Wednesday 27 August 2008

Dark Horizons #53

Dark Horizons 53, produced by us for the British Fantasy Society, contains nine short stories of fantasy, horror and a smidgen of science fiction, arranged very roughly in chronological order; from days of yore to near-future apocalypses:

  • In a Shining Hall, by Ian Hunter
  • Sir Cai, the Shining Knight, by Andrew Knighton
  • The Eagle and Child, by Alison J. Littlewood
  • The Tyranny of Thangrind the Cruel, by David Tallerman
  • The Boy in the Andersens’ House, by Peter Van Belle
  • Timeless, by Paul Campbell
  • Fleet, by Rafe McGregor
  • Beholders, by Allen Ashley
  • A Jar of Pickled Nightmares, by Richard Hudson

Interspersed among the stories are eight poems:

  • November Dusk, Star Streams, Savage Spires and The Sunken City by Michael Fantina
  • Shapechanger, by J.S.Watts
  • Kali’s Kiss, by Karl Bell
  • The Inhabited Man, by Douglas Thompson
  • A Little Piece of Your Life, by Ian Hunter

Then there's an article taken from a forthcoming book on Terry Pratchett, plus an interview with the book’s author, Lawrence Watt-Evans. Later in the issue, the BFSQ&A section makes its first appearance, covering various burning questions of the day, such as: Is the BFS biased towards horror? Who reads Margit Sandemo? Why join the BFS? And why make a fan film? The issue comes to a triumphant close with our updated submission guidelines, the advertising prices, and a list of BFS email addresses!

Jim Fuess provides the cover art for this issue, while six other wonderful and generous artists allowed the use of their work to illustrate the issue’s fiction: Lara Bandilla, Dominic Harman, Steve Cartwright, Michelle Blessemaille, Paul Campion and Alfred R. Klosterman.

Monday 4 August 2008

Star Wars Omnibus: X-Wing Rogue Squadron Vol. 1, Haden Blackman et al

Star Wars Omnibus: X-Wing Rogue Squadron, Vol. 1The first two stories here, “Rogue Leader” and “The Rebel Opposition”, are a bit average. It was a bit of a struggle to get through them. The third, though, “The Phantom Affair”, is a huge improvement in every regard – plot, script, art, lettering, the works! All those things combine to leave it looking more like a French album than a mid-nineties Dark Horse comic.

One of the things for which I was most grateful in the third story was that it finally became possible to distinguish between the human members of the team, by both their dialogue and their looks.

If I was reviewing “The Phantom Affair” alone I would have given it four stars out of five, while “Rogue Leader” and “The Rebel Opposition” would have got two.

Finally, a curse on whoever decided to include the Rogue Squadron Handbook at the back of this volume. If it had contained spoilers for this book, that would have been bad enough, but it’s full of spoilers for future volumes too (e.g. an ally from this book is included in the villains section). So watch out for that – or rather don’t watch out for it, keep your eyes averted!

Star Wars Omnibus: X-Wing Rogue Squadron Vol. 1, Haden Blackman et al, Dark Horse, tpb, 296pp.

Modesty Blaise: Mister Sun, Peter O’Donnell et al

Modesty Blaise: Mister Sun (Modesty Blaise (Graphic Novels))This book collects three stories: “Mister Sun”, “The Mind of Mrs Drake” and “Uncle Happy”. All three are highly enjoyable action thrillers, though for me “The Mind of Mrs Drake” was compromised somewhat by the title character being an actual psychic. (Moments like that always make me think of Magnum meeting a ghost, or of the JAG lawyer who had premonitions.) But there was a lot of it about in the 1960s, and the character is treated seriously. I suppose it’s not much of a departure from Willie Garvin’s tingling ears of trouble. Mister Sun is a drug lord with whom Modesty tangles; the trail takes her to wartime Vietnam. Uncle Happy is a philanthropist who raises Modesty’s suspicions by staring at her current lover in a Vegas bar.

What’s most striking about these stories is how easily they flow from one strip to the next. Looking at each strip in isolation, you can see how a first-time reader could follow them, but there’s none of the stop-start repetition that makes, say, the old Dan Dare comics so painful to read in bulk.

Now if only I could read one of these books without “Modesty Blaise, Modesty plays, Modesty Blaise, Modesty plays!” going round and round in my head… Thank you Sparks!

Modesty Blaise: Mister Sun, Peter O’Donnell et al, Titan Books, tpb, 112pp.

DC Universe: The Stories of Alan Moore

DC Universe: The Stories of Alan MooreAny book that contains “Whatever Happened to the Man of Steel?” has to get five stars, straight off the bat. It’s one of the greatest comics ever written, and the finest send-off a character could have (it relates the final story of the original Superman, prior to the John Byrne reboot). Since this also includes “For the Man Who Has Everything” and The Killing Joke, this is one of those times when five stars aren’t nearly enough.

