Friday 31 March 2017

Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #59: now out!

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Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction #59 is now out! This issue, one of our best ever, contains seven short stories, all of them likely to amaze: “The Devil’s Hollow” by Rafe McGregor, “Give You a Game?” by Michael Wyndham Thomas, “The Baby Downstairs” by Jessy Randall, “The Constant Providers” by Charles Wilkinson, “Man + Van” by David Penn, “The Night They Sacked New Rome” by Elaine Graham-Leigh and “Anathema: The Underside” by Chris Roper. The issue also features the announcement of the first annual Theaker’s Quarterly Award winners, and an essay on fake internet reviews, plus a selection of the fake reviews we wrote to raise money for Comic Relief on Red Nose Day.

Then there are ninety pages of real reviews, by Stephen Theaker, Jacob Edwards, Douglas J. Ogurek and Rafe McGregor.

We review books and audios from Joey Graceffa, John Scalzi, James Lovegrove, Emily Foster, Greg Egan, Nick Mamatas, Bruce Campbell, S.T. Joshi, Oliver Langmead, Bruce Sterling, Lisa A. Koosis, Kai Ashante Wilson and Matthew Hughes; comics including Marceline Gone Adrift, Bloodshot: Reborn, The Complete Scarlet Traces, Groo: Fray of the Gods, The Great Darkness Saga, and X-Men: Legacy; films including Assassin’s Creed (reviewed in verse!), The Bye Bye Man, Get Out, Kong: Skull Island, The Lego Batman Movie, Logan, Rogue One, Spectral, and Split; plus a whole bunch of television programmes: Ash vs Evil Dead, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, Doctor Who: The Power of the Daleks, The Expanse, iZombie, The Man in the High Castle, Sherlock, and Westworld. The spectacular wraparound cover is by Howard Watts.

Here are the wise and generous contributors to this issue:

Charles Wilkinson’s publications include The Pain Tree and Other Stories (London Magazine Editions), Ag & Au (a pamphlet of poems from Flarestack), and his collection of strange tales and weird fiction, A Twist in the Eye, now out from Egaeus Press. His stories have appeared in Best Short Stories 1990 (Heinemann), Best English Short Stories 2 (W.W. Norton), Unthology (Unthank Books), Best British Short Stories 2015 (Salt) and Best Weird Fiction 2015 (Undertow Books), as well as in genre magazines/anthologies such as Black Static, Supernatural Tales, Horror Without Victims, The Dark Lane Anthology, Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction, Phantom Drift, Bourbon Penn, Shadows & Tall Trees, and Nightscript. He lives in Powys, Wales.

Chris Roper is a copywriter living in London. He writes as much as he can in his spare time, exorcising horrible thoughts and bad dreams by committing them to paper. When not writing, he’s admonishing himself for not writing, which in turn leads him to red wine and Asian holidays.

David Penn’s short stories have appeared in the magazines Midnight Street, Whispers of Wickedness and previously in Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction, and his poems in Magma, Smith’s Knoll and the Poetry School anthology I Am Twenty People (Enitharmon, 2007). He lives in London, where he also works as a librarian.

Douglas J. Ogurek’s work has appeared in the BFS Journal, The Literary Review, Morpheus Tales, Gone Lawn, and several anthologies. Douglas’s website can be found at

Elaine Graham-Leigh is a writer and campaigner based in London. When not bringing down the system from within, she writes speculative fiction and has had previous stories published in Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction, Jupiter SF, Bewildering Stories and The Harrow. Her website:

Howard Watts is a writer, artist and composer living in Seaford. He provides the spacetacular wraparound cover art for this issue. His artwork can be seen in its native resolution on his DeviantArt page: His novel The Master of Clouds is available on Kindle.

Jacob Edwards also writes 42-word reviews for Derelict Space Sheep. This writer, poet and recovering lexiphanicist’s website is at He has a Facebook page at, where he posts poems and the occasional oddity, and he can now be found on Twitter too:

Jessy Randall’s science fiction stories and poems have appeared in Asimov’s, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Strange Horizons, and Theaker’s (“The Night of Red Butterflies”, December 2013). Her most recent book is Suicide Hotline Hold Music, a collection of poems and comics. She is a librarian at Colorado College and her website is

Michael Wyndham Thomas’s novels include The Mercury Annual and Pilgrims at the White Horizon, and his poetry collections include Port Winston Mulberry, Batman’s Hill, South Staffs, Come to Pass and The Stations of the Day. His work has appeared in The Antioch Review, Critical Survey, The London Magazine, Magazine Six, Stand Magazine and the TLS. His novella “Esp” was shortlisted for the UK Novella Award. He is currently working on Nowherian, the fictionalised memoir of a Grenadian traveller. Twitter: @thomasmichaelw. Blog: Website:

Rafe McGregor is the author of The Value of Literature, The Architect of Murder, six collections of short fiction, and one hundred and fifty magazine articles, journal papers, and review essays. He lectures at the University of York and can be found online at @rafemcgregor.

Stephen Theaker is the co-editor of Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction, and the father of two amazing super-friends, one of whom also contributes a review to this issue.

As ever, all back issues of Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction are available for free download.

Monday 27 March 2017

Captain Midnight, Vol. 1: On the Run, by Joshua Williamson, Fernando Dagnino and chums (Dark Horse Books) | review by Stephen Theaker

I loved Chuck Dixon’s Airboy series from the eighties, so this book’s similar mix of superplanes and superheroics really appealed to me. Captain Midnight was a hero back in World War II, who fought the Nazis with his engineering genius, two strong fists, a suit that didn’t let him fly but did let him glide, and his allies, the Secret Squadron. They kept going after he went missing, but now, decades later, he’s back, flying out of a storm in the Bermuda Triangle to land on the U.S.S. Ronald Reagan. The authorities are suspicious, his friends are all elderly, and his enemies are still up to no good. This first volume only collects four issues, but it’s a good introduction to the character. We get to see what he’s about, what keeps him going, and why we’d be interested in reading more about him. His return to action after a long absence obviously has strong echoes of Captain America, and fans of Tom Strong and Miracleman might also notice some similarities, but it feels fresh and fun, not least in the way Captain Midnight swoops and soars. Like Batroc with his leaping, or going up and down the half-pipe in a Tony Hawks game, there’s a joy in the sheer physics of it. ***

Saturday 25 March 2017

Three books by Howard Phillips #rednosereviews #rednoseday

Just as time was about to run out on Red Nose Day, leaving us cruelly just short of our target of one hundred pounds, our frequent contributor Howard Phillips jumped in with a last-minute donation. So here is our last review of the day, of the three novels he has completed: His Nerves Extruded, The Doom That Came to Sea Base Delta, and The Day the Moon Wept Blood. For boring business reasons (Howard lost all copyright in his work to me in a late-night game of Adventure Time Fluxx) these were all eventually published under my name, but they are all Howard's work, unmistakably so!

