Sunday 27 December 2009


An example of the law of unintended consequences: as a result of buying a Sony Reader I now listen to a lot more radio. Turns out it’s perfect for listening to radio recorded on the PS3, and that’s how I came to listen to this highly enjoyable programme.

After doing a Q&A at a bookshop fantasy novelist Samuel Porter is approached by three figures in strange costumes: Lord Vidar the elf, Penthiselea the warrior woman and Dean, a dwarf. They need the Chosen One to save their world from Lord Darkness. But Samuel isn’t the Chosen One: it’s his dog. Amis bounds straight into the quest for the Sword of Aznagar, turning into a human upon arrival in Lower Earth, while Samuel is only convinced to join by the pointed arguments offered by Penthiselea’s proud bosom.

ElvenQuest starts ominously: there’s a joke about fantasy fans not having girlfriends in the first minute, quickly followed by “you people take all this stuff too seriously”. I was all set to strap on my +3 sword of indignation, but thankfully it quickly left that stuff behind to race through six very funny, imaginative episodes that showed real affection for the material being spoofed.

Given the proximity of their broadcast dates, you can’t help wondering if Kröd Mandoon and ElvenQuest sprang from the same round of pitches – if so, Hat Trick backed the wrong horse, because this was substantially funnier than Kröd. For example, one episode begins with a solemn recital of all the tasks facing the heroes, ending with “for as it is written in the Great Elven Book of Knowing, isn’t life just one bloody thing after another”.

The cast is excellent, far outshining that of Kröd: Stephen Mangan, Darren Boyd, Sophie Winkleman, Kevin Eldon and Alistair McGowan, sounding exactly like Rowan Atkinson as Lord Darkness. I expect it’s easier to get actors to London for a few days than Hungary for a few months! And unlike its television rival, ElvenQuest’s satirical net covers more than a single movie. Lord of the Rings is obviously a big target (if target is the right word for such affectionate ribbing), but there’s also a lot of Thomas Covenant in here.

Lord Darkness is consistently funny, not least when he has to check in to a retox centre to top up his evil. Readers of Groo #77 will feel the warm glow of recognition upon hearing many of the jokes about Amis, but they are just as funny the second time around. Some of the jokes are real groaners, but delivered with panache: the studio audience is having such a great time that it’s hard not to be caught up in the fun.

The ending sets up a second series, and I certainly hope one will be forthcoming. In the meantime, do listen out for repeats on BBC7.

ElvenQuest, Series one, 6x30mins, BBC Radio 4.

Kröd Mändoon and the Flaming Sword of Fire

Kröd Mändoon (Sean Maguire of Meet the Spartans) becomes a leader of the resistance, and with his merry band of outlaws searches for a way to strike at local overlord Dungalore (Matt Lucas). Sean Maguire – always decent in his US sitcom appearances – and the rest of the cast do a fair job, but Matt Lucas rules the roost from start to finish, shining in his first real acting role and making the very best out of every line. He’s clearly enjoying himself. It’s no surprise that his character gets the last scene of the last episode rather than the titular hero.

Lots of other familiar British faces are involved, both behind the scenes (Jimmy Mulville produces) and on screen, including James Murray from Primeval as Ralph Longshaft, the man who’s everything Kröd wants to be, Alex MacQueen from The Thick of It as Barnabas, Dungalore’s long-suffering vizier, and Tony Bignell as Homunculo. You probably won’t recognise that last one, but he was also in BBC3’s Coming of Age, putting the poor guy in two of the most critically-derided comedies of the year.

But I’m not sure Kröd quite deserved the kicking it got from the critics. The humour is fairly run-of-the-mill stuff (Dungalore talks of his Uncle Zanus, which gives you an idea of what to expect), but it has its moments. There’s some quite funny anachronistic chat about casual Fridays and so on. It’s no worse than say The Quest of Dick & Dom, though obviously expectations are higher for a grown-up programme. It’s much, much less funny than Radio 4’s ElvenQuest. Funnily enough, Kröd features an inversion of its rival’s dog-into-human joke, but puts it to predictably cruder purpose.

Like Robin Hood, it’s filmed around Budapest, and you do expect Kröd and his men to run into Robin’s band of outlaws during one of their many rambles through the forest. The fantasy element is fairly perfunctory, the best story being about a biclops – a cyclops who swings both ways. What Kröd reminded me of most of all was the diabolically bad Dungeons & Dragons film, right down to the Wayans-esque sidekick, but played for intentional laughs this time. You could quite easily believe the D&D movie (and perhaps Krull) to be the only fantasy of which these writers are aware. Shame, though, that it misses that movie’s best (unintentional) joke: the dwarf who was one of the tallest members of the party!

All I ask of a comedy is that it makes me laugh – whether it is good or bad doesn’t really matter (hence my appreciation of the work of Rob Schneider). Kröd manages that, though not quite as often as it could, especially when Lucas is off-screen. It was made for Comedy Central by our own Hat Trick productions, and I can’t help thinking Hat Trick would have more joy with an American HIGNFY than another series of this. But there isn’t all that much fantasy comedy to choose from – I watched every episode of Red Dwarf without ever really thinking it was any good – so if they make another series of this I’ll watch it, slightly begrudging the times it hits me with a cheap laugh, but laughing nevertheless.

Kröd Mändoon and the Flaming Sword of Fire, Series one, 6x30mins, BBC2/Comedy Central

Frenzy, by Carole Johnstone

Eight men find themselves in a life raft with no memory (or so they say) of how they got there. It’s an odd kind of raft – basically a hoop from which each of them dangles in a claustrophobic little pocket, like an inverted toolbelt. No land is visible. The water beneath them is very deep, and it’s full of sharks – though they have as much to fear from each other.

I do enjoy a good shark story every so often (Meg was great fun, for example), so that brought this novella by Carole Johnstone straight to the top of my reading pile. However, it was disappointingly light on shark action. The sharks are there just to give the men something extra to worry about, to set them against each other. In fact, the men are almost in too much danger – from the sun, from each other, from drowning, thirst, hunger and madness – for the sharks to be a big problem.

This is really a psychological horror story, exploring Pete’s nightmares, his feelings about his brother, his relationships with the other men. This is done extremely well, but for me it lessened the drama of the situation. Anyone would be upset at what had happened to his brother, but would it be uppermost in your mind with sharks nipping at your toes?

As the days go by, and people bleed into the ocean from various wounds, the threat of a frenzied shark attack seems ever more distant. It’s sidelined so much that it stops being frightening. The sharks feel like an afterthought, added at an editor’s suggestion to make the book more commercial. The novella would have worked just as well without them – and shark fans wouldn’t have felt cheated.

In fact, no part of the story really blows up in the way you might have hoped: the sharks don’t seem hungry, the male rivalries are trumped up, the mystery of how they got onto the life raft summarily dismissed. At one point I thought the story might take a truly horrifying turn – why didn’t any women make it to the raft? – but even if I wish the story had focused elsewhere and taken different turns, it’s well written and never less than gripping. Just don’t expect Jaws.

Frenzy, by Carole Johnstone, Eternal Press, ebook, 80pp.

Ultrameta: a Fractal Novel, by Douglas Thompson

Alexander Stark is a university professor who goes missing; this book contains accounts of his life – or rather lives – from that point on. His – and sometimes her – stories take us all over the world and into the past, to ancient Greece and medieval Italy. Those he left behind try to piece things together from a trail of corpses. Where is he going? What is his purpose? Is he a serial killer or a serial suicide?

I should say up front that four of these stories were published in magazines I edited (two here in TQF, and two in Dark Horizons), so some bias in my review should be expected. But of course there was a reason I selected those stories for publication: I thought they were fantastic. So for whichever reason you choose, it’s no surprise that I loved the book too.

Let’s get my reservations out of the way first, since that leads directly to one of them: it’s perhaps because I read many of the stories in isolation that I saw the book’s overall linking structure as something of a flaw. In some places the linking material gives away too much about the stories which follow, but also the stories stood so well on their own that threading them along the skein of one man’s life lessened them slightly for me, losing a little of what made them unique by stressing their similarities. Production-wise, the book is afflicted by Eibonvale’s usual love of blank pages (fifty-four of them!) and enormous indents. There’s also an odd bit of spacing between each paragraph. Discreet is muddled with discrete throughout, punctuation is occasionally erratic and typos become slightly more frequent as the book goes on. On the other hand, each chapter announces itself with a bold, atmospheric illustration by publisher David Rix, and there are useful essays by Allen Ashley and Joy Hendry.

