Thursday 31 December 2020

Lone Wolf 31: The Dusk of Eternal Night | review by Rafe McGregor

Lone Wolf 31: The Dusk of Eternal Night by Vincent Lazzari and Ben Dever

Holmgard Press, hardback, £19.99, December 2020, ISBN 9781916268036

If I enjoy a series and the latest instalment isn’t up to the standard of its predecessors, my usual policy is to avoid reviewing it.  Perhaps that’s what I should do with Lone Wolf 31: The Dusk of Eternal Night, the penultimate instalment of the late Joe Dever’s Lone Wolf cycle of fantasy gamebooks, which was released in time for Christmas by Holmgard Press.  Having invested so much time and energy (and a not inconsiderable amount of money) on the franchise as well as reviewing all of the New Order series (Lone Wolf 21 onwards) to date, however, I feel it would be a cop out.  Also, notwithstanding my criticism below, I will be buying the last in the cycle – Lone Wolf 32: Light of the Kai – on the basis that I am in my fifth decade of playing the books and have a need to know how it all ends (I began shortly after Lone Wolf 1: Flight from the Dark was published in 1984).  For those interested, I’ve discussed the trials and tribulations of the franchise – including why the publication of the cycle has taken so long – here, here, and here.  So let me begin with the bad news and my harshest criticism: Lone Wolf 31 simply has too much dialogue, too much description, and too little gameplay.  It’s as if the authors forgot they were writing a gamebook and wrote an experimental young adult fantasy novel instead.  Now one may think that this hybrid model of gamebook-novel is an improvement on the gamebook-only model or that the change of direction is precisely what the cycle needs for a spectacular conclusion, but I have been playing these books since the eighties because they are games.  If I wanted a novel set in Magnamund I would have collected the Legends of Lone Wolf series (novelisations of gamebooks 1 to 8, published from 1989 to 1994) – and, indeed, I did try the first and decided that they weren’t for me.  I genuinely hope that most if not all readers of this review disagree with my evaluation and if you don’t want to be put off Lone Wolf 31 please don’t read any further.  Just buy the book, read it, and make up your own mind.

The New Order series focuses on a new protagonist (whose name is randomly-generated, leaving me with “True Friend” for mine) and combines campaign and standalone adventures.  The standalone adventures are Lone Wolf 23: Mydnight’s Hero and Lone Wolf 26: The Fall of Blood Mountain.  There are four separate campaigns: books 21 and 22; books 24 and 25; books 27 and 28; and the final four books.  The final campaign began in Lone Wolf 29: The Storms of Chai and was continued in Lone Wolf 30: Dead in the Deep, which was the first gamebook published after Joe Dever’s death and was written by Vincent Lazzari and Ben Dever (Joe’s son), using notes that Joe literally wrote on his deathbed.  (On which note I should add that the story of the creation and publication of the franchise is well worth reading in its own right, even if one has no interest in gamebooks.)  In my two previous reviews of the final campaign, I noted that Lone Wolf 29 seemed to take the saga in a particular direction – the cataclysmic destruction of Magnamund by a hitherto unknown force for evil – from which Lone Wolf 30 then seemed to depart.  First and foremost, what I wanted from Lone Wolf 31 was a contextualisation in which the progress of the interplanar conspiracy was discussed even if the power behind it was not disclosed. In this, the gamebook succeeds, although I was disappointed to discover that the cataclysm is being engineered by two of Lone Wolf’s traditional foes, reincarnated on or resummoned to Magnamund.  Perhaps there is more to the conspiracy, to be revealed in Lone Wolf 32, but I thought the choice of enemies lacked originality.

