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.