The rest of the contents may not reach those high standards, but still, any fan of Alan Moore’s work will count themselves lucky to find them so conveniently gathered together. The Green Lantern and Omega Men short stories are DC-branded Futureshocks. The Green Arrow and Vigilante stories won’t change your life, but better to find that out here rather than after paying over the odds for the back issues.

DC Universe: The Stories of Alan Moore, Alan Moore, DC Comics, tpb, 304pp.

Battle of the Planets: Trial By Fire, Alex Ross et al

Battle of the Planets: Trial by FireIt says a lot about this book that while the artists of each poster page and alternative cover are carefully noted, nowhere is anyone credited as the writer. Five names are listed on the cover, including Alex Ross (only credited for covers inside), Munier Sharrieff and Dreamer Design (neither credited at all inside). Inside each issue is credited to Wilson Tortosa, Rhyse Yorke and Shane Law, with Edwin David also credited for issue one, though there’s no sign what precise role any of them played.

Basically, it’s a bit of a pudding.

To be honest, I only started to read this because it was hanging around the house and I was trying to whip through a few books quickly to get my number of unread books down a bit. But within a few short pages I was forcefully reminded just how much I loved this cartoon when it was first on. I don’t think we ever got Speed Racer in the UK, or Robotech, or Astro Boy, but we got Battle of the Planets, and it was the most exciting thing I’d ever seen. Even now I find the concept of the fiery Phoenix illogically thrilling.

This was an reasonably enjoyable start to a series. Three-issue trade paperbacks are so short as to be rather pointless, but it got things off to a decent start. The figure work isn’t always perfect, but the unnamed writers seem to have a good handle on the characters. No sign of 7-Zark-7 yet, but I hope he’ll turn up eventually.

Battle of the Planets: Trial By Fire, Alex Ross et al, Titan, tpb, 80pp.

Aliens Omnibus, Vol. 1, Mark Verheiden et al

Aliens Omnibus, Vol. 1These stories follow on from the second film, Aliens. The first two stories, Outbreak and Nightmare Asylum, tell the ongoing adventures of Newt and Hicks, while Ripley turns up for the third main story, Female War.

Unfortunately, once Alien 3 was released further adventures for Newt and Hicks were obviously out of the question. So Dark Horse decided to “fix” the problem by rereleasing the books and changing the names of the protagonists to Billie and Wilks, who just happened to have had all the same adventures as Newt and Hicks – unfortunately this volume collects those edited versions.

It’s a very clumsy solution, and it creates a feeling of unreality throughout the book, because it’s always at the back of your mind that the characters are not really who they say they are – not least when they meet up with Ripley and she talks about their special bond! I realise that Dark Horse have to go with the wishes of the licensors, but as a reader I can’t help thinking it wasn’t really worth all that trouble just to keep Alien 3 in continuity.

The stories themselves are good, giving us what we always expected from the Aliens sequels and only just about got at the end of the fourth – the aliens arriving on Earth. The results are as devastating as might be expected.

One strange thing about the aliens in the comics is that they are demonstrated to commmunicate telepathically, even across interstellar distances. I don’t think that’s something you can see in the movies, but it does give the writers the opportunity to develop plotlines more complex than “man finds bug, bug stomps man”.

Lastly, one caption in the book may be of interest to some critics of AVP2: “We didn’t see the underlying pattern behind their evolutionary process – the way every facet of their existence was geared toward propagation. The queens matured at whatever rate their survival dictated.” That’s why the aliens in AVP2 don’t hang about inside their hosts – there isn’t time.

Aliens Omnibus Volume 1, Mark Verheiden et al, Dark Horse, tpb, 384pp.

Thorns, Robert Silverberg

ThornsNew bands, stuck on a promotional treadmill after the release of their first album, often look back to the way the Beatles would release a couple of albums a year in the 1960s. (I admire the Arctic Monkeys for getting their second album out so quickly, where other bands have been prevented from doing so.) How much more stunning is it to look at the examples of these science fiction writers of the same period, who would often release four or five books a year, a remarkable achievement, even allowing for some of them being reprints of earlier magazine work? In 1967 (according to Science Fiction: the Illustrated Encyclopedia), as well as Thorns (my copy is a later reprint), Silverberg put out The Gate of Worlds, Those Who Watch, To Open the Sky, The Time-Hoppers and Planet of Death. I don’t know if current-day authors, working away at huge trilogies (and receiving much better payment than their predecessors did, to be fair to their masters), chafe at the bit as much as bands do, but it’s interesting to think of what might have resulted from some of them writing twelve different short novels, instead of just the one trilogy. One thing’s for sure, lazy readers like me would have read more of their work.

So, another review of an old book from me – this might be the way of the immediate future, since I’ve vowed to buy no new books as long as I own more than 1,000 unread books! (I have about 160 to go.)