The refighting of old enemies was a curious choice because in other respects the gamebook is highly original – a more positive spin on my critique is that it is too original – while the gamebook-novel hybrid didn’t work for me, I don’t deny that it is both inventive and innovative.  The first part of the gameplay is also creative and entertaining, with True Friend in command of an army at a full scale battle (reminiscent of AD&D’s Battlesystem, published in 1985).  In addition, Lone Wolf 31 begins to tie the cycle up by gathering together companions and allies from the previous New Order books, from The World of Lone Wolf miniseries, and from the various Bonus Adventures (there is no Bonus Adventure in this book).  This has a climactic feel and one of the successes of Lone Wolf 31 is the way in which it anticipates the end of the cycle, heightening the excitement that long-term fans like me are already experiencing.  Regarding gameplay, however, it is not only that there isn’t enough of it (where there are options, many of them rely on the random number table, i.e. luck) but that as a game it is too easy.  True Friend has of course undertaken every one of the New Order adventures so far, which means that he holds the rank of Sun Prince, has the powers of a demigod, and a very high Combat Skill and Endurance (the mechanics upon which the rules of the game are based).  He has also picked up some impressive weapons and armour on the way and is, especially when in the company of his allies, much harder to kill than his silly name suggests.  He had a much harder time of it in both Lone Wolf 29 and Lone Wolf 30 and invulnerability is not a virtue in player characters.  Let me conclude on the most positive note I can… at the risk of using a cliché I’ve already used once this year, this is the ‘marmite’ Lone Wolf gamebook.  It is distinct from the previous thirty and I suspect that players will either love or hate the novelty.  I hope they will love it and hate this review.  I also hope that Lone Wolf 32 will see a return to the form of Lone Wolf 29 which is, in my opinion, the highlight of the entire cycle.

Tuesday 29 December 2020

Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #68: out now in paperback and ebook!

free epub | free mobi | free pdf | print UK | print USA | Kindle UK | Kindle US

Welcome to Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #68, edited by Stephen Theaker and John Greenwood.

This issue of Theaker's Quarterly Fiction features “Network”, a complete novella by Mitchell Edgeworth, the longest entry yet in the adventures of the Black Swan. It’s been four years since the previous episode appeared in TQF53, but it’s been worth the wait. This issue also includes “The Erkeley Shadows”, a new story by Michael Wyndham Thomas, the magazine's first ever real contributor, way back in 2005 with “Valiant Razalia: Prologue” (TQF8), and twenty pages of reviews, where Jacob Edwards, Douglas Ogurek, Rafe McGregor and Stephen Theaker consider the work of Anthony Del Col, Kate McKinnon and Emily Lynne, Christie Golden, Ursula K. Le Guin, Joe Dever, Rhys Hughes, Joe Hill, Julie Travis and Junji Ito, as well as BFS Journal #21, edited by Sean Wilcock and Sarah Deeming.

Here are the magnificent contributors to this issue.

Mitchell Edgeworth lives in Melbourne, Australia. He tweets as @mitchedgeworth and keeps a blog at

Michael W. Thomas is the author of eleven titles, the latest being a poetry collection, Under Smoky Light (Offa’s Press, 2020). His Valiant Razalia duology, The Mercury Annual and Pilgrims at the White Horizon, is published by Theaker’s Paperback Library. His writing has appeared in such publications as Critical Survey, Magazine Six, The London Magazine and The Times Literary Supplement, as well as in previous issues of Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction. Website:

Jacob Edwards also writes 42-word reviews for Derelict Space Sheep. His website is at, his Facebook page at, and his Twitter account is at

Rafe McGregor lectures at Edge Hill University. He is the author of two monographs, two novels, six collections of short fiction, and two hundred articles, essays, and reviews. His most recent work of fiction is The Adventures of Roderick Langham, a collection of occult detective stories.

Douglas J. Ogurek is the pseudonym for a writer living somewhere on Earth. Though banned on Mars, his fiction appears in more than fifty Earth publications. Douglas’s website can be found at and his Twitter account is at

The cover art is a detail, which we have tinted red, from a piece by Etienne Leopold Trouvelot: “The planet Mars: Observed September 3, 1877, at 11h. 55m. P.M.” From the New York Public Library Digital Collections.

