Monday 31 January 2011

The Age of Ra, by James Lovegrove – reviewed

"Barely a century has passed since the First Family finally destroyed the last of the other gods." When Howard Carter returned from Egypt he brought with him the word of God – that God being Osiris. The present day world is now a board on which the Egyptian gods play their wargames. Osiris and Isis have Europe, Set has Russia and China, Nepthys has Africa and the Middle East. The United States belong to Horus, Japan and South-East Asia to Anubis, and South America is shared by the children of Horus. The result: "Their feuds ravage every continent. Their wars murder millions. This has been going on for a hundred years and it cannot continue. Someone must rise against them..."

Egypt is the one country free of their influence, and has been renamed appropriately: "The gods couldn’t agree among themselves who should own the land where their worship first sprang up, so they decided it was best if none of them had it. ... Even spying on Freegypt is against international law." That makes it the perfect place for Al Ashraqa, the Lightbringer, to begin his revolt against the gods. Into Freegypt comes David Westwynter: "a paratrooper, a soldier, a good one". In a book that in some ways is pleasantly old-fashioned, he's a modern hero, not a superhero: he knows how to fight, but makes mistakes, and his successes are never inevitable.

It's hard to review The Age of Ra without mentioning Stargate, but these bickering gods aren't aliens exploiting our backwardness, they're supernatural beings, conjured into existence by human belief. This introduces a refreshing element of pure fantasy into what in other hands might have been dour military sf. This is top quality schoolboy stuff: gods and soldiers, mummies and tanks, deserts and board games, angst and action, calamitous reversals and brave victories. The conventions of battle in this world give us ranged attacks with ba-powered staffs followed by vicious hand-to-hand combat; the climactic battle at Megiddo throws in fighters, bombers and gunships. I felt positively spoiled.

“We are old, you and I, Ra. Time grows short for us. The future is a strange monster. The less there is of it, the more it frightens.” Let gods worry about the future; I'm looking forward to reading the sequels: The Age of Odin, and The Age of Zeus. How could they not be brilliant?

The Age of Ra, James Lovegrove. Solaris, pb, 448pp. Reviewed from pdf.

Sunday 30 January 2011

DC Comics: the 75th Anniversary Poster Book – reviewed

This highly attractive book contains one hundred of the best DC and Vertigo covers in chronological order, beginning with New Fun #1 (February 1935) and ending with Batman #679 (September 2008). There's nothing from Wildstorm, Piranha Press or the other DC imprints, but there are a few from All-American and even a few creator-owned books, such as Preacher #1, Fables #18 and Y: the Last Man #189.

All the classic images you'd expect are here: The Flash #123 ("Flash of Two Worlds"), and Adventure Comics #247 ("I'm sorry, Superboy..."), Action Comics #252 ("Look again, Superman!"), Green Lantern/Green Arrow #76 ("Never again!"), Crisis on Infinite Earths #7 (the death of Supergirl), Superman #75 (the death of Superman), Watchmen #1 (the bloodstained smiley), and so on. Looking through it brings back an awful lot of memories.

I was disappointed that Jerry Ordway's superb covers for The Power of Shazam weren't represented, or Brian Bolland's work on The Invisibles, but I can't point to much else that's been left out. There's a bit too much Batman – and they're often the least striking covers (e.g. Batman #608, Detective Comics #626, Detective Comics #792) – but given his popularity it's hardly a surprise.

Perhaps because so many of the covers are classics – and thus a little overfamiliar – the lesser-known covers really grabbed my attention: Mr. District Attorney #12 ("Don't judge this man until you hear why I defended the monkey man!"), Sensation Comics #109 ("My fingers... alive! And threatening me with... death!"), or Leave It To Binky #60 (a boy kissing a fish). As Lichtenstein discovered, romance comics work particularly well at larger sizes: for example see John Romita's covers for Falling in Love #62 ("Remember, honey... The last time we were here...?") and Heart Throbs #93 ("How can I tell her... I will never see her again..!").