As with Brian Aldiss and J.G. Ballard, I found Robert Silverberg’s books a bit of a struggle as a teenager. I’m not disappointed about that, because if I’d read virtually all their books by the time I was 25, as happened with Asimov, Heinlein, Moorcook, Jack Vance and so on, I would have nothing left to read now: I might even have to read new books! What made the books difficult back then was mainly their seriousness: Moorcock is as experimental as Silverberg, Aldiss or Ballard, often more so, but there are always gags in there. The closest Silverberg’s 1960s and 1970s novels (or at least the ones I’ve read so far) come to being funny is when they evoke a wry half-smile at the awfulness of having to be a human and live among other humans – as symbolised in this book by a surgically-altered human living among us. This book is grim, serious, and reminds you of the worst things about yourself – and, yet, in spite of that, it has a sweet, romantic centre. It hardly needs to be said that, as a book by Robert Silverberg from 1967, at a time when, as far as I can see, you could make a serious argument that he was one of the best novelists working in the English language, this is a brilliant book, but I will say it anyway.

Thorns, Robert Silverberg, NEL, pb, 160pp (1977).

The Cosmic Ordering Service, Barbel Mohr

Possibly the most gleefully stupid book I’ve ever read in my life. Full of the utmost idiocy, the book’s entire content simply adds up to this: good things will happen if you hope for them. It’s really just a book on praying adapted for tastes of new age readers. Instead of praying to some god when you’re sad, you should just pray to the universe. Because, you know, the universe cares about you. Forget that on a universal scale you are indistinguishable from the bacteria that live inside your gut: the universe cares about what you want and will help you get it.

The chapter on how this works is very imprecise. Apparently it’s like going down the stairs instead of taking the lift and meeting a delivery man you would otherwise have missed. How that relates to the universe getting you the boyfriend you want is not clear. Who sent you the cosmic boyfriend parcel? Who received your boyfriend order? It’s clear that it’s just a god in disguise.

At least this god has the benefit of not wanting anything in return: no need for following any of those silly rules other religions have, like not working on Saturdays, or not eating pork, or not eating cows, or not coveting your neighbour’s wife. All this great mail order god requires is that you order more, more, more! Who can’t dig a religion like that? Why should religion be a chore? After all, there’s a lot of competition out there – if you’re going to go to all the trouble of believing in one of these fellows, the least they can do is give you everything you want!

Hilariously, towards the end the author can’t even be bothered to finish writing the book, and just prints her notes in bullet form!

The sources are laughable – for example entire pages of those notes are reproduced from three books by someone who wrote a letter to his god asking lots of questions and then found that – oooh! – his pen didn’t stop writing at the end of the letter and wrote all the answers…

Her mention of Uri Geller is also delectably stupid. She begins by saying that she thought his spoon-bending was an optical illusion, then says that her friends corrected her. Aha, I thought, finally a bit of sense in this most daft of books, but no: her friends informed her that he simply persuades the atoms of the spoon to disperse with the power of his mind. Good grief! There’s nothing mystical about spoon-bending. It’s a magic trick: instructions on how to do it were published in an Israeli journal of magic in the 1960s!

You would think that having written a book about one crazy idea, the author would stick to that one thing, rather than chucking in more foolishness, but of course not: cosmic ordering can also help you to contact the dead. She tells us sagely that there is “increasing evidence” for the existence of a spirit world – oddly she neglects to provide any footnotes pointing us in the direction of this evidence.

Here’s the real evidence: James Randi has offered a million dollars for anyone demonstrating any supernatural abilities, such as contacting the dead. No one has claimed that money. So we must conclude that anyone who openly claims to be a psychic, medium etc is a fraud. Even if they don’t need the money themselves, there are many deserving charities to which they could donate it. (If there are actual psychics in the world, they must be keeping themselves a secret. That would be quite understandable!)

If you’ve read Michael Shermer’s Why People Believe Weird Things, you’ll be pleased to see gathered together in one book almost every problem identified in his chapter How Thinking Goes Wrong. In particular, scientific language does not make a science; bold statements do not make claims true; rumours do not equal reality; and, especially, after-the-fact reasoning and coincidence.

This book will appeal to the slow-witted, the extremely gullible, and anyone who wants to be told, you will get everything you want, all you have to do is hope – and buy this ridiculous book.

With the Office of Fair Trading taking long-overdue action against so-called psychics, hopefully it’ll only be a matter of time until books like this are prevented from having “self-help” printed on the back, and are removed to a supernatural shelf, where their pernicious influence will only affect those who actively search them out, rather than preying on vulnerable people looking for help.

The Cosmic Ordering Service, Barbel Mohr, Hodder & Stoughton, pb, 112pp.