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

Friday 25 December 2020

Blood on Satan’s Claw, by Mark Morris (Audible) | review by Stephen Theaker

Audio drama produced by Bafflegab. The young people in a eighteenth-century village fall under the sway of a malevolent force. The original film (mysteriously popular with Doctor Who fans) was a product of its time, the year of Charles Manson’s trial, which it echoes. This new version is still about the horror of sexually active women. The cast is excellent, including Mark Gatiss, Reece Shearsmith and Alice Lowe, and it does interesting things with sound, music and effects. Stephen Theaker ***

Friday 18 December 2020

The Witcher, Season 1, by Lauren Schmidt Hissrich et al. (Netflix) | review by Stephen Theaker

Unashamedly derivative of Elric, right down to calling its main character the White Wolf, this eight episode series was nonetheless very enjoyable. It’s as if they took the time that Henry Cavill reloaded his biceps in Mission: Impossible – Fallout and made it last eight hours. It’s daft as a brush and leans into it. In this series the Witcher runs through a series of entertaining one-off adventures, while we see what a wizard and a princess were getting up to before they met him. Rollicking stuff. Stephen Theaker ***

Friday 11 December 2020

Preacher, Season 4, by Sam Catlin and chums (Amazon Prime Video) | review by Stephen Theaker

The final season of a show that wasn’t quite the equal of its best moments. Preacher Jesse Custer, his partner in many crimes Tulip and vampire Cass head for Masada to stop the apocalypse, while God and Herr Starr do their best to make it happen. It frequently feels like an extended game of Marco Polo, with episodes often driven by the need to recover whichever member of the gang has gone missing this time, but it’s still entertaining: where else will you see Jesus in a fist fight with Hitler? Stephen Theaker ***

Saturday 5 December 2020

Provenance by Ann Leckie | review by Stephen Theaker

Ingray Aughskold of the planet Hwae has come up with a daft plan, because she feels obliged to compete with her obnoxious brother Danach for her mother’s approval. Her mother’s affection seems entirely out of the question, but there’s still an outside chance of her selecting Ingray as the inheritor of her name, and names are important on Hwae. So the young woman comes to Tyr Siilas, and hands over everything she owns – and more besides that she has borrowed – to a criminal organisation, Gold Orchid.

She wants them to extract the notorious criminal Pahlad Budrakim from Compassionate Removal. E was left there to rot for stealing eir own family’s prestigious relics, or vestiges as they are called, and replacing them with fakes. She assumes that e knows where they are, and that once e’s out and feeling grateful enough to disclose their location, she’ll be able to use the vestiges as leverage to earn her mother the position of Prolocutor of the Third Assembly, which Ingray would hope to subsequently inherit.

Ingray knows it’s a long shot, but she doesn’t expect her plan to go off the rails quite so spectacularly or quite so quickly. Pahlad is delivered to her unconscious in a box. Captain Uisine, owner of her getaway ship, refuses to allow em on board in that condition, in case it’s a kidnapping. And once woken, the person she has rescued denies even being Pahlad. What’s more, after she manages to get em back home e becomes a suspect in a case of murder.

The author’s debut Ancillary Justice, a rare publishing success to emerge from the thousands of novels written during NaNoWriMo, was the first book to win the Hugo, Nebula, Arthur C. Clarke and BSFA awards for best novel, as well as best newcomer awards from Locus, the Kitschies and the British Fantasy Awards. Knowing all that, but not having read that book or its two sequels, I was a bit surprised by how straightforward Provenance (Orbit hb, 448pp, £16.99) turned out to be. It is in the same territory as other sf adventures I’ve reviewed recently for Interzone, such as The Collapsing Empire, or going back a bit further, the juvenile novels of Robert Heinlein, albeit with modern social attitudes.

