that gets challenged when one friend gets strange requests from a would-be lover, a secretive magician whose tricks appear a little too real, a historian who fears he’s going to be scared to death, an orgiastic party thrown by the city’s most prolific hunter, a zookeeper/slaughterhouse worker with some mental issues, and the widower builder of an elaborate maze. In each case, the characters want something desperately: a ticket, a body part, a mythical (or is it?) beast. Framing these stories is a tale of a driver delivering to a resident of Goblin a mysterious box with some detailed instructions.

The collection is a triumph of imagination that injects classic horror settings with a fresh voice and introduces terrors both supernatural and raw. Among the elements Malerman repeatedly references to create an eerie atmosphere are Goblin’s incessant rain and the Goblin police officers characterised by stilted speech, flexible arms, and putty-like skin. 

“Happy Birthday, Hunter!” keeps the reader wondering how far renowned hunter Neal Nash will take the lavishness of his sixtieth birthday party, replete with drugs, sex and, most disturbingly, a meat smorgasbord – there’s even a meat cake – made of out his most recent canned hunt. How far, the reader wonders, will Malerman take the party’s profligacy? Guests are gluttonous and avaricious, but none of them more so than Nash, who has one last creature he hasn’t killed. The bacchanalian celebration leads to a drunken hunt that Malerman describes with exacting detail and heavy suspense. 

In the last novella, “The Hedges”, a little girl overcomes one-in-seven-billion odds to complete the most popular tourist attraction in Goblin: the Hedges, a maze built by Wayne Sherman in devotion to his deceased wife Molly. Once she sees the prize, the identity of which Malerman withholds from the reader for a lengthy time, the girl goes to Goblin’s strange police. Thus begins a compelling story that bridges the girl’s situation and Sherman’s past. 

In “A Man in Slices”, Charles engages in strange behaviours in front of his only friend Richard, then a woman’s extreme requests take Charles’s peculiarity to the next level. This story dips into Goblin’s history, including the conflicts between its indigenous inhabitants and its first settlers, called the Original Sixty.

“Presto” introduces magic aficionado and middle schooler Pete, who discovers his idol, the enigmatic Roman Emperor, is coming to town to do a show. Pete wants more than anything to get a ticket to the midnight event. Emperor is closed-mouthed and not cooperative with other members of the magic community. A profile in Magic Monthly reveals the mysterious nature of Pete’s hero when it compares him to a leading magician. Whereas the latter has a long list of awards, Emperor has none. And he leaves blank the fields for origin and hobbies. Emperor embodies the artist who focuses solely on his art… even if improving it means engaging in nefarious behaviours. 

Occasionally, one comes across a passage in a book that delivers an emotional wallop. “Presto” conjures one such reaction, not in the form of magic but rather through a chess game between a father and his son and the implication of acceptance it imparts.

“Kamp” enables Malerman to dump information about Goblin’s dubious history and its connection to Native Americans through the viewpoint of fraidy-cat historian Walter Kamp. He’s so terrified a ghost is going to scare him that he renovates his apartment to ensure he can see all the way across it and there are no places for would-be apparitions to hide and pop out. Alas, Kamp must always contend with the corners of his mind. Though this tale was not as compelling as others, Malerman invites the reader to see what’s under the bed, to hover over what could be a horror cliché. 

“A Mix-Up at the Zoo” reveals the darkness swelling within Dirk Rogers as he continues to experience the “indefatigable horrors” of the two Goblin institutions at which he works: the zoo and the slaughterhouse. Malerman, ostensibly attempting to compensate for the protagonist’s lack of introspection, uses dream/hallucination sequences to depict his unravelling. Alas, it’s difficult to portray the thoughts of a troubled character without going overboard. My attention waned. 

Most of the scenarios that play out in Goblin are not new, yet Malerman manages to keep the reader under his spell. Take, for instance, the mystery package delivery story that bookends the collection. Not so innovative. But the author repeatedly brings up the rules (e.g. the package should only be delivered between midnight and 12:30, ignore any sounds coming from it) and details the everyman driver’s anxiety-provoking experience to create a gripping story – that box becomes an embodiment of the sinister and enigmatic stories that Malerman delivers to the reader, and by the time Goblin ends, that reader will feel a sense of triumph but also a sense of dread. What a strange combination.—Douglas J. Ogurek ****

Sunday, 4 June 2023

Knock at the Cabin | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Film’s insistence on spoon-feeding answers to viewers detracts from magic of novel.

Paul Tremblay’s novel The Cabin at the End of the World made a huge splash in the horror community and beyond. The story details the plight of Andrew and Eric and their daughter Wen after a quartet of strangers approaches their remote cabin. 