The posters are scans of actual issues, and don't seem to have been retouched. The scratches, folds and discolourations add to the authenticity, but the covers of the Showcase series of books show how astounding classic comics artwork can look when recoloured. Also, the paper isn't glossy, so the colours on the posters don't pop in quite the way they would have on the original covers; for posters, they look a bit faded.

The commentary to be found on the reverse of each poster is much more informative than you'd expect from a poster book, and, apart from the film I Am Curious (Yellow) being decribed as a "porno" I didn't spot any significant errors. The reverse of each poster also reprints a pair of covers by the same artist or featuring the same character or theme. For example the Superboy #55 cover (Superboy being spanked) is backed by #65 (Superboy in a Kryptonite cage) and #75 (more spanking) for comparison.

Sadly, to review a book of posters properly, you have to take out one of its pages. The page came out cleanly and easily along the perforation, producing a symmetrical poster; you'd have to look very closely to see which edge had been torn. I suspect many people will prefer to keep their books intact, although a wall plastered with the lot would look stunning. In one or two places the perforation on my copy has torn through normal reading. The index is less useful than it might have been, given that the book lacks page numbers; an index by artist would also have been welcome.

Unless you're a student looking to give your bedsit a pop art makeover, this is perhaps not a book you'd buy for yourself, but any comics fan would be absolutely delighted to receive it on their birthday. Definitely one for your Amazon wishlist.

DC Comics: the 75th Anniversary Poster Book, commentary by Robert Schnakenberg, Quirk Books, oversize pb, 208pp.

Wednesday 19 January 2011

BFS Journal #1 – now going out to members!

The first issue of the new BFS Journal has been going out to members this week. If you're not a member, I believe there are a few copies in reserve, but join quickly or it'll be gone for good!

I'd been writing up to a quarter of some recent issues of Prism, but there's not as much as usual by me in this first combined publication; a combination of the deadline jumping forward and a bit of doubt about whether reviews would appear in the journal at all. But pages 93 to 97 of the journal are by me – all the dull BFS news! – and page 130, a review of Doctor Who: City of Spires.

Pages 62 to 87 print the runner-up and winner of the BFS Short Story Competition 2010, which I organised – "The Song" by Travis Heermann and "Omar, The Teller of Tales" by Robin Tompkins – but because of the way the competition works I haven't actually read them yet: I'm looking forward to that.

The journal certainly looks nice – unsurprisingly, if you spend twice as much on a publication, it looks twice as good! – but structurally it needs some work. It feels like three different publications stuck together between hard covers, which is exactly what it is. Giving the sections of a journal issue numbers seems redundant: we've already had a Dark Horizons #57, for one thing!

The next issue should be much better in that regard, this one having been pulled together in a rush. There's a lot of potential: once it settles down, and drops the pretence that it's three magazines rather than one, I think it will be very impressive. It's very handsome, nicely designed, and the full-page artwork looks brilliant. It feels very laid-back.

I haven't read much of it yet, but in Prism it seems very odd that David Riley has chosen to publish his review of Wine and Rank Poison under a pseudonym (or at least that's what I assumed – the comments are very similar to those made on his blog and on forums, and Ian Redfern is a pseudonym he's used in the past), but uses his own name for more positive reviews.

He's explained on the BFS forums that it was someone else using his pseudonym, making it an anonymous review, in which case it should have been printed as such (or not, which I think would be the decision of most editors), rather than being printed under a pseudonym to give it the cloak of respectability.

Giving books bad reviews isn't pleasant, and giving bad reviews to books by people you know is even worse, but if the reviewer doesn't respect their own opinions enough to stand by them, why would anyone else respect them? A grave misjudgment there by both reviewer and editor, if indeed they aren't one and the same.

On a more positive note, I enjoyed the interview with Kari Sperring – reading Living With Ghosts I was strongly reminded of Dumas, in particular La Reine Margot, by its images of people wandering through the streets of a city in chaos. I had no idea she was actually a Dumas scholar. Score one for me!

Six whole pages are given over to reprinting this ramble from Des Lewis's blog, which I expected to be annoyed by, but it worked very well in the context of a journal.

More comments when I've actually read it!

