Friday 29 July 2011

The Bride That Time Forgot by Paul Magrs – reviewed by Michael W. Thomas

The Bride That Time Forgot belongs in a long, honourable tradition. Doom-laden goings on can be engrossing in themselves, but even more so, often, when placed right in the middle of the mundane. Both worlds can gain immeasurably by the interaction. Elm Street is a perfect harbour for nightmares precisely because of its picket-fenced babysitter schedules. Several of Wells’ scientific romances draw the reader in because the scene of the action isn’t Planet XG499 but Bromley or Lewisham, because key characters are less likely to bark anxieties about a wayward flux capacitor, more likely to gasp “Blimey” and “Strewth”.

Paul Magrs’ latest novel draws together the known and the feared in just this way. The setting is Whitby, the very name brimming with connotations of the undead, of Stoker, ghastly shipwreck, swaying coffins. But its narrator is Brenda, owner of a bijou little B&B, “open for business and filled up for fifty-two weeks of the year”. As the novel progresses, Magrs’ Whitby itself fills up, with characters from this side of the life-death line, characters from the other, and characters with one foot in the light, one in the dark. This last category includes Brenda herself, who is given to drop little teases about her various adventures into the twilight zone, in between plumping guests’ pillows and getting in extra stocks of shower gel. We meet her friend Effie, sometime co-sleuth in her perilous adventures but now besotted with the sinister (and blood-hungry) Alucard; Robert, manager of the Hotel Miramar, who is set (in his own mind, anyway) to take Effie’s place on Brenda’s dark excursions; Marjory Staynes, proprietress of the Spooky Finger bookshop – and, through her, the (to Brenda, at least) disturbingly hovering presence of novelist Beatrice Mapp – and, through her, the Warrior Queen of Qab.

The ingredients, then, are all there for what other reviewers have noted as a glorious collision between Alan Bennett and The League of Gentlemen in Magrs’ work. Sadly, they don’t quite cohere. Strands are woven, hares set running. Brenda drops her hints that she isn’t a mere inhabitant of the daily round, thank you very much: her past is filled with to-dos in the unknown. After a certain point, however, a novel has to declare its hand: particular hints have to be taken up, confidently run with. Similarly, characters come onstage at a brisk rate, but it isn’t always easy to determine their relative importance to Brenda or each other – even when she seems to make it clear (which is a rather curious consequence in a piece of fiction). Overall, though there are bravura passages and some sense of climax and denouement, the narrative somehow doesn’t seem to know, at least not consistently, how it wants to be significant.

The reader can also be wrong-footed by inadvertent time-slips. At one point, Brenda heads for the Miramar Hotel on a quest to learn more about the life and works of Beatrice Mapp. She finds what she wants through the good offices of her friend Penny and the hotel internet. We are left in no doubt that it’s evening: a Sixties Night is in full swing, the soundtrack including “’Paper Sun’ by the Small Faces” (Traffic, in our world). Brenda asks Penny if she’ll bring the Beatrice Mapp information to the B&B:

“Penny nods readily. ‘Yes, of course. And Robert and I are both free tonight.’
‘Very good. Seven o’clock. I think I’ll give Effie a ring.’”

Immediately we wonder if this conversation is taking place much earlier. Or perhaps “Sixties Night” is being used as a generic term for all-day frivolity. But no – Brenda is clear on the point: “Sunday evening I’m full of purpose and directing my feet towards the Miramar Hotel.” It’s very tempting to say Such slips wouldn’t matter if…. But they do matter, and their occurrence raises questions about degree of structure and control in a whole narrative.

There is indeed entertainment to be had found in The Bride That Time Forgot, as well as some memorable characters (Gila, the loin-clothed scourge of vampires, comes to mind). That said, more tightening and polish – another go-round with the awful but vital blue pencil – would have guaranteed its appeal from start to finish.

The Bride That Time Forgot, by Paul Magrs. Headline Review, pb, 342pp.

Monday 25 July 2011

More books received for review in July!

Another quick round-up of books received to bring us up to date, for the very dull reason that I'm moving our list of books received from one spreadsheet to another…

Abraham's Issue

Abraham's Issue, by Nigel Flanagan. Wink Publishing (, ebook, 9578ll. A novel chosen for publication by a contest, where the judges only get to read the first 50 pages of the book...

Alan Moore: Conversations (Conversations With Comic Artists)

Alan Moore: Conversations, Eric L. Berlatsky (ed.). University Press of Mississippi, hb, 240pp. A collection of ten interviews with Alan Moore, beginning with one in 1981. Part of the Conversations with Comics Artists series.


Bricks, by Leon Jenner. Coronet (, hb, 136pp. A very attractive little book about a bricklayer who remembers a past life as a powerful druid. The superb cover art is by Jorn Kaspuhl.

Crimewave Eleven: Ghosts, Andy Cox (ed.). TTA Press (, pb, 240pp. The latest volume of TTA's crime journal includes stories by Nina Allan, Christopher Fowler, Alison Littlewood, Joel Lane and many others.