M. Night Shyamalan’s best films – Signs (2002) and The Village (2004) stand out as examples – achieve a rare mixture of strong storytelling, distinctive characters, a goosebumps-inducing climax and a positive message. 

What happens, therefore, when a talented albeit idiosyncratic director adapts a masterful novel? 

Knock at the Cabin immediately pulls the viewer into the story with the intimidating figure of Leonard (Dave Bautista), blurred and bulky, approaching Wen (Kristen Cui) as she collects grasshoppers. It’s an unsettling scene characterised by extreme close-ups of the two as they talk. Adding to the tension is Leonard periodically glancing sideways and leading the viewer (but not necessarily Wen) to wonder: Is he making sure someone doesn’t see him? Or is he waiting for someone? 

Most of the film sticks to the source material, and this is where it succeeds. Each character is well cast, particularly Bautista’s Leonard, whose burly frame contrasts with his calm, “I’m sorry I have to do this” disposition. Though Andrew (Ben Aldridge) and Eric (Jonathan Groff) lose some of the distinctiveness of their literary inspiration (a forgivable offence considering the difficulty of condensing a novel to a one-hour-and-forty-minute film), both actors convey the tension, disbelief and anger of their characters.

A couple of flashbacks masterfully show the intolerance Andrew and Eric confront while casting further uncertainty onto the visitors’ intentions. One flashback, for instance, starts just after the couple comes out to Andrew’s parents. The father’s blatant disgust as he stares at Andrew is so arresting that it overwhelms whatever trivial thing the smirking mother says. 

Things start to derail toward the end of the film. Several key character outcomes deviate from those in the novel, and Shyamalan gives the viewer a much different takeaway than Tremblay gives the reader. 

What makes the novel so effective is its ambiguity: Are these visitors lunatics suffering from a collective delusion, or do they have a legitimate reason for the extreme request they are making of this family? Are the natural events that are unfolding in other parts of the world connected to this group, or are they merely coincidences?

Shyamalan, however, seems so focused on delivering his message that he dismisses that ambiguity. He puts his own spin on the conclusion, and the film suffers because of it. In his quest to put everything on a neat platter and spoon-feed answers to the viewer, he goes so far as to have one character announce what key characters symbolize. In one scene, it’s as if the film is saying, “See? Look! Here’s the evidence that proves the answer.”—Douglas J. Ogurek ***

Sunday, 21 May 2023

Wind-Up Toy and Other Stories by David Owain Hughes (Darkerwood Publishing Group) | Review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Juvenile, over the top, disgusting, gruesome. A+

When I received a reviewer’s copy of David Owain Hughes’s Wind-Up Toy and Other Stories, I was told it would “knock your boots off”. 

The collection features a few short stories bookended by a novella and a longer short story. The diverse and inventive subject matter ranges from a jinn living in an unexpected place and a garbage-eating monstrosity to mash-ups like organised crime types meeting Santa’s deadly doppelganger and thugs confronting zombies.

If you’re looking for nuance and subtlety, pick up the latest edition of The Norton Anthology of English Literature. If, however, you want violence and debauchery at their indelicate finest (with a generous coating of humour), then Hughes’s collection is highly recommended. He trounces the status quo and constantly throws new obstacles at his characters. 

The opening novella Wind-Up Toy introduces Toni, who works at the Samaritans hotline for people with psychological problems. Despite her blossoming relationship with coworker Stu, Toni can’t stop thinking about her latest caller Simone. She’s a university student with a bright future. He’s an unemployed sex slave. During their discussions, Simone reveals a childhood marred by sexual abuse, a stripper/porn actress mother, and the giving and taking of pain.

As a boy, Simone uses toys with names like Spiked Mace and Rape Charge to torture other toys. His most trusted confidant, however, is Mr. Tickles, a clown whose influence on Simone goes well beyond childhood.

As the point of view flips between the two main characters, the story “winds up” by slathering on the dramatic tension, which immerses the reader (but not Toni) in the delusional, sadomasochistic, murderous pervert that Simone is. When Simone uses a scalpel, it’s not for surgery, and a hammer in his hands won’t be pounding any nails.

The more that Toni and Simone talk and the more outrageous his behaviour gets, the reader can’t help but wonder: will the goody-two-shoes and the predator ever meet? And what will happen if they do?

Everything within the novella progresses at cartoon speed. There are no writerly reflections or philosophical meanderings, and that’s a good thing. Instead, Wind-Up Toy keeps the reader curious about Simone’s next caper, whether it’s as a youth encountering bullies, a teenager spying on a sexy neighbour, or an adult welcoming a solicitor into his apartment.