Tuesday 18 January 2011

Brian Stableford: New Worlds of Fantasy

I interviewed Brian Stableford about his work with Black Coat Press for issue 56 of Dark Horizons, the journal of the British Fantasy Society, published in March 2010.

Could you tell us a bit about the kinds of books you've been translating for Jean-Marc Lofficier's Black Coat Press? And how many translations have you produced for them so far?

At present BCP has published 37 volumes of translation by me, plus a handful of my own works, but Jean-Marc has a further twelve in hand, including four further volumes of Maurice Renard and six of J.H. Rosny the Elder. I'm now plugging away with such writers as Henri Falk and Han Ryner while waiting for the likes of Jose Moselli and Edmond Haracourt to fall into the public domain in the next year or two. I aim to keep going at least until 2014, when André Couvreur will fall into the public domain. Alongside my choices I'll be doing translations for Jean-Marc, mostly of more recent writers from whom he's obtained permission to have their work translated, although I still have a couple of Feval's Habit Noir novels to do and may well do more Feval thereafter.

BCP have recently moved up to three volumes a month, which is comparable with what its companion French publisher Rivière Blanche does, and Jean-Marc will try to keep a reasonable balance between the various genres and between pulp fiction and classic works. If my eyesight holds up (it's not too good these days) I hope to be doing between twelve and twenty volumes a year for him for the next few years, as well as a modest amount of my own fiction - maybe two to three volumes - which will go to other outlets.

How did you get involved with Black Coat Press? Were you working on the translations already and looking for a publisher?

I first discovered the existence of Black Coat Press while looking things up online. I'd already translated two vampire-related novellas by Paul Feval for another small press so I asked Jean-Marc Lofficier if he'd be interested in a translation of the Feval novel La Vampire. He said yes (he eventually published it as The Vampire Countess) and expressed an interest in doing more Feval. I was more interested in the supernatural material, while he was more interested in the crime fiction, especially the pioneering Jean Diable and the Habits Noirs novels so we came to an informal arrangement whereby I would translate any books he wanted me to do if he would publish any books I wanted him to do. Things went on from there, and I was eventually able to conceive a grand plan of doing all the untranslated classics of French scientific romance that had already fallen into the public domain or were about to do so - this was a couple of years ago, when Maurice Renard (died Nov. 1939) and J.H. Rosny the Elder (died Feb. 1940) were, as it were, looming up on the copyright horizon.

I found Black Coat Press in a similar way. I was searching for more in the Volumes Lefrancq series (they produced a series of gigantic collections of writers such as Henri Vernes, Francis Carsac, Stefan Wul and Pierre Barbet in the nineties) and, disappointed to find that they were no longer publishing, I turned to Google and discovered Jean-Marc's treasure trove of French literature, albeit in translation. In both cases I was reminded of Brian Aldiss's comment that a perk of encountering alien civilisations would be gaining access to entire libraries of brand new science fiction and fantasy... How did your interest in French writing begin, and develop?

I first got involved with translation when I was doing some work for a small press named Dedalus, whose proprietor asked me if I could take over The Dedalus Book of Decadence, whose original editor had let him down. I agreed before realising that I wouldn't be able to pay a translator to do any French material, and then thought "I've got O level French (grade 6) - how hard can it be?" Quite hard, as it turned out, but one improves with practice, and it was interesting - it's like a cross between writing and doing crossword puzzles. I did two more volumes of translation for Dedalus, and numerous short pieces, before the proprietor and I fell out and our ways parted. I did one volume for Tartarus and two for Sarob Press before hooking up with Black Coat, which will hopefully be the only refuge I'll need in future.

One of the remarkable things about these books is the wealth of supplementary information you provide, a level of apparatus similar to and even surpassing what you'd find in a Penguin Classics volume. Are you drawing on a lot of previous work you've done, for example in your essays for Wormwood, or have these projects necessitated a great deal of original research? And are there any lost works of British and American fiction that would benefit from similar attention?