The Green Gods by Nathalie Henneberg – reviewed by Stephen Theaker

This peculiar, stately, romantic novel is set towards the end of Earth’s long isolation from the rest of human civilisation. Knowing that the impassible atmospheric barrier is beginning to weaken, and that the spaceships of humanity’s descendants will soon arrive, the floronic overlords of an increasingly moronic Earth decide to grasp the nettle – rather than extend it – and eliminate all remaining opposition to their rule.

Against this background brave Aran, the last bright hope for the humans of A-atlan, is to be mated with his beloved queen Atlena; the tradition is that once mated she kills him, and if she does not, the plants make sure he dies anyway. He is forced to leave the last city: he will gather the mutants at the gates and lead them like Elric against his home and the woman he loves.

The Green Gods was originally published in 1961 (C.J. Cherryh’s translation dates from 1980), but its tone anticipates the science fiction films of the late sixties and the seventies. It has the staginess, pomp and grand ideas of a Planet of the Apes or a Logan’s Run – and a dash of their scientific implausibility. It also resembles those films in its portrayal of a dashing hero set on smashing the system.

I haven’t had the opportunity to compare the translation with the original French, but it maintains both the elegance and the occasional impenetrability of that language. That isn’t helped by one problem with this edition as a whole: a handful of (I’d guess) scanning errors that aren’t so obviously wrong that you don’t spend a little while puzzling over them before moving on.

For example in “The Blind Pilot”, one of four bonus short stories provided in translations by Damon Knight, a disabled man is said in two places to move about upon his “carnage”, which I came to think must mean the remains of his legs. A third instance helpfully identified it as a carriage.

The four stories are all interesting, and show Henneberg to be a science fiction writer of some range – albeit one with little more than a slight interest in science – but it’s the novel readers will remember. Its world of cactus soldiers, gigantic underground orchids and bloated, malignant peyotls is the stuff of oppressive, overactive summer nightmares.

The Green Gods, by Nathalie Henneberg, translated by C.J. Cherryh (the novel) and Damon Knight (the four short stories). Black Coat Press, pb, 266pp.

Friday 22 July 2011

The Dracula Papers, Book 1: the Scholar’s Tale by Reggie Oliver – reviewed by Michael W. Thomas

Tricky matters, they are: sequels, prequels, pastiches, hommages. Essentially, they depend upon two factors: that the original narrative is engaging and robust enough to withstand such re-visiting; and that the re-visitor is skilled enough to convince the reader that the enterprise was worth it. If anything, the second factor is rather more important. The literary landscape is strewn with, as it were, crushed light aircraft that have attempted to fly in the slipstream of the “master narrative”. There they lie, all the Sherlocks, feckless (and, actually, not that bright); the pantomime Crusoes; the ever more bestial Frankenstein monsters, each betraying more emphatically than the last that the re-writer has not grasped what Shelley’s original was really about.

And then there’s the Prince of Darkness – bloodied (always to his satisfaction) but unbowed after all the years. It could be argued that Dracula’s best re-visionists appeared early on – Nosferatu, the creations of Hammer in its pomp – and that, latterly, quality control has been removed. It has been argued that the likes of Twilight are actually updates of the 1950s “beach movie”, with fun and sun being replaced by dim alleys and forests, by leading fang-meisters designed to appeal to the Justin Bieber demographic. This reviewer couldn’t possibly comment.

Reggie Oliver’s interest is far removed from the above. Though supposedly presented to the public a little time after the events of Bram Stoker’s novel, The Dracula Papers purports to weave together “a number of documents … relating to the early history of the person whom we knew as Count Dracula”. Our guide in this matter, the weaver himself, is Dr Abraham van Helsing, whose Foreword comes to us across the years from University College, Oxford, December 1894. This alone reveals the breadth of the task that Oliver has set for himself: to establish factual credibility around the Papers themselves; to maintain tonal credibility in a narrative which will doubtless feature many characters; and to handle the Papers, and the history that flows from them, in a way that avoids parody on one hand and an uninspired plod through Stoker terrain on the other.

Other demands arise: van Helsing’s interest is particularly piqued by “the Memorial of Martin Bellorius (1553–1635), one of the most outstanding scholars of the Renaissance”, and it is this material that gives The Dracula Papers its narrative. Bellorius must develop into a fully-formed character; he must, of course, make a daunting journey – as he does, prompted by a mysterious letter which comes into his hand and leads to the events recounted in the Memorial; he must trust some characters, accidentally encounter others, gamble with his life when yet others make their dark moves; he must, given the figure at the heart of his quest, become embroiled in Gothic perils; he must dissect Transylvania, focusing on particular elements in its discomfiting history which will provide a… well, life-story is hardly the phrase, but a cogent, engrossing narrative of the being who now lurks, perhaps discontentedly, at the back of the Twilight sets. Aside from all that, Oliver has to invoke the linguistic tones and registers of the seventeenth century and earlier, feed them into Bellorius’s account and then, as it were, hand them on to van Helsing; the whole narrative cannot be levelled out in the voice of an Oxford scholar at the close of the Victorian era.