His Nerves Extruded is not the first book in the series. That was The Ghastly Mountain, which was never finished. But despite that this remains a brilliant introduction…

No, I can't do this.

It's one thing to write fake reviews of books that I haven't read, but I have read these Howard Phillips books, and I know how ropey they are. Can I really pretend that they're any good? He did make his donation at the last minute, and so, as I write this, it's no longer Red Nose Day, so strictly speaking I'm no longer obliged to give everything a glowing review. In fact, I think you would be disappointed if I did. So let's get back to normal:

His Nerves Extruded is a book by Howard Phillips about his own adventures, which you may or may not choose to believe. Whether it really happened or not, the way in which he parades around England with a troupe of paid palanquinettes is undeniably sexist. That the writer includes a photographer in the group and promptly forgets about his presence says a lot about how much thought went into the book.

The Doom That Came to Sea Base Delta sees Howard take his meandering adventures down into an undersea base, after a baffling interlude behind the scenes of Late Night with David Letterman. The book wants to be The Thing in an underwater base, but never rises to the level of Plan 9 from Outer Space in a bucket. There's an important chapter towards the end that Howard never got around to writing.

The Day the Moon Wept Blood is perhaps the most preposterous of them all. It's all about a terrible writer (it takes one to know one!) who steals a book from the British Library and plots the assassination of the central figure in English literature, whose surprising identity I will leave readers to discover for themselves. It's clear throughout that the author made no attempt to research the book's various settings.

All three books share a level of self-indulgence that is almost impossible to credit, a belief in the power of poetry that makes a mockery of that noble art, and a tendency to skip over events because the author doesn't feel like writing them. All pretend to be true, but all were written in less than a month and it shows. Do not read these books unless you are a glutton for punishment.

I give them all one red nose to share between them.

You can buy the books here: His Nerves Extruded, The Doom That Came to Sea Base Delta, and The Day the Moon Wept Blood.

NB: this is a fake internet review, written for fun for Red Nose Day. It's our last one. Thank you to everyone who donated, helping us reach our target of £100. Not bad for a niche fundraising concept that couldn't be explained in under twenty minutes and massively limited the number of people likely to sponsor us!

This is the Quickest Way Down by Charles Christian #rednosereviews #rednoseday

Charlie Christian was a swing and jazz guitarist who played an important role in bebop and cool jazz, and he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990, 48 years after his death. There is a street named after him in Oklahoma City, and he played with Count Basie and Benny Goodman, among others. He is seen as an influence on everyone from Eddie Cochran and Chuck Berry to Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis.

But this book is not by Charlie Christian, it is by Charles Christian. Whether they are related or not we can't say, but it's not hard to imagine the author of this book tapping away at his keyboard while the electric guitar of his namesake works some cool moves in the background. A book of fiction is a lot like a piece of jazz music. You might start off with a plan, you might even know every event that is going to happen, but the only way to get there from here is by improvising every word as you go along.

You may have noticed the remarkably beautiful woman on the book's cover. I know this reviewer did. While I count myself lucky to have married a brown-skinned woman, and indeed would have counted myself lucky to have married a woman of any skin colour, I must confess to a particular fondness for blue and green-skinned ladies, such as the Asari from Mass Effect, and the Orions from Star Trek. In any video game where you can create your own character, my first impulse is always to recreate my wife, since who else would I want to spend forty hours staring at on screen? But there's a good chance her skin will turn blue given the opportunity.

So the book got off to a good start with me. Then, inside, it sprinted to an amazing finish, with stories like "The End of Flight Number 505", "Confessions of a Teenage Ghost-Hunter", "A Baretta for Azraella" and "By the Steps of Villefranche Station" showing just what a short story can do, and how it can do it! There are thirteen stories in this collection, but if that's unlucky for anyone it's not the reader. This book gets five red noses out of five from me. What's more, it's available for just 99p! Just make your next Amazon order a no-rush delivery and you'll get that much back in promotional vouchers to spend on this book!

If you've ever wondered what a book of short stories written by a former practising barrister and Reuters correspondent turned technology journalist and poet would be like, wait no longer. It's right here! And it can be read on an unlimited number of Kindle devices too, with text-to-speech enabled. What more could you ask for?

You can buy the book here.

NB: this is a fake internet review, written for fun without having read the book to raise money on Red Nose Day.

Friday 24 March 2017

All Good Things: The Last SFX Visions by David Langford #rednosereviews

As every author secretly knows in their heart, the raison d’être of the reviewer is revenge. Each review is an opportunity to strike back against a literary overclass that refuses to accept us in its ranks, a blow against the publishers who rejected our carefully-crafted works of art, a signifier to our readers that although we are not yet famous for our own work, any book we wrote would of course be better than the book we are reviewing, because we are clever enough to see its flaws where its own author could not. We prove ourselves superior with every review, and what’s more our review takes mere hours if not minutes to write, while the slovenly author takes months if not years to produce the slabs of bookmeat poured into our grinders.

Sometimes, though, it’s more specific than that. More personal. The reviewer, happily working his way through the pile of to-be-reads and sorting them into the read-in-beds and the better-off-deads, comes across a book by an author who has earned his enmity, his anger, his wrath, his undying thirst for literary vengeance. Maybe this new book was written by someone who, a mere fifteen years before, described the reviewer’s second self-published book as “a Stainless Steel Rat adventure with important organs missing”. Or perhaps this new book was written by someone who said it was dire, “mercifully short”, or “memorably forgettable”, or at their kindest said it was “refreshingly pointless”.

Perhaps this crucifying review appeared in a nationally-published magazine by the name of SFX, and perhaps this new book is a collection of one hundred columns from that magazine. Perhaps. And perhaps then the reviewer begins to sharpen his hatchets, cleans off the blood, lays out the plastic sheeting, and prepares to go to work on the unwitting spawn of a mortal enemy.

But sadly for the bloodthirsty, for all those who like to think ill of reviewers, who don’t grant us the ability to put away our prejudices and give every book a fair chance, that’s where the story takes an unexpected turn, since the reviewer then finds the contents of this book to be as aggravatingly wise, funny and enlightening as all the other Langford columns he read, those that appeared in the first hundred issues of SFX (the issues he read before he let his subscription lapse, tired of learning the plots of television programmes two years before they appeared on British television).

