Tuesday 28 December 2010

With Deepest Sympathy, by Johnny Mains | review by Stephen Theaker

Nicholas Royle's introduction to this collection of fourteen stories leaves the reader somewhat apprehensive, effusing over the author's enthusiasm and efforts in resurrecting the Pan Book of Horror series, but conspicuously avoiding any suggestion that these stories are any good. Royle does say that Mains "would have walked into the [Pan] series", but his own entry in the series is dismissed as "juvenile".

The first two stories, at least, surpass those lowered expectations. "Reconvened: The Judge's House" wraps itself with some vigour around a Bram Stoker story, and "With Deepest Sympathy", the title story, is by far the best of the book. Mrs Primrose Hildebrand discloses terrible secrets to those mourning the dead, in sympathy cards, and gets a nicely nasty comeuppance. It's an excellent idea for a story, well executed.

Unfortunately, later stories like "Losing the Plot", "Gun Money" and "Bloody Conventions" range from average to mediocre, while "The Spoon" is just a daft joke and "The Family Business" is a barely fictionalised account of an embalming. We're told only that two of the stories have been previously published, one in Pantechnicon and one in The Obverse Book of Ghosts (though a third appeared in The Fourth Black Book of Horror), and this does have the feel of being a collection of everything the author happens to have written, rather than a carefully curated selection of his best work.

The book is also a bit old-fashioned and unsophisticated; deliberately so, of course, but some stories are weaker for it, and none feel particularly fresh or surprising. "Final Draft", about an enthusiast tracking down a Pan Horror author in hope of extracting one last story from him, unaccountably fluffs the chance to make the entire collection and its author part of its fiction. That lack of tricksiness makes this a slightly odd fish among the Obverse list.

In one way this book does match its Obverse stablemates, I'm afraid: as with Ms Wildthyme and Friends Investigate, the proofreading is dreadful, if it's been done at all. Missing apostrophes abound (or fail to, one should say), and other typical mistakes include "five squeals, in tandem" and "He got up … and left the restraint" (meaning restaurant).

As Royle's introduction says, it would indeed "be a churlish critic who begrudged [Johnny] his own collection", and I won't do that. Each story does at least have an idea to its name, and if you squint and tilt your head just so you can see a hint of what a more gifted writer – a Basil Copper, say – might have done with those ideas.

But what was gruesome and transgressive in the seventies seems less so today; for a collection of horror stories, With Deepest Sympathy is awfully cosy and mild. After Connell's Unpleasant Tales, for example, much of this seems quite tame, the big shocks diluted by a sense of "Is that all?" It isn't frightening; the mechanics of a horror story are in place, but something's not quite right.

None of the stories are brilliant, some are downright poor, and it didn't really deserve hardback publication, but it's an enthusiastic re-creation of the kind of book the author likes to read: that's an impulse I understand. To that extent it's a success. If you like that kind of thing, this is more of that kind of thing, only not quite so good – and sometimes that's good enough.

With Deepest Sympathy, Johnny Mains, Obverse Books, epub, c.2189ll. Reviewed from own copy.

Monday 20 December 2010

Received for review - Christmas edition!

Quite a good haul this week – I have to give the credit to Santa!

Doctor Who: The Edge of Destruction: A Classic Doctor Who Novel

Doctor Who: The Edge of Destruction, Nigel Robinson, read by William Russell (BBC/Audiogo, 4xCD, 200 mins), out on 06/01/11. I love listening to William Russell’s voice on these. Ian Chesterton’s always been one of my favourite characters from Doctor Who – he can’t go five minutes without getting into a scrap! William Russell is one of my favourite actors from the series, and The Edge of Destruction (also known as Inside the Spaceship) is one of my favourite stories. I don’t see this getting a bad review from us. Unless John writes it!

Doctor Who: The Jade Pyramid (Dr Who)

Doctor Who: The Jade Pyramid (BBC/Audiogo, 1xCD, 70 mins), out on 06/01/11. When you listen to Matt Smith’s voice on these CDs you realise just how perfectly Doctorish it is.