The Paladin Mandates, Mike Chinn

Damian Paladin is something of a cross between Blackhawk and John Constantine, and the six stories in this book detail some of his adventures in 1930s New York and LA.

As a Biggles fan, I was rather disappointed by how little flying there is in the book, but that’s not to say the stories aren’t entertaining regardless. The supernatural elements are handled well, though the surprising developments in the final tale seem to come out of left field. Talking of odd developments, the way that Leigh decides at the end of the first story to set this flyboy and ghost hunter up as a restauranteur also seemed quite peculiar. But that’s incidental to the main thrust of the stories, which are exciting, suspenseful and atmospheric.

The illustrations by Bob Covington are exceptionally good, but unfortunately each seems to be slightly misplaced, with the result that they often give away unexpected developments in the stories.

The Paladin Mandates, Mike Chinn, Alchemy, pb, 96pp (1998).

Showcase Presents Teen Titans, Vol. 1, Bob Haney et al

Showcase Presents: Teen Titans, Vol. 1I’m tempted to say that these were the most diabolically bad comics I’ve ever read, but I’ve a feeling that in a different mood, or maybe just in smaller quantities, I might have thought that they were the best! In context they make sense: this is a teenage version of the Batman tv show, with all the corny dialogue and goofy villains that that would make you expect. Out of context it’s appalling stuff: the dialogue is excruciating, the villains idiotic, and the whole thing intensely embarrassing.

Unless you’re in the mood for a comic written by Austin Powers, I’d give this a miss. There’s a change of writers with issue 18, the last in the book. It’s a rather mundane issue, but it’s a relief after the previous 500 pages of hipness and grooviness. The book does have one redeeming feature: the Santa minidress that “Wonder Chick” wears in issue 13, “A Christmas Happening”. In fact, having said that, Nick Cardy’s art throughout is rather lovely.

Showcase Presents Teen Titans, Volume 1, Bob Haney et al, DC, tpb, 528pp.

McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern #13, ed. Chris Ware

McSweeney's Issue 13 (Mcsweeney's Quarterly Concern)A stunning book, created and produced with immense skill and care. If, towards the end, I started to get a bit tired of reading about failed and struggling relationships, that’s probably just because I read the book out of order and left those ones till the end. The book only deals with one narrow area of comics – independents created by writer/artists – but since that’s an area that’s often hard to notice behind the glare and pizazz of mainstream comics that’s easy to forgive.

McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern #13, ed. Chris Ware, McSweeney’s, hb, 264pp.

Southland Tales

Southland TalesThis is a hard film to review, because I can’t be sure whether I actually saw it. Surely something so strange and out of the ordinary must have been a dream? But then I felt the same way about Donnie Darko, by the same director, and I’ve heard other people talking about that movie, so I think that there’s a good chance that these films really do exist – however unlikely that seems.

Released in the cinema this was a colossal flop. Watching it, it’s easy to see why. It’s weird, confusing and sprawling. The funny thing is, it could easily have been a huge success. The Fifth Element and Total Recall show that you can get away with a lot of weirdness if you include a bit of fighting. And strange as Southland Tales is, with its psychics and porn stars and roller skates, there’s nothing here as weird as Chris Tucker in The Fifth Element!

In this movie The Rock is almost as brave in his performance as Tucker was in The Fifth Element (though not quite as successful), but if he’d been given the opportunity to fight his way through a handful of enemies in every other scene this film might well have sneaked its way into being a hit.

A lot of people have been totally dumbfounded by the tone of Southland Tales, but as you can see from the other reviews in this issue, I read a lot of comics, and so I was well set up to “get” it. So would anyone who’s read a bit of Howard Chaykin: the sex, the media, the rebels, the caricatures and the oppression – it’s all here. If you’ve ever wondered what an American Flagg! movie might look like, this is a good place to start.

Some consider the film to be badly cast, but I don’t agree. For starters, anything with Sarah Michelle Gellar in is well cast, as far as I’m concerned. She’s a very underrated actor, and I’m baffled by the fact that she doesn’t get cast in romantic comedies, when she seems perfectly suited to them. You just have to look at how people invested in Buffy’s relationships with Angel and Spike. Anyway, gushing aside…

As for the rest of the cast, I’ll get at least halfway through any Christopher Lambert film without giving up, so that carried me far enough into this movie to find my feet. Nice also to see some of my SNL favourites in the movie: Cheri Oteri and the brilliant Amy Poehler. Justin Timberlake brings the uncanny focus of the former child star to his performance as a traumatised soldier, and Seann William Scott leaves American Pie far, far behind. On the basis of this he could be well placed in a few years to fill the shoes of Bruce Willis. He wears a shaved head very well.

I haven’t said much about the plot, because I don’t want to give anything away. So I’ll end the review by saying this: everyone says it’s an appalling mess. If you watch the movie with that in mind, you might be surprised by much you enjoy it.