I do a lot of supplementary material because I'm interested in examining the origins of the work and putting it in context - I always make a note of anything in a text that I don't understand and try to look it up, adding an explanatory footnote if it seems appropriate. I used to look things up in the London Library, but Google has made much of that sort of work far simpler. Obviously, I do draw on the knowledge I already have, which is thus subject to a continual increase, and I often do spinoff articles for Wormwood or The New York Review of Science Fiction recycling the research. Yes, I dare say that there are numerous works of antique English-language sf that would benefit from similar analysis and commentary, but most reprinters can't be bothered. If I ever get around to doing definitive collections of the fantasies of John Sterling, Walter Herries Pollock and other writers of whom no one has ever heard and in whom no one but me has the slightest interest, I'll doubtless be just as intrusive.

I was interested that your credit on the cover of the books is "Adapted by Brian Stableford". As a result I initially thought that they would be rewritten, perhaps updated versions of the original works. Upon reading a couple it's clear that you've been extremely careful to stick to the originals, and outlined exactly the small departures you've made. Is the credit worded thus just for copyright or PLR reasons?

I always put "translated by" on my typescripts, but Jean-Marc always alters it, presumably to comply with his "house style" (he really does tend to rewrite his own translations, and sometimes urges me to do likewise, but such alteration seems to me to be a futile deception).

From the two of your books I've read so far - The Nyctalope on Mars by Jean de la Hire, and Doctor Lerne, Subgod, the first in your series of Maurice Renard translations, (both of which I thoroughly enjoyed) it's clear that English-language science fiction was a powerful influence on its French equivalent, the former being an unofficial sequel to The War of the Worlds, and the latter developing the ideas in The Island of Doctor Moreau in some rather raunchy directions. Do you think writers like H.G. Wells were aware of their devotees across the channel? Was the influence all one way?

Wells would certainly have been aware of the popularity of Henry Davray's translations of his books, and doubtless duly grateful. Whether he was aware of such direct copies as La Hire's and Arnould Galopin's is difficult to determine, although Davray might well have brought Rosny's earlier works to his attention when they were reissued by the Mercure de France (Davray's employer, which published some of his translations). By the time those writers (and Renard) had started writing "Wellsian fantasies", however, Wells had given up, and had probably stopped taking much notice of other people's scientific romances. Renard and Rosny also gave up in despair, of course, believing that there would never be an audience for the kind of work they wanted to do, so their work, seen as a whole, is pretty much a study in frustration although it produced some undoubted masterpieces (e.g. The Blue Peril).

In your introduction to Journey to the Land of the Fourth Dimension, you discuss how Gaston de Pawlowski conceives the fourth dimension very differently to Wells, as "the dimension of the mind, of the imagination, of art and - fundamentally, in his definition - of quality". Many French science fiction comics, for example those of Jodorowsky, Mobius or Bilal, are also surprisingly metaphysical, at least when contrasted to their British and American equivalents. Do you think there is a difference in English and French approaches to this kind of subject matter, and if so to what would you attribute that?

The metaphysical bent of much French scientific romance, even in bande dessinée form, is partly due to the enduring French reverence for "le philosophe" - still reflected in the French educational system - and partly due to a number of key exemplars, such as Camille Flammarion's Lumen. The French occult revival was more elaborately entwined with literary endeavour than its English equivalent, which resulted in exotic metaphysical influences on symbolist and surrealist writers, and many French occult romances made much of their pseudoscientific elements, adding to the confusion. The authors I'm translating at present - Louis Mullem and Han Ryner - are both heavily into fanciful metaphysics, which makes the former rather hard going and the latter a trifle sententious, but I'm sufficiently intrigued by it all to make the effort seem worthwhile.

About ten years ago I carried a suitcase full of books back from my honeymoon in Paris, spoilt only by the realisation on Eurostar that I had developed a bald spot. The bald spot is now a bald head and my stock of French books is running low... Can you recommend any current French writers to look out for?

I'm not very familiar with contemporary French sf and fantasy, apart from the translations issued by BCP (the Dunyach volumes are well worth reading), but I've been impressed by what little I've read of Jean-Marc Ligny's work, and Pierre Bordage is highly regarded.

