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

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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.

Primeval, Series 3

Primeval has always been entertaining and pacy, each season finding a new wrinkle to its premise, keeping things fresh and gradually improving without losing what’s good (i.e. lots of monsters). In season two Cutter found himself in a world changed (not entirely logically) by his adventures in the distant past, and realised that the anomalies opened onto the future as well as the past. The twist for season three is a realisation that creatures from the anomalies may have inspired the stories of monsters throughout history.

Other changes this season: Jason Flemyng (Quatermass in BBC4’s live adaptation, Jekyll and Hyde in LXG) is the new lead. As former cop Danny Quinn he has a rangy, charismatic dynamism that would have benefited any of TV’s big dramas. Gwen Taylor-lookalike Laila Rouass joins the team as all-purpose museum curator/scientist/historian Sarah Page, replacing the organisation’s redundant PR boss turned overseer (unnecessary supervisors are the bane of fantasy television).

The overdone love triangles of previous runs have gone, replaced by a comfortable family unit; Danny and Sarah as mum and dad, Andrew Lee-Potts (Connor) and Hannah Spearritt (Abby) providing good support as the kids. New soldier Captain Becker (Ben Mansfield) feels a bit Harry Sullivan given that Danny can handle a gun, but he’s had some good moments.

This season has been leaner, tighter and scarier. Highlights have included a Gigantosaurus battling a jumbo jet, a medieval knight chasing his “dragon” all the way to the present day and brawling with bikers, and a flock of giant birds attacking an abandoned government research facility. Imagine a half dozen pairs of giant scissors snapping away at your face for forty minutes…

One of the most improved shows this year. One thing’s unchanged: Ben Miller still gets the best lines. What a shame that shortly after I wrote this review (for Prism, originally) the show was cancelled, but how nice to hear that it’s now been granted a reprieve.

Primeval, Series 3, ITV1.

Lost, Season 5

The problem with trying to produce a tightly plotted TV series is that, unlike a movie or novel, by the time the last part is being written, the first has already been broadcast. Despite that, in its current season Lost has shown a degree of plot construction that surpasses most films. It’s probably not a coincidence that Brian K. Vaughan joined the writing staff, given that he’s shown similarly brilliant plotting skills in comics like Y: the Last Man, Runaways and Ex Machina.

Lost is no longer particularly concerned with acquiring new viewers, any more than a novel at page 400 is looking to attract new readers – and the comparison is apt, since the entirety of Lost adds up to a single, huge story. That presents the reviewer with a problem: who would want to read a plot summary of pages 400–500 of a book? Let’s just say that this fifth, penultimate season of Lost sees it delivering more answers and surprises than ever as the characters delve into the history of the island. The stakes are as high as ever, the mysteries as profound, and the fights just as bloody. If the complexity has increased, so have the rewards for the careful viewer.

Reviewing something like Primeval, I’m conscious that it’s only going to be a short series. For a successful US show, you’re talking 140 or 150 hours of television, and that’s a big commitment. For Lost, if you don’t want to watch every episode you’re probably not going to want to watch it at all – and you certainly won’t enjoy the episodes you do watch as much as everyone else does. And of course it doesn’t matter how well the plot is constructed, if you don’t enjoy watching sweaty, beautiful people fighting in the jungle, you won’t enjoy Lost.

But for those of us who have enjoyed it, Lost will stand as one of the great happy accidents of cancellation-happy American television, something that shouldn’t have existed, couldn’t have succeeded, but is adding up to one of the most magnificent television experiences there has ever been.

Lost, Season 5, ABC/Sky1.


Rickie and JT discover a naked woman (owner of the most revolting merkin this side of The League of Gentlemen) chained up in an abandoned hospital. JT says they should keep her, and Rickie leaves him to it. He thinks about ringing the police, but mum’s boyfriend interrupts so he doesn’t bother…

The girl is a zombie, not that it’s relevant to the plot. This is a rape film, about a rapist and the pal who doesn’t turn him in, and the other guys they invite to take a turn. Sex with a zombie, if not precisely consensual, you might say, is strictly speaking necrophilia rather than rape – the horror equivalent of a sci-fi sexbot! – but consider that before having sex with this zombie JT has to beat her to death because she’s fighting back too much. (That’s how he discovers her secret.)

Of course you can have good films about bad people – is this a good film? It’s atmospheric and sombre, and for those handy with the remote, it has two good pause-the-video moments, including a surprisingly vigorous bowel movement. JT develops into a very creepy villain, especially once he stops wearing trousers, and other than the sound editing – always important for a horror movie – Noah Segan’s performance is the best thing about the movie.

But no, for me this wasn’t a good film. It felt like a film written by sex-starved teenagers (it actually comes from the pen of Trent Haaga, previously responsible for Toxic Avenger IV), or at least to appeal to them. It doesn’t rise above the level of a teenage conversation: “Imagine if we had a zombie to shag?” “Yeah, but imagine all the problems keeping it clean.”

And the problem with the film isn’t just that the characters are immoral people doing terrible things, it’s that nothing they do makes sense. For example, one guy who knows just how dangerous the dead girl is decides to free her on his own, with predictable consequences – and then another guy does exactly the same thing later in the movie. Having said that, the movie’s second best moment does result from its very stupidest behaviour, though I’d be surprised if it makes it to the commercial release of the DVD, given the tumescent area out of which the dead girl takes an entirely justifiable bite.

Though Deadgirl has horror movie elements – such as characters with uniformly poor decision-making skills – at heart it’s an indie film about teenage power and powerlessness, with more in common with films like Brick or Bully than Dawn of the Dead. So don’t expect to be frightened – except by a rather scary dog – just revolted.