The Hammer

The Hammer, K.J. Parker (Orbit Books, c.328pp), out on 05/01/11. I received this one via www.NetGalley.com, which is a very nifty service, where reviewers are able to request galleys from publishers. The publishers don’t have to say yes, but luckily with this one they did! The only downside with NetGalley is that the pdfs come with Adobe DRM, making them a bit more awkward than a regular pdf to read. Better than nothing, though, and one can understand why publishers require it. Thanks to Amanda Rutter for mentioning the service in her blog post on The Future of Publishing.

The Fallen Blade: Act One of the Assassini (The Vampire Assassin Trilogy)

The Fallen Blade, Jon Courtenay Grimwood (Orbit Books, c.368pp), out on 27/01/11. Another one from NetGalley.

Revenants: A Dream of New England

Revenants, Daniel Mills (Chomu Press, 274pp), out on 16/02/11. Another book from this exciting and very busy new publisher: this one's a novel set in 1689.

Outpost, Adam Baker (Hodder & Stoughton, 370pp), out on 14/04/11. The plot of this one sounds very similar to Conrad Williams’ British Fantasy Award-winning One: a man survives the apocalypse on an oil rig and then makes his way home. But then One sounded a lot like The Road when it was announced. It’s all in the detail!

What They Hear in the Dark, Gary McMahon (Spectral Press, 22pp), due out in January. The first chapbook in a new series which looks to be partly inspired by the recent success of Nightjar Press.

I Don't Want to Kill You, Dan Wells (Headline, 310pp), out on 13/01/11. I didn’t get around to the previous book in this series, Mr Monster – from the cover I thought it was a YA title – but it got a good review from Peter Tennant in Black Static so I’ll make a bigger effort to read this one.

Saturday 11 December 2010

Received this week

Here are some of the nice things we've received for review this week…

Music For Another World

Music for Another World, ed. Mark Harding (Mutation Press, 5631ll). An interesting theme and a line-up of contributors that includes Aliette de Bodard (interviewed by Jenny Barber in Dark Horizons #57), Cyril Simsa (a contributor to Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #27), Andrew Hook (the editor of New Horizons for the BFS, and, going on recent reviews of Ponthe Oldenguine, a very exciting writer himself) and Jim Steel (who was in almost all my issues of Dark Horizons).

Come Here...and I'll Show You

Come Here and I'll Show You, Derek Lantin (Bangkok Books, c.179pp). A seventies-style sex and guns thriller, by the look of it. The word and is abbreviated to an' throughout – and not just in the dialogue – which puts me off a bit.

Doctor Who: Demon Quest: Starfall: A Multi-Voice Audio Original Starring Tom Baker #4

Doctor Who: Starfall (Demon Quest #4), Paul Magrs (BBC/Audiogo, 1xCD, 1hr10). I'm not keeping up with these very well, but they look terrific. Expect a splurge of Demon Quest reviews very soon.

Doctor Who: Sepulchre (Demon Quest #5), Paul Magrs (BBC/Audiogo, 1xCD, 1hr10). At this point the prodigious output of Paul Magrs accounts for about half of my to-be-reviewed list!

Sunday 5 December 2010

Strangers: Homicron, by Lina Buffolente and others

Disaster strikes a mission to the moon, but luminous Homicron, the envoy from Alpha, helps the astronauts return safely to Earth. Upon meeting his rescuer Major Ted White suffers a fatal heart attack, leading Homicron to possess his body, inherit his memories, and, as Homicron comes to realise, his feelings for Doctor Rita Tower. From the beginning he has the power of telepathy and mind control, and soon he is able to unlock his Alphan abilities, including flight, superhuman strength and phasing through solid objects.

The first section of this book was originally serialised in Futura, a French comics magazine, beginning in 1971. This English adaptation is by Jean-Marc and Randy Lofficier, whose previous translations include Marvel's Moebius graphic novels. The second section is from a later revival in Fantask, written by Lofficier and with art by Jean-Jacques Dzielowski. It's a grittier take on the story, focusing at first on Frank Universal and Sally Swift, ecological investigators for the World Safety Unit and eventually introducting a new female Homicron.