Although we've focused here on your translations, most readers will probably be just as interested in your own novels. You mentioned two to three volumes a year - what are you working on at the moment? Personally I'd love to see more adventures of the Hooded Swan or the Daedalus, but would it be cynical to suggest this might be a good time to explore the lives of teenagers in the world of The Empire of Fear...?

The books I did for DAW were very much products of their time, which is well and truly dead. I made the mistake in The Empire of Fear of ruling out any possibility of a sequel, which was probably a bad career move but one that I got stuck with, and I really think that vampires have now been thematically exhausted, at least for a while. The next work of my own fiction due for publication (from Perilous Press in March) features two Lovecraftian novellas, one of which - The Legacy of Erich Zann - features Poe's Auguste Dupin as its hero, and I'm currently tempted by the prospect of involving poor Dupin in further metaphysical adventures - at present I have Further Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar and The Return of the Xipehuz pencilled into my schedule for the summer.

Thank you immensely for your time and indulgence.

On this blog we have reviewed Brian's translations of The Nyctalope on Mars and Doctor Lerne, Subgod, both of which were highly enjoyable.

Sunday 9 January 2011

Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction #35 – now available to download!

Feeling hopeless about 2011? Here’s Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction #35, 96 pages of fiction and reviews, to wash away your pain with the pain of others. “Involuntary Muscle” by Black Static contributor Maura McHugh tells of Lilly, her unhappy life made more miserable yet by surprising news. “House of Nowhere”, a novella by Matthew Amundsen, concerns brave Hully Bo, trapped in a submerged house and tortured by the mean and mysterious Conjurer.

We then have reviews of books by Justin Isis, Brendan Connell, Lucius Shepard, Johnny Mains, André Gide, Kevin Anderson and Sam Stall, Scott Edelman and Kristine Ong Muslim, and of the latest instalments of Doctor Who and Harry Potter. In the comics section we take a look at Clint #4, the wonderfully wordy Showcase Presents DC Comics Presents Superman Team-Ups, Vol. 1, and Strangers: Homicron.

The seasonal cover is by lovely Howard Watts.

Available in all the usual formats, all free except the print edition, which we’ve priced as cheaply as possible:
Here are the magnificent people who made this issue possible:

Matthew Amundsen’s stories have been published in The Harrow, Millennium SF&F, Zygote in My Coffee, Starsong, and others. He has also published extensive music criticism for and various print publications. Over the years, he has worked in film, television, and photography while living in New York, Atlanta, and Minneapolis. He now lives in Knoxville, Tennessee, where he continues to write as well as record and perform experimental music as Surface Hoar.

John Greenwood is the co-editor of Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction, as well as its most frequent contributor. His blog on rare and unusual books can be found at In this issue he reviews I Wonder What Human Flesh Tastes Like and A Roomful of Machines.

Maura McHugh was born in the USA but was transplanted to Ireland when too young to protest. Her short stories and poetry have appeared in publications in the USA and the UK such as Fantasy, Shroud Magazine, Black Static, Goblin Fruit, M-Brane SF and Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror 2010. In 2009 her script, “Hotel Training”, was shot and premiered as part of the Hotel Darklight anthology film. She also co-juried/edited The Campaign for Real Fear horror story competition with author Christopher Fowler. In the coming months Atomic Diner will publish the graphic novel Róisín Dubh, for which Maura wrote the scripts.

Douglas Ogurek’s Roman Catholic faith and love of animals strongly influence his work. He lives in Gurnee, Illinois with his wife and their pets. To this issue he contributes a review of the latest Harry Potter film. To TQF33 he contributed the astonishing “NON”.

Stephen Theaker is the eponymous editor of Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction, and writes many of its reviews. His reviews have also appeared in Prism and Black Static. He wishes you all a happy new year.

Howard Watts is an artist from Brighton. He has previously provided covers for Pantechnicon, Dark Horizons and TQF, and for this issue as well as supplying the cover he has written a review of the Doctor Who Christmas Special.

Next issue due March 27!