That Oliver manages all of the above with some brio is a testament to the novel’s plotting, to the period of time during which the idea presumably gestated in his mind and made its way through notes and first drafts to the book we now have – and to the enduring appeal of (or appalled fascination with) the Dracula tale itself. Oliver demonstrates a capacity to bowl his story along in a straight line; the book’s bulk is offset by his sprightly style. And he is to be commended for ringing changes in Bellorius’s character. Though appealing as a seeker, Bellorius is not without bumptiousness, a sense of self-importance reminiscent of Marlowe’s Faustus. At one point, he bestirs himself to confront the fiery, unpredictable Prince Vlad in a way that the latter’s character really doesn’t encourage:

“I had embarked on a mild but dignified remonstration when he suddenly stood up, eyes blazing with rage, a little pulse racing in his neck, left leg trembling. He shouted:
‘How dare you interrupt us, old pedant!’ Old! I was twenty-three at the time!” (p. 183)

As Dr van Helsing’s Epilogue informs us, Book 1: the Scholar’s Tale is the result of but one packet of documents that have come into his possession. The Doctor was inclined to destroy all of them, so shocking are their contents, but his hand was stayed by “my old and valued friend, Mr William Ewart Gladstone”. The real and the unreal, the known and the unimaginable, the touchable world and the halls of nightmare – these sit one on top of the other in this first part of The Dracula Papers, offering existence as a palimpsest, layers of words and action that can be peeled away to reveal… well, not the whole story of this most Undead of undead – yet. Oliver is working on packet two of van Helsing’s documents, intended to become The Monk’s Tale. It is to be hoped that his touch will remain as sure.—Michael W. Thomas

The Dracula Papers, Book 1: the Scholar’s Tale, by Reggie Oliver. Chômu Press (, pb, 470pp.

Monday 18 July 2011

Doctor Who: The Hounds of Artemis, by James Goss, read by Matt Smith and Clare Corbett – reviewed

Eastern Turkey, 1929! And when the lost Tomb of Artemis is unsealed, what treasures are found within? The eleventh Doctor and Amy! Making their excuses and presenting themselves as emissaries from the Scarman Institute, they join an archaeological team on the verge of unleashing an ancient curse that is all too real.

We learn what happens along with Helen Stapleton, granddaughter of Bradley Stapleton, a junior member of the team who went on to great things. The Doctor has sent her a bundle of papers, combining his notes on the affair with the diary entries of Miss Amelia Pond; the former are read to us by Matt Smith, the latter by Clare Corbett, in her role as Helen.

It’s a bit of a shame that the diary entries aren’t read by Karen Gillan, but Corbett hits just the right note, and Matt Smith as ever is breathtakingly good as the Doctor; he shares Tom Baker’s knack for making the most eccentric line readings sound perfectly natural. Just listening to him read is a delight.

Like The Jade Pyramid and The Runaway Train, this story puts the Doctor and Amy in an interesting historical milieu, one familiar from fiction and films, but more or less new to the series. There are echoes of Tomb of the Cybermen, but despite a number of fatalities and much howling in the night the tone is generally jaunty and light-hearted.

It’s probably not the entity calling itself Artemis or its demonic hounds that will stick in the mind, but rather the incidentals of the story: the Doctor’s attempt to persuade Amy to join the digging (“Go away and let me diarize!”), Amy’s unpleasant experiences with a corset, and the Doctor’s need at one point to get his hands inside that corset.

A solid, entertaining adventure enriched by two fine performances.

Doctor Who: The Hounds of Artemis, by James Goss, read by Matt Smith and Clare Corbett. AudioGo, 1×CD, 70 mins.

Saturday 16 July 2011

Received for review - June and July!

We've received lots of interesting stuff of late. Here's a little round-up.

The Eighth Black Book of Horror, by Charles Black (ed.) (Mortbury Press, Paperback, 200pp). The latest in the long-running anthology series. This volume features Stephen Bacon, Gary Fry, Reggie Oliver, Paul Finch, Marion Pitman, Thana Niveau, Mark Samuels and many others, all of whom can be seen in decapitated form above: surely one of the best ever ideas for the cover of a horror anthology.

Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine #51 (170pp).

Citizen Rex HC

Citizen Rex, by Mario and Gilbert Hernandez (Dark Horse, tpb, 144pp).

Conan the Barbarian: The Mask of Acheron, by Stuart Moore and Gabriel Guzman (Dark Horse, Comic, 64pp). A tie-in to the Jason Momoa powered film, which I'm a lot more excited about since watching him in A Game of Thrones.

Dark Heart, Darren J. Guest (Snowbooks, 288pp).

Dark War: A Matt Richter Novel (Matt Richter Novels)

Dark War, by Tim Waggoner (Angry Robot, ebook, 4171ll).

Do Not Pass Go, by Joel Lane (Nine Arches Press, Chapbook, 44pp). A very handsome little book on very sturdy paper. I loved the previous book I read by Joel Lane, and I'm really looking forward to this one.