This isn't a fantastic book or an remarkable discovery – it would be kind to describe the dialogue as functional, and the storytelling is very basic – but reading it was an absolutely lovely way to spend an afternoon. In its broad strokes the story resembles Fantastic Four or Green Lantern, but the approach is entirely European, and that gives it a very unusual feel. It's similar in style to Starblazer or Bonelli comics, and if you like that kind of thing you'll probably enjoy this very much.

Strangers: Homicron, Lina Buffolente et al, Hexagon Comics/Black Coat Press, pb, 364pp.

Saturday 4 December 2010

Clint #4

Nemesis is the undoubted highlight of each issue of Clint: a pacey, brutal, blood-soaked war between Commissioner Gordon and an evil Batman; terrifically exciting stuff from Mark Millar. Steve McNiven's artwork is vivid and dynamic but precisely controlled and gorgeous: Frank Quitely without the big chins.

Turf runs it close, though. Tommy Lee Edwards has done some terrific work over the years in titles like Gemini Blood and The Invisibles, and Jonathan Ross's story of gangsters and vampires suits his moody artwork perfectly. There's something about the way Edwards draws a flying vampire that is extremely disturbing.

The other strips entertain without quite matching the heights. Rex Royd is interesting but it's not very clear what's going on or why we should care about it. American Jesus is a slow burning Second Coming. Kick Ass 2 is fun but reading it in bite size monthly chunks is frustrating, and the art seems over-inflated at this size.

Two writers contribute for the first time to this issue. Stewart Lee writes The Property, a decent one-off with good, loose Steve Yeowell art. Muriel Grey somehow resists the temptation to throw Geoff Widders in a grinder in her story, Best Man, a funny little short illustrated by Des Taylor.

As ever, the features are a mixed bag. There to fill the space between comics and stop the reader racing through the issue too quickly, most range from embarrassingly tacky ("Sexy Chavs") to simply dull. The brief, depressing interview with Kevin Smith seems to be a couple of years old: it doesn't mention his last film, Cop Out, or his next, Red State.

Best of the features is the Badass Cinema 101 column by Vern of Ain't It Cool News, writer of the hilarious Seagalogy. The magazine needs more features like this, and less like "Worst Christmas Ever". Passion, excitement and enthusiasm, not deliberate, cynical trashiness.

Each issue presents a substantial selection of action-led comics at a great price, and is highly recommended if you like that kind of thing. Good to see a Garth Ennis strip will be joining the magazine next issue. It was surely only a matter of time: this is very much a post-Ennis comic in its aesthetic.

Clint #4, Titan Magazines, 98pp, £3.99.

Sunday 28 November 2010

DC Comics Presents Superman Team-Ups, Vol. 1

These stories date from perhaps the dimmest period of DC's history – long after the glories of the Silver Age, but before the 1986 reboots kicked in. Neither classic, nor in continuity, stories from this period don't seem to get referenced or reprinted as much as those before or after. These were the stories being published when I was a child, but they didn't make their way to our local newsagents so most were new to me. Two came with fond memories: I bought a German edition of issue 14 – Superman vs. Superboy! – during a school skiing trip to Austria when I was about ten years old, and issue 26 was reprinted in one of the hardback Superman Annuals: I think it was probably my first Green Lantern story. Reading those stories in the context of the series didn't affect my enjoyment of them for good or ill, but there are nice links here from one story to the next, especially in the first half of the book.

The team-ups feel organic, a natural part of Superman's everyday life, rather than contrived. But this is a very angry, emotional Superman... He's hardly recognisable as the same character. Whether it's his jealousy of teenage girls paying attention to Mister Miracle in Steve Englehart's "Winner Take Metropolis", or leaving Pete Ross's son on an alien world for the slimmest of reasons in Paul Levitz's "To Live in Peace Nevermore", this wasn't my Superman – interesting as he was! In "Plight of the Giant Atom" by Cary Bates, he's all sunshine and light again, calling Ray Palmer "old buddy", and then he's off on a bunch of lightweight, standalone adventures that make for easy reading. Some interesting things happen: Firestorm is invited into the JLA, Superman discovers that magic is simply a form of radiation, and I discovered that Batgirl is merely a brown belt.