To new readers the book’s tiny flaws will be imperceptible, hidden by the glare of the originality and imagination on show here. Looking back at my email accepting “Telemura” for publication (in which spiders rearrange Margaret’s house while she sleeps), I said that it reminded me of Borges, or maybe a more dispassionate Lovecraft – if I’d read enough Ballard to be confident of my ground I’d probably have mentioned him too. Now I’ve read the rest of the book, it only reminds me of Douglas Thompson. It seems to me he’s a writer who doesn’t sit down to write a story unless he’s got an idea to justify it. As an example, consider “Anatomicasa”, in which a man slowly takes his house to pieces and rebuilds it in the strangest possible way, revealing its structure, becoming both its coroner and plastic surgeon. These stories are original in theme, in execution and in subject matter. Over the last few years I’ve read hundreds of short stories, and these have been among the very best and the most distinctive. The remarkable thing about this book is that despite the experimentation, the eccentricity, and the frequent changes in point of view, tense, location and time, it’s exceptionally readable, each carefully crafted sentence going down like hot chocolate laced with brandy.

In that sense Ultrameta reminded me of Moorcock’s A Cure for Cancer, another book I very much enjoyed without ever really understanding. But like the ten-year-old in “Butterflies”, “I enjoy reading books that I do not understand, and revelling in that mystery, that blissful confusion” (p. 273). That sums up my feelings so exactly that I wondered at first if I was being quoted! Not knowing can be frightening (being lost in a strange city), but it can also be wonderful (being whirled in the air by a parent). With Ultrameta there’s a bit of each: it’s both frightening and exhilarating. By turns cynical and idealistic, liberating and claustrophobic, this book is entirely entertaining and highly recommended.

Ultrameta: a Fractal Novel, by Douglas Thompson, Eibonvale Press, hb, 304pp.

The Girly Comic Book 1, ed. Selina Lock

This collects issues one to nine of The Girly Comic, an indie anthology title of strips with female protagonists. Part of the appeal here is the wide range of styles included, from Flaming Carrot-esque superhero adventure to autobiography.

There are so many stories that I can’t go through all of them, but Lee Kennedy’s (apparently) autobiographical strips are a particular highlight. It’s strange and admirable that stories of abusive parents and wicked nuns can feel so positive. Caroline Parkinson’s “Do Not Feed the Bear” was another favourite, an eight-page story of a little girl’s encounter with a bear outside the city walls. I also enjoyed “Star-Crossed Bother”, in which Horsewoman (bitten by a radioactive horse, with the chomp-mark in her shoulder to prove it) teams up with Puma and Glamowoman to battle the villains of the Zodiac.

On the rare occasions something doesn’t click (I’m having trouble thinking of an example), there’s always something new around the corner. The quality level is very high, and despite being produced on a shoestring the book as a whole bears comparison with other excellent anthologies of comics such as Popgun and McSweeney’s 13.

The Girly Comic Book 1, ed. Selina Lock, Factor Fiction, hb, 278pp.

The Nyctalope on Mars, by Jean de La Hire

Saint-Clair, the Nyctalope, is a twentieth-century Riddick, able to see perfectly in the dark. It’s not much of a superpower, but it’s enough to put him one up on Flash Gordon! After twelve girls are abducted to become the wives of the Twelve – a criminal organisation which has established a base on Mars, in order to conquer the Martians from The War of the Worlds, before returning to conquer Earth – the Nyctalope heads to Mars to rescue them.

This is an old French pulp novel given the Penguin Classics treatment by Brian Stableford and Black Coat Press. As well as translating, Stableford provides much useful apparatus. A highly informative introduction puts the novel in context, draws out its themes, and provides biographical information. An afterword deals with the problem of the story’s uneven chronology, caused in part by its episodic construction, and partly by de la Hire’s decision to introduce contemporary figures. Thirty-six footnotes alert the reader to de la Hire’s many mistakes, scientific and literary. Reproductions of several covers round out a generous package. Numerous typos spoil the effect a bit, but I imagine Jean de la Hire would have been delighted to see his novel receiving such loving attention after all these years.

Perhaps I should say careful attention, rather than loving: I probably enjoyed this book much more than Brian Stableford, who calls it a “thoroughly badly-written book”. The novel is certainly flawed, but enjoyable nevertheless. I don’t need all books to be good; it’s okay for some to be silly and entertaining. This book delivers entertainment in abundance, even if it’s not always deliberate.

There’s an Austin Powers feel to the novel at times. For example, one of my favourite lines recognises that Saint-Clair must already know everything he is being told: “‘I know all that,’ said Saint-Clair, ‘but every time you repeat it, it seems new, and I admire you…’” (p. 63). I’ve heard of hanging a lantern on awkward exposition, but that’s more like hanging a lighthouse on it! In another scene (p. 114), two villains stare at a dial in total silence for an entire hour to see if the power levels fluctuate. There’s lots of pipe and cigar-smoking. Characters monologue at ludicrous length, and nobody in the book seems able to think without speaking out loud. Even when hiding from hordes of enemies they still murmur long speeches to themselves (p. 280, for example). The book is full of that kind of endearing daftness. At one point the Nyctolope seems to propose putting someone to death for (among other things) “an extreme irreverence for science” (p. 86).

The book plays interestingly with other texts, for example establishing early on that Wells was a historian rather than a novelist (though why France was apparently unaffected by the Martian invasion is left unclear), foreshadowing similar experiments by Philip Jose Farmer, Alan Moore, and so on. Similarly the Nyctalope himself anticipates the pulp heroes that would follow: Doc Savage, Flash Gordon, and so on, all the way through to Tom Strong.

But for me this wasn’t just of historical interest. It was exciting, amusing, eccentric and quite unique, and I’d recommend it highly to anyone who prizes those qualities.

The Nyctalope on Mars, by Jean de La Hire, tr. Brian M. Stableford, Black Coat Press, pb, 312pp.

Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #31

pdf | epub | mobi | print UK | print US |

If you've had a good Christmas, it's about to get better! If you've had a bad one, here is its saving grace! Theaker's 31 is here for your pleasure! We've got eight terrific stories and nineteen reviews. We have fantasy from Zachary Jernigan and Heather Anastasiu, horror from Alex Smith and David M. Kinne, science fiction from Alison J. Littlewood, David Tallerman, Glynn Barrass and John Greenwood, though as ever these labels are applied somewhat loosely! The marvellous cover is by Howard Watts, while Douglas Ogurek and Rafe McGregor supply reviews.

Merry Christmas!

Welcome to issue 31 of Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction. I hope you think that this is an issue worth waiting for! We’ve got eight of our best ever stories, plus nineteen reviews. Hope you’ve all had a lovely Christmas!

Gone Google

We’ve pretty much gone completely Google here at Silver Age Books. We’re using Gmail for our email, Chrome for browsing, Docs for writing reviews, and we’re working on a new version of our website in Google Sites. We’d use Wave for collaborating if we could persuade everyone else to sign up! Not everyone is so happy with them, though: The Guardian reports that Ursula K. LeGuin has resigned from the Authors Guild in protest at their deal with Google Books.


Sorry that this issue is a couple of months late, especially to our contributors, who have been exceptionally patient! I took on quite a bit of freelance work over the last couple of months, meaning TQF fell to the bottom of the pile for a while. We’re still thinking about the best approach to take next year, but we’ll let you know as soon as we know. One way or another the magazine will continue!

Robert Holdstock

Robert Holdstock, who died on November 29, was, like J.G. Ballard or James Ellroy, an author I’d enjoyed and massively admired, but always meant to read more of. I loved his Elite novella, The Dark Wheel, when I was a kid, and later thoroughly enjoyed his Night Hunter series (written under the name Robert Faulcon), and of course his most famous novel, Mythago Wood. I was thrilled last year to be able to publish an interview with him in Dark Horizons. He’ll be much missed.


  • Merry Christmas! Stephen Theaker

  • Contributors


  • All My Ghosts, Zachary Jernigan

  • Under the Blighted Tree, Heather Anastasiu


  • Little Yellow Bird, Alex Smith

  • Street Lights, David M. Kinne

Science Fiction

  • Day of the Bromeliads, Alison J. Littlewood

  • Friendly, David Tallerman

  • Nu-Topia: Before the Fall, Glynn Barrass

  • Newton Braddell and His Inconclusive Researches into the Unknown: Some Observations on the Natural History of Kadaloor, John Greenwood

The Quarterly Review


  • Bad Karma

  • Contagious

  • Different Skins

  • Forever Twilight, Vol. 1: Darkness Darkness

  • Frenzy

  • Gilbert and Edgar on Mars

  • The Magicians

  • Mister Gum

  • The Nyctalope on Mars

  • Queen Victoria: Demon Hunter

  • Starfall

  • Ultrameta: a Fractal Novel


  • The Girly Comic Book 1


  • The Machine Girl

  • Paranormal Activity

  • Zombie Virus on Mulberry Street


  • ElvenQuest


  • Kröd Mändoon and the Flaming Sword of Fire

  • Warehouse 13

Also Received

  • But Not Yet Reviewed

Here are the people who cracked the eggs to make this omelette…

Heather Anastasiu lives just south of Austin, Texas. She has a Bachelor’s in Theology and is currently pursuing her Master’s degree in Literature at Texas State University. She has work forthcoming in the literary review Mud Luscious.