If you’ve read Hughes’s The Rack and Cue, then you know he has a penchant for writing about dangerous and violent women. Simone’s dominatrix master Chaos fits the bill. Hughes waits to reveal what she’s like, and once he does, it’s off-the-rails sadism… heaping humiliation and physical abuse on Simone. 

The story’s biggest weakness involves characters talking to themselves through internal dialogue or even out loud. This technique can be endearing, but it can also border on annoyance. Additionally, some of the scenes, particularly earlier ones involving Toni’s ordinary life – driving around or making tea, for instance – come across as superfluous. Nevertheless, those scenes help ground the reader before the onslaught of deviance and carnage that is to come.

A handful of shorter stories ranging from so-so to exceptional follow the novella. In “Jinnism”, the funniest and most original of the shorts, a nerdy man struggles to resist an attractive woman’s advances – you’ll find out why. 

The two main characters of “King Shit” discover the top-secret fate of the dirty diapers they pick up on their daily route. Jeff, on the job for twenty years, thinks his employers have taken advantage of him. The younger Paul has no loyalty to any company and plans to jump from job to job. Their discovery and a moustache-twirling type of villain will put their lives at risk and rattle their perspectives.

“Blood, Bullets and Baubles” pits tough guys with names like Valentine and Hammer against Klaws, a supernatural figure who supposedly brings bad children and adults to Klaws Hell. When they hear “Whore, whore, whore!” instead of “Ho, ho, ho!,” things start getting messy. 

If you like ’80s action movies, then you’ll enjoy the concluding longer story “Wasteland Warfare”. Something unexpected happens when two Welsh gangs, the Pickaxe Handles and the Commandos, decide to battle it out for territorial control. What do you get when you mix a graveyard, toxic chemicals and blood? Zombies, of course! This story, with its macho characters and extreme violence, rolls right along. Not bad considering this is a zombie story. 

One character in “Wasteland Warfare” smiles and winces when he sees another character killed. This is an incongruous reaction that the reader will repeatedly experience in Wind-Up Toy and Other Stories, a collection that is partly sick, partly funny and wholly entertaining. Get ready to have your boots knocked off.—Douglas J. Ogurek ****

Monday, 8 May 2023

Cultures of Climate Change, Changes of Climate Cultures – Rafe McGregor

Climate Change Culture

Climate change is unquestionably the greatest challenge ever faced by humanity, even if we choose to ignore it. The question I want to answer here, which I hope will be of interest to most if not all Theaker’s Quarterly readers, is whether fiction has a role to play in meeting this challenge and, if so, what that role might be. Recently, this subject has transgressed the disciplinary boundaries of academia and escaped the confines of its ivory towers to be aired where it belongs, in the public domain. I shall trace the debate from its origins in a 2015 lecture series at the University of Chicago to the work-in-progress of a criminologist in Richmond, Kentucky. Jnanpith Award winner Amitav Ghosh delivered the lectures, which were published the following year in full as The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable and in 2021 in part as Uncanny and Improbable Events. The latter is one of Penguin’s Green Ideas, a series that includes philosopher Timothy Morton’s All Art Is Ecological, which was also published in 2021 and is an extract from his 2018 book, Being Ecological. Morton’s long essay is tangential to Ghosh’s lectures, but film critic Mark Bould responded directly in his short 2021 book, The Anthropocene Unconscious: Climate Catastrophe Culture. Critical criminologist Avi Brisman responds to both Bould and Ghosh in “Ecocide and Khattam-Shud: Thoughts on How We Might Tell (More, Better) Stories of Climate Change”, an article due for release in the Journal of Aesthetic Education this autumn. I summarise each thesis in terms of its three primary claims.

Ecology is Nowhere

Ghosh’s “Great Derangement” is a play on the “Great Acceleration”, the dramatic and synchronous increase in a range of socioeconomic trends from population and gross domestic product to transportation and telecommunications since 1945. The derangement is contemporary culture’s lack of ability or will to address the climate change caused by the Great Acceleration. Ghosh imagines a future in which critics identify the paradox of a culture that both prided itself on its self-awareness and ignored its self-destruction. Ghosh’s thesis begins with the claim that literature has never recovered from the split into literary and genre fiction, which he dates to the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, in 1818. Second, he argues that while genre – science, speculative, or climate – fiction has attempted to meet the challenge of climate change, it has for the most part failed in virtue of being nothing more than disaster fiction set in the future. Finally, literary or artistic fiction has not even tried to meet the challenge and Ghosh cites Abdul Rahman Munif’s 1984 “petrofiction” novel, Cities of Salt, as one of the exceptions that proves the rule. Interestingly, the Hollywood film industry has been accused of a similar derangement with, for example, Rewrite the Future director Daniel Hinerfeld claiming that “Hollywood has not reflected the greatest drama of our generation”.