Southland Tales, Richard Kelly (dir.), US, 145 mins.

Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #24

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The Fantastic Soul

I was planning to write an editorial for this issue about the idea of the soul, and how it is used in fantasy fiction. I’ve found myself receiving a lot of submissions lately that concerned souls, in one way or another (both for this publication and for Dark Horizons). One of those stories was, in fact, up until the point where the point where the soul came into play, one of the best stories that has ever been submitted to this magazine, but I ended up rejecting it.

I began to wonder: at what point does a bugbear become a bigotry?

I’m an atheist, a rationalist and a humanist. I have a bit of a problem with stories about souls. Soul collectors. Souls wandering the earth. Souls going to heaven. Lost souls. They all bug me. I can’t get behind the Cartesian idea of the soul as a separate entity that can fly off to new adventures once the body has gone. It doesn’t make any sense. For example, in rejecting a very decent piece of writing recently I asked: "how does [the ghost] see without eyes, hear without ears, taste without a mouth, breathe without lungs, or think without a brain? I wouldn’t be able to do any of those things!"

Is that criticism at all relevant to a piece of fantasy writing?

Cartesian duality may be a hopelessly outdated idea, but then surely so are things like vampires, zombies, werewolves, gods and witches. Why do I object to souls and not those other things?

Part of it, I think, is that I believe I have a responsibility as a writer and editor, and sometimes I might take it a little bit too seriously. (I’m not serious about many things, so I hope you’ll allow me this one peccadillo.)

If I publish a story about vampires or werewolves, few people are going to be reinforced in a potentially dangerous worldview. The soul, on the other hand, stands somewhat apart from those other fantasy staples: it’s an old-fashioned idea, that doesn’t have any place in current scientific thinking, but is still fixed in the popular imagination, encouraging all sorts of odd beliefs: spiritualism, heaven and hell, astral projection, reincarnation, possession, and so on. It’s very much a part of the mainstream, and one whose influence I think is rather unfortunate. Imagine if women were being drowned for witchcraft: would responsible editors publish stories about evil witches? Probably not – and children have died in modern Britain as a result of their parents believing them possessed.

As an example of what I would call irresponsible writing, one line in the recent pilot of Fringe made me cringe: about to take a huge dose of LSD and have a spike shoved into her head by a mad scientist, the FBI agent is asked, "What makes you think this will work?" She replies, "What makes you think it won’t?"

To me that seems a hugely irresponsible attitude, one likely to encourage the desperate to hand their money over to hucksters and charlatans. What makes you think this crazy get-healthy-rich-pregnant-quick scheme will work? What makes you think it won’t? It’s the responsibility of the person making crazy claims to prove them, not the responsibility of sensible people to disprove them.

I do think the makers of Fringe are responsible – to a degree – for what principles people may draw from their stories. However, their first responsibility is to tell a good story. The story would have come to a standstill if the FBI agent had shook her head and said, "This is crazy – I’m going back to my desk."

In the early days of The X-Files I had a huge problem in this regard. Every time Mulder opened his mouth to profess belief in some ridiculous hoax I felt like throwing something at the television. But in the long term I couldn’t let that get in the way of enjoying some superb and terrifying drama. In the end, after all, Mulder was right. In his world, all of those things really do exist. In his world, there is evidence, and Scully is the irrational one.

Anyway, I decided against writing that editorial – though clearly I now have! I didn’t think there was much mileage it it, and my ideas (as you can see above) were rather vague and contradictory. What prompted the change of heart?

Well, I’ve been reading recently about an editor who allowed his bigotry to show through when rejecting stories, and that got me worrying about my own prejudices all over again.

A writer, Luke Jackson, posted on a blog a rejection email he had received from William Sanders, senior editor of Helix (an online zine), on a blog, asking for advice on interpreting it. Readers of the blog were rather more interested in Sanders’ obiter comments about Muslims and Arabs.

The story was that of a would-be terrorist. If, when Sanders referred to "the worm-brained mentality of those people", he meant terrorists and fundamentalists, it would be easy to agree with him. But then he went on to say that "he’s being mendacious (like all his kind, he’s incapable of honesty)" and that "most of the SF magazines are very leery of publishing anything that might offend the sheet heads". Which puts it in a rather different light.

Talking of that "worm-brained mentality" Sanders said that "at the end we still don’t really understand it, but then no one from the civilised world ever can". If he was still talking about terrorists, and he said that no civilised person could understand them, I would have been right there with him. Apart from anything else, killing people indiscriminately to achieve a political goal is just rude. Civilised people don’t do that – they write pointed letters to the newspaper. But there are civilised people in every country in the world who share each other’s bafflement at the horrors inflicted by their more brutal cousins.