And at that point the poor reviewer, frustrated in his desire to retaliate, his need to lash out, is forced to admit that the two stars he received from David Langford were at least double what his book deserved, while All Good Things: The Last SFX Visions deserves at least double the maximum five red noses he is allowed to award it, and the reviewer is forced to declare it essential reading for anyone who wants to know what’s what in the world of science fiction.

Available in paperback and in a limited edition signed hardback. Buy it here.

NB: this is a fake internet review, written for fun without having read the book to raise money for Comic Relief.

Clovenhoof and the Trump of Doom by Heide Goody and Iain Grant #rednosereviews #rednoseday

This is the latest in a series of hilarious short books about Jeremy Clovenhoof, the earthly incarnation of the devil himself, Satan! Now, you might be getting nervous, casting a concerned glance up at the crucifix hanging on your wall, worrying that this book is in some way blasphemous, but the bible doesn't mention the devil having any cloven hoofs so it's probably not the same guy. Or is it? What was the greatest trick he ever pulled, eh? We should be careful, lest we end up reading a book that leads us down the garden path. All that's waiting down there is the Cottingley fairies!

Back to the book. This is up to the minute hot off the presses satire: Nostradamus foretold the barmy presidency of Donald Trump and the barminess of Brexit. The Archangel Michael will try to undo Brexit through the power of song (though perhaps he would have been better off finding a decent candidate for leader of the Conservative party who was willing to oppose it) while Clovenhoof goes to the United States to stop Trump becoming president. You may watch the news and think, sorry, Clovenhoof, too late, but this book, published by Pigeon Park Press, gives us hope that it can still be stopped. If you believe Clovenhoof exists, it's not too hard to imagine he has time travel powers and can still undo all of this.

The book begins in Sutton Coldfield, which is a great place for a book to begin. When I was there I found the best ever discount book store, and spent about a hundred pounds buying virtually everything in the Virgin Doctor Who line that I didn't yet own, including several hardback non-fiction titles and paperbacks that have since become exceedingly rare. The shop shut down within a week or two, leaving me to wonder ever since whether it was really there. Back then the high street also had a McDonald's where I would have a cheeseburger and small fries while reading the Independent, before, in good weather, heading over to the bench by the church to read a book, or, in bad weather, going into the library to read a book.

It's terribly sad that the library is now closing, as I spent many happy pages there. If only Clovenhoof could have done something about that, as well as fixing Trump and Brexit, this superb book would have been even better, but it would be unfair to mark down an otherwise exceptional and hilarious book for something so far out of its control, so it gets a rollicking five red noses out of five from me.

You can buy the book here.

NB: this is a fake internet review, written for fun without having read the book on Red Nose Day.

Sea-Girt Jungles by Cyril Collenette #rednosereviews #rednoseday

This book, subtitled The Experiences of a Naturalist with the "St. George" Expedition, was written by Cyril Leslie Collenette, a naturalist (i.e. someone who studies nature, not someone who takes their clothes off in public) who lived from 1888 to 1959, and it was published in 1926 – the year my alma mater Reading University received its charter!

It describes the highlights of an 1924 expedition that went to Madeira and Trinidad, then through the Panama Canal to some islands in the Pacific that were at the time less frequently visited. After that came the famous Galapagos Islands, the Marquesas Islands, the Tuamata Atolls, Tahiti, the Austral Islands and Rapa Nui (Easter Island). On some of these islands were the jungles of the book's title, surrounded as they were by the ocean.

Collenette was a fellow of the Entomological Society, and so his professed interest was in finding examples of butterflies, moths and beetles, though rumour has it that he also took quite an interest in a rather more sophisticated lifeform: Cynthia Longfield! She went on to a glittering career of her own, becoming known as Madam Dragonfly for her research on that creature.

The book does not mention his reaction upon returning to the United Kingdom to discover that, during his absence from these shores, the Sunday Express had become the first newspaper to publish a crossword. One is left to wonder also how he felt about the news that Eric Liddell had won the four hundred metre gold at the Paris Olympics while setting a new world record, that fridges were now on sale, that fellow explorers George Mallory and Andrew Irvine had met their doom on Mount Everest, and that the first naturist (i.e. people who take their clothes off in public, not people who study nature) camp had been established in Wickford, Essex. We can only speculate.

Collenette was known for collecting pteridophytes and spermatophytes, and went on to publish books about the Ruwemzori expeditions of 1934-1935 and 1952 as well as the H.E.K. Jordan expedition to Angola. There had been hope that the 1924 expedition would discover buried treasure, which if it had happened would have made this already brilliant book even better. It did not, but Collenette was after all more interested in the bugs than the bounty, and so this book remains a fitting legacy. It gets five red noses out of five.

You can buy the book here.

NB: this is a fake internet review, written for fun on Red Nose Day, although the facts above are probably accurate. The actual book review from which many of them were taken can be read here.

There Will Be Walrus: First Volume V #rednosereviews #rednoseday

Military science fiction is a part of the genre that does not always get the attention it deserves, but thank goodness Cattimothy House is on the case, producing an anthology of stories and essays that ranks with the very best sf being produced in the world. Overrated social justice writerers such as John Scalesy and Jim B. Hinds might knock this kind of stuff and despise the fans who love it, but us real fans know the real deal when we see it, and here we do!

Like all the best books, this is edited by a gun-toting feline, in this case Timothy the Talking Cat, "one of America's foremost political philosophers and one of the aspiring leaders of the future". He has been assisted in bringing the book to publication by Camestros Felapton, and the contributors include such amazing stars in the science fiction sky as Timothy the Talking Cat, Straw Puppy, Mr Atomic, Flight Rear Admiral General Fortescue-Billinghman, Chilsed McEdifice, and the infamous Vax Doy, well known for his failed attempts to rig the Hogu Awards.

It includes five forewords, each better than the one that came before, a guide to surviving a squirrel attack, self-publishing advice for indie authors, stories with names like "Clean Up on Gamma-6-Gamma" and "Behold the Valiants" and "The Dead Tell No Secrets of the Dead", and an FAQ for those people who just stubbornly refuse to get with the program and need a handout! Online, I get the impression that some people haven't taken the book seriously, but I bet those are just omega males, or even more embarrassingly, people who aren't even male at all.