⁠It is hard to fault Ghosh because he is making a very specific point for which there appears to be ample evidence: criticism of cultures of mass harm such as classism, racism and sexism has traditionally been the purview of the institution of literature, which has failed to address the most significant mass harm of all, ecocide, understood as the destruction of the planet’s capacity to support human and nonhuman animal life. Like Ghosh, I believe the distinction between high and popular culture is irrelevant at best and harmful at worst, but he is right to point out that it remains as deeply entrenched as ever two hundred years after Frankenstein. Notwithstanding, he is at least partly complicit in maintaining the distinction by the significance he accords to the different ways in which each category of fiction has failed. I wonder why this is so important and also why he does not make more of the fictions of Margaret Atwood (whom he cites with approval), Octavia Butler, Kim Stanley Robinson, N.K. Jemisin, and others that so clearly bridge the literary-genre divide.⁠

Ecology is Everywhere I

Morton is a member of the Object-Oriented Ontology (OOO) school of philosophy, which was inaugurated by Graham Harman in 2002 with Tool-Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects and draws heavily on both Martin Heidegger’s hermeneutic phenomenology and Immanuel Kant’s transcendental idealism. Morton summarises OOO in terms of two key insights: nothing (whether object or subject) can ever be grasped in its entirety and there is no privileged mode of access to these ungraspable things, in consequence of which (OOO) philosophy cannot be anthropocentric. Morton’s thesis begins by delineating “ecological” as caring for nonhumans in a more conscious way, which involves recognising that one is already ecological, i.e. entangled in a symbiotic whole that is less than the sum of its parts. Second, the aesthetic experience of beauty – Kant’s elitist and baggage-laden theory does a great deal of work here – is an experience in which one feels solidarity with a nonhuman thing whose meaning is inexhaustible. Finally, artistic appreciation – a nod to philosophical aesthetics here – is appreciation of the simultaneity of familiarity and strangeness, the uncanny, in which it is difficult to sustain the distinction between self and other. The eradication of this distinction enables human beings to achieve solidarity with the nonhuman by recognising that we are already ecological or, to use a phrase Morton deliberately avoids, always already ecological.

What Morton is actually doing in All Art Is Ecological is setting out a theory in the tradition of aesthetic education, which originated with J.C. Friedrich von Schiller’s 1794 Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man. Schiller, who also drew on Kant but managed to avoid some of his elitism, argued for a causal relation between aesthetic experience and both harmony of character (moral harmony) and harmony in society (political harmony). Literary critic Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak recently radicalised the tradition by describing the experience of literature as training for and practice in the experience of being ethical. In a similar manner, Morton maintains the experience of art is training for and practice in the experience of being ecological. Morton takes a great deal for granted and would benefit from piggybacking on Spivak in a similar manner to that in which Bould piggybacks on Marxist critic Fredric Jameson, but is prohibited from doing so because of the commitment to OOO (Spivak is a poststructuralist and OOO is phenomenology, broadly construed).

Ecology is Everywhere II

Jameson published one of the most important works of cultural criticism to date with The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act in 1981. He demonstrates that all texts are political because they are all produced and consumed within the historical context of class struggle between oppressor and oppressed and that this struggle permeates both the form and the content of the stories human beings tell themselves and one another. Bould begins with the provocative claim that all cultural texts are ecological, i.e. about the Anthropocene, usually on an unconscious level. Given that the popularisation of the novel as a literary form was contemporaneous with the Industrial Revolution, first novels and later feature films and television series were all produced and consumed within the Anthropocene. Second, in the same way that the class struggle permeates all texts to characterise them as political so the Anthropocene permeates all texts to characterise them as ecological. Finally, Bould evinces his thesis by delineating the environmental uncanny as involving both recognition by human beings that they are in the presence of nonhuman agency and an anthropocentric hubris which assumes it will be able to control its nonhuman creations. As such, Bould turns Ghosh’s environmental uncanny against him: the environmental uncanny is everywhere, from Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park to Richard Powers’ The Overstory and from Mauro Herce’s Dead Slow Ahead to the Fast & Furious and Sharknado film franchises.