Friday 7 January 2011

Viator Plus, by Lucius Shepard — reviewed

Viator Plus begins with “The Emperor”, the only piece of outright science fiction in the collection. A novella about humans surviving among the machines, it’s one of the most convincing depictions I’ve read of an environment in which humanity is no longer the dominant lifeform. It is followed by six short stories; varied in subject matter, consistent in quality. In “After Ildiko”, Pederson, “an idler, a self-deceiver, an American fool of no consequence, on vacation from a life of petty crime and monumental indecision”, rides a South American barge with Swiss Ildiko and treats her badly; “Chinandega” is a town of misery and sexual degradation into which a brother dives in search of a missing sister; “The Ease With Which We Freed the Beast” concerns angry teenagers and what they grow into; and “Larissa Miusov” is a mysterious, beautiful Russian with a remarkable talent for pre-production. Two stories concern a singer once dubbed the Queen Mother: “Carlos Manson Lives” provides a poolside view of LA, while “Handsome, Winsome Johnny” finds her dissatisfied while recording a new album. There is very little happiness in these stories, and their view of relationships is bleak. There’s lots of sex, but it tends to the miserable, as in “After Ildiko” and “Chinandega”. Happiness tends to result from deliberate self-deception or relinquishing one’s identity: if you can’t be happy, become someone else. The horror lies in how repugnant that new person might be.

Though the stories are substantial, the main course is “Viator”, an excellent and bewildering short novel. Viator is a ship, a “freighter whose captain had steered her into the shore at so great a speed, she had ridden up onto the land, almost her entire length embedded among firs and laurel and such”. Wilander is one of five men engaged to live aboard the ship, for reasons initially unknown. Frightened by the eccentricity of his crewmates, he is more frightened yet by the sense that he is just as bad. Whether the ship is moving or not, they are men on a mission, and he is determined to see it through. I loved this novel; it’s perhaps the best novel I read in 2010. Given the layers of meaning, the astonishing writing, and the remarkable ideas, this book would repay much more careful study than I can offer it here. One notable feature is its extraordinarily long sentences, often used to carry you along with Wilander as he experiences the stranger parts of his adventure: the previous quotation comes from a sentence that is in total half a page long. Another point of interest is the importance of the age fourteen throughout the collection: it's the apparent physical age of the girl-thing Wilander encounters in "Viator", the age at which Palmira Miguez went missing in Chinandega, the age at which the narrator of "The Ease With Which We Freed the Beast" struck his father in the face, and the age of the prostitutes imagined by Pederson.

"Viator" is a novel that could be read and read again to draw out such themes. Like those shorter pieces in the book it crosses genres, or rather draws on them all, perhaps reflecting that in fiction why things happen (often the dividing line between genres) can matter less than how those events affect the protagonists. Is “Viator” science fiction, fantasy, or horror? Readers may come to different conclusions, or to none at all, but it’s a brilliant novel, of that there’s absolutely no doubt.

Viator Plus, Lucius Shepard, PS Publishing, hb, 366pp.

Tuesday 4 January 2011

Theaker's Quarterly in 2011

A quick update on our plans for this year.

Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #35 will be out very soon – next weekend, with a bit of luck. It features a novella by Matthew Amundsen and a short story by Maura McHugh. I hope you'll enjoy it.

Issue 36 is now scheduled for the end of March, with issues appearing every three months thereafter: June (#37), September (#38) and December (#39).

We haven't been on a proper quarterly schedule since issues 5 to 8, back in 2005, and even then we also produced four issues of the ill-fated November Spawned.

So for the first time ever we'll have a clear three months between issues. We're really looking forward to taking our time over them, making them as good as we possibly can.

It means that we're always going to be one issue behind McSweeney's Quarterly Concern (long-time readers will know that our arbitrary yet oddly motivational goal was always to catch up with them), but perhaps that's the way it ought to be.

Sunday 2 January 2011

I Wonder What Human Flesh Tastes Like, by Justin Isis

“If I know one person who is the future of writing, it is Justin Isis”, writes Quentin S. Crisp, in his introduction to this debut collection of ten short stories set in contemporary Japan. Don’t get me wrong: I think it’s a good thing for editors to be genuinely enthusiastic about the authors they publish. Indeed, one could make a pretty good case that many substandard books on the bestsellers list are the result of cynical, risk-averse publishers. Editors should love books and writers more than they love making money from the aforesaid, but this kind of puff piece does neither Justin Isis nor Chômu Press any favours. For one thing, it gives the impression that the writing can’t stand on its own merits (which it can), and for another it makes the publisher look desperate and amateurish, which is a shame when the rest of the book is so professionally produced.