The book contains twenty-two thousand, one hundred and eighty words, which seems like just the right length. Not too short that it has finished before you get going, but not so long that you will wander off to read something less walrussy halfway through. And it's free, the best price of all, so I have no hesitation in awarding it the maximum five red noses out of five. If it doesn't win any awards that can only be down to the machinations of those evil social justice weirdo cat hating squirrel lovers.

You can get the book here.

NB: this is a fake internet review, written for fun on Red Nose Day. Book a fake internet review of your book.

These United States by Clive Tern #rednosereviews #rednoseday

I want to begin this review by telling you a story. When I was a young boy, our bedroom had a wide window, with a large fixed pane in the middle, and parts that opened on the left and on the right. I am not proud of what I am about to tell you, but I would exit on the left, walk across the exterior window sill to the right, then come back inside. It frightens me to think of it, now more than ever, as I think of all the joy that would have been lost if I had fallen to my death. No lovely wife, no beautiful children, and worst of all so many wonderful novels never written! Imagine if I had died then, never having seen Game of Thrones, never having used the internet, never having played an Elder Scrolls game!

It doesn't bear thinking about, so let's not, let's move on to another childhood memory. We lived near one of the (if not the) smallest train stations in Britain, Damems, on the Worth Valley Light Railway. We would walk down there to see the steam trains go by, and if that sounds like a scene from The Railway Children, well, parts of that film were indeed filmed there. I never took off my underwear and waved it at a train, but we did discover the ruins of an abandoned mill, with a huge enticing crack in one wall. The mystery of this entranced us for weeks, until we were able to take advantage of a Tandy special offer and get ourselves a torch.

I then led an expedition into the crack. This may all sound like an episode of Stranger Things, but let me assure you that this really happened. Following me into the crack were my little brother and a gaggle of other children, some of them probably as young as five or six. We shone the torch into the crack and made our way inside. It was terrifying, but we kept going, step by worrisome step, the light shining ahead of us into the darkness, but seeming to illuminate only more darkness. Before long the crack narrowed and I began to worry about being trapped in there.

I called a retreat, and had to wait, anxiously breathing as deeply as I could, while the youngest children at the back got the message and led us out. I think back to that often, and consider how easily we all could have died. No one knew we were there. No one would have looked for us there. If the walls of that crumbling mill had fallen, that would have been it for all of us. We would all have died, and it would have been my fault. I'd be famous for being the idiot that led a group of younger children into a hole in the wall of a abandoned mill.

All of which is by way of explaining how intensely you may be affected by the stories in These United States by Clive Tern. It's a collection that will make you gasp in horror at how easily you might have let it pass you by, changing your life forever, very much for the worse. He is not from the United States, but declares a strange love for them. He writes about a man who can't die, and another who is locked up all day, and aliens and sea-gods and dangerous cigarette lighters all while making you think and taking you to a different state of the union each time.

In thirty years time, do you really want to think back to this moment and rue the terrible mistake you made, or do you want to read this book right now? And it's only volume one! How many more can we look forward to?! I give it five red noses.

You can buy the book here.

NB: this is a fake internet review, written for fun on Red Nose Day. Book a fake internet review of your book.

Letters to Barack Obama from Handsworth #rednosereviews #rednoseday

Remember what it was like eight years ago? A new president was in the White House, but everything was so different. The mood was hopeful, we thought the future would be better than the past, and that is reflected in this book of letters and drawings that were sent from Handsworth, a gloriously multicultural part of Birmingham, to Barack Obama. The librarian who put the project together was nominated for the Chamberlain Award, and received a letter in reply from the White House (now framed and hanging on her wall), but the stars of the show are the local children, with their funny questions and quirky drawings.

"I wish I had all the power you have but I don't. That ain't fair!" said one. (Are we sure Donald Trump wasn't living in Handsworth back then?) "I wanted to tell you, you are a great man," said another in a matter-of-fact tone. "What is your favourite soccer team? I hope it's not a naff team like Wolves or Burnley," asked one pupil, with an admirable grasp of the most important issue of the day. "Was your name Barry when you were younger?" asked another, a question to which we now know the answer to be yes, thanks to the Netflix original movie of that name.

The project was inspired by the McSweeney's book Thanks and Have Fun Running the Country, in which the letters were by American children. Here the letters are by British children, a crucial difference that perhaps explains the greater interest in association football shown within its pages. One of the most charming parts of the book was how often the children drew pictures of themselves with the new president, as on the cover. They trusted him, could imagine him hanging out with the class, buying them an ice cream.

It's hard to imagine any British children wanting to spend time with the current president, though if they did I imagine they would put him to shame with their maturity and interest in the world and its future. This book reminds us that it doesn't have to be that way, that we can have leaders we believe in, that give us hope, and even if they don't deliver on every single one of those hopes, it's better than the alternative. I give this book five red noses.

You can buy the book here.

NB: this is a fake internet review, written for fun on Red Nose Day. Book a fake internet review of your book.

Children of Eden by Joey Graceffa #rednosereviews #rednoseday

Joey Graceffa is a very famous YouTuber, well known for his exceptional talent for playing video games without a shirt on and being very good-looking. Mysteriously, this is something that greatly appeals to young women, and after they bought his first book in droves – In Real Life, about his unreal life as a YouTube star, made the New York Times bestseller list – he has now written a novel.

And it must be his own work, because his is the only name on the cover. He really is very, very good-looking, you know.

As we can tell from the cover, the book contains male characters and female characters, and while sometimes their interests overlap, sometimes they don't, and so their pictures are not completely aligned. This is very subtle.

Rowan is the girl, the second child of her family in a world where families are only allowed one child. After being hidden away for sixteen years she escapes for a night of adventure, but it's dangerous, because she has special kaleidoscope eyes.

She is a child of Eden, but cannot live there, and so the book asks us all a profound question: can it really be Eden if its own children are not allowed to live there? The answer must be no, because Eden should be a perfect place to live, and who could be happy in a place where your children are hidden away?

Although, if Adam had been happy in the original Eden, would he have wanted an Eve? If Eve had been happy in the original Eden, would she have wanted an apple? So perhaps it makes perfect sense to call this unhappy place Eden.

Many adventures follow, and characters develop in interesting ways, some becoming happier, some becoming sadder, but always letting the reader see what is happening.

I would give this book five red noses.

You can buy the book here.

NB: this is a fake internet review, written for fun on Red Nose Day. Book a fake internet review of your book. (There will be a real review of this book by someone who actually read it – and loved it – in our next issue.)