If you say that there is a "civilised world" it makes your belief in an "uncivilised world" quite clear, and there’s no doubt here which part of Sanders’ world is full of the worm-brained, mendacious sheetheads.

Ironically, Luke posted the email completely unaware of how people would respond to it, and has now become one of the editor’s prime apologists in the matter – two things that say quite a lot about him. So he seems to be something of a blunderer, but if a more principled writer had done the same thing with the intention of blowing the whistle on something similar I would have supported them outright.

Unsurprisingly, lots of other writers and editors have had something to say about all of this, although a lot of the initial discussion was focused on the idea of whether rejection letters should be posted online at all, regardless of content. Gardner Dozois, for example, was critical of Luke Jackson for making the email public, but later said, "I like to think I’m not seething with racial hatreds, but even if I were, I wouldn’t put any expression of them into a rejection letter; that’s acting unprofessionally as well."

Tobias Buckell, on the other hand, said that he wouldn’t usually post rejection letters, but he would "make an exception if a rejection contained a racial epithet … because it would just blow my flipping mind if one ever did".

Jeff VanderMeer wondered "why there wasn’t an instant, complete, and sincere apology from all involved from the very first moments of this coming to light".

Few people accused of racism ever seem to say, "Yeah, you’re right. I just don’t like brown people." Or even, "I went a bit too far and said more than I mean. I’m sorry." There’s always an excuse. They’ve always been quoted out of context. Racism is always redefined on their terms to mean precisely nothing. The reaction is never to look in at oneself, but instead to complain about the complainers.

In short, it’s easy to spot a racist: they’re the ones who say they aren’t racist, not even one bit… Everyone else knows that we all come pre-loaded with a thousand prejudices that we have to acknowledge and work against. Everyone says off-colour things from time to time – whether it’s about race, gender (which is where I tend to go wrong, despite my best feminist intentions), the disabled, or people with ginger hair, or whatever – and we all get a bit blustery and embarrassed when it’s pointed out. You shouldn’t apologise for saying it in front of someone it offended, or get angry that it leaked out: you shouldn’t have said it in the first place. You should either stand by what you said or apologise for it.

Like Jimmy Carr says, if you have to look around before telling a joke, you shouldn’t be telling it at all.

I don’t think I would get too angry if anyone posted my rejections online, as long as they were posted in full. It would be a bit rude of someone to do it without asking, or at least letting me know, and I would certainly be more guarded with them in future, but I don’t say anything in email that I don’t mean (though I can be terribly gossipy).

On the other hand, if it was posted with a comment from the author saying, "Look at these comments – what a jerk this editor is", it would be a different matter. I’ve sent a couple of rejections out which have made me think, "Hmm, I can see this ending up on a forum under a Political Correctness Gone Mad! heading." But as long as the criticism was posted in full anyone reading it might be as likely to take my side as the other.

For example, someone who posts a response from an editor which says "this gives the impression of an author full of hatred of women, which I’m sure is inaccurate" (to paraphrase and conflate a couple of rejections I’ve given in the past) would be unlikely to get many supporters – or at least not ones about whose opinions I would care (although it always hurts when people are unkind).

That brings me back to my rejections, and whether I need to change my ways. Do I let my anti-religion/pseudoscience/new age bigotry show through in my editing?

It can’t help but come through, I think. If I think angels, souls, reincarnation, heaven, hell, ghosts, and what have you are daft in real life, I can’t help but think them daft in stories.

But I hope that when presented with a story that makes something good out of them, I can see through my prejudices to recognise how good it is. A good story can be built on any premise. I’ll never be a Christian, but I love The Omen II and The Exorcist III. My dislike of all that soul business is as stated above, but Buffy the Vampire Slayer is one of my all-time favourite programmes, and that’s full to the brim of people turning evil once their souls are missing. So are a hundred other fantasy films, tv shows, comics and books.

On the flipside, Uncanny X-Men is the world’s most misleading guide to evolution, but is still fab. (You and I might know that the sudden evolution of mutants in the Marvel universe results largely from the tinkering of cosmic beings, and vibranium, and whatnot, but anyone watching the movies or the cartoons would deduce that evolution means going to bed a fish, and waking up an amphibian…)

What I have to look out for is saying, "This story is rubbish because the idea that we have a soul is rubbish." That is missing the point, and taking the time to push my own views when I should be talking about the story – a story, of course, that like The X-Files, doesn’t necessarily take place in our world, or in our universe, or in our dimension. In the next dimension along, maybe humans do have souls. (I’d imagine them as little Mr Mind type creatures who live inside our heads, and when we die they move on to the next host.)

Whether the concept of a soul or a vampire or a ghost holds water or not isn’t always what matters in a fantasy story: it’s how they allow for good fiction, whether they lead to drama, whether they are dealt with consistently within that story. It’s the integrity of the story that matters, not the integrity of the idea.