Glynn Barrass information can be found in his dread domain, Stranger Aeons. His previous work can be found in publications such as The Yellow Sign, Tales of the Talisman and Curious Tales of Books Gone Bad.

John Greenwood, both gentle man and gentleman, is the co-editor of Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction and long-time chronicler of Newton Braddell’s adventures.

Zachary Jernigan is an MFA candidate in University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast program. He writes mostly science fiction, and once ate 80 chicken wings in a single sitting. His turn-ons include: white knee socks, ’90s alternative rock, the Oregon coast, and the smell of used bookstores. Tell him he stinks at

David M. Kinne is a podgy American ambling aimlessly somewhere under the milky, overcast skies of Missouri. Presumed harmless.

Alison J. Littlewood has contributed to Dark Horizons, Read by Dawn 3, Black Static, Aoife’s Kiss and the Potter’s Field 3 anthology. She lives in West Yorkshire, England, where she spends far too much time dreaming and writing strange notes to herself on scraps of paper. See her website at

Alex Smith is the editor of Dick Pig Review and Red China Magazine.

David Tallerman can be found online at His fiction has appeared in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Pseudopod, Hub and Dark Horizons.

Stephen Theaker is the eponymous editor of Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction. He wrote most of this issue’s reviews. He is also the editor of Dark Horizons, the journal of the British Fantasy Society.

Howard Watts is an artist from Brighton. He has previously supplied covers for Pantechnicon magazine.

Douglas Ogurek and Rafe McGregor ( contribute reviews to this issue.

Warehouse 13 (Pilot)

Warehouse 13 is reminiscent of the much-lamented Middleman, in that it’s about two beautiful people who work for a secret organisation that stops the world’s weirdness from getting out of control – but it’s as if some maniac wondered what The Middleman would be like without wit, sass, excitement, plot or sexy uniforms. And now the experiment is complete – but did they have to make the results public? Some very dull people go to work in a big boring warehouse. They have to find troublesome magical artefacts and put them in a pressure cooker full of goo to neutralise them. Then they file them away. In short, they take the unexplained and put it on a shelf.

I would love to watch someone like Russell Davies or Charlie Brooker sit through this painfully slow, leaden pilot: imagine their expressions of astonished disbelief as the guided tour of the warehouse drags into its millionth deadly minute! I’ve stepped on pacier slugs (inadvertently, of course)! It even seems to know how dull it is: the score, for example, noodles away apologetically in the background, careful not to draw attention to itself, unable to hit any peaks because there’s nothing exciting happening on screen.

The none-more-generic lead characters are Pete Latimer (Eddie McClintock – the guy who wanted Bones to sail away with him), who gets “a vibe” about things – wooh! – and Myka Bering (Joanne Kelly), a standard-issue FBI agent in a tight blouse. McClintock’s tone is all wrong – he smirks through the whole thing and looks thoroughly bored. The best I can find to say about Kelly is that she’s probably playing the role as written. The support is better: C.C.H. Pounder must feel she’s on holiday after those gruelling final seasons of The Shield, while Saul Rubinek, who I’ve often thought would be perfect as Ben Bova’s Sam Gunn, plays Artie, the guy who looks after the warehouse.

The screener only included the pilot (thank goodness – I couldn’t have taken any more!) – but who knows, maybe with better scripts and direction it could become watchable. Programmes often get retooled between pilot and series. Brief nods at Monk-ish cosy crime showed potential. But after a pilot so drab it made K9 & Co look like Band of Brothers, the best reason for giving this a second chance is that there’s little else on telly in the summer months.

Warehouse 13 (pilot), NBC Universal, US, 90 mins (pilot)

Forever Twilight, Vol. 1: Darkness Darkness, by Peter Crowther

“At a little after 3.15, the whole world had turned white, just for an instant, and then everything had gone back to normal.” But of course it didn’t. Everyone has gone, zapped out of existence in the middle of the night, and the four people left at KMRT are all that’s left. Till the light flashes again, the next night, and then things get really strange.

A review by me of this book is a bit redundant, given the glittering literary stars lined up on its first few pages to praise it! Ramsey Campbell says it’s “as intensely menacing and gruesome as any George Romero film”, while Tim Lebbon calls it “a masterpiece of suspense and dread”. Michael Marsall Smith, Paul McAuley, Stephen Baxter and Sarah Pinborough are among the others lavishing praise.

For me Ian Watson nails it when he says it “reminds me … of Stephen King’s novella ‘The Mist’”. This could easily be read as a very well done pastiche of Stephen King. The small group isolated at a radio station is reminiscent of The Fog, while the mysterious disappearance of the rest of the world and the tension between safe-in-here and dangerous-out-there reminded me of “The Mist”. Add a dash of 1950s sf cinema (think Invaders from Mars) and you have a tasty concoction.

At one point I began to wonder whether the book was set in the fifties (the CDs would say not) – a hysterical woman gets slapped across the face, not once but twice, by two different male characters (Johnny on p. 87 and Rick on p. 117). Not something you see in books so often nowadays. And the first occasion comes just after Johnny lets her open the door to danger – just because he doesn’t want to worry her.

The plot is the story’s main weakness. It relies upon the survivors spending the daytime (very sensibly) turning the station into a secure little fort, and then (unbelievably stupidly) going out for a walk in the pitch black night at 3.11 am, and coming a cropper. Why didn’t they wait till morning before investigating? Geoff said, “My view is that two of us walk down into town, while it’s dark. That way, maybe we can find out some more.” Johnny, “verbalizing everyone’s thoughts”, asked who should go. You’d have thought at least one person would be thinking, a four mile walk in the middle of the night during a worldwide catastrophe is a stupid, stupid idea!

But if the plot is flawed, the ideas, atmosphere and action are terrific. And it is as scary as the luminaries above say; it gave me nightmares for two consecutive nights. The sequence with the telephone is the most frightening thing I’ve read since the railway scenes in The Witnesses Are Gone, from the same publisher. The desperate struggle to survive at the end was thrilling, and left me eager to read the sequels from Subterranean Press.

I reviewed this from a pdf ARC, so I wouldn’t normally point out mistakes; there was one that could be confusing to readers if it makes it through to the final version, though. In one key passage I think the wrong brother’s name is given (p. 75, fourth para, Geoff for Rick), which had me puzzling for ages about what was going on.

Forever Twilight, Vol. 1: Darkness Darkness, by Peter Crowther, PS Publishing/Drugstore Indian, hb, 127pp

Different Skins, by Gary McMahon

Different Skins collects two novellas, “Even the Dead Die” and the shorter “In the Skin”, both by Gary McMahon. They share certain themes – death, identity, skin, gender relations – but are otherwise separate. The marvellous cover is by Vincent Chong.

In “Even the Dead Die” Mike Angelo (his parents must have had a sense of humour) moves through a London that he despises, soon discovering that there’s a worse London beneath. It’s a story of death, rape, murder, prostitution and sexual slavery. Structurally, there are similarities with things like Neverwhere or The Matrix, but in tone it’s closer to the movies of Clive Barker. I won’t say anything more about Mike’s discoveries; I don’t want to spoil the novella for anyone; but as you might expect they are shocking, horrifying and gruesomely entertaining.

This novella was bit of a tough read, even allowing for the gruelling subject matter, because it was marred by mistakes and patches of clunky, awkward writing. Some sentences looked good on the surface but didn’t stand up to scrutiny, while other sentences were overloaded with redundant words. For example see p. 40: “This was becoming repetitive, but despite all the information (he) was imparting, he was going nowhere near the answer to the only question that really mattered.” It’s not exactly wrong, but it’s not exactly elegant either.

Some sentences don’t quite slot together. For example, there was “a lengthy silence on the line, which was soon filled by the sound of Aunt Hilda crying” (p. 21) (was the silence lengthy or soon filled?), and “I needed air, even if it was the polluted miasma that hangs above London like a cloud of radioactive leakage” (p. 24) (if it’s a cloud above London will he be breathing it?). After a revelatory chat, his “mind was drowning in all this sensory information” (p. 52) – presumably the chat was accompanied by a laser show!