Professor Challenger in Space by SW Theaker #rednosereviews #rednoseday

Review by Howard Phillips

Professor George Challenger is one of the classic characters of science fiction, although he has perhaps not outshone The Lost World to the extent that fellow Arthur Conan Doyle creation Sherlock Holmes has thrown all the books in which he appeared into the shadows. This novel is by a writer I definitely do not know personally, S.W. Theaker.

I am definitely not S.W. Theaker writing under a different name to trick you into buying his book, because that would be wrong. I read on his website that this book was originally written in the nineties, in the course of a couple of weeks. Whether that is true or not I can't say, since, as I previously explained, I do not know him personally and am definitely not him writing under a pseudonym, but it is difficult to believe given how extraordinarily good this book is.

Arthur Conan Doyle's belief in spiritualism is shown to be mistaken by sheer dint of the fact that his spectre has not emerged from the grave to shake this author by the hand and pat him on the back, in gratitude at having done so much with the character. Granted, descriptions of the lead characters' physical attributes are few and far between, the author possibly having got halfway through writing this novel before going back to look up their descriptions in the Conan Doyle stories.

But would the creator of Sherlock Holmes, that master investigator, who famously said that when the impossible has been eliminated, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth, would the creator of that character ever have considered removing Challenger's head and putting it onto a robot body? Of course not, because it takes the imagination of a true genius to think of something so radical, and that is what we have here.

Some reviewers, the kind to which you shouldn't pay attention, the haters, the slaters, the Johnny-come-laters, might complain that here Theaker just recycles Grant Morrison's Doom Patrol idea of the chief as a head on a plate, but pathetic literary trolls don't realise how ingeniously that allows the good professor to travel through the vacuum of space! Complainers and moaners might also wonder why everything in the book is so lightly described, as if it was written in a rush and the author just wanted to write the dialogue, but that's simply to miss the point of this novel's marvellously pulpy fun.

This book gets five red noses from me!

You can buy the book here.

NB: this is a fake internet review, written for fun on Red Nose Day. Book a fake internet review of your book.

Happy Red Nose Day! #rednoseday #rednosereviews

It's going to be an unusual day here on the TQF blog. For those of you who don't live in the UK, Red Nose Day is an event organised every two years for Comic Relief, which involves people being "funny for money". Children dress in red clothes, adults sit in baths full of baked beans, and in the evening we all cry our eyes out watching heartbreaking stories of people doing everything they can to survive against the odds.

For this Red Nose Day, we decided to compromise our principles and write fake internet reviews of books we haven't read, in return for donations to Comic Relief. For a bit of background, read the guest post I wrote for the Ginger Nuts of Horror blog, where I talk a bit about the various varieties of fake review I have encountered over the last decade or two. I reckon it's quite the eye-opener!

I'm about to get started on writing the reviews, but it's still not too late to reserve a slot for your own book. Our fundraising goal is one hundred pounds, and at the time of writing we're three quarters of the way there. Even more would be amazing. I'll keep writing as long as you keep donating! If you want us to "review" your book(s), go to our JustGiving Comic Relief page and donate five pounds, euros or dollars and we'll add a book of your choice to the queue.

Or feel free to make a donation without asking us to review anything! We've produced fifty-eight issues of Theaker's Quarterly Fiction to date, given them all away for free, and you don't owe us a thing for any of that – we do it because we love doing it! – but if you did want to show your appreciation for any of our work, whether it's here or on any other projects that you've enjoyed, a donation to Comic Relief today, however small, would be an amazing way to do it.

So: don't trust anything you read on our blog today. It'll all be flim-flam, trickery, bluff, dishonesty, padding, chicanery and fakery, but in a good cause. I don't know yet how funny it will be, but if it fails to raise a chuckle or two I hope at least it will help you to spot some of the telltale signs of a fake review. And where better to start than with a fake internet review of my own book, the first book we published, the first thing to appear in our magazine, by our very own fictional reviewer…

Tuesday 21 March 2017

Kong: Skull Island | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Out romance. Out cuteness. Out sentimentality. Make way for MONSTERS!

Lieutenant Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly) calls his cohorts’ attention to a chirping. He says, “That sounds like a bird, but it’s a [expletive] ant.”

That the ants in Kong: Skull Island are so large that you can hear them says something about the size of the island’s inhabitants, the biggest of which is King Kong. The famed monster has not appeared in a big budget film since Peter Jackson’s King Kong (2005). That Kong was 25 feet tall. In Kong: Skull Island, the figure resurrects at an imposing 100 feet! Marvel at Kong’s full-body profile before the setting sun. Now that is an iconic image.

Hats off to director Jordan Vogt-Roberts who, despite top-shelf acting talent such as John Goodman and Thomas Hiddleston, deemphasizes the leading lady, cuts back on romantic relationships, and makes Kong and his supporting cast of colossuses the true stars of this film.

There’s no buildup to this Kong: within the first five minutes of the film, his gargantuan (and realistic) head and hands burst onto the screen. Even if the rest of the film wasn’t graced by strong acting, a solid story, classic rock, and an ecological message, Kong: Skull Island would be entertaining.

Threats Low, Threats High, Threats Right before Your Eyes
It is 1973, and the Vietnam War is winding down. Scientists Bill Randa (Goodman) and Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) head out to explore the undiscovered Skull Island. Joining them are Royal Air Force tracker James Conrad (Hiddleston), war photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), and embittered Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) and his troop of soldiers.

When the group drops bombs under the guise of a geological survey, Kong swats them out of the sky. Packard assumes an Ahab-like obsession with exacting vengeance upon Kong, while most of the others just want to get off the island, which is full of threats large and larger.

Some characters recognise that they are intruders on the island and advocate a nonviolent extraction, while others, particularly Packard, approach the situation with guns blazing. Packard is angered by the Vietnam War and upset that some of his men were lost during the initial skirmish with Kong, but his bloodlust seems to extend to the island as a whole. For instance, Packard doesn’t hesitate to pick off a prehistoric-looking bird for no reason.

Comic relief comes with Hank Marlow, an inhabitant of the island since his plane crashed there during World War II. The Chicago native warns the visitors about the massive lizard-like creatures that live underground and threaten to surface and kill everything in their path. “I call them Skull Crawlers,” he says. “I never said that name out loud before. It sounds stupid now that I think about it.”

Again, though Marlow is entertaining, the most captivating players in this story are the island’s animals, ranging from massive spiders and sea creatures to truck-sized yak-like beasts and winged man-eaters.