One such aspect is how e is used as a personal pronoun, and everyone in the book respects its use. This isn’t explained to the reader, but eventually the book describes one of the people for whom it is used as a neman. Again, it isn’t explained whether this means non-binary, gender neutral, a third sex, or possibly something else altogether. This is science fiction, after all – and it is a fertile place to try new words out, or to popularise existing but obscure words. This is a good example of that, even if it sometimes has the effect of making it seem as if everyone’s from Yorkshire: “E said e’d searched the kitchen.”

Where the book excels is in its remarkable and thoughtful degree of thematic unity, the title Provenance being reflected throughout. Its hero is an adopted orphan of unknown origin from a public crèche, putting her at a disadvantage compared to her ambitious sibling. The provenance of the relics being fought over is in question, and there are questions about the origins of the people of Hwae themselves. The murder involves an archaeologist who wanted to investigate Hwae’s ancient ruins. And where did the friendly captain get his spaceship and spider-like mechs, which resemble so much those of the alien Geck? It’s all about provenance.

The conclusion is very tidy, almost Harry Potterish, right down to a spell in the infirmary to recover from the injuries incurred in the course of the adventure. Perhaps it’s a bit too tidy, its murder plot and surrounding shenanigans being slightly too simple to hold the reader’s attention, but the sweetness of the relationships between Ingray and her understanding and supportive allies – Captain Uisine, her Nuncle Lak, Garel Ket and romantic interest Officer Taucris Ithesta – make it a pleasant and enjoyable read.

It works fine as a standalone novel, though there is a suggestion of sequels to come: a conclave is being convened, in an attempt to keep the peace between humans, aliens and AIs with a taste for revolution, and it doesn’t take place in this book. One other unresolved issue concerns Ingray’s problems with hairpins, mentioned so frequently that it feels like heavy-handed foreshadowing, though it isn’t. Perhaps the difficulty she has keeping them in place reflects how she is for the first time striking out on her own, and struggling, metaphorically, to keep her hair straight. ***

This review originally appeared in Interzone #273.

Friday 4 December 2020

Legion, Season 3, by Noah Hawley and chums (Fox) | review by Stephen Theaker

The third and final season of Legion makes no effort to cater to those who found previous seasons obscure and self-indulgent, and is all the better for it: beautiful, unique and innovative. It introduces time traveller Switch, as David Haller tries to fix what went wrong in his life, but stops caring about right and wrong as he does it, assuming that everything will be undone when he is successful. We also meet the Legion universe Professor X, played perfectly by Harry Lloyd. Stephen Theaker ****

Sunday 29 November 2020

November novel-writing: a few thoughts about what worked well this year

I didn't officially take part in Nanowrimo this year -- I deleted my account earlier in the year in dismay at their tweets about J.K. Rowling -- but in November I always write novels, and that didn't change. This year, I finished two novels off, Rolnikov the God, which I began writing in November 2019, and We Slept Through the Apocalypse, which I began back in November 2008. Finishing a book on which I'd been stuck for so long made me very happy, and that means I've now finished writing eleven of these daft novels. I think I'm going to keep going, and see if I can finish a few more, after catching up on my book reviews.

Anyway, for my own future reference as much as anyone else's interest, here are a few of the things that worked for me this month, roughly in order of where they came in the writing process:

Leaving Twitter and Facebook. I left Twitter and Facebook at the beginning of November and stayed off completely until I had finished a novel. To be honest, I wish I had stayed off until I had finished both novels. It's not just reading the posts on social media that is a drag on concentration -- though Twitter especially does offer a never-ending succession of interesting people with interesting thoughts -- it's writing my own posts, and then thinking about the responses to my posts, and then thinking about how to respond to those responses. I spent an entire week earlier this year arguing about the canonical sexuality of Velma from Scooby-Doo, for example. All thinking time better invested in the novels. I've become a big fan of just reading Twitter on the television, via the Fire TV stick, not logged in. It becomes like reading a newspaper then, much more enjoyable, with no sense of an obligation to respond to anything.