And I’ll try to remind myself of that as I deal with the next batch of submissions...

As a postscript to last issue’s editorial, Ralan’s Specfic Webstravaganza has now listed Horror Literature Quarterly as a dead market (though on Duotrope it’s just said to be closed to submissions). I hope it’s the latter.

And sadly, Apex Digest, which I used last time as an example of a new magazine making a real effort to one day be commercial, has stopped publishing – on paper, at least.

They’re now going to pay pro rates and publish online for people to read for free. Good luck to them; presumably they’ve worked out that it’ll cost less overall than it does to pay semi-pro rates plus printers plus distribution. I hope it’ll thrive online. I imagine they’ve worked out how much they’re willing to spend on the first year or so and they’ll keep their fingers crossed re advertising and referrals.

Apex (in print) was a very well put together magazine – Jason was kind enough to send me review copies, and I was very impressed. I really admired his ambition. The covers were exceptional (apologies to P.S. Gifford and his TQF-submission-guidelines-plagiarising Glutenlump’s Chilling Tales, but Apex was shamefully robbed in that category of the Preditors & Editors awards) and what I got around to reading of the fiction was of a very high quality. I feel rather bad for not having done my part by reviewing the issues properly...

Launching a commercial fiction magazine is clearly a very difficult proposition. Launching an uncommercial one, on the other hand, has never been easier. The question is just how uncommercial you want to make it!

Anyway, so here we go again: another issue of Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction… Don’t think for a moment that my enthusiasm for this marvellous magazine has waned at all. Oh no, far from it. But upon this issue a heavy obligation falls. I’ve tried to put it off for as long as I could, but the time is up, the bill is due, and the debt must be paid. I speak of course of the publication of the latest novel by Howard Phillips, our long-term contributor, erstwhile marketer and sometime editorialist.

Why continue to publish his asinine rubbish, you might ask, when TQF gets so many other wonderful contributions nowadays?

Well, the novels of Howard’s Saturation Point Saga were one of the foundations of this magazine in its early years, and if there’s one thing I know about construction, it’s that if you take away the foundations the building falls down. Plus, I know for a fact that Howard will be here, year after year, plugging away with his novels, long after all the other writers we publish have moved on to greener pastures. He’s my cow. I can keep on milking him as long as I want. The milk might be sour, but once it’s in the bottle who will know? One day, if he keeps on trying, perhaps he’ll make some milk worth drinking, but "it hasn’t happened yet", as wonderful William Shatner would say.

It’s a shame that this issue’s other contributors have to share the space with Howard – let’s hope that the stink of his shed does not attach itself to them.

In "The Brass Menagerie", Aaron Polson asks how much our happiness depends upon our ability to ignore the unhappiness of others.

In "The Hungry Apples" Lyon and Offutt describe a terrible duel beneath deadly apples! It’s a story with an exceptional sense of place, and deadly apples! What more do stories need?

And John Greenwood brings more Newton Braddell. By this point you probably know what to expect, and, yes, it’s more of the same. That is to say: twists, turns, surprises, character development, hilarity and death!

Lest readers be amazed by the sudden improvement in my art, I should admit that I’ve been helped in the production of this issue by my four-year-old daughter. I didn’t have time to do my own illustrations, so she has stepped in on my behalf. I’m sure you’ll agree that she has done a bang-up job! I’ll offer a few notes to help you enjoy them to their fullest extent.

In the picture on this page she shows me being assaulted by two monsters. One of them is hitting me with a bat, while the other is hitting me with scrambled eggs. That, of course, is why I am bleeding. The most terrifying thing is the way they smile while hitting me. For page forty-nine I asked her to draw a moon with blood on it, and she obliged, before going on to add a "scary man from the shadows". The picture on page fifty-six is not as abstract as you might think: she has drawn a city (complete with inhabitant) and the mountain beneath which it sits. If you are having trouble connecting the picture on page sixty-four to the story it accompanies, it’s because my sweetie decided to draw some camels and eggs, rather than the lovestruck robot for which I asked. Perhaps I should have gone back to Aaron and asked him to work more camels and eggs into his story… My favourite illustration is that on page sixty, showing the protagonists in combat beneath the threat of the titular hungry apples.