⁠What strikes one immediately is that the uncanny is central to all three theses, albeit to a lesser extent for Ghosh than Morton and Bould. There is a more obvious similarity between the latter two theses, which can both be abstracted to ecology is everywhere, although the relationship between the ubiquity of ecology and the environmental uncanny differs in each. While Bould would benefit from fleshing out this relationship in more detail, a more trenchant criticism was recently made in the Ancillary Review of Books by science fiction critic Fabius Mayland, who claims he is naïve to assume that “climate politics just needs a little more imagination and storytelling to really get going”. Neither more fiction about climate change (first-order culture in Mayland’s taxonomy) nor more theory about fiction about climate change (second-order culture, where Bould fits in) can achieve this aim. Both the crisis and its solutions have been established beyond all reasonable doubt by the sciences so what is required is the political power to implement them. I agree with Mayland about the need for political power, but I think he misses an important part of the problem, to which I return in my conclusion.⁠

Ecology is Everywhere and Nowhere

Brisman’s contribution to the debate is the article mentioned above, but it is also worth noting that he is expanding the article into a short book, Climate Change as a Crisis of Imagination, which will be published by Bristol University Press in 2024. With his permission, I draw on both the article and his work-in-progress. Brisman begins by contending that Ghosh and Bould should be read as complementary rather than contradictory because they are actually arguing for the same result, a cultural turn towards the Anthropocene. When viewed through this lens, Ghosh motivates the cultural turn by drawing attention to the failure of the institution of literature to perform one of its core functions (cultural critique) and Bould enables it by raising awareness of the Anthropocene from its unconscious depths. Finally, the synthesis of Ghosh and Bould reframes the climate crisis as (also) a narrative crisis that can be resolved by allegorising a broad range of stories for their climate messages in a way that foregrounds the temporal and the utopian. The significance of the utopian to Brisman dovetails with Ghosh’s critique of genre fiction neatly: counterfactual narratives should present us with possible future worlds that contrast with the probable dystopian future in order to provide a pathway to those possible future worlds.

A great strength of Brisman’s “green criminology” is his own utopian impulse, the desire to seek allies rather than opponents, and this is very much reflected in his work-in-progress. Everyone involved in this debate is, after all, really enthusiastic about culture, really enthusiastic about avoiding ecocide, and really enthusiastic about finding a role for the former in the latter. It is in this spirit that I have included Morton in my discussion, in spite of my reservations about OOO, because – at the very least – All Art Is Ecological raises awareness of the issue at stake. There is nonetheless an aspect of Brisman’s utopian ideal that is problematic with respect to narrative. Focusing on utopia rather than dystopia – on cooperation rather than conflict – is a tall order for writers and undermines what may be the most fundamental narrative heuristic of all: character + conflict = plot. So much so that Anna Jayne Joyner established her nonprofit, Good Energy, in 2019 for precisely this purpose and their open access playbook provides screenwriters with a host of solutions to the problems of representing climate change.

Political Power and Climate Change Culture

Where does this all leave us? I began by asking whether fiction has a role to play in meeting the challenge of climate change. I am confident the answer is “yes”. While I agree with Mayland about the need to exert political power, it cannot come exclusively from the top-down. Most governments are already too invested in the capitalist world-system to dismantle it and the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated the extent to which proportions of the population are prepared to resist even the most benign official impositions, never mind radically altering their lifestyles on a permanent basis. What is needed is a complementary change from the bottom-up, which would require nothing more than the reconfiguration of human consciousness from hyper-capitalist consumption to post-capitalist sustenance. Which leads to the second part of my opening question: if fiction does have a role to play, what is it? That role was identified by Ghosh at the beginning of his first lecture in 2015, to change human consciousness by changing individual desires. Culture – including literature, art, film, and narrative – shapes desire and shaping of desire is at least as much of a solution to the problem as exerting political power. Humanity needs both changes, top-down and bottom-up, if it is to avoid its dystopian horizons.

Published online ahead of its appearance in Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #76, due in September 2023.

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.

Friday, 5 May 2023

Carnival Row, Season 2 | review by Rafe McGregor

Triumph of the Franchise.

The COVID-19 pandemic put paid to the traditional twentieth century distinction between the big and the small screen, making the ontological identity of the two types of art and entertainment obvious. Feature films and television series belong to a single mode of representation – representation by displays of moving pictures – and the context of their production and consumption have become increasingly similar in the last twenty-five years. Twenty-first century cinema has adopted the franchise model to minimise risk and maximise profit, films are increasingly watched in the comfort of our own homes, and mainstream films have been produced by streaming services since the pandemic. I take the franchise model to include sequels, prequels, remakes, reboots, and retcons (short for ‘retroactive continuity’), in which case Box Office Mojo’s Worldwide Box Office statistics for the last decade are revealing – if not startling. The highest-grossing standalone films were ranked as follows: sixteenth (Elvis, 2022), sixteenth (Encanto, 2021), fifth (Tenet, 2020), twenty-first (Alita: Battle Angel, 2019), sixth (Bohemian Rhapsody, 2018), eleventh (Coco, 2017), fourth (Zootopia, 2016), seventh (Inside Out, 2015), tenth (Interstellar, 2014), and eighth (Gravity, 2013). If one removes the children’s films, which have always been disproportionately lucrative, this leaves a total of five standalone films in the top 10 from 2013 to 2022: Interstellar, The Martian (tenth in 2015), Bohemian Rhapsody, Tenet, and Uncharted. Franchises have become so big that it’s difficult to keep track of each instalment. The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), for example, includes thirty-one films at the time of writing and there are at least another nine due for release in the next three years.