Moleskine squared cahiers. I love these. I've been using them for a few years now. I have one for each novel. I draw a front cover and write a blurb for the back cover, both of which help keep me focused on what the book is supposed to be about. The first few double-page spreads are for brainstorms, character lists, maps, mysteries that need to be resolved, and other things I need to remember. Then each chapter gets a double-page spread. On the left-hand pages go the things that are supposed to happen in that chapter, and on the right go the things that did actually happen, if different. It's so useful having my notes in these self-contained little booklets. I can take them anywhere, and they make it immensely easier to resume writing an unfinished book. I've just ordered another set of three, to help me finish off The Mysteries of Mygret Zend, The Triumphs of the Two Husbands and I Couldn't See Past the Spider.

Routine. I got into a very nice routine this year, helped, I have to admit, by one of our children having to quarantine in her room after being in close contact with a Covid-19 carrier. (Don't worry, both children seem to be fine.) That meant I didn't have to get up early with her, and also that the other daughter was sleeping on the sofa, so I couldn't play on the Xbox after half nine or so. Every night I would go in my office between nine and ten, start writing, and carry on till that chapter was done. I like writing in the mornings too, but that's a bit harder without a pub to go to, and if I don't get a chapter done in the morning it can be a drag on the whole day.

The Freewrite and the Freewrite Traveler. I wrote for most of the month on the original Freewrite, and then switched seamlessly to the Freewrite Traveler when that superb device arrived. Using the same device every day helped me to get into a routine, and it helped that the Freewrites are focused entirely on writing. There's literally nothing else you can do on them. When I sat down to write, everything else was already switched off and the Freewrite was waiting for me.

Alexa. I set up a routine on Alexa called Novel writing, with music. It tells me to write a hundred words, then plays a long, wordless song for seven and a half minutes, which is usually more than enough for me to write a hundred words. Then it tells me to aim for two hundred words and plays another long, wordless song, and so on until I reach my target of 1666 words for the day and the chapter. It's like putting myself on a train track. Once I'm on, I can't get off, I just have to keep going till I reach the station.

Hundred-word chunks. It's hard to write 1666 words, but it's easy to write 100. I marked each 100 words off with a cross on that chapter's page of the cahier.

Treats. Each 100 words earned me a treat. I'm getting a bit sick of Haribos at this point, but I finished two novels so they seem to have done the trick!

Playing cards. After each 100 words I also get to turn over a playing card. (I do the same thing with proofreading, where I turn over a playing card for each page read.) This acts as a surprise and a treat, but I think it also provides a physical manifestation of progress through a project that you don't get when writing or reading digitally. I have various sets of playing cards that I use (Doctor Who, James Bond, Star Wars, Judge Dredd, etc), but this year I mainly used a (possibly unlicensed) set that featured paintings of Tarzan, John Carter, Game of Thrones and Vampirella.

The Kindle. I have things set up so that when I finish the chapter, and press the SEND button on my Freewrite, it gets automatically forwarded to my Kindle. It was such a pleasure to go to bed each night knowing that I would have a new chapter of my own novels to read! I wouldn't recommend them to anyone else, but I find them hilarious. I would annotate the chapter while reading, then in the morning take in those corrections to the text file. It was good preparation for writing the next chapter, but also meant the novels were in pretty good shape by the time I finished writing them. Expect to see them in future issues of TQF!

Not reading anything else. I didn't read other books this month. I got that out of my system in October! I read the new chapters of my books, and the old chapters of those books, and chapters of other books I've written about the same characters. That meant I was constantly refreshing my memory of their lives, and noticing details I could work back into the story. It also meant that I didn't get drawn into thinking about other people's plots instead of mine, or get distracted by writing book reviews instead of fiction.