The opening line is already infamous: “London is an open wound … through which oozes the rancid puss of society.” And no, this isn’t a story about zombie cats. I’d guess the old lady with the hot body is supposed to be disconcertingly erotic rather than “discerningly erotic” (p. 54), though both could well apply, and when a baddie gets his just desserts I think the process probably involves being pulled apart rather than telling lies (“quickly dissembling him” (p. 67). There’s also a pile of smaller errors and the impression is unfortunately of a story that didn’t go through a proper editorial process.

Still, despite its flaws, it has many strong moments, lots of good ideas, and (as Tim Lebbon notes in his introduction) is written with exceptional passion. If the production is poor, the story being told is more than good enough to compensate and make this a very worthwhile and memorable read.

“In the Skin”, though, was better in every way. Dan goes on a business trip to New York, leaving behind his wife Adi and young son Max. Upon his return, his wife seems jumpy and his son seems unusually bulky. What has happened to them in his absence? And who’s that crawling around in the garden?

As with “Even the Dead Die”, the story is powerful and frightening. There is still the occasional mistake (how could he have watched both planes crash live on 9/11, and how does his laptop’s operating system run once the entire hard drive has been wiped?) but the language is leaner, direct and much less wordy – and hence more impactful. The writing is just plain better.

The author’s notes at the back of the book suggest “In the Skin” was written much more recently than the story that shares its covers (circa 2008, compared to 2002 for at least the first two parts of “Even the Dead Die”), so maybe that explains the differences between them. Either way, this was a very enjoyable book, and if my experience of the same author’s Rain Dogs is anything to go by, within a month or two I’ll have forgotten the mistakes and be rhapsodizing about the bits I loved.

Different Skins, by Gary McMahon, Screaming Dreams, pb, 120pp.

Contagious, by Scott Sigler

In this sequel to Infected, a prologue quickly brings new readers (and a new President) up to speed. The infected develop welts, kill their families, and die once pyramid-shaped aliens hatch from their bodies. The little aliens then start building stargates while the government tries to stop them. Former quarterback “Scary” Perry Dawsey survived the first novel by hacking off his genitals; here he takes the lead. Think The West Wing v Aliens with Michael Myers as the hero.

One of the shortest six-hundred page books I’ve ever read, this is split up into dozens of tiny chapters, one for every scene; it’s paced like a mini-series (you get to p. 131 before reaching the first line of the back cover’s plot summary), but cut like a music video, which gives it a style you might see as sketchy or punchy, depending on your point of view. The little aliens are not very scary, but the book is surprisingly brutal, and runs a nice line in body horror.

It’s a big sloppy puppy dog of a novel, daft and eager to please. It doesn’t surprise or innovate, but it’s perfect for the beach or a long train journey.

Contagious, by Scott Sigler, Hodder, pb, 640pp

The Magicians, by Lev Grossman - reviewed by Stephen Theaker

Quentin Coldwater is a rather sour over-achiever from New York, whose favourite books are the Fillory and Further series, which bear an uncanny resemblance to the Narnia books of our world. Before you know it, it’s teenage wish fulfilment time – he’s whisked off to magic school. But he finds that having your teenage wishes fulfilled isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Essentially, this is half-Potter, half-Narnia with a sprinkle of Miracleman, and at times the book feels as cynically commercial as that sounds, but it’s still fairly enjoyable. Grossman writes very well, the characterisation of his thoroughly unlikeable characters is excellent, and the storyline wraps up nicely in a single volume, which on its own is enough to set it apart from a lot of commercial fantasy novels.

What didn’t I like? The sarky snipes at Potter in the text seemed rather ungentlemanly, given how closely it followed the Potter template. As for the animal sex bits – if a woman’s ability to say no is taken away, because she’s been turned into an animal, and then you have sex with her, isn’t that effectively rape? I didn’t see much difference between that scene and the teacher putting Rohypnol in the school dinners… But then, reading further into the book, perhaps I wasn’t supposed to and should actually give myself a pat on the back for taking issue with it!

I think I’d have enjoyed it more if it had been an actual Narnia sequel. Alan Moore’s Miracleman drew a lot of strength from building on the original Marvelman comics, and it was easy to imagine how much more powerful this novel would have been if it had featured Aslan and the Pevensies instead of Ember and the Chatwins. But it was a fast-moving, well-plotted novel about a group of very realistic teenagers (even if they are the kind of teenagers that adults will find intensely annoying). I wouldn’t describe it as Harry Potter for adults, but older teenagers may well adore it.

The Magicians, by Lev Grossman, William Heinemann, pb, 400pp.

Gilbert and Edgar on Mars, by Eric Brown

This very enjoyable little book sees G.K. Chesterton, having been mistaken for H.G. Wells, abducted by Martians. An energetic and rather unpleasant Edgar Rice Burroughs rescues him and the two head off into the Martian wilderness to find Edgar’s good friend, John Carter, dodging dinosaur attacks and battling alternative realities along the way…

This makes a nice companion piece to the same publisher’s Planet of Mystery by Terry Bisson, in which astronauts found themselves on a hallucinatory Burroughsian Venus, but where that could have been drawn from the pages of New Worlds, this is much more traditional, and slightly old-fashioned. That makes it no less enjoyable, though.

After all, this is a book which sees John Carter pointing a ray-rifle at Professor Challenger – what’s not to love? Burroughs fans may be disappointed by his unflattering characterisation, but it serves the story well. It’s perhaps a shame the Jabbak Kathro didn’t get a chance to rummage through Chesterton’s brain, but that’s what sequels are for…

Gilbert and Edgar on Mars, by Eric Brown, PS Publishing, hb, 90pp.

Mister Gum, by Rhys Hughes

Mister Gum is a creative writing tutor who illustrates the rules of good writing – beginning of course with “Show, don’t tell” – with a series of extended anecdotes that may or may not be from his own life. Eventually he loses his position, but his adventures in sex and language continue, including a spell working at the inflatable headquarters of Scrofula Yard with Detective Ynch Short.

This is a book drenched in gentlemanly emissions from start to finish, and if it isn’t the filthiest thing I’ve ever read (that would have to be Les onze mille verges by Apollinaire, which I expect to be arrested for reading any day now) it’s in the top ten, somewhere near Miller’s Under the Roofs of Paris. But for all the semen being flung around in these pages, it’s really very genteel and polite. This isn’t Rhys Hughes does porn, or Rhys Hughes sets out to shock; it’s the same Rhys Hughes, just with oceans of semen, talking hymens and characters like Fellatio Nelson, a pirate with a prehensile penis, and, erm, Lynne Truss, punctuation fanatic.

This is the third book by Rhys Hughes I’ve read in as many months, following The Smell of Telescopes (Eibonvale) and The Postmodern Mariner (Screaming Dreams). Mister Gum comes to us from Dog Horn Publishing, publishers of Polluto magazine. This multiplicity of publishers suggests that Hughes is something of a wanderer (either that or no single publisher can cope with his prodigious output). And so it goes with his stories (after three books I’m now an expert!), many of which feature journeys of one kind or another. His stories are like extended “a man walks into the bar” jokes; their conclusions share the unforeseeable inevitability of a punchline.

What I like so much about Hughes’ work is (egocentrically enough) exactly what I like in the novels I’ve written myself. It’s the freedom he gives himself, to follow his nose, to be deliberately silly, to extend jokes as far as he fancies. The difference of course is that mine are rubbish, lazily written nonsense, whereas his stories are carefully-constructed, detailed nonsense! He’s sometimes accused of being self-indulgent, but there are more than enough books out there that indulge their readers. How great to have a writer working for himself, to create more of the kind of art that he appreciates.

And anyway, as Frank Black sang about the Three Stooges, “Some nonsense, it is so serious.” Here, in a very, very silly book, I think Hughes is making very serious points about the near-total irrelevance of externally-imposed rules when it comes to creating art; they’re useful when it comes to selling it; and working within self-imposed rules can create interesting results (viz. the Oulipo work he admires); but if you want to write a story that is all tell and no show then don’t let a silly rule stop you.

I can’t imagine trying to edit or translate his work. Translating it, how to adapt the puns to another language, how to even spot them all? Editing it, how to know what’s a mistake, when almost any apparent mistake could be another joke? (Well, you would just ask on the proofs, but I’m coming over all rhetorical.) Reviewers face similar difficulties. For example, my pre-release version contains several mentions of prostrate glands. Should those be prostate glands, or is it another joke? Maybe they are prostrate, as a result of all their hard work! If it was a mistake, I hereby claim my no-prize! But if it was a joke, I’ve shown myself to be a complete dullard!