A franchise is, of course, little more than a licensed series and this movement from standalone to serial film has been complemented by the evolution of television into a serious and mature art form. Twenty-first century television is revelling in a golden age that began at the turn of the century, series are being watched on increasingly bigger screens with increasingly higher resolution graphics, and Hollywood A-listers are almost as likely to appear in a television series as they are in a franchise feature film. This merging of the big and small screens into one another doesn’t even take franchises that include both into account, like the MCU, Star Wars, the DC Extended Universe, Star Trek, and many others. Television shows like The Sopranos (1999–2007), Band of Brothers (2001), 24 (2001–2014), The Wire (2002–2008), and Carnival Row (2019–2023) were unthinkable in the eighties. The monotonous desire of the audience for (much) more of the same is matched by the production of sequels, prequels, and tie-ins and Martin Scorsese published in article in the New York Times in 2019 in which he argued that superhero films are simply not cinema. They are, in other words, a distinct type of art and entertainment, one which is crucially – perhaps even essentially – shaped by the franchise model. Television series in particular (although film franchises as well) are routinely run into the ground, with seasons continuing until the diminishing qualitative returns produce diminishing financial returns. When the last season was so poor in terms of quality that the risk of loss is increased beyond an acceptable level, the series is finally euthanised. There are many exceptions, but the pursuit of profit by means of open-ended series has to at least some extent undermined the golden age of television, which is much the same point that Scorsese is making about feature films.

This is the artistic economy within which the first season of Carnival Row was released in 2019. It was one of the most innovative and compelling television series I’d watched in a long time and I immediately reviewed it for Theaker’s Quarterly, exploring its allegorical depth by focusing on its character as a work of occult detective fiction. As regular readers of the magazine will know, occult detection is one of my favourite genres and the subject of several of my reviews, the most comprehensive of which are of Alan Parker’s 1987 feature film, Angel Heart, and William Hjortsberg’s 2020 novel, Angel’s Inferno. Occult detective stories usually begin in imitation of crime fiction, with a private or police detective investigating a murder or missing person, but are able to deploy plot devices that are unavailable without the intrusion of the supra-human. Where the mundane detective is restricted to investigating someone else, the occult detective can also investigate another occult detective or even him or herself. Carnival Row 1 was an example of the former in pitting two occult detectives – Piety Breakspear (played by Indira Varma) and Inspector Rycroft Philostrate (played by Orlando Bloom) – against each other. Angel Heart was an example of the latter, pitting Harry Angel (played by Mickey Rourke) against himself, concluding with his discovery that he tried to renege on a deal with the devil. I had intended to explore Carnival Row 1’s dual detective structure in more detail, but turned my attention to the ways in which the season’s multiple and intervolved layers of representational and extra-representational meaning shed light on the complexity of urban life instead, publishing an article in an academic journal in 2020 and developing that article into a short monograph called Critical Criminology and Literary Criticism in 2021.

The depth of meaning and value in Carnival Row 1 is quite incredible, which brings high expectations for the second and final series, whose production and release were delayed by COVID-19. As the setting of season 2 is established by the conclusion of season 1, a brief summary of the latter is necessary. Carnival Row 1 is set against the battle for Tirnanoc, the land of the Fae, which is fought between two human powers, the Burgue and the Pact. As the war progresses, the Fae flee to the Burgue for safety and the stream of refugees increases with the Pact’s victory. 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. The series 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. There are two protagonists: Philo, a mixed-species police detective who conceals his origins in order to avoid falling foul of the Burgue’s speciesist laws; and Vignette Stonemoss (played by Cara Delevingne), a faerie refugee. Philo investigates a series of murders committed by a Darkasher, which was created by Piety – wife to the Chancellor of the Burgue – to discover the identity of her husband’s illegitimate son. Unbeknownst to Philo, he is that son and the competition between the two occult detectives is for Philo to identify Piety as the murderer before she can identify him as the son. Meanwhile, Vignette escapes her indentured labour to find that she has only two options for survival, sex work or crime, and joins the Black Raven, a Fae organised crime group. Philo outwits Piety, but the season ends with a magnificent reversal of fortune in which Piety is revealed to have been manipulated by Sophie Longerbane (played by Caroline Ford), the Leader of the Opposition, for the purpose of appointing Jonah Breakspear (played by Arty Froushan), Piety’s weak-willed and irresponsible son, as Acting Chancellor. Jonah and Sophie join forces in the bedroom and in parliament, passing emergency legislation to intern all the Fae in Carnival Row, which is sealed off from the rest of the city and transformed into a ghetto.