Deadgirl: the zombie rape film you haven’t been waiting for…

Deadgirl, Marcel Sarmiento and Gadi Harel (dirs).

Dark Floors

During Sarah's brain scan the machine starts to smoke. Her dad throws her in a wheelchair and heads for the lift, a hot nurse in hot pursuit. Joined there by a security guard, a mysterious tramp and an angry businessman, they emerge into a strangely different hospital, where the clocks have stopped, the people have disappeared, and hulking monsters are on the prowl.

Dark Floors is a Finnish film, but British and American actors were imported to play the lead roles, showing a level of commercial canniness that's evident throughout the production. The budget is clearly small, but the hospital setting lets them stretch it a long way, with sets redressed as the protagonists descend from each level to the next. Like everything else about this film, the acting's generally rather better than you'd expect in a straight-to-DVD horror film.

The monsters are used sparingly to good effect. There are a fair few scares, and some surprisingly clever ideas. Huge chunks of Silent Hill and Hellraiser are appropriated, but put to good use. Anyone who got as far as Hellraiser V or VI will find plenty to enjoy here. The director should go on to better things.

So why was it a disappointment? Because this is the movie debut of Lordi, heavy metal winners of the Eurovision Song Contest. You remember: the guys (and one oddly attractive girl) dressed as orcs. This should have been an embarrassing turkey, prime MST3K fodder, but damn them, no: they had to go and make a decent movie. If you didn't know Lordi were a band going in, the film wouldn't have given it away.

Eurovision success may have earned the funding for this movie, but everyone involved deserves credit for putting it to such good use: making the first good (non-documentary) movie featuring a band since It Couldn't Happen Here.

Dark Floors, Pete Riski (dir.), Finland.

The Compleat Next Men, Vol. 1, by John Byrne

Interesting to read Byrne working on his own characters. There’s some wonderfully dynamic, rough-hewn art in here, but the story is very slow. Some pages (especially in the M4 backup strip) look a lot like Frank Miller, as if to say, I can do that style too, you know, but it only points up the crucial difference between them – Miller’s an artist in every sense of the word; much as I enjoy his work, Byrne is an artist in a much narrower sense: he creates the art for comics.

Unlike the other artists that worked under the Legend banner for Dark Horse (Mignola, Miller, Aragones), there’s no sense here of a vision being expressed; it feels workmanlike. That’s not to say it isn’t very entertaining, but it explains why Byrne returned to working on other people’s properties, rather than continuing to develop this one.

The Compleat Next Men, Vol. 1, by John Byrne, IDW Publishing, tpb, 432pp.

Hellblazer: Empathy is the Enemy, by Denise Mina

John Constantine makes his way to Glasgow, where something rather nasty is brewing. There’s sickness in the air, and it’s driving people mad: they’re being made to feel what others felt in the moments before their deaths. It’s the last thing Constantine needs: empathy really is a liability in his line of work.

Like a lot of Hellblazer collections, a flick through this book makes it look very unappetising: murky, dull and coloured in various shades of black and grey. Once you get into it, though, the artwork serves the story, and it’s a good one, one long saga that brings to mind Delano stories like The Fear Machine. The end of the book is a pause in the action rather than its end, so I’m looking forward to reading the next in the series, The Red Right Hand.

There’s certainly no sense here of a big-shot author coming in to show everyone how it’s done. Like Kevin Smith on Daredevil she’s respectful of what’s gone before, building nicely on one story from Mike Carey’s run. Just a shame her run was so short, though I’ve heard nice things about the Andy Diggle issues that come next.

Hellblazer: Empathy is the Enemy, by Denise Mina, Vertigo, tpb, 168pp.

Wild Robert, by Diana Wynne Jones

Not one of Diana Wynne Jones’s major works, but interesting nevertheless, and I was thrilled to find it on the shelves of Birmingham Central Library while the children were rolling around on giant cushions.

Heather lives in a stately home which her parents manage for the National Trust. When she idly wishes for Wild Robert to wake up and deal with Mr McManus, the unpleasant gardener, and the tourists who bother her, he does. He plays magical tricks on everyone, but everything’s fine by the end of the day.

What’s interesting to me is that essentially this is a book about sex, about the way the introduction of sex – or at least boys – into a young girl’s life changes everything. I don’t mean to say it is a sordid book – nothing very saucy actually happens. Rather, it is all about the confusion and excitement of a girl’s first love.

Robert is the archetypal romantic idol, a typical first crush with his shoulder length hair and good looks. When his hand touches Heather “it somehow fizzed against Heather’s bare arm so that all the hairs stood up round the place he touched”. That his wildness is sexual is flagged by his very first bit of magic – turning a group of teenagers into nymphs and fauns and sending them to rut in the woods (they “will romp until sundown”).

Robert changes everything for Heather. From feeling like little more than an annoyance to everyone in her life, she becomes the most important person in the world to him. And, of course, from the moment he enters her life her main concern is to keep him away from her father. “She knew she had to make him believe when he did meet Robert, and there were a lot of things she wanted to think about first.”

I found the strawberry scene very interesting too. Until now Mr McManus has always stopped her from eating them, but Robert waves his hand around and McManus is frozen, leaving her free to eat her fill. Is McManus representative of adult, male, threatening sexuality, something to be afraid of, kept at a distance? Once he’s immobilised she is free – and barely hesitates – to eat as many strawberries as she would like. But maybe that’s pushing the analysis too far.

So although it’s a short book, taking little more than an hour to read, its themes make it an interesting complement to Fire and Hemlock, perhaps Diana Wynne Jones’s most powerful work, making it well worth reading for that reason alone.

Wild Robert, by Diana Wynne Jones, Collins, hb, 96pp.