  • The Fantastic Soul, by Stephen Theaker
  • Contributors

News & Comment

  • New from Telos Publishing
  • Riveting Reads of Fantasy
  • Raw Edge – Final Issue
  • Sad News from Ralan and Rimbaud
  • Shatner in the Royal Institution

Science Fantasy

  • The Day the Moon Wept Blood, by Howard Phillips

Science Fiction

  • Newton Braddell and His Inconclusive Researches into the Unknown: You Can’t Beat City Hall, by John Greenwood


  • The Hungry Apples: a Tale of Tiana, by Richard K Lyon & Andrew J Offutt


  • The Brass Menagerie, by Aaron A Polson

The Quarterly Review


  • The Art of Warhammer
  • The Black Veil & Other Tales of Supernatural Sleuths
  • The Cosmic Ordering Service
  • Doctor Who: Earthworld
  • Dracula’s Guest & Other Tales
  • Earthworks
  • Enemies of the System
  • The Homecoming
  • The Paladin Mandates
  • Shadows Over Baker Street: New Tales of Terror!
  • Sherlock Holmes and the Plague of Dracula
  • The Tangled Skein
  • Thorns


  • Aliens Omnibus Volume 1
  • Battle of the Planets: Trial By Fire
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer Omnibus, Vol. 3
  • DC Universe: The Stories of Alan Moore
  • Ex Machina, Vol. 2: Tag
  • Ex Machina, Vol. 3: Fact v. Fiction
  • Ex Machina, Vol. 6: Power Down
  • Lucifer, Vol. 1: Devil in the Gateway
  • Modesty Blaise: The Iron God
  • Modesty Blaise: Mister Sun
  • Modesty Blaise: Uncle Happy
  • Star Wars Omnibus: X-Wing Rogue Squadron Vol. 1
  • Showcase Presents Teen Titans, Volume 1


  • McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern #13


  • Southland Tales


Let’s see who was tricked into eating our magical artichokes of submission this time around…

Aaron Polson is a high school English teacher and freelance writer who dreams in black and white with Rod Serling narration. He currently resides in Lawrence, Kansas with his wife, two sons, and a rather sturdy – almost supernatural – tropical fish. His short fiction has appeared in various places, including Reflection’s Edge, GlassFire Magazine, Big Pulp, Johnny America and Permuted Press’s upcoming Giant Creatures Anthology. You can visit him on the web at To this issue of TQF he contributes "The Brass Menagerie".

John Greenwood has made contributions to most issues of TQF following his return from a round-the-world trip, and was ultimately made co-editor in recognition of his efforts. To this issue he contributes a further episode in the life of the universe’s least favourite peripathetic astronaut, Newton Braddell.

Richard K Lyon is a semi-retired research scientist/inventor whose hobbies include collecting pulp SF magazines and writing. He has also published numerous short stories and novelettes. A collection of the latter, Tales From The Lyonheart, is available from Barnes and Noble, etc. In collaboration with Andrew J Offutt, famed author of My Lord Barbarian, he wrote the Tiana trilogy (Demon in the Mirror, The Eyes of Sarsis and Web of the Spider), and Rails Across the Galaxy for Analog. To our magazine they have contributed "The Iron Mercenary" (TQF#19), "Arachnis" (TQF#22), "Devil on My Stomach" (TQF#23), and, this issue, "The Hungry Apples". This story previously appeared in Flashing Swords 1.4.

Stephen Theaker is the eponymous editor of Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction, and this issue’s cover artist. (This issue’s illustrations are by his four-year-old daughter.) He wrote most of this issue’s reviews. He is also the editor of Dark Horizons, the journal of the British Fantasy Society. Some of his current favourite musicians are Foals, Sebastien Tellier (ever since his appearance on the Eurovision Song Contest) and Los Campesinos. He likes to dance to the current single by N*E*R*D, Everybody Nose, and to Lose Control by Missy Elliott. He has recently read excellent books by Brian Aldiss and Frederik Pohl & C.M. Kornbluth. Some of his favourite movies are The Voyage Home: Star Trek IV, The Wedding Singer, The Matrix Reloaded and The Darjeeling Limited.

Howard Phillips was once a promising science fiction poet, but unfortunately he fell into a downward spiral of drink and self-hatred, the horrid fate of all too many versifiers. Being given the job of marketing manager with Silver Age Books in the late nineties did much to put him back on an even keel. He still had good days and bad days, but he achieved some level of stability in his personal life. His efforts at writing poetry and fiction during this period proved unsuccessful (a succession of novels were announced; none were written), but he achieved a level of musical success with his band, The Sound of Howard Phillips. In 2005, having left the band to fend for themselves, and in the midst of a second nervous crisis, everything changed forever: a vision set him off on a quest to assemble the world’s greatest band. He has chronicled that quest in a series of novels, all of which have been serialised in Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction. "My Rise and Fall", the first part of the as yet incomplete first novel, The Ghastly Mountain, appeared in TQF#8. His Nerves Extruded (2006) appeared in TQF#9 thru 11. The Doom That Came to Sea Base Delta (2007) appeared in TQF#16 and 17. In this issue we present in its entirety the fourth novel in the sequence, The Day the Moon Wept Blood.

Rafe McGregor is a crime fiction author who spends far too much of his time rereading the work of H.P. Lovecraft and M.R. James. He lives with his wife in a village near York. More details can be found on his website ( To this issue he contributes several book reviews.