Carnival Row 2 consists of ten episodes, as opposed to the first season’s eight, each of which are between 48 and 60 minutes in length. The season attempts to reproduce the allegorical depth of its prequel, developing themes at both the psychological and political levels and linking them by means of an occult detective plot. ‘Subplot’ is probably a better description because the series of murders fades almost completely into the background for several episodes. Similarly, there is little integration of the personal with the public because the global politics in which the Burgue has become embroiled quickly takes a centre stage that it never relinquishes. While Sophie was setting her ultra-conservative takeover of parliament in motion, the Pact was collapsing in the face of a civil war, following a revolution by a communist movement called the New Dawn. The Pact is, in consequence, unable to complete the colonisation of Tirnanoc or continue the war with the Burgue and seeks to withdraw from the former and enter into an alliance with the latter. The Pact was widely despised for its perpetration of genocide in Tirnanoc, but the New Dawn does not recognise international borders and most of the Burgue’s elite are happy to ally with the Pact if it prevents their own proletariat from revolting. There is a really interesting development in episode 3, ‘The Martyr’s Hand’, which almost made me forgive the CGI-heavy extended action sequences of episode 1 and gave me hope that season 2 might almost achieve the thematic richness of season 1.

At this point, there is a class-based revolution being led by the New Dawn, narrated in the Pact port of Ragusa, from the perspective of Agreus Astrayon (played by David Gyasi) and Imogen Spurnrose (played by Tamzin Merchant), who have fled the Burgue. In Carnival Row, Vignette has renewed her allegiance to the Black Raven, whose popularity is in the ascendence as the only organisation capable of defending the ghetto’s inmates. The Black Raven is debating whether to start a revolution of their own, which will be species- rather than class-based, uniting all Fae against their human oppressors. As I discussed in my academic writing on Carnival Row 1, ‘species’ is symbolic of ‘race’ (or ethnicity) in the series such that the Fae on screen symbolise people of colour off screen. The proposed Fae revolution is thus a revolt for racial justice. The third and final development is in the Burgue’s corridors of power and concerns Sophie. Her ultra-conservative speciesism (racism) always seemed to be a means to an end rather than a heartfelt conviction, an expedient exploitation of interspecies (interracial) hatred for the purpose of securing dynastic rule. It is now revealed that Sophie’s Machiavellian machinations were not in fact selfish, but part of a revolution for women’s rights whose goal is the inauguration of a woman as Chancellor. She is actually pro-Fae and has maintained a close friendship with her faun maid, Jenila (played by Sinead Phelps). Sophie and Jenila are prepared to do anything and everything it takes to put a woman in charge – regardless of whether that woman is human or Fae or rich or poor – and are planning a revolt for gender justice. From this point onwards, there are thus three revolutions either being planned or already in progress, each striving for its own model of social justice and prioritising class, race, and gender respectively. What is so interesting is that the fictional world holds a mirror and a microscope to our own, where well-motivated struggles for social justice often cut across – and sometimes even undermine – one another. Once all three revolutions were in motion, I expected a sophisticated and nuanced comparison and contrast of the merits and flaws of each and was intrigued by which the narrative would ultimately endorse. Alas, the answer is none, as all three are soon represented as misguided at best and morally reprehensible at worst. Given Amazon’s role in shaping the artistic economy and world-system in which we live and its track record with its own employees, I probably shouldn’t have been surprised that its studio warns us against the dangers of meaningful socioeconomic change. But I was – surprised and disappointed.