Double Cross, by Carolyn Crane (ebook, Untreed Reads, 5815ll).

Dragon's Time: Dragonriders of Pern (The Dragonriders of Pern)

Dragon's Time, by Anne and Todd McCaffrey (Bantam Press, Hardback, 326pp). Reading this at the moment. It's not terribly good so far.

Falling Skies, by Paul Tobin and Juan Ferreyra (Dark Horse, tpb, 104pp). A review of this one is almost ready.

Ghosts Can Bleed, by Tracie McBride (Dark Continents Publishing, Ebook, 200pp).

Hard Spell (Angry Robot)

Hard Spell, by Justin Gustainis (Angry Robot, ebook, 4778ll)

Ill at Ease: Three New Stories of the Macabre, by Mark West, Stephen Bacon and Neil Williams (PenMan Press, Ebook, 36pp). I've enjoyed stories by Stephen Bacon and Mark West in the past - I included Stephen's post-apocalypse story "The Other Side of Silence" in Dark Horizons 57.

Johannes Cabal: The Fear Institute

Johannes Cabal: The Fear Institute, by Jonathan L. Howard (Headline, Hardback, tbc). The previous book in this series was a lot of fun, but I'm finding it hard to get excited about sequels these days. One thing that was mildly exciting: seeing a quote from my review of the previous book on the PR sheet!

Journey Into Space the Red Planet CD (BBC Audio)

Journey into Space: The Red Planet, by Charles Chilton (AudioGo, Audio, 10xCD, 10 hrs 10 mins). Series two of the well-regarded radio drama.

King's Envoy, by Cas Peace (Rhemalda Publishing, Ebook, 360pp).

Maternal Instincts, by Jeffrey Ricker (ebook, Untreed Reads, 274ll).

Mind Games, by Carolyn Crane (ebook, Untreed Reads, 6312ll).

Mistification (Angry Robot)

Mistification, by Kaaron Warren (Angry Robot, ebook, 4885ll).

O My Days, by David Matthew (Triskaideka Books, ebook, 8034ll)

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dreadfully Ever After, Steve Hockensmith (Quirk, pb, 288pp)

Queen of Kings, by Maria Dahvana Headley (Bantam Press, Trade paperback, 444pp). In the thanks she calls a reviewer out on "bullshit" for criticising the length of the acknowledgment page of a previous book! Neil Gaiman's cover quote describes this as "a powerful work of the imagination".

Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline (Century, Paperback, 376pp). This looks very much like the kind of thing I would enjoy; how much I do might come down to whether the book gets gaming right. One cover quote gives it an awful lot to live up to: "this generation's Neuromancer"!

Reality 36, by Guy Haley (Angry Robot, Ebook, 5348ll).

Restoration, by Guy Adams (Angry Robot, Ebook, 5549ll).

Rules for the Care and Feeding of Tiffany, by Darby Krenshaw (ebook, Untreed Reads, 177ll).

Shooting Angels, by Nick Sansone (All Things That Matter Press, Paperback, 182pp). Nick Sansone's story "Founding" appeared in TQF29.

Skaldenland, by Jim Mortimore (Obverse Books, Paperback, 372pp). Jim Mortimore was responsible for getting me back into Doctor Who after a long period away - a pristine copy of a New Adventure he co-wrote, Lucifer Rising, turned up on the discards shelf at Reading Library (either a mistake, or someone thought the title inappropriate for their kids section), and before long I'd read dozens of them. Course, that was when I should have been revising for finals, so I guess Jim Mortimore was responsible for that as well...

Sky City – New Science Fiction Stories by Danish Authors, ed. Carl-Eddy Skovgaard (Science Fiction Cirklen, pb, 244pp).

Special Charter, by Chris Bauer (ebook, Untreed Reads, 150ll).

The Caretakers, by Adrian Chamberlin (Dark Continents Publishing, pb, 360pp).

The Crown of the Conqueror, by Gav Thorpe (Angry Robot, Ebook, 7013ll).

The Great Lover

The Great Lover, Michael Cisco (Chômu, pb, 446pp).

The Left Hand, by Serenity J. Banks (Dark Continents Publishing, pb, c.200pp).

The Sixth Gun, Book 1: Cold Dead Fingers, by Cullen Bunn and Brian Hurtt (Oni Press, tpb, 178pp)

The Straight Razor Cure, by Daniel Polansky (Hodder and Stoughton, Hardback, 360pp). The cover design of this print ARC at first made me think it was a self-published novel. The PR info makes it sound interesting, though - "in the tradition of Dashiell Hammett and Gene Wolfe" - I'm not sure what tradition those writers share! The book's an uncorrected proof, not for sale (which is fair enough) or quotation (which may make it reviewing it tricky).

The Tower, by J.S. Frankel (ebook, Untreed Reads, 5113ll).


The Watchers, by Jon Steele (Bantam Press, Hardback, 556pp). A novel by a former ITN cameraman who worked in war spots all over the world.

The Zagzagel Diaries, by Bryl R. Tyne (6 x ebooks, Untreed Reads).