A Message of Planetary Proportions
Typically, King Kong develops a ridiculous relationship with a damsel in distress. This Kong exhibits toward his less hostile human visitors not necessarily a soft spot, but more of a not-as-hard spot. His relationship with Mason Weaver is subtler. There are no crushes, playfulness, or snuggling. It’s a mutual respect.

The film also imparts a timely message. Kong, protector of the island and almost like a god to its inhabitants, could represent the Earth’s ecosystem. If you treat it with respect, it will support you, but if you hurt it, it might just hurt you back.

One soldier, Cole, says, “Sometimes the enemy doesn’t exist until you go looking for one.” In other words, leave it alone! Perhaps there are some places where mankind need not meddle. – Douglas J. Ogurek *****

Sunday 19 March 2017

Pay £5 and we will give your book a glowing review! #rednosereviews

This Friday, Red Nose Day, we will be raising money for Comic Relief by casting aside our scruples, our principles, the very core of our being! That is to say, we will give your book (or any book you choose) a glowing review – without reading it, in the style of fake internet reviews! – if you donate five pounds to Comic Relief.

Click here to donate and book your slot:

We will write and post the reviews in a marathon on Red Nose Day, and they will appear here on the TQF blog and in a subsequent issue of the magazine.

If you are an indie author or a small press publisher, this is a great way to publicise your projects and support a good cause. They will be clearly flagged as our joke Red Nose reviews, so don't worry about anyone thinking you have done anything shady…

Friday 17 March 2017

Supernatural, Season 11, by Andrew Dabb, Jenny Klein and chums (E4) | review by Rose M. Rye

Supernatural season 11 may not be different from what we have seen before, but it’s enjoyable as ever. Sam and Dean continue to investigate murders, in the “monster of the week episodes”, and we see the return of strong female characters Sheriff Mills and Sheriff Donna, adding a female presence to the programme. There is also a new threat to the world and the Winchester brothers must find a way (with the help of some great returning characters – Castiel and Crowley) to defeat this new evil. The cast’s chemistry as an ensemble is a real highlight. The script is witty and the back and forth banter between the Winchester brothers and especially Castiel is superb. Misha Collins’s performance is just marvellous this season. A standout episode is “Just My Imagination”, episode 8. Sam and Dean team up with Sam’s childhood imaginary friend; such a clever idea. In episode 14, “The Vessel”, Sam and Dean go back in time and we learn more about the Men of Letters. These individual episodes really add to the strength of the ongoing story arcs and made this season well worth watching. The fantastic season finale, “Alpha and Omega”, introduces a new female character who brings the promise of international adventures. The programme is still going strong and I’m enjoying it as much as I did when it started over a decade ago. ****

Monday 13 March 2017

Logan | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Decapitations and lamentations: Jackman and Stewart swan songs reveal human side of superheroes in violent, yet touching Wolverine threequel

It’s been 17 years since Hugh Jackman’s rough and laconic Wolverine clawed his way into pop culture. Yes, Wolverine is strong, and he’s great to watch. But can we truly connect with a guy who quickly heals from gunshots or stab wounds? In Logan, the final installment of the Wolverine trilogy (and Jackman’s final appearance as the character), we can connect. As its title suggests, the film offers a more intense exploration of the human and therefore, more vulnerable, side of the protagonist. It’s not the all-powerful Wolverine, but rather the ageing Logan, a hard-drinking and world-weary has-been just hoping to retreat. Both he and Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), former head of Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters (i.e. mutants), are deteriorating, and the feelings the film evokes captures this sense of loss.

But don’t put on your bonnet just yet. Logan, directed by James Mangold, delivers all the skin-piercing, bone-breaking, head-lopping, full-throttle maniacal violence for which Wolverine is known. It even has the classic Wolverine roar.

The year is 2029, and the world is bereft of the original mutants, with the exception of Logan, nonagenarian Charles, and Caliban, a tracker with a severe aversion to the sun. They’re shacked up in a remote Mexican outpost. Logan regularly takes his limo over the border into Texas to scrounge up enough money to medicate Charles with pharmaceuticals and himself with alcohol. He hopes to save enough to buy a boat and live out the rest of his days at sea with Charles (and away from humanity). Then Laura, a girl with a familiar mutation, enters the picture.

Logan’s initial response to Laura’s guardian’s pleas for help isn’t the most heroic. He must overcome his demons to help Laura get to a place called Eden, where she can meet up with her fellow lab-manufactured escaped super-children. But there’s a catch: Eden might not be real. Thus the unlikely trio of Logan, Laura, and Charles embarks on an adventurous road trip filled with pain, discovery, and hope.

In the meantime, the lab has sent out bounty hunter Donald Pierce with his mechanical hand (never explained or used impressively) and his goons to retrieve Laura and the other child mutants. Moreover, the lab is cooking up something that’s stronger than all these kids and that will, of course, be another of Logan’s obstacles.

Hurt and Help
One character tells Logan that in her nightmares, people are hurting her. He says that in his, he’s hurting others. He’s not talking about the enemies he ploughs through, but rather those to whom Logan gets close. Pain is a constant companion to Logan. He has repeatedly dealt with physical agony, but the emotional turmoil has inflicted more damage. And what a remarkable job Jackman does, whether he’s limping or grieving, in conveying both.

One of the most poignant aspects of this film is the relationship between Logan and Charles. Logan, worn down by loss, has no interest in helping others. And yet, in his own gruff way, he serves as Charles’s caregiver. Sometime before the start of this story, Charles has, in his early dementia, used his mind powers to do something terrible on the East Coast. However, even in his intermittent mental fog, Charles encourages Logan to help the mutant cause, while always showing respect to the human race. Stewart, shedding his professorial demeanour and even dropping some f-bombs, offers a moving performance.

An Improbable Spokesman
If you look at the posters of the first three films in the X-Men canon, you will likely see in the forefront the same character: Wolverine. Of all the mutants, he remains a favourite among the masses. Perhaps it’s because he rolls his eyes at the whole superhero thing; he’s not interested in capes and masks. With his outbursts and his pain, Logan reminds us of ourselves... minus the use of metal claws to hack off limbs, the indestructible adamantium skeleton, and the ability to withstand bullets, knives, explosions, fire and flesh-stripping winds.