Anyway, to sum up: fantastically filthy, fantastically entertaining! But I think Lynne Truss will be on the phone to her lawyers…

Mister Gum, by Rhys Hughes, Dog Horn Publishing, pb, 108pp

Queen Victoria: Demon Hunter, by A.E. Moorat

King William IV is dead, and Princess Victoria takes the throne aged eighteen. England and its monarch are threatened by the forces of darkness (among them the King of Belgium); luckily the new queen has supernaturally quick reflexes and is handy with bladed weapons… Essentially this is Queen Victoria as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, dealing with monsters, boys, evil plots and a hard-ass mentor.

The cover of this book is fantastic, and its tag line is magnificent: “She loved her country. She hated zombies.” Maybe, but it’s p.136 before she meets one, and she only spends about seven pages fighting them in total, being mostly occupied by werewolves. Clearly the zombie angle has been (smartly) played up for commercial reasons.

This is lightly plotted Kim-Newman-esque fun. Little is resolved by the end, and there’s sometimes a sense of characters being moved around like pieces on a board, but those characters, especially Lord Quimby and his dead manservant Perkins, are good ones. Though you don’t have to read this book to get its best joke, there are others, e.g. monster hunters named Hicks, Vasquez and Hudson. Don’t be too disappointed if this turns up in your Christmas stocking.

Queen Victoria: Demon Hunter, A.E. Moorat, Hodder, pb, 376pp

Zombie Virus on Mulberry Street

With the tenants of a run-down tenement building facing what seems to be a zombie attack, this seems at first like an unofficial remake of [o]Rec, but when you realise it’s a fairly old film only now getting a UK release the influence of 28 Days Later becomes much more obvious: in the moody shots, the excellent use of music (The Walkmen’s The Rat is used superbly to set off one of the bloodiest scenes), the use of colour filters, and the fact that the attackers aren’t actually zombies, though they have a taste for human flesh.

No, Mulberry Street has caught itself a rat virus. The infected get twitchy, grow whiskers, and eventually scurry around on all fours looking for food, in one of my favourite uses of abnormal physical movement to cause fear since Stuart Gordon asked dancers to play the half-human villagers in Dagon. In the same way that Gary McMahon’s Rain Dogs chimed with anyone who had suffered a leaky roof or dripping tap – the bloody implacability of water! – Mulberry Street will elicit nods of appreciation if you’ve ever had a rodent in the house. Scenes where the ratties move behind walls and between floorboards are imaginative, frightening, and clearly created by people who have heard the pitter-patter of too-tiny feet themselves.

Another of the movie’s strengths is its interesting set of characters, the leads being an aging ex-boxer and a Polish barmaid. Their tentative romance is very sweet, and could have made for a decent film in itself – though it wouldn’t take Freud to find the relationship’s outcome rather icky, given how quickly it follows a reunion with his daughter. Nick Damici makes a very unusual and engaging lead. When he straps his hands and starts punching out ratties, you may well wonder what he could do in a Rodriguez or Tarantino film.

What’s more, Damici co-wrote the script, and it’s a good one. You’d expect an actor to write himself some good long speeches, but no – there’s not a word of unnecessary dialogue, and what there is is often very funny (“he’s turned into a big f**king rat!”). Damici has previously appeared in Law & Order, and that show’s New York naturalism is here in both script and performances, even though (or perhaps because?) many of the cast are apparently non-actors.

Any criticisms? Well, the actual plague rats (as opposed to the infected humans) are a bit silly, but in a charming sort of way. The inclusion of “Zombie Virus on” in the title is an innovation of the UK distributor (so don’t blame the film-makers for the film’s lack of zombies!) and the UK DVD cover features people who aren’t in the movie, but if a snazzy cover will get more people to pick this very entertaining film up in Blockbuster, what’s the harm?

Zombie Virus on Mulberry Street, Jim Mickle (dir.), US, 84 mins

Sunday 25 October 2009

The Mercury Annual, by Michael Wyndham Thomas

The Razalians take the sun’s contempt in good part. The nature of their planet has long inured them to disappointment – hope, too, but this isn’t as bleak as it may sound. They know examples aplenty of what hope can lead to – most notably, in their system, the Twenty Aeons war between Barask and Sehunda, adjacent planets at the opposite end of the arc. There, the hope ignited and persisted on both sides that the other would surrender its world. So powerful did the hope grow that the actual reason for hostilities was clean forgotten by Aeon Three. It finally took the intervention of the sun – tired of seeing its spiral path littered with phosphorescent cannon-shafts and the goggling eyes of garotted helots – to lay all hope to rest. For three and thirty parts of an aeon, it looped around these two planets alone, sending out secondary rays to warm the rest of the arc (apart from Razalia, which got a dab or two, equal to an electric fire left on for half-an-hour every other day). Closer and closer it looped, till the famed serpent’s-tail rivers of Barask were boiling and the thousand-foot snow-trees of Sehunda were stripped of their magenta bark. Only then did the planets’ leaders cease hostilities.

"one of the strangest stories I have read in a long while ... The characters are well-drawn, the scenario and relationships entirely convincing. … I will be looking to get hold of Part 2 when it comes out." – Anthony Williams, Prism

A new book by Michael Wyndham Thomas! The Mercury Annual is now available from Lulu, Amazon and all over the place, for about £6.99 – an ebook version is available from Lulu for £2.50!

And now available on Kindle!

Small, unfinished, more like a blueprint for a world than the real thing, Razalia props up one end of the Arc of the Fifteen Planets. In some places, its landscape looks like the efforts of a water-colourist suddenly called away from his easel. The Razalians live with the gaps – those spaces of unfathomable white – in many of their ridges, valleys, forests.

And then the white begins to move…

Parts of this book first appeared in Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #8 and #14.

Michael Wyndham Thomas is a poet, fiction-writer, dramatist and musician who has been widely published in the UK, Europe and North America. His first poetry collection, God's Machynlleth and Other Poems, is available from Flarestack, while Port Winston Mulberry is forthcoming from Peterloo Poets. His CD, Seventeen Poems (and a Bit of a Song), is now on release from MayB Studios. Publication of his novel, The Song of the Sun, is also forthcoming, as are productions of his play, Mr Culverson's Apostle. Since April 2004 Michael has been poet-in-residence at the annual Robert Frost Poetry Festival, Key West, Florida. In consequence, he is now Poet-at-Large in the Navy of the Conch Republic of Key West. He undertakes these "bardic" duties with due solemnity and happy bafflement. See for more information.

The cover art is from Simon Bell, an artist who works in a wide range of media and lectures in Art and Design at Coventry University.

Review copies: we've taken a leaf out of PS Publishing's book on this one – we'll supply pdfs of our books to anyone who can point us to where their reviews appear (online or offline), whether that's a blog, a website, a magazine, an ezine or so on. If you'd prefer the books in another format, for example epub, just let us know. Email and include a link to your previous reviews or the publication you're reviewing for.

Sunday 4 October 2009

Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #30

pdf | epub | mobi | print UK | print US |

Issue 30 of TQF features not one but two writers using the initials K and J. How many other magazines can say that? Black Static, Interzone, Postscripts and McSweeney's may have their fans, but only Theaker's Quarterly would dare to bring you two K.J.s in a single issue!

The issue opens with "Citadel Ninety-Nine" by Michael Canfield, in which a bloodthirsty army tears its way across a strange, strange world. Also in this issue… John Greenwood plots the next point in Newton Braddell's weary journey. Jon Vagg shows what really goes on at conventions in "DeadSoulsCon". K.J. Hays tells the story of "The Zombie Who Went to Town in Style". K.J. Hannah Greenberg writes about creatures in mailboxes in "Just One Case of Flash: Another Chimera Story". And Ben Thomas & Skadi meic Beorh win this issue's best title award with "The Periodic Honking of the Fruit-Seller's Truck".

The issue ends with our usual bountiful selection of reviews, including comment on all of this year's British Fantasy Award-nominated novels, two books from Rhys Hughes, and a collection by Steve Redwood.

And of course the editorial apologises for the lateness of this issue!

Crisis on Earth-One!

This issue is out two months late, and that’s down to the British Fantasy Society taking a lot of my spare time. I can’t complain, though, it’s mostly been a lot of fun.

First there was the reading of submissions for Dark Horizons 55 and all the work involved in putting that together, then organising the BFS Short Story Competition, and then helping out with the online voting for the British Fantasy Awards, and then trying to straighten out the BFA constitution to take into account changes made over the last year or so. It was all very fascinating stuff to be involved with, but didn’t leave much time for the magazine you hold in your (virtual) hands.

Then I went to FantasyCon, held in Nottingham, where I had a great time. I hosted a panel which was nerve-wracking but enjoyable (though next year I must remember to take a watch). I announced the winner of the BFS Short Story Competition at the awards ceremony in a way that would have done Mick Fleetwood proud.