If you have anything you'd like us to look at, there's some information here. Thanks to everyone who has sent us stuff for review, and apologies once more for the fact that we won't get through everything!

Friday 15 July 2011

Bloody War, by Terry Grimwood, reviewed by John Greenwood

I've always thought that the central technical challenge in writing speculative fiction is how to get all that back story across to the reader in a way that feels seamless and unobtrusive. I don't think the problem has ever been really solved. Of course, you can always just whack in a large passage of straight exposition, but I think most writers would consider it cheating, and the received wisdom is that readers will get bored wondering when the characters are going to show up. Not much subtler is to include excerpts from a future history textbook, or even to have the protagonist sitting a history exam which helpfully fills in the reader on what's been happening over the last hundred years (I seem to remember Thomas M. Disch doing this is in the excellent 334). Most speculative writers nowadays seem to try and sneak in clues here and there in dialogue and passing references to the imagined future past ("Professor, you know as well as I do that before Man interbred with fruit bats we were incapable of flight"). The more confident just charge straight in with a barrage of invented slang and technical jargon and expect readers to keep up.

In his latest novel Bloody War, Terry Grimwood opts for the solution first put forward by H.G. Wells in The Sleeper Awakes: have the protagonist wake up with no memory of anything that's happened during a crucial period. He will have to spend a good portion of the first half of the book wandering round asking stupid questions and listening to the incredulous replies of those in the know.

Unlike Wells' protagonist, Pete Allman doesn't fall asleep for two hundred years. He's merely recovering from an appendix operation when he wakes one morning to find that Britain has been transformed into a modern-day version of World War Two, where bomb shelters, blacked-out windows and the Spirit of the Blitz coexist with USB sticks and reality TV shows. Baffled and assuming some memory loss, he makes several useful faux-pas before it transpires that for the last 18 months the country has been involved in a total war against a shadowy organisation called the Enemies of Democracy, whose air-raids have reduced large swathes of London to rubble. Civil liberties have been drastically curtailed, the internet switched off, and conscription enforced for every male youth on his eighteenth birthday. And as luck would have it, Pete's son is about to turn 18.

What follows is an increasingly grim, at times almost impossibly bleak, journey for the confused protagonist, as his botched attempt to save his son from the draft, and simultaneously pass secret information to a bunch of disgruntled veterans, ends with him on the run from the authorities, desperately trying to escape from a blockaded London. When he finally manages to get beyond the wall that has been erected around the capital, he's faced with an apocalyptic vision; the totalitarian State has managed to reduce the population to either prisoners, scavengers, soldiers or marauding sex traffickers. And as he trudges his weary way to the coast, it doesn't get any jollier.

What the author is good at is painting his protagonist into ever tighter corners. He's at his best imagining the details of, say, how his exhausted man might cope with rowing a tiny boat across a strong current, or how one might go about dressing a flesh-wound in the heat of battle given no practical experience of first-aid, or evade the secret police in WHSmith. These moments of desperate concentration are precisely imagined, and one has the impression that the author is keen to get the details right. There is a danger that with this unrelenting increase of pressure, the first thing to snap will be the reader's patience. Successful Hollywood thrillers ease the pressure off now and again, only to ratchet it up another notch at the next crisis. It repeatedly offers the audience the chance to hope that perhaps everything is alright now, when of course, it's not. If there's just no let up in all the dreadfulness, the viewer/reader will run out of patience and stop taking it seriously. And once they've seen the funny side of your apocalypse, you've lost them.

The plot is tightly wound, and rolls out neatly from its original premise with considerable momentum. The protagonist single-mindedly pursues his goal, and everything is tied up carefully at the end. There are no dangling tangents or flabby chunks of dialogue left lying around. It kept me interested enough to find out what on earth was going on.

Having said that, I can't say that I really enjoyed reading Bloody War. The main problem was with the protagonist's tone. There was something far too blokeish and average-Joe about the way he tells his story and explains himself. This is how he introduces us to his family:
"Amanda, the older one, is fourteen, blonde and already frighteningly beautiful. However, looks aren't everything. My sweet little Amanda has turned into a sulky, explosive and utterly selfish little princess. But there are moments when the other Amanda, the kind one, the funny one, wins through. Rachel sits opposite her, she has my dark hair but her mother's brains, thank Christ. Rachel is bright and sharp and a little too serious. Still, she's only twelve, she'll lighten up when she's good and ready.
I sit next to our son, Dominic (not my choice, I'd have called him Steve). He'll be eighteen on Sunday. He's dark too, and like his younger sister, has his mother's wit and intelligence. He's got a job as an apprentice electrician and is doing well at college and with his company. No girlfriends yet though, well, none that he's ever talked about or brought home."

It's the sort of flavourless mush you wouldn't be surprised to hear at the beginning of a BBC1 teatime family sitcom, delivered by the long-suffering dad straight to camera. Elsewhere, explaining his stint behind bars, he reads like an errant footballer's autobiography:

"Those months spent in that hell hole not only pushed me nearer to the edge than I'd ever been before, it also opened my eyes to the fact that I have a brain in my head, that it works a hell of a lot better than me or anyone else realised and using it was the only thing that was going to save me."