Logan delivers everything that a superhero movie should have. You will feel exultation in the action scenes, and sadness in the dramatic scenes. Thanks to Hugh Jackman for giving the world a superhero with the ferocity of a wolverine, the grace of a swan, and the complexity of a human being. – Douglas J. Ogurek *****

Friday 10 March 2017

Black Dog, by Neil Gaiman and Daniel Egnéus (Headline) | review by Rafe McGregor

Black Dog is one of Neil Gaiman’s four American Gods stories, all of which have been re-released by Headline in hardback editions illustrated by Daniel Egnéus. The other three are: American Gods itself (first published in 2001 and re-released in an expanded tenth anniversary edition in 2011), The Monarch of the Glen (also reviewed in this issue), and Anansi Boys (first published in 2005). As an update to my previous review, the television adaptation of American Gods is due for release as a STARZ original series in 2017, possibly over Easter. Ricky Whittle will play the part of Shadow, Ian McShane the part of Wednesday, and the duo will be joined by a host of familiar faces from the big and small screen. Black Dog is a novella (or short story – it is, once again, difficult to tell due to the copious illustrations) and was first published in Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances (2015), Gaiman’s fourth collection of short fiction (excluding his writing for children). The narrative shares the same protagonist with American Gods, Shadow, and the temporal setting is easily established: three years after his wife’s death and either several weeks or a few months after The Monarch of Glen. The latter novella ended with Shadow leaving Scotland by train, his eventual destination Chicago, but somewhere along the line he exchanged rail for foot and the spatial setting is the first mystery Gaiman presents to his readers. Many clues are provided, some tantalising, some contradictory: the blurb labels a “rural northern village”; but it is not too remote from London; it might be near Glossop; it is surrounded by hills and valleys; it features plenty of drystone walls; and it has its own ghost dog, called Black Shuck. Black Shuck is the name of East Anglia’s version of the old English legend, but East Anglia is notoriously flat and I think the name “The Gateway to Hell” is decisive, suggesting Eldon Hole in the Peak Forest and the Peak District (also known as the Derbyshire Dales) more generally. This relocation of Black Shuck to one of the few regions of England that does not have its own ghost dog is the first indication of the categorical originality of Gaiman’s re-invention of the legend.

The novella opens with a play on words: the first chapter is titled “The Bar Guest” and the barghest is the name of the Yorkshire incarnation of the black dog. Gaiman very quickly provides a series of reflections on and allusions to many of the linguistic and conceptual associations with dogs that are such a prominent part of English culture: the love of dogs as pets, the eternal conflict between cats and dogs and consequent division of human beings into “cat-people” and “dog-people”, “black dog” as a description of depression (made famous by Winston Churchill), “black dog” as a favoured name for brands of ale, and the curiosity of a ghost dog that portends or causes death without possessing any corporeality. As the tale develops, he adds the conceptions of prehistoric dire wolves, Odin’s wolves (although Odin’s nemesis Fenrir seems more appropriate), and the myth of the Wild Hunt. There are also explicit references to Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902) and, in my opinion, implicit references to Stephen Booth’s Cooper and Fry crime series, which is set in the Peak District and was initiated with the novel Black Dog (2001). The combination of these references also serves as a clue that this is as much a mystery as it is a work of speculative fiction. When compared to The Monarch of the Glen, Daniel Egnéus’ artwork reflects both the change in emphasis from fantasy to mystery and the more hospitable countryside in which Shadow finds himself, where an evening on a hilltop is an experience to be enjoyed rather than a death sentence – or should be. Egnéus’ drawings are much less visceral than those in The Monarch of the Glen and with a few exceptions evoke wonder rather than fear while nonetheless retaining a haunting quality. Like the dog itself, they are shady, shapeshifting, and surreal.

The story starts with Shadow in a public house, where there is much spooky talk of big black dogs and cats walled up in buildings. The village has no accommodation available and a local couple, Ollie and Moira, offer him a room for the night. As the three of them walk home, Ollie thinks he sees Black Shuck and falls into a narcoleptic state. This introduces the natural dimension of Gaiman’s take on the black dog, as a manifestation of depression, which grounds the narrative in reality: depressed people recognise their own despair, exemplified by the ghost dog, and either try to kill themselves or simply lose the will to live. Following this motif, Ollie self-harms as soon as he emerges from his semi-consciousness, setting the scene for Shadow remaining in the village for a few days to help Moira look after him. Whether or not I am correct in identifying Black Dog as equal parts speculative fiction and mystery, it is certainly focused on a contemporary crime rather than an ancient evil. What raises Gaiman’s contribution to the black dog legend from the original to the exceptional is the way he not only offers a rationalisation of its continued existence, but binds the supernatural explanation to its own special logic. The ghosts that inhabit this particular piece of the American Gods universe are not restricted to the canine variety and the relationship between the villain and the ghost dog and between Shadow and the benevolent ghost is explained by the metaphor of flame and moth. Human beings, warm with their life blood coursing through them, are the flames that attract the attention of moth-like ghosts, which clarifies the reciprocal relation between corporeal and non-corporeal: the moth flying too close to the flame can either extinguish that flame or be destroyed by it.

Monday 6 March 2017

Get Out | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Brilliant directorial debut packed with eccentric characters and suspense.

Though comic genius Jordan Peele’s directorial debut Get Out intrigued me, the preview seemed a bit silly. Particularly off-putting was a close-up of a teary-eyed Betty Gabriel saying “No. No. No no no no no no...” I almost decided not to see it in the theatre. What a mistake that would have been.

This tale of a well-adjusted guy in an unsettling environment steeped in racial issues offers a completely absorbing filmgoing experience from start to finish. Although it’s billed as a horror, Get Out blends suspense, mystery, drama, comedy, and even a bit of soft sci-fi.

Budding photographer Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) and white girlfriend Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) head out to the country to meet Rose’s family. However, the carefree Rose has not told her family that Chris is black. Initially, the Armitages seem the perfect suburban family, but their oddities, along with those of their social circle and their housekeepers, gradually surface, leading to the discovery of a dangerous secret.

What makes Get Out so compelling is that everyone who Chris encounters displays some eccentricities, with Rose’s family leading the pack. Despite his backslapping demeanour and his conviction that “I would vote for Obama for a third term if I could,” surgeon father Dean (Bradley Whitford) makes comments that range from off-kilter to attacking. Rose’s mother Missy (Catherine Keener), a psychiatrist, applies her specialty in hypnosis to attempt to stop Chris from smoking. But her intents may not be entirely beneficent—watch for Missy’s menacing facial expressions. The most entertaining Armitage, however, is Rose’s brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones), a wild-haired medical student whose drunken banter highlights a tense dinner table scene.