On the Sunday I attended the AGM, where it turned out that a book of interviews with horror writers, launched by the BFS at the convention didn’t include any interviews with women, despite being billed as an overview of the genre.


An apology for this “lazy sexism” was quickly issued by the BFS chair and special publications editor, luckily in time to be included when The Guardian picked up the story. We were perhaps also lucky in that two British Fantasy Awards had gone to women.

The upshot of all that is that next year we’ll just have four issues of Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction so that I can schedule things a bit more sensibly (and maybe even bring out a few more books).

On to this issue: hope you enjoy it and feel it’s been worth the wait. I think it contains some of our most interesting and unusual stories ever!


  • Crisis on Earth-One! Stephen Theaker
  • Contributors


  • Citadel Ninety-Nine, Michael Canfield

Science Fiction

  • DeadSoulsCon, Jon Vagg
  • Just One Case of Flash: Another Chimera Tale, K.J. Hannah Greenberg
  • Newton Braddell and His Inconclusive Researches into the Unknown: Cigarettes of the Gods, John Greenwood


  • The Periodic Honking of the Fruit-Seller’s Truck, Ben Thomas and Skadi meic Beorh
  • The Zombie Who Went to Town in Style, K.J. Hays

The Quarterly Review

The British Fantasy Awards

  • The Graveyard Book
  • Memoirs of a Master Forger
  • The Victoria Vanishes
  • The Midnight Man
  • Rain Dogs
  • Thieving Fear

Other Books

  • Bad Thoughts
  • Broken Symmetries
  • Dust and Shadow: an Account of the Ripper Killings by Dr John H. Watson
  • The Smell of Telescopes
  • The Postmodern Mariner
  • Wild Robert


  • Hellblazer: Empathy is the Enemy
  • The Compleat Next Men, Vol. 1


  • Dark Floors
  • Deadgirl


  • Lost, Season 5
  • Primeval, Series 3
  • Supernatural, Season 4

Also Received

  • But Not Yet Reviewed

Here are the people who gave me the bricks to build this house…

Skadi meic Beorh is a fantasy novelist presently abiding in Pittsburgh with his girl Amberlynn and their three faery-cats Winkin, Blinkin, and Nod. His books Always After Thieves Watch and Pirate Lingo are presently in print. More books are forthcoming from Wildside Press, Sam’s Dot, and Rebel Satori Press.

Michael Canfield has published seventeen short stories. His work has appeared in Realms of Fantasy, Escape Pod, Strange Horizons, the anthology Fantasy: The Year’s Best 2006 (Prime Books), and other places. For more info, and links to free stories, visit his website,

K.J. Hannah Greenberg gave up all manner of academic hoopla to chase a hibernaculum of imaginary hedgehogs and to raise children. Hannah’s writing has been accepted for publication in venues including Doorknobs and Bodypaint, Fallopian Falafel, Ken*Again, Literary Mama, Morpheus Tales, Poetry Super Highway, Shakespeare’s Monkey Review, Static Movement, The Externalist and The Lesser Flamingo.John Greenwood is laughing right now at these very words.

K.J. Hays lives in Orange County with his churlish dog, Mr Bear. His work has appeared in such publications as Sex and Murder, Bareback Magazine, The Flea, Dark and Dreary and the delightfully named Breadcrumb Scabs. He keeps a blog here: It wants followers and commentary.

Rafe McGregor recently celebrated the publication of his historical thriller, The Architect of Murder. See To this issue he contributes two reviews.

Ben Thomas is the author of dozens of short stories, three screenplays, and a perpetually unfinished novel. In 2007, he founded The Willows, the now-defunct magazine of Victorian tales and art. These days, he spends much of his free time studying ancient cultures and languages, a passion he hopes will lead to a high-level degree in an archaeological field. He lives in the Los Angeles area with his girlfriend.

Jon Vagg mainly writes reports and training materials on social exclusion, deprivation and deviance, often drawing on his own life story. He has previously published fiction under pseudonyms, mostly in niche gothic magazines.

The Postmodern Mariner, by Rhys Hughes

I went from The Smell of Telescopes, one of Rhys Hughes’ earliest books, to this, one of his most recent. The decade or so that separates them is immediately obvious (or at least it seems to be – perhaps these stories date from the same period and I’m just imagining a difference!): the lines are cleaner, the twists less superfluous, the jokes funnier. There are three distinct sections. (I rather wish The Smell of Telescopes had been divided up in the same way to save me a bit of brainache!)

Part One features seven amazing adventures of Castor Jenkins, the Baron Munchausen of Porthcawl, of which more below. Part Two is “The Lip Service”, a tale of a man who posts himself to his girlfriend and ends up in a far-off magical lost parcels depot. It’s funny, silly and rather sadder than the other stories, being all about the steady disappearance of love from the world.

Part Three is a novella about the Postmodern Mariner in person, “Rommel Cobra’s Swimming Carnival”, in which the Mariner (a blogger) goes in search of adventure with pirates in a gigantic cup of tea – adventure on the high teas, one might say! Astonishingly, in a novella filled to the brim with groan-worthy puns, Hughes neglects to make that one, the most obvious of all. I can only guess it’s a deliberately open goal, left by way of invitation to the reader to join the game!

[In this, as in so many things, I was wrong. The author, reading the original draft of this review on Goodreads, noted that such a pun could be found on page 118, about halfway down. Said Rhys: “I was mildly shocked at the thought that I might have missed a pun! I went mildly pale, began mildly shaking, nearly collapsed with a mild heart attack!”]

Two marvellous opening paragraphs from the Castor Jenkins stories should serve to give a taste of the pleasures of this book. “The Plucked Plant” begins thus: “Castor Jenkins has a bad habit of advocating outlandish ideas and even his mildest beliefs are routinely uncommon. If you ask him about the Primeval Soup he’ll insist it was leek and potato. He denies the existence of the colour purple, the number seven and the note G#.”

And “Interstellar Domestic” opens with: “Nobody outside Porthcawl, and hardly anyone inside it, can remember that Wales once had a space program that enjoyed greater success than the combined efforts of the Americans, Russians and Chinese. … What’s more, it was done on the cheap, without even the need to build a spaceship.”

If you like those extracts, you’ll enjoy this book immensely. The book reviews itself! But I should try to contribute; what I like about these stories is that they are all about extrapolation. I like stories where one thing follows on from another, where premises are built upon, notions are followed through. For example the way the apocalyptic ending of Joe Hill’s Gunpowder follows logically from its small beginnings, or Racine’s protagonists are propelled to their doom, or Superman shaves his beard with his heat vision.

The speciality of the stories in this book is taking a silly (and sometimes not-so-silly) premise and following it through to an apparently logical but ludicrous conclusion – and that’s why I loved them so much. A review of the same author’s The Crystal Cosmos dismissed it briefly: “It begins, beautifully. Alas, from here on out it descends into a nonsensical mess.” Not having read that book of course I can’t argue with the conclusion, but it’s worth noting that not all nonsense is a mess, and nonsense isn’t necessarily something into which a story descends: sometimes it’s something to which a story carefully builds, and that’s certainly the case in this collection.

The book’s one flaw for me is that it groups together three chunks of storytelling that have little in common. Each section is individually quite fantastic, but they don’t quite add up to a pleasing whole. A complete collection of Castor Jenkins stories would have been even better, or a set of three novellas, but as it stands the novella feels like an unnecessary adjunct to the Jenkins stories, or vice versa. Certainly, the unique and very admirable Castor Jenkins stories deserve to be in a book with his name on the cover.

And while we’re talking of covers, a note of praise for Steve Upham’s marvellous giant octopus! Certainly, the design of this book does it proud, as does the quality of its production.

The Postmodern Mariner, by Rhys Hughes, Screaming Dreams, pb, 160pp.

The Smell of Telescopes, by Rhys Hughes

This is a new edition from Eibonvale Press from 2007 of a collection of short stories first published by the highly respected small press, Tartarus Books, in 2000. I don’t have the original version for comparison, but this one has a couple of oddities: like the other Eibonvale books so far, each paragraph begins with a gigantic indent, creating hundreds of unintentional ellipses, and full stops are followed by two spaces instead of one, which gets annoying over the course of a whole book. Also, the space between each story includes two to four blank pages: providing time to decompress, perhaps, but adding up to about sixty blank pages in total. On the other hand, this edition adds striking illustrated title pages to each story, and the author has said that this is his preferred version of the text.

Though each of the stories works alone, there are connections between them. Largely they fall into four categories.