There are far too many easy tabloid platitudes in all of this. We're meant to get a picture of a down-to-earth ageing biker who's made a few mistakes in his youth but who Loves his Family and basically Has His Heart in the Right Place. And despite all the appalling trials he is put through, that's pretty much all we find out about how Pete Allman’s mind works.

The other, related, problem is to do with letting the reader feel things for herself. For instance when the protagonist realises that the British Army are using flame-throwers not only on the war-dead but also to get rid of their own wounded, I can already appreciate how awful this is, without having to be told so twice:

"I hear another flamethrower roar, and this time a cry, brief, lost in the oily, searing blast.
Christ, they're burning the wounded.
Oh God, oh fuck, they're cremating living people."

This sort of spelled-out emotional anguish, spread far too thick, spoils an awful lot of passages that with some judicious editing could have been actually emotionally engaging. Instead the reader is repeatedly bashed over the head with redundant emotional subtitles.

More careful editing and proofreading would have also eliminated the fairly frequent typos (at least in the PDF I received for review), some of which would have been picked up by a spellchecker (e.g. "uaccountably", "of ocurse"). Elsewhere I noticed confusion between "there" and "their" among other basic errors. It doesn't make the novel unreadable, but it's more evidence of under-editing. I think one could probably cut about 15–20% of emotionally overloaded text, and Bloody War would be significantly improved.

Bloody War, by Terry Grimwood. Eibonvale Press, April 2011, 276pp, paperback and hardback. Amazon UK, Amazon US. Reviewed from pdf.

Why I don't believe in ghosts…

Not a proper review this, just a little note. I've just been reading Now Remember, a Penguin 60 by Vladimir Nabokov. It's a beautifully written little book – an extract from the autobiographical Speak, Memory – albeit one in which I progressively lost interest as its focus narrowed to the study of butterflies and moths.

I was fascinated by Nabokov's description of his regular "praedormitary visions" in the opening pages, since I experience almost precisely the same thing:

"They come and go, without the drowsy observer's participation, but are essentially different from dream pictures for he is still master of his senses. They are often grotesque. I am pestered by roguish profiles, by some coarse-featured and florid dwarf with a swelling nostril or ear."

I tend to see pale figures leaning over the bed and babies floating around the room.

I can understand why people who experience something like that just once can be so convinced that they've seen a ghost. If you see a old lady floating around the room at night, it's easy to believe something supernatural has happened.

However, once if it happens a few times, and the next time it's an ironing board, or a giant apple, or the starship Enterprise, you realise that there's nothing supernatural going on.

And so, paradoxically, the reason I don't believe in ghosts is that I see them so often…

Monday 11 July 2011

New review of John Hall's Five Forgotten Stories!

A nice review by Trevor Price of John Hall's Five Forgotten Stories has just appeared on The eNovella Review:
"I really liked the third story, The Burrower Beneath, which is set in 1920's New York and which posits an intriguing connection between gangsters and a Cthulhu cult. … To his credit, in The Burrower Beneath, Mr Hall also reminds us that Lovecraft lived through the Jazz Age. … Required reading for the Lovecraftian fanatic."
The book's out now on Kindle (for just 86p!) and in paperback!

Doctor Who: The Forbidden Time, by David Lock, read by Anneke Wills and Frazer Hines – reviewed

Many of the Companion Chronicles, being told retrospectively to an audience, provide a novel perspective on these characters and their travels in time. We’re not used to them growing old—or even growing up, given how young some of them were. The Forbidden Time plays this card with a flourish, present-day Polly (she mentions iPods) sounding almost mournful at times as she remembers her old friends, and the incidental music has the elegiac feel you might expect in the final scenes of a particularly moving film.

We’re used to the companions missing the Doctor himself, but this story makes the point that companions will miss each other too. Polly and Ben returned to sixties London, but Jamie ended up back in historical Scotland, so far away in the past that Polly couldn’t possibly ever see him again: this story really brings out the sadness of that knowledge.

A press conference provides the framing device, Polly explaining to a largely incredulous audience the significance of a telepathic broadcast received the world over, warning that everyone on Earth is moving into a period of time owned by the Vist, and will be expected to pay a toll—a portion of their lifespans!

As Polly explains, the Doctor, Jamie, Polly and Ben found themselves, shortly after the Doctor’s first regeneration, trapped in a subdued, sepia shadow in time left by our world. The difference between the two Doctors plays a part in the story, with the second being “much more likely to trust the people he was travelling with”, Polly notes.

Here they met the Vist, inhabitants of the time vortex, beings with the bodies of greyhounds, legs as long as a giraffe’s, and faces like a monkey’s; Polly compares them to a painting by Dali. They move in time as we move in space, but in the end, despite their natural abilities, they are not quite the equals of a Lord of Time, and they fall prey to one of the crafty tricks so typical of the second Doctor.