The Armitages’ idiosyncratic white guests, most of them older, watch Chris with a creepy fascination, while housekeepers Walter (Marcus Henderson) and Georgina (Betty Gabriel) speak in a “golly gee” 1950s sitcom fashion. This strangeness isn’t random; there is a reason for all of it, and when it surfaces, it’s as jolting as what you would find in an M. Night Shyamalan film.

Comic relief comes in the form of Chris’s friend Rod Williams (LilRel Howery), a TSA employee. Rod, Chris’s lifeline to the outside world, offers a steady stream of humorous commentary.

Though everyone acted superbly, Kaluuya’s performance deserves special mention. He achieves viewer empathy as our ally in this odd world. And when a hypnotized Chris reveals to Missy the circumstances behind his own mother’s death, he transfers the emotion to the viewer.

Throughout the film, one can’t help but ask oneself: Who are these people? And why are they so fascinated with Chris? What a phenomenal job Peele does of pulling the wool over the viewer’s eyes.

Those of us who love horror films are constantly on the lookout for something completely original. This is it. – Douglas J. Ogurek *****

Friday 3 March 2017

The Monarch of the Glen, by Neil Gaiman and Daniel Egnéus (Headline) | review by Rafe McGregor

Neil Gaiman’s American Gods was first published in 2001 and then re-published in an expanded tenth anniversary edition. Remarkably, the latter – which has been available as a delightfully captivating audiobook since 2012 – is a literal “author’s cut”, i.e. Gaiman’s original novel, published without the considerable editorial redactions of the published version and therefore substantially longer (such are the perks of fame). I thought American Gods was deserving of its critical and popular success although I was disappointed that Gaiman hadn’t integrated the monotheistic religions into his universe, a strategy which was obviously expedient, but felt inconsistent. The audiobook (but not the tenth anniversary edition) contains a deleted passage in which Shadow meets Christ, offering a tantalising taste of how Gaiman might have treated the monotheistic gods (oxymoron intended), but the encounter raises more questions than it answers. As an aside on adaptations, the television series of American Gods is due for release by Fremantle Media on an unspecified date in 2017. Despite The Monarch of the Glen being marketed by Amazon as part of the “American Gods Novella” series, there is no mention of any such series from publisher Headline on or in the book itself. The narrative is indeed set in the world of American Gods and even shares the same protagonist in Shadow, but is also – as one might expect from a storyteller of Gaiman’s skill – perfectly self-contained and can be enjoyed without having read the novel.

The novella (or perhaps short story, it’s difficult to tell with all the illustrations) was first published in Legends II, a collection of speculative fiction edited by Robert Silverberg, in 2003. This version has been co-released with American Gods and Anansi Boys (first published in 2005), which is also set in the American Gods universe, as well as the other “American Gods Novella”, Black Dog, also reviewed in this issue. All four volumes are illustrated by Daniel Egnéus, who cites his influences as Arthur Rackham and Gustave Doré. He certainly displays the former’s flair for line and the latter’s ability to represent the otherworldly and there is also a strong surrealist sense of the fluidity of shape, reality, and reason in his depictions. The interior illustrations are black and white and they fully capture the darkness of both Gaiman’s setting and the subject matter of the tale that unfolds in that setting. Egnéus leaves readers in no doubt that Shadow has arrived in a vital, visceral, and volatile place where the trappings of modernity conceal an ancient and unchanged way of life. Egnéus’ work enriches rather than embellishes Gaiman’s and my one complaint is that a couple of the titles that form part of the drawings are spoilers and detract from one’s intellectual and imaginative engagement in the first instance and from the drama of the fully-realised dénouement in the second.

The narrative takes place in the north-west of the Scottish Highlands and is set two years after the conclusion of American Gods. Shadow, who may or may not be an incarnation of Baldr (or Baldur or Balder), who may or may not be a god, has spent the interim backpacking across Europe and North Africa and finds himself in an unnamed village somewhere between Thurso and Cape Wrath. The plot begins when, in quick succession, he is offered a weekend job as a bouncer at a local country house and meets an unconventional barmaid named Jennie who regales him with stories of the local lore, particularly those pertaining to the strong Norse influence in what is usually assumed to be a hyper-Celtic culture. The suspense is generated first by the mysterious party, then by its mysterious guests, and finally by the real reason for Shadow’s employment. Having uncharitably criticised Egnéus for a couple of slight spoilers, I shall be careful to avoid the same charge myself in raising my quibble with Gaiman. I am also aware how minor this point is in a work that has – words and images combined – provided me with an exceptionally rewarding reading experience and that I shall have complained that it is too revealing and too opaque, which doesn’t seem very convincing at all. The opacity is in the title. The Monarch of the Glen (1851) is a painting of a red deer stag by Edwin Landseer and has become one of the exemplary and archetypal images of the Highlands specifically and Scotland more generally. Landseer was famous for contributing to the Victorian image of an idyllic Scotland that never existed and for representing anthropomorphic animals in savage struggles for survival against one another, man, and nature. The painting itself – or rather, Landseer’s copy of his own painting – appears in the story, the property of Mr Alice, who is hosting the party. Its significance – and given the title, it must surely be significant – is never explained or even suggested and the only commentary is Alice on its popularity and Shadow’s silent appraisal of the stag as “haughty, and superior”.

My understanding of the painting’s significance in the novella is that the shared title is a reference to Shadow, who has been hired to take part in a struggle even more savage than those portrayed by Landseer. In this struggle, Shadow is the symbol of both man against monster and Scotland against its (Norse) invaders. But, just like the criticism that Landseer created a false image of Scotland, Shadow is being set up as a false symbol, one that has no basis in reality. He is, like the English Landseer in the Highlands, a foreigner, and also, as the opening dialogue of the narrative reminds readers, a monster himself – not quite a man and not quite a god. And of course Gaiman is far too sophisticated a writer to allow the simple dichotomies of man/monster, Celtic/Norse, and the relation between them to remain unchallenged. The result is that the explosive climax at the country house does not turn out as expected for any of the participants and Shadow is measured against his own judgement of Landseer’s stag. Shadow survives (no spoiler, as he will reappear in Black Dog) and the tale concludes with him on a train, heading south with the ultimate aim of bringing his wandering to an end in Chicago. The complexity of the title, the symbolism, and Shadow’s character are wonderfully intriguing and if I didn’t find the confirmation I was looking for, that may well be because my interpretation is mistaken. I shall, however, make no mistake here: this is a great novella, atmospheric and thrilling, intellectual and unpredictable.