The kind of praise that Quentin S. Crisp lavishes on the work he has himself selected and edited is usually reserved for the introductions to 25th anniversary editions, or Penguin Modern Classics. Justin Isis, we are told is “as playful as Borges, but not as intellectually mechanical (I mean that with no disrespect to Borges)”. Crisp is confident that in a hundred years’ time, readers will still be lauding the acuteness of Justin Isis’s prose. The introduction ends with some impressionistic images generated by reading Justin Isis: “an iridescent boot in the heart of the brain, kicking the pineal gland”, “a question mark fashioned out of razor blades”, “aesthetics as a form of WMD”. I imagined Nathan Barley rapping these toe-curling epithets over some squelching Warp Records beats.

After such an introduction, I was ready to despise these stories. It’s as good a testament as any to the author’s talent that I found myself unable to. The best of them are among the most memorable short stories I’ve read in the last year. All the stories here are set in modern-day Japan, but the location seems arbitrary. Refreshingly, Justin Isis isn't much interested in trying to explain Japan to us, to make it seem either fascinatingly alien, or to prove to us that we’re all the same under the skin. In fact, what the stories show if anything is that everyone, Japanese or otherwise, is fascinatingly alien. Most of the protagonists are unrepentant obsessives who, far from wanting to escape their obsessions, are bent on following them into the heart of madness, whether their appetites are for J-Pop idols or, as the collection’s title suggests, for the taste of human flesh. Those who are not willingly infatuated are glacially indifferent to everything that goes on around them.

In the best of these stories, Justin Isis has achieved an understated elegance of style that draws the reader effortlessly along without having to raise its voice. Occasionally there are shock-tactics that seem out of place. “It was the first time he’d cut a woman’s face” observes the narrative casually as the protagonist prepares to mutilate a giant woman’s face that has blotted out the sky. The implication is that this won’t be the last time (although we never find out) – clever, but perhaps a little attention-seeking. “Nanako’s tears, thick and inelegant, stained her cheeks like dribbles of semen” – ho hum.

In an interview (with Quentin S. Crisp again), the author said, “All that really interests me is texture … I'm only really interested in writing that is like jewelry”, and at their best (“The Garden of Sleep”, “I Wonder What Human Flesh Tastes Like Etc.” and “A Thread from Heaven”) the stories have a deceptively smooth, polished patina that many more experienced writers fail to manage. But when the author says, “definite verbal meaning, symbolism (of the one-to-one correspondence kind), cliches, ‘redemption,’ ‘epiphanies,’ character development, social commentary etc. seem to destroy the "jewelry" effect that the writing I enjoy has” I have to disagree. The stories where Isis has abandoned “definite verbal meaning” and the rest of what might be called the traditional virtues of fiction, are the ones succeed least. The first story in the collection is a mere stringing together of alternately provocative and banal statements leading nowhere particularly interesting. In “Nanako”, one of Isis’s atomised protagonists becomes obsessed with the face of an old schoolfriend, but the tension of their jangly reunion dissipates into hallucinations and unreal violence. As I read “Manami’s Hair” I began to wonder whether any of Isis’s protagonists were enmeshed in the world, or would they all be like Miyabi – simply drifting through life in exquisite ennui?

I needn’t have worried: despite what Isis himself claims about his lack of interest in character development, his better stories are all about character. Indeed, without character, what kind of “texture” is possible in writing? They’re mutually supporting: texture is a function of characters interacting. Perhaps he is right that there are no “epiphanies” here (apart from the mock-epiphany in the rather silly “Quest for Chinese People”), but even at their most grotesque, the stories are about human motivations, the extremes that people will go to in order to find satiety. Isis mentions Yukio Mishima as an influence, and while I’m no expert on Japanese literature, the writer who seems to have left his mark most strongly on Isis’s work is for my money Junichiro Tanizaki. “The Garden of Sleep”, the story of a crapulous and unexceptional middle-aged man who finds his life’s work in the adoration of a teenage transvestite, brought back to mind Tanizaki’s “A Portrait of Shunkin”.