One set deals with Captain Morgan’s retired pirates, scoundrels such as Spermaceti Whiskers, Thanatology Spleen, Muscovado Lashes, Lanolin Brows and Omophagia Ankles. These were the stories I had most trouble with – the first couple I found almost entirely impenetrable – I had to nail my eyes to the page to stop them running away. “Lanolin Brows”, though, was brilliant: a pirate makes himself a suit of armour from wood, and goes on to create an entire city from the stuff. “Omophagia Ankles” ties together many of the book’s threads for a very satisfying conclusion.
Four stories tell of two troubled lovers, Myfanwy and Owain, and their travails with pies, imps, trousers and souls: “The Blue Dwarf”, “The Orange Goat”, “The Yellow Imp” and “The Purple Pastor”. The first was almost painfully quirky, but the last was superb, leaving the hero in a most unusual position.

Five stories concern the strange town of Ladloh, its inhabitants and politics: “Ten Grim Bottles”, “The Purloined Liver”, “A Person Not in the Story”, “Burke and Rabbit” and “The Hush of Falling Houses”. These were my favourites in the volume, in particular “The Hush of Falling Houses”, in which Ladlow must face its final fate – again.

Twelve stories are more or less standalones, including “The Banker of Ingolstadt”, “The Squonk Laughed”, “Telegraph Ma’am”, “The Tell-Tale Nose”, “A Girl Like a Doric Column”, “Nothing More Common”, “Bridge Over Troubled Blood”, “The Haunted Womb”, “There Was a Ghoul Dwelt by a Mosque” and “The Sickness of Satan”. All of these were very good, and are the most accessible. My favourites from this group were “Depressurised Ghost Story” and “Mr Humphrey’s Clock’s Inheritance”, a story on the perils of licking furniture.

This was a very challenging book to read. Every line is so dense, so filled with allusions, in-jokes and puns that I halted and stuttered in my reading, reminding me of when I began to read novels in French for the first time. Every line needed to be decoded, sifted for meaning before I could understand it or move on to the next. But the more of it I read, the more I settled into it, the more I enjoyed it. I started to pick up on the internal connections, stopped worrying so much about catching every nuance, and stopped looking up the words I didn’t know in a dictionary. By the time I finished Le Comte de Monte Cristo I was reading French very well; by the end of this book I wouldn’t say I was fluent in Hughes, but I was making my way with more confidence, and looking forward to the next volume.

When you read a book of short stories, it’s easy to assume the stories appear in chronological order. I don’t know if that’s the case here, but even allowing for my steady acclimatization to Rhys Hughes’ writing, my impression was that as the book went on the puns became less laboured, the twists became more natural, and the stories were better. The first edition of this book dates back to 2000, the stories I imagine are even older: I’m very much looking forward to reading the author’s subsequent work, especially the forthcoming Twisthorn Bellow from Atomic Fez.

The Smell of Telescopes, Rhys Hughes, Eibonvale Press, hb, 464pp

Broken Symmetries, by Steve Redwood

A highly entertaining collection of short stories, of which I’ve been lucky enough to read an early version. Each is almost completely different to the rest, except for the fact that they’re all so good… Some are funny, others deadly serious; some are bafflingly erudite, others are fluffy confections. Some, like “Sanctuary”, seem serious at first, but end up being extremely silly – in a good way!

“Damaged” opens the collection, taking us with John William Smith on his visit to the library – he’s there to renew his most recent loan. “The library shelves were unusually well-stocked that day, with golden-skinned women dangling languid bare legs over the edges.” If that gets you thinking of sauce and Sidney James, stop right there: Steve Redwood’s writing is characterised by a real fury at the way men treat women.

For another example see “Epiphany in the Sun”, a non-fantasy story about a couple driving through Turkey. They find a dying dog and John insists on trying to find help for it. The disregard he shows for his wife is appalling, yet totally believable. Men do ignore their wives in this way all the time, and it clearly makes Redwood angry. Even more scathing of our fallible gender is “Expiry Date”, where Peter receives a post-Advent calendar that catalogues a history of one man’s dismaying behaviour towards women.

Other interesting stories here include “Going Back”, a new spin on time travel (I didn’t think there were any to be found at this point), which again hinges on the evil that men do; “Fowl Play”, a tribute to Rhys Hughes (interesting, since I read that author’s The Smell of Telescopes at the same time as this book, and the two complemented each other very well); and “A Helping Hand”, about one man’s war with a beggar. A particular favourite of mine was “The Heisenberg Mutation” where Charles Algernon Soames, “who occasionally lent money to the Sultan of Brunei”, begins to flatten… Another was “Two Legs Bad: a Love Story”, which does, as its subtitle promises, feature “unusual sexual practices”, though not the kind you might expect.

Many of these stories previously appeared in small press magazines, like Midnight Street, Polluto, Roadworks and Whispers of Wickedness, and Redwood is a small press editor’s dream: a fine writer with big ideas who doesn’t quite fit established pigeonholes. But what’s good for the small press isn’t necessarily good for him! He deserves to be better known, and I hope this collection will do the trick.

Broken Symmetries, by Steve Redwood, Dog Horn Publishing, pb, 200pp

Rain Dogs, by Gary McMahon

Three years ago Guy Renford found a knife-wielding burglar in his baby daughter’s bedroom. He forced him down the stairs, then out of the house, and smashed his skull to pieces on the road outside (it’s never quite clear why he feels so guilty about this!). He’s now out of the clink and hoping to reconnect with his family, but the family of his “victim” have other plans, plans that get out of hand. Rosie is an ex-stripper, planning to leave her abusive American husband after her latest trip to the hospital. She can see dead people. Chapters generally alternate between Guy and Rosie, eventually bringing them together.

This is a good book, but it lacks a bit of polish, especially in the first half. There are too many wasted words (“for the marriage they’d shared which had been doomed from the outset”, p. 68; “She filled the kettle with water from the cold tap”, p. 123), too many stock phrases (“low moaning sound”), and too many places where a phrase could have done with a bit more work, such as “he’d been moulded by familial abuse into a fractured human being” (p. 68). Worst of all is an early scene where Rosie’s abusive husband rapes and then tries to kill her, with “the tip of his now softening member poking out of his trousers like the moist snout of a curious animal” (p. 66). Inappropriate, trite and gross in a single sentence!

There are other problems: Bella, Guy’s wife, makes an absolutely ridiculous decision towards the end of the book, throwing herself and her child into appalling danger at the least provocation to set up an exciting conclusion. The book features that unwelcome speciality of male horror writers: a woman being killed by something entering her vagina – previous entries in this unlovely series include slugs in the work of Shaun Hutson and stretchy vampire penises from Brian Lumley. It’s also a bit repetitive early on, its flashbacks to the backstories of Rosie and Guy having a tendency to lay out the broad strokes before returning to fill in unnecessary detail. The ending is unsubtly telegraphed three quarters of the way thanks to that old horror canard, the magic professor who knows exactly what you need to know; the only question is who precisely will survive.

Then there are a few plain errors, like “You’ve been watching too many Jennifer Lopez movies-of-the-week” (p. 53) – it should have been someone like Melissa Gilbert, since Jennifer Lopez doesn’t do TV movies. The word “hovel” (p. 79) seems to be used to describe a town. A three or four-year-old girl is said to be “regressing to infancy” (p. 188) which can’t have been a long journey. And there’s a glaring mistake on the contents page. The overall impression is of a book that was rushed to publication.

Nevertheless, I really liked it, and with only Ramsey Campbell’s Thieving Fear to go it was very much in the running for my vote in the British Fantasy Awards.

From the half-way point it becomes much better: basically, once things are happening and the writer has something to describe other than people moping around. The last hundred pages are exceptionally exciting. Every scene featuring the Rain Dogs of the title terrifies, their power and brutality unforgettable. It’s all about the implacability of water, and McMahon conveys this in a way that’ll resonate with anyone who’s suffered a leaky roof or a dripping tap (never mind anything more serious). I was also glad to read a BFA-nominated novel that wasn’t largely set in London. The depiction of a father’s feelings for his child is spot on, something it shares with One, by Conrad Williams, who contributes a foreword to this book.

Though the ultra-modern cover set me up to expect something a bit more edgy, this is a good, traditional horror novel in the vein of early James Herbert. It could have done with a bit of touching up here and there, but most of those issues could be easily fixed and I very much doubt that this will be the last edition we see of this novel. As a £25 limited edition hardback it was maybe a little out of its depth, but as a cheap paperback it would knock your socks off. It would make an absolutely fantastic film.

Note that the best way to get a copy of this book now is direct from Gary McMahon, who bought up the stock when Humdrumming went out of business.

Rain Dogs, by Gary McMahon, Humdrumming, hb, 224pp.

The Midnight Man, by Simon Clark

Next in my run at the British Fantasy Award nominated novels was The Midnight Man, by Simon Clark (best known in the UK at least for his sequel to The Day of the Triffids). Like The Victoria Vanishes, this isn’t one I’d have picked up to read if it wasn’t on the BFA list.