Considering the random assortment of writers and artists involved, and the variable tone, this is a surprisingly good book; perhaps that variety is exactly what makes it so readable. No classics here, but lots of entertainment, and the artwork looks fantastic in black and white: I developed a real fondness for the work of Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez and Dick Dillin over the course of this book. I hope we'll see lots more DC comics from the late seventies and early eighties reprinted like this.

DC Comics Presents Superman Team-Ups, Vol. 1, Martin Pasko, Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez, and many, many others. DC Comics/Titan Books, tpb, 512pp.

Saturday 27 November 2010

A Roomful of Machines by Kristine Ong Muslim

I don't read much poetry nowadays, and I am probably one of many readers who lament this fact, and wish that they had the time to read poetry, only to find, when they do sit down in front of a poem, that what they lack is not time but patience. Generally I am a slow reader, but not slow enough to absorb anything other than the most superficial verse. So having spent the last few months chewing through large chunks of short stories and novellas submitted to Theaker's Quarterly, faced with Kristine Ong Muslim's first full-length poetry collection, I struggled to find the right pace to avoid literary indigestion.

A Roomful of Machines is a fairly lengthy book as poetry collections go, but given that the author has been published in over 400 journals, one can imagine that her hypothetical Collected Poems would be an intimidating prospect indeed. Glancing through her publishing history, a lot of Kristine Ong Muslim's poems have appeared in genre publications: horror and science fiction zines, and she has sometimes been described as a "science-fiction poet". On the evidence of the poems assembled here, I didn't see that as a useful label. None of these poems have a speculative or futuristic, or scientific bent, but many could be described as "object oriented" to borrow a term. She organises her poetic investigations of the world in discrete, often domestic, objects: carpets, doorknobs, cups, sinks, socks. These are not riddle poems: the subjects are usually flatly named in the titles. Instead, the author invests these household items with desires and plans of their own, often either sinister or quietly despairing: the carpet eagerly awaits its fate as the breaker of glass ornaments, the ice cube doesn't want to be parted from its fellows in the tray, the bed gets us ready for death by summoning us to horizontality, books wait anxiously to be found or mended.

There's an obsessive, microscopic quality about these "object" poems, and I quickly formed a mental image of the poems' speaker as an agoraphobic, a shut-in surrounded by possessions that have taken on lives and ideas of their own in the absence of human interaction. Even when the dissecting eye takes in a group of teenagers playing basketball, they are at a distance, watched, one feels, through window blinds. There's only one line of dialogue in the sixty-odd poems in this collection, and precious few other people, either in the present or past. Only when we get to a series of poems set in hospitals and institutions, in the section entitled "Dark Clocks", do we see anything resembling a dialogue, and these prove to be some of the most interesting, certainly accessible, pieces in the collection. There are some evocative lines here exploring the inertia and timelessness of institutional life:

"She saw the afternoon as just another
morning seen from the other end of the day."

And a few pages on:

"Pain is measured in years, I think.
Most of the time, I try to run, but it always catches up
on me. Now, I just lie down, do as the doctor says."

It's the colloquial tone of these poems that makes them successful.

Elsewhere, I found the poems habitually reaching for cherished "poetic" words. "Vestigial" appears three times, there are a great deal of "ghosts", and a recourse to academic and bureaucratic verbiage that reminded me of my post-graduate struggles with Foucault and Deleuze and Guattari: "death's mnemonics", "an inventory of things left behind", "the folded catalog of night", "this is the negativity of form", "annotated sacrament", "this almanac of breathing methods", "epistemology and diction", "a discourse on continuity". There are statements that read like parodies of philosophy's abstract precision. "It must then speak of what is imaginary, what is yours". "we decide by means of tactile stimuli".