If the story has any flaws, they relate to the nature of its telling. The presence of a dictaphone-style device in the original adventure to record dialogue from Jamie and Polly feels a little contrived, and the climax of episode one is possibly the least exciting cliffhanger of all time, Polly suggesting to her audience that they should have a five minute break. A one-hour press conference explaining a global catastrophe would hardly test anyone’s patience.

But there’s an awful lot to love here. The warmth of the relationships comes through with almost every word; the characters really care about each other. There are some lovely details, such as the surprising reason for Ben’s ability to pinpoint their location in time. The reading, mostly by Anneke Wills, with short sections from Frazer Hines, is quite excellent, and one really does feel that a significant new chapter has been added to these characters’ lives.

Doctor Who: The Forbidden Time, by David Lock, read by Anneke Wills and Frazer Hines. Big Finish, 1×CD, 62 mins.

Tuesday 5 July 2011

The long chase is over – mission accomplished!

People who have been reading our magazine since the early days (I like to pretend there are one or two of you – allow a fool his vanity!) will surely know that our goal for much of that period has been to catch up with McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, issue 10 of which was the direct inspiration for Theaker's Quarterly Fiction.

Despite their head start, we were bi-monthly for a few years, and it looked like we would make it! But then I got tangled in the many tentacles of the British Fantasy Society, and we were forced to go quarterly again, ending up an issue short of our goal.

Catching up with McSweeney's was a silly, arbitrary goal, but sometimes silly goals can be just as helpful as sensible ones.

Checking my bookcase, and checking their website, it looks like both magazines are now on issue 37.

I really am very happy about this. Stupidly so. Wow.

Thanks to McSweeney's for inspiring our efforts at the beginning, and continuing to provide an inspiration ever since – but where the heck is issue 38? Pull your fingers out!

Monday 4 July 2011

Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #37 – now available for free!

We have eight stories in this summer’s issue of Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction, and I’m immensely proud to be publishing all of them:

  • “Apoidroids” by Douglas Thompson
  • “Make It Sacred” by Mike Sweeney
  • “The Last Testament” by Rafe McGregor
  • “Curios” by Ben Kendall-Carpenter
  • “The Model of a Boy” by Alex Smith
  • “Harrowing of the Barrow” by Skadi meic Beorh
  • “Devilry at the Hanging Tree Inn” by David Tallerman
  • “The Watchman” by Chris Roper.

The editorial, “How Could a Person Up and Call a Person Wack?!”, addresses, in my clumsy way, the suggestion put to us in recent months that giving bad reviews to books is something we should avoid. I also discuss the unfortunate lack of female contributors to this issue, and set out one practical step I’m taking to improve the visibility of female writers in our magazine.

In a bit of a departure, we also have an article: “In the Shadow of Slartibartfast: Donald Cotton and Doctor Who’s Other Comedic Trilogy” by Jacob Edwards. You can see why it appealed to me.

Our review section stretches to thirty pages. In books John Greenwood and I look at The Art of McSweeney’s, The Captain Jack Sparrow Handbook by Jason Heller, The Damned Busters by Matthew Hughes, The Gift of Joy by Ian Whates, The Heavenly Fox by Richard Parks, Outpost by Adam Baker, Revenants by Daniel Mills, Spectral Press #2: The Abolisher of Roses by Gary Fry and Vampire Warlords by Andy Remic.

In the audio section I review three Doctor Who adventures: The Forbidden Time, The Sentinels of the New Dawn and The Hounds of Artemis. The film section covers Death Race 2, Insidious, Never Let Me Go, Red Riding Hood, Source Code and X-Men: First Class (three reviews by Jacob Edwards, two by Douglas J. Ogurek, and one by me). I review two comics this time: Baltimore, Vol. 1: The Plague Ships, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season Eight, Vol. 2: No Future for You.

This 128pp issue is available in all the usual formats, all free except the print edition, which we’ve priced as cheaply as possible:

Paperback from Lulu
PDF of the paperback version (ideal for iPad - click on File and then Download Original)
Kindle (free)
Epub (ideal for Sony Reader)
TQF37 on Feedbooks

Which sweet fools lined up for literary exploitation this time?

Alex Smith lives in Bethesda, Maryland and he is a doctoral student of psychology at George Washington University. Alex’s poems and stories have recently appeared in Catch-Up Louisville, Food I Corp, and Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction #31. He is the author of a novella titled THE BERSERK and a book of poems titled LUX. His chapbook, BLOWN, was published by Superchief in 2011.

Ben Kendall-Carpenter lives and was born in Manchester. He enjoys cricket, the work of H.P. Lovecraft and J.G. Ballard, and listening to The Smiths. He is currently working on a collection of horror stories.

Chris Roper lives in Brighton, England, with his girlfriend of three years, Sarah-Jane. When not writing he enjoys travel, normally to tropical climates in Asia, and is a keen reader of horror and science fiction.