As already mentioned, the occult detective subplot is eclipsed by the global politics of the season and fails to suture the personal to the public. Aside from the pressure created by the narrative imbalance between politics and psychology, the murder mystery is perfunctory when compared to its counterpart in Carnival Row 1. In episode 5, ‘Reckoning’, the murders are disclosed to have been committed by a sparas, a Fae shapeshifter whose species was decimated during the Pact-Burgue war for Tiranoc. The mystery is then what identity the shapeshifter has assumed and what his motivation for the murders is. Sparas are one of the new species of Fae somewhat gratuitously introduced in the second season, along with minotaurs and (I think) goblins. I suppose the sparas has a purpose in sustaining the mystery, but I couldn’t see the point of minotaurs and goblins suddenly appearing on Carnival Row when they had never been there before. Also, they seem to have appeared at the expense of the disappearance of other species – gone, for example, are the centaurs (unless I missed them, which seems unlikely given their size). The reshuffling of the Fae is nearly as random as the sparas’ choice of victims and there is a sense of arbitrariness that detracts from any mounting tension as to whodunit – or whydunit. Unlike its predecessor, this occult detective story fails to stage any conflict between the anthropocentric and the supra-human and keeps any commentary on ecocide as a mass harm firmly at what film critic Mark Bould calls the Anthropocene Unconscious in his 2021 monograph of the same name. The best thing I can say about Carnival Row 2 is that for all my criticism, it does at least bring the series to a conclusion. If nothing else, this bucks the increasingly-common pattern with which I began this review, the never-ending-franchise or the franchise-ever-at-the-point-of-euthanasia. All of which to say, I’m not sure whether Carnival Row 2 is a missed opportunity or just completely gratuitous.**

Sunday, 30 April 2023

Blood Relations by Kristopher Triana (Grindhouse Press) | Review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Short story collection shifts impressively from gore and smut to grief and nostalgia.

The first Kristopher Triana story I read involved a home invasion. The violence was so over the top that I still remember where I was when I read it. I presumed that Triana was an extreme horror one-trick pony… a blood and guts conjurer whose sole aim was to make the reader cringe at the brutality of his characters’ actions. Blood Relations, Triana’s family-themed (but not family-friendly) collection of short horror stories, proved me wrong. 

Yes, there are the gruesome, flesh-mangling, bone-crunching, and sexually depraved entries. “Womb”, for instance, involves an incestuous brother and sister using the bodies of murder victims to recreate the place they felt safest. In “Jailbait Frankenstein”, a Lolita tale-turned-horror story, a man in his forties who rationalises his attraction to underage girls learns a painful lesson. He grows smitten with a teenage girl who’s a “butterface”, meaning beautiful in every way but her face. Her repulsive facial appearance becomes an embodiment of his shameful attraction. 

The collection, however, also features less graphic though equally entertaining stories, such as the Steven Kingesque “We All Scream”, which comments on children’s need for immediate gratification. This one puts a new spin on the dangerous ice cream truck trope by offering a much subtler and creepier scenario. Children who hear the ice cream truck playing “Turkey in the Straw” know it’s time to return home immediately. Things get out of hand when little Tommy decides to flout that warning and approach the truck. 

Some stories involve characters unearthing shocking secrets about their relatives. In “My Name Is Chad”, for instance, a young man mourning the death of his mother finds disturbing video footage that reveals something about him and his deceased sister. “Kin” is a country bumpkin piece in which a West Virginia family makes an awful discovery about a young man in the family. 

“The Solution”, about a lusty mother and apathetic daughter who use sexuality to extract something from teenage boys, offers such an exaggerated take on the mother’s libido that it is at times laugh-out-loud funny. Look for the hilariously overindulgent similes and metaphors in which Triana compares the sounds the mother makes in the throes of ecstasy to those of animals. 

The details that Triana offers in “The Solution” speak to his skill as a writer – the smells of tobacco and microwave pizza within the mother’s home, for example, or her “layer of trashy desperation” that resembles bacon grease. 

Another curious element within the story is the boy the teenage protagonist sees glued to the TV each time he enters the mother’s home. The boy watches horrific programs like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre or autopsies in which a mortician scoops brains from a corpse. Though he plays no major role, the boy helps set the mood for the oddities the protagonist encounters. 

Did you think those boys in Lord of the Flies had a tough time? Maybe you thought the kids in The Hunger Games were violent? Read “Dog Years”, a story both bloody and nostalgic, and you’ll reconsider both. All the adults are gone, and now gangs of children roam the streets. They are afflicted by a disease that makes their lifespans comparable to those of dogs. Kids in their late teens are in the throes of dementia. Sixteen-year-old narrator Skye reflects on her survivalist father whose advice on female empowerment proves valuable. During one of the more poignant scenes, the children, forced to exist in a world where social media is absent, reflect on the things they miss. Chapstick, for instance. 

When one character in Blood Relations enters a basement to discover a relative doing something sickening to another human being, her response is, “Hey.” The reader will find several such instances of indifference to human suffering within this collection, but the reader will also experience a wide range of the emotions that make us human.—Douglas J. Ogurek *****