I appreciate that poetry needs to be able to speak in different registers, but these tactics, whisking everything off to the cold realms of the terse and abstract, distance the reader. In between the microscopic investigation of domestic objects, and the macro level of abstract philosophical assertions, there seemed to gape a hole left by the absence of anything at the level of human relationships and emotions.

There are, as I say, exceptions: "The Fan" is one of the very few poems that deals with two people in the same room together, but the real focus of the poem is the television set that separates them and prevents communication. Elsewhere, many of the poems express an ambivalence about humanity: "A man is only a prop, a lesser evil in an / abandoned room." "The man on the bench is a glove fashioned out of winter's skin. Spent and hardened. Like an unfinished interview." "The agile bodies move: so many branches, so many leaves, so many years left to break them all." These are powerful lines, but their apparent attempt to reduce people to the same status as the dissected objects doesn't wash. There's a current of unease about other people, about the emotional turmoil they entail, that runs underneath most of the poems in this book. It's not openly expressed, but a line like "loneliness and the iterations thereof" seems to want to speak about emotional pain, only to attempt an immediate retraction of the confession in the by now familiar verbiage of "the iterations thereof".

The Self gets almost as rough a ride as the Other, and I was surprised on a second reading to notice how many of the poems ended with a line that was, while not despairing, aimed at a sort of poised negativity, a stoical gritted-teeth, and expressed the idea of the Self being reduced, squeezed, limited, stilled, denied: "Voice is a city that pilfers pain / quiets us with its tiny lights."
"Then we will all be shrunken to the size of a box of salt, a mouthful of dead fish."
"Teach us to slurp silently, slowly. Teach us restraint."

There's plenty of wit in A Roomful of Machines, but little irony. For the most part the poems take themselves and their pronouncements rather seriously. Infrequently one glimpses a voice undermining its own gloomy gravitas with humour: "Summer is a snapped twig / glued back in place / But it will dangle again. / You'll see." As before with the hospital poems, the informality of "You'll see" saves this poem ("Balancing Act") from pomposity.

On a technical note, these poems are all, as far as I can see, unrhymed and mostly unmetered. Stanzas are of equal lines, but most seem to me to have been snipped to make patterns of lengths on the page, rather than syllables in the mouth. The clue that alerted me to this possibility was the frequency of little connecting phrases like "it is": metered poems don’t always have the luxury of speaking in such regular grammatical sentences. There were a few places too where I felt that compression would have been a good thing. In "The Fan", we have:

"The overdue bills are unfurling
where the whirling electric fan
hits them."

I would have edited that to:

"The whirling electric fan
Unfurls overdue bills."

There seems to be a loose consensus that poetry is a very "personal" thing, whatever that means, which sometimes precludes reviewers from saying whether they think a poet's work is really any good or not, on the basis that somebody somewhere might get something out of it, particularly if the poetry is rather dense, concentrated and open to wide interpretation, as Kristine Ong Muslim's collection certainly is. On balance I doubt whether I would recommend this collection to others. It didn't speak to me in the way Alan Bennett describes the best reading experiences: when you see that others have thought and felt in ways you had thought were yours alone, and which are like a hand reaching out to yours. I'm certainly very glad I've read it, and forced myself to take the time, to marinate my mind in the words on the page, rather than just ploughing on through them. It also gave me to opportunity to think again about the purpose of poetry, what sort of things poetry should talk about, and if there are even things that poetry ought to leave well alone. The poems here seem to leave a lot unsaid, or shut off, but that realisation was in itself an interesting reading experience. For her part, Kristine Ong Muslim writes, "real poetry must be indistinguishable from regurgitated hunger pangs". Typically, this raises more questions than it answers (for one thing, can a hunger pang be regurgitated?), but it does seem an apposite description of her technique: writing out a lack, bringing back up the meal that was denied in the first place. And perhaps recognising new types of questions is one of the pleasures of poetry that I am still discovering.

A Roomful of Machines by Kristine Ong Muslim. Published by Searle Publishing, 2010. Paperback, 103pp.