David Tallerman’s horror, fantasy and science fiction short stories have appeared in over thirty markets, including Lightspeed, Bull Spec, Flash Fiction Online and John Joseph Adams’s zombie best-of anthology The Living Dead. Amongst other projects, David has also published poetry (in Chiaroscuro), various film reviews and articles, and comic scripts through the award-winning British Futurequake Press. David’s first novel, comic fantasy adventure Giant Thief, will be published in early 2012 by UK publisher Angry Robot, to be closely followed by two sequels. He can be found at and

Douglas J. Ogurek’s work appears in or is forthcoming in the British Fantasy Society Journal, The Literary Review and Dark Things V (Pill Hill Press). Ogurek has also written over 50 articles about architectural planning and design. To this issue he contributes reviews of Insidious and Red Riding Hood. To TQF33 he contributed the astonishing “NON”. He lives in Gurnee, Illinois with his wife and their six pets.

Douglas Thompson’s short stories have appeared in a wide range of magazines, most recently Albedo One, Ambit, and PS Publishing’s Catastrophia anthology. He won the Grolsch/Herald Question of Style Award in 1989 and second prize in the Neil Gunn Writing Competition in 2007. His first book, Ultrameta, was published by Eibonvale Press in August 2009, nominated for the Edge Hill Prize, and shortlisted for the BFS Best Newcomer Award. His second novel Sylvow was published in autumn 2010, also from Eibonvale. A third novel Mechagnosis will be published by Dog Horn in autumn 2011.

Howard Watts is an artist from Brighton. He has previously provided covers for Pantechnicon, Dark Horizons and TQF, including the cover for this issue. His story “Totem” appeared in TQF36.

Jacob Edwards is currently indentured to Australia’s speculative fiction flagship Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, as Jack of all Necessities (Deckchairs and Bendy Straws). To this issue he contributes three film reviews and a paean to Doctor Who’s great lost humorist.

Mike Sweeney lives in Central New Jersey. His short stories can be found here and there. He’s especially fond of the ones over at Jersey Devil Press (

Rafe McGregor is is a crime fiction author who spends far too much of his time rereading the work of H.P. Lovecraft and M.R. James. He lives with his wife in a village near York.

Skadi meic Beorh is a writer of speculative fiction who presently lives with his wife Ember on the Atlantic Coast of Florida. He is the author of the story collection Always After Thieves Watch, the poetry collections Golgotha and New Irish Poems, the dictionary Pirate Lingo, and the novel The Pirates of St. Augustine.

Online vilification

There’s been a lot of online discussion about Ian Whates’ slightly unfortunate article on Putting the Gender in Genre. The narrative being constructed is that Ian has been unjustly vilified and is coming under intense personal attack. That seems odd to me: what he's written has been criticised, but as far as I can see most of the personal attacks are all heading in the other direction, at the poor saps who dared to say anything.

A few comments collated from the web: “a witch-hunt”, “absolute idiots”, “complete idiots”, “deliberately antagonistic”, “hyper-ventilating zealots”, “I wish these guys ... would just STFU”, “I’m half ready to dismiss it as trolling”, “making-shit-up-to-‘prove’-your-point”, “mud-slinging”, “nasty, unnecessary, bitchy”, “nasty”, “how spiteful some people can be”, “people are being vile”, “pseudo-egalitarians”, “purposeful spite”, “ridiculous and nasty”, “silly and embarrassing”, “some people just enjoy spitting bile on the internet”, “someone’s sad little vendetta”, “spitting dummies out of prams”, “strident participants”, “they did make themselves look stupid”, “this is far into the land of internet idiocy”, “this kind of nonsense”, “unpleasant, mildly bullying, and a bit of an ass online”, “(lack of) thought process”.

I don’t think I’ve seen anyone say anything quite that rude and personal about Ian! And why would they! He’s not a terrible sexist, he isn't evil, he just isn’t, as Tricia Sullivan (one of the contributors to the anthology being discussed) observed, “up-to-speed” on the issues: “This is an area with a lot of 101-level issues still floating around, and unfortunately Ian’s recent guest post throws in some remarks that I would consider not-up-to-speed. … This discussion has come a long way in the last year or so online, and I get the impression that Ian may not have kept up with it as well as some who are posting here.”

I’m not even going to pretend I’m up to speed on these issues either. Put me on the spot and I’m sure I’d get myself into an even worse mess than Ian has!

But editors – and their sometimes over-enthusiastic defenders – shouldn't treat questions about the gender balance of their publications as a dreadful impertinence or a personal attack. Rather, they should expect them as the inevitable consequence of publishing a book with very few female contributors. It should be a question they are well prepared to answer, because they should have been thinking about it from the moment the contents page began to take shape.

Saturday 2 July 2011

Five Forgotten Stories - three copies up for grabs on Goodreads!

Book Giveaway

Five Forgotten Stories by John Hall

Five Forgotten Stories

by John Hall

Giveaway ends July 31, 2011.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter to win

If you don't win, the book's currently available for just 86p/$1.42 on Kindle (see Amazon UK and Amazon US respectively). Free Kindle/epub copies available upon request for bloggers and reviewers.