There are three stories here with variants of “I Wonder What Human Flesh Tastes Like” as titles. The one suffixed “etc.” is by far the best, and does what it says on the tin: an unattractive, unpopular teenage girl, raised in a strict vegetarian family, makes it her mission to try all the available varieties of meat, and follows this passion to its logical conclusion. The prose is wonderfully controlled throughout, right up until the efficiently appalling last line.

The story “I Wonder What Human Flesh Tastes Like” (tout court) is more obvious in its grotesquery: an adolescent boy of uncertain age meets a female nihilist on a park bench, and they have various repellant and inconclusive adventures. There’s a very dry, black sense of humour: while the woman is drowning a stray dog in a public toilet for reasons unstated, the boy “worried about how present he was. He felt the need to assert himself, but the light pressure of Hidemi’s hand on his wrist, her fingers barely long enough to encircle it, restrained him”. Later, “He felt he had to say something, but nothing came to mind. Finally he said: –When we were watching it die, I think we really shared something. We were alive, I mean.” I did laugh out loud at that point; again the joke depends on the author’s ironic understanding of character.

“A Design For Life” and “A Thread from Heaven” stand out from the collection for their unfixated, detached protagonists. In the first a Singaporean Chinese student at a Japanese university pursues a Japanese girl through various drunken parties and meetings, until he finally loses her to a much older, rather shambolic friend. The story captures nicely the fuggy, half-drunk rhythm of student life, and in that respect makes for the most part rather tedious reading, but it’s redeemed by the last paragraph. Endings are something that Isis seems to particularly excel at, even in his weaker stories.

Far more compelling is “A Thread from Heaven”, the longest in the book, in which a frighteningly self-contained Korean schoolboy navigates his way through the pitfalls of Japanese adolescence, weaving his own private philosophical (or perhaps religious) system along the way. My main criticism of it, which goes for several of the other stories, is a predilection for the idea of suicide as an act with an aesthetic appeal. No amount of “jewel-like” writing that will convince me that suicide is anything more glamorous or philosophically defensible than a tenant who does a runner from their flat, leaving unwashed plates in the sink and unpaid bills on the doormat. Having said that, this is a complex story, certainly the most thematically ambitious in the collection, and the one that whets the reader’s appetite for what Justin Isis will do next.

Quentin S. Crisp writes, “Justin’s ideas never need to be disguised and inflated by pompous verbiage”. I entirely agree, and only wish that he had followed his own advice a little more. You can understand the editor’s zeal, even if its expression is misplaced, because Justin Isis is the real deal, a talented writer with an assured style and original ideas. He may not yet be up there in what Crisp calls the firmament of the imagination along with Borges, Burroughs, Lovecraft, Mishima and the other influences Crisp names, but he’s just got started. I will certainly be watching his trajectory with interest.

I Wonder What Human Flesh Tastes Like
, Justin Isis, Chômu Press, pb, 335pp, published 12/01/2011.

Black Static #20 – featuring Theaker!

My subscriber's copy of Black Static arrived in the post this week. There's fiction by Paul Meloy and Sarah Pinborough, Nate Southard, Norman Prentiss, Barbara A. Barnett and Ray Cluley; columns by Christopher Fowler, Stephen Volk and Mike O'Driscoll; film reviews by Tony Lee; book reviews by Peter Tennant; and art from Darren Winter, Ben Baldwin, Paul Milne, Rik Rawling and David Gentry.

I'm sure everyone will agree, though, that the undoubted highlight can be found on page 52, where I guest review Bob Lock's The Empathy Effect (reviewed for TQF here by John Greenwood – I liked it quite a bit more than John did).

I'm exceptionally proud to have a piece of writing in Black Static, which was a terrific magazine even before it added (temporarily) my distinctiveness to its own!

A year's joint subscription to Black Static and the equally brilliant (but so far Theakerless) Interzone costs just £40.