What have you sent for me lately?

It's been a tough couple of weeks for my postman / email provider! Here are some of the lovely items that have entered the blue box of late.

The Gospel of Bucky Dennis, by J.R. Parks (Ding Fleet Press, 212pp). A collection of southern gothic tales, including one that I'm proud to say originally appeared in TQF.

The Gospel of Bucky Dennis: A Southern Gothic Horror Hymn (Volume 1)

Doctor Who: A Shard of Ice, Paul Magrs (BBC Audio, 1xCD, 1hr30). The latest Baker/Magrs extravaganza. I'm a bit behind on reviewing these, but I've been enjoying them: will have to do a big catch-up.

Doctor Who: Demon Quest: A Shard of Ice: A Multi-Voice Audio Original Starring Tom Baker #3

Catastrophia, ed. Allen Ashley (PS Publishing, 284pp). An anthology of short stories concerning the apocalypse. I interviewed Allen about this project for my last issue of Dark Horizons.


The Bone Sword, Walter Rhein (Rhemalda Publishing, 230pp). Not the most impressive cover, but it's short so there's always a chance of us reading and reviewing it.

Bone Sword

The Dracula Papers, Reggie Oliver (Chomu Press, 474pp). Very happy to have started receiving books for review from Chomu Press, who have a very admirable approach: providing collectible content at affordable prices. (It was the announcement of an upcoming Brendan Connell book, among others, that prompted me to get in touch with them.) Not entirely sure what this chunky book is – a novel, short stories, or PJF-style fictional non-fiction? – but I look forward to finding out. Will have to read Dracula first, though.

The Dracula Papers, Book I: The Scholar's Tale

Roman Hell, Mark Mellon (Amber Quill Press, 242pp). I think this is a supernatural novel set in Roman times, but it's possible the blurb was metaphorical!

Roman Hell

Engineman, Eric Brown (Solaris, 512pp). We haven't contacted many of the larger publishers regarding books for review; it's easy to get buried under books you're not really all that interested in. But I did love the look of these Solaris books, and I loved Eric Brown's book for PS Publishing, Gilbert and Edgar on Mars.


The Age of Ra, James Lovegrove (Solaris, 448pp). For years I thought James Lovegrove was a pseudonym of Michael Moorcock. No idea why. This looks like fun.

Age of Ra

I Wonder What Human Flesh Tastes Like, Justin Isis (Chomu Press, 336pp). Sadly the cover of my paperback ARC isn't as saucy as this one. A collection of short stories, due out mid-January.

I Wonder What Human Flesh Tastes Like

DC Comics: the 75th Anniversary Poster Book (Quirk Books, large format paperback, 208pp). This is a nice chunk of book. One to add to your wishlists in time for Christmas. The only problem with receiving it for review is that to review it properly I'm going to have to rip one of the posters out, to test the perforations. Poor old me!

DC Comics: The 75th Anniversary Poster Book

The Worlds of Philip Jose Farmer: Protean Dimensions, ed. Michael Croteau (Meteor House, pb, 264pp). I started reading bits of this the moment it arrived! Bits and pieces from PJF's filing cabinet – interviews, speeches, etc – together with new fiction by the likes of Rhys Hughes.

A Discovery of Witches, Deborah Harkness (Headline, 594pp). As I mentioned on Twitter when this arrived: the trade paperback ARC of this weighs 838g, while the Kindle weighs 222g. I'm grateful to have received a copy of the book, but I'd much rather read it on the Kindle.

Randalls Round, Eleanor Scott (Oleander Press, 176pp). A book of supernatural tales republished by a press specialising in books about climbing the buildings of Cambridge at night.

A Roomful of Machines, Kristine Ong Muslim (Searle Publishing, 124pp). Kristine's one of the most prolific and widely-published poets in science fiction.

Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine #48 (132pp). The latest issue of this highly ambitious magazine. They're going quarterly from the next issue.

Thanks to all the publishers and writers who have been so generous as to send us material for review. Apologies in advance for anything we don't get around to reading!