To begin with it seemed like Anno Dracula with Vincent Van Gogh instead of literary characters. The story is told from the point of view of two young women; Ty, a prostitute fascinated by the red-headed lunatic who paints in the fields, and Nidabi, an Indian slave/servant/whore rescued from a miserable existence by Pastor Hux, an intense young man who egg-sliced her former master’s face with a wire fence.

It took me a while to get into this book. It’s a slow burner, and I’m not a fan of epistolary or diary novels at the best of times – too much unnecessary faff – so I put it to one side while reading The Victoria Vanishes. I got on with it much better the second time around. Like earlier Gothic novels such as The Mysteries of Udolpho, it needs time to catch you in its mood and tempo. It’s an interesting gaslight thriller, but…

It’s not a fantasy novel in the slightest. Bit of a stretch to even call it horror (though that’s how the publisher has categorised it on the copyright page). So, good as it was, it didn’t stand a chance of getting my vote in the British Fantasy Awards. Non-fantasy horror is eligible in the awards, but it’s not where my votes would go.

The Midnight Man, by Simon Clark, Severn House Publishers, hb, 224pp.

The Victoria Vanishes, by Christopher Fowler

Bryant and May are a pair of geriatric detectives working the mysterious streets of London, taking the time to puzzle over crimes whose patterns are not immediately obvious, finding connections that might be missed by a policeman working the beat and looking to meet his targets. In this, the first I’ve read in the series, their Peculiar Crimes Unit faces closure, their health deterioriates, and a man is murdering women in the middle of crowded pubs.

Bryant and May are similar in many ways to Holmes and Watson, but now that Holmes’s methods have been embraced by the everyday police, to stand out from the crowd takes a bit more effort. But funnily enough, though there’s lots of talk of how unconventional their methods are, in this volume at least their approach has more in common with Frost or Morse than with, say, Dirk Gently.

Nevertheless, this was a highly enjoyable book. Unshowy, straight-ahead prose, fifty short chapters, a good mystery, fascinating stories of London history and marvellous characters… In short, it was as readable as any book I’ve ever read. It’s propulsive, exciting and overall a smashing book – but I’ve no idea why it was up for a British Fantasy Award, since it’s a mystery novel with no fantasy elements whatsoever. It must be the combination of Christopher Fowler and pubs, two of the British Fantasy Society’s favourite things!

Having finished two of the other nominees (Memoirs of a Master Forger by William Heaney and The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman), while getting a bit stuck on Simon Clark’s The Midnight Man, this was my favourite of them so far, but it wouldn’t have got my vote, just because it’s not a fantasy book. Nevertheless, highly recommended.

The Victoria Vanishes, by Christopher Fowler, Doubleday, hb, 320pp.

Memoirs of a Master Forger, by William Heaney

The cover design of this book led me to expect a pseudo-Victorian adventure, but this is actually a modern, urban book set in a London of lobby groups and homeless shelters. William Heaney got involved in some supernatural shenanigans at university and now, middle-aged, is up to his ears in dodgy deals that are starting to fall apart – and he sees demons everywhere. In the middle of this he meets an fascinating and beautiful young woman who takes an unaccountable interest in him, but he still feels guilty about the way his previous relationships ended.

This was a good book, but the fantasy element seemed like a bit of icing to make a mainstream novel about a middle-aged guy falling for a younger woman more interesting. The demon stuff seems a bit intrusive even from the very early pages, like a bit of Piers Anthony being ladled into a Melvyn Bragg novel.

I’m happy for people to write relationship novels, but it’s just not what I really go for. Relationships, emotions, love – in the books I tend to like best that stuff's all there to add ballast to a book, to give the protagonists a reason to fight the monsters, or the aliens, or whatever… What disappointed me with this book was that as it went on it became clear that the relationships were the meat of it. The supernatural elements could have been almost completely removed without affecting the plot at all.

Of course, that doesn’t make it a bad book, just one that didn’t appeal to me. I realise that makes (or is one of the many things that make) me a buffoon!

There were a few mistakes in this edition, to the point where I started to wonder if it was some kind of metatextual element that would lead to a flourish at the end… Antonia magically knows Otto’s name (p. 81), a CID interview is referenced that doesn’t seem to come up anywhere else (p. 94), and then there’s “bare to repeat it” (p. 162), “want her to now it” (p. 143) and “my tongue froze to roof my mouth” (p. 162).

This novel did in fact win the British Fantasy Award, and though it didn’t get my vote, I can see why other people loved it.

Memoirs of a Master Forger, by William Heaney, Gollancz, pb, 320pp

The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean

My goal for July was to read and review all the British Fantasy Award-nominated novels. They’re mostly still in hardback, so it could have been an expensive proposition, but as ever Birmingham’s library reservation system provided.

That did mean, however, that my copy of The Graveyard Book had been through the tender hands of one library’s teenage reading group, and it was missing pages 165 and 166. The latter was an illustration, but if anything important happened on page 165 I’m afraid I missed it.

Nobody Owens is a little boy who lives in a graveyard with lots of friendly ghosts, while the man Jack, who killed the boy’s family, searches the world to find him.

Like almost every book I’ve read by Neil Gaiman (The Wake being the painfully dull exception) this was a profound pleasure to read. The tone is intimate and friendly, charming even as it frightens. His writing seems casually brilliant, which probably means he works very, very hard to make it so good.

Gaiman acknowledges a debt to Kipling’s Jungle Book in the acknowledgments – you can see it in the title, of course, and in Nobody’s chats with the various inhabitants of the graveyard. It’s also strongly reminiscent of Diana Wynne Jones, though it lacks her trademark realignments of reality. The plot is pretty much the Harry Potter series done-in-one. For me this was a slight tale told with incredible skill.

I read the edition with artwork by Dave McKean, but it wasn’t at all what you might expect. Here he uses a black ink and grey wash style that’s reminiscent of the work Scott Morse and Troy Nixey have produced for Oni. He was nominated for the British Fantasy Award for best artist for his work on this book, but lost out to Vinnie Chong.

I read quite a bit of this book while my youngest daughter was tottering around a stay-and-play session, and I had great fun asking the older children at the playgroup if they wanted to see something really scary, before showing them page 167, a scary cup of coffee! The joke didn’t quite work, though, since they all agreed that for four-year-olds hot drinks are indeed rather scary.

The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean, HarperCollins, hb, 307pp

Supernatural, Season 4

This year the boys got caught in the middle of a big battle between good and evil – and for that matter between good and good, and evil and evil! All hell is literally breaking loose, the seals that bind Lucifer in Hell being broken, one by one, and the Winchesters are important – not that anyone will tell them why.

Season 4’s arc is by far the best of the show so far, building on plot elements from previous years while bringing in lots of new characters and situations. Misha Collins has been a breakout addition to the cast, bringing immense gravity and weight to proceedings as angel Castiel, his magnificently doleful features doing everything necessary to convey how bleak prospects are for those on the side of the angels. Best of all, he dresses exactly like John Constantine, which points up that this year of Supernatural has been the closest anything’s ever come to capturing the Vertigo feel on-screen. On the other side of the fence, Christopher Heyerdahl has terrified as arch-demon Alastair, chewing his words as if there’s human flesh stuck in his teeth.

For me, Jared Padalecki as Sam is still the weak link. He’s too whiny and petulant for such a tall guy, and never really convinces when playing angry, vengeful or tough – but the wife doesn’t think so, and like everything originating on The CW, how much girls dig it counts for a lot. On the other hand, Kirk-manqué Jensen Ackles has been superb as Dean all year, as comfortable with giddy insouciance as tortured guilt. His best moment comes when telling Sam about his time “away”; it’s the scene that drives the season, Dean’s painful honesty answered only by Sam’s deadly evasiveness, and he really plants a flag on it.

Establishing the Winchesters at the heart of the apocalypse has undone some of the damage done by the road house episodes of previous years, which made them seem like two largely irrelevant hunters among thousands. Unfortunately, brotherly heart-to-hearts are still all-too-frequent. The problem with a small regular cast is that such interactions become repetitive; the upside is that anything can happen to the supporting characters. It’s a worthwhile trade-off.

Despite the strong story arc, there’s time for the usual format-breaking, fun episodes (often written by Tick creator Ben Edlund). One sees the boys as amnesiac office drones, and another sends them after a novelist who’s unwittingly been chronicling their adventures in lusty purple prose.

Supernatural will never be my favourite show – its main concerns (getting out of Dad’s shadow, learning to get on with siblings as you grow up) are too much those of teenagers – but if there’s no movie to watch on a Friday night, it always fills the gap.

Supernatural, Season 4, The CW/ITV2.