Friday 27 November 2020

The Expanse, Season 3, by Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby and chums (Amazon Prime Video) | review by Stephen Theaker

Thirteen episodes of top-flight space adventure. They begin with Earth, Mars and the Belters at loggerheads, heading for war, and later put their people in a situation where co-operation is their only hope. In the middle of it all is James Holden and the capable crew of the Rosinante, pushed and pulled by forces they barely understand. Acting, storylines, effects, dialogue: all brilliant. It was dramatic, funny and epic, with a generous helping of sense of wonder. Stephen Theaker ****

Tuesday 24 November 2020

Splatterpunk’s Not Dead, edited by Jack Bantry (Splatterpunk Zine) | Review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Splatterpunk may not be dead, but if this is the measure, then it’s only half alive. 

Splatterpunk’s Not Dead purports to reignite the presumed dying art of the splatterpunk horror subgenre. However, only half the stories within the anthology offer something both inventive and splattery. The remaining stories range from so-so to forgettable, plus there are quite a few mistakes.  

After a tepid foreword by Jeff Burk, the anthology kicks off with Nathan Robinson’s “Another Bunch of Flowers by the Road,” a plotless, shallow affair in which a guy goes on a killing spree using a souped-up, weaponized vehicle. Not the collection’s best story, but certainly entertaining as the crashes and body count accumulate. 

In “High Fashion” by Robert Essig, a washed-up fashion designer feels the pressure to create dresses as well as he did in his younger days, when he was constantly partying and hopped up on drugs. So he returns to this lifestyle and does whatever it takes to reclaim his prominence.  

No surprise to this reviewer that Jeff Strand’s “Beware! The! Beverage!” stands out as the collection’s best work, even if its ability to meet splatterpunk qualifications is questionable. Most of it is a conversation between two men about Rocketship, an energy drink spiked with Martian blood… from the planet of Martia, of course. Like many of Strand’s works, the dialogue-heavy story features one character pointing out the stupidity of the other. For instance, when Malcolm tries Rocketship for the first time, he proclaims, “I am the most powerful human being the world!” His friend Charlie points out that there are professional athletes who spend their whole lives training, so Malcolm is “probably not even top twenty”. Within the last two pages, Rocketship leads to the downfall of humanity. Funny tangents, lack of segues, matter-of-fact descriptions… all the things that make Strand’s work such a pleasure to read.

The anthology’s other gem is Saul Bailey’s “Eggbeater”, in which a Forrest Gump-like young man is born with an eggbeater instead of a penis. He stops by the home of an attractive young housewife, and the two of them engage in some hypersexual baking. Entertaining and unexpected. 

In “Please Subscribe” by Adam Cesare, an adolescent girl starts video blogging with the hopes of gaining a large following. The story is written in collective first person: the “we” speaking are the viewers watching the girl deteriorate from innocence to mental instability over the course of a month.  

Shane McKenzie’s “Abstinence” follows Christian teens exploring their sexuality in a closet. One wonders why this story is in this collection — though it’s written well enough, it’s just not splatterpunk. 

“The Androgyne” by Brendan Vidito introduces a couple literally attached at the hip and the lengths to which they’re willing to go to separate themselves. The story takes itself a bit too seriously for all the ridiculousness that’s happening within.

In the final and longest story, Paul Shrimpton’s “Walter’s Last Canvas,” a drunken, washed-up artist finds a book called Diabolist — it contains spells and incantations — and uses it to create a painting that enables him to be reborn as a young man. Either the author missed or was inspired by Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. The most impressive thing about this story is the author’s graphic description of a suicide attempt from the individual’s perspective. On the whole, the story gets bogged down in lengthy paragraphs and too much detail. — Douglas J. Ogurek ***

Monday 23 November 2020

The Devil, by Ken Bruen | review by Rafe McGregor

The Devil by Ken Bruen. Transworld Ireland, 304pp, £12.99, May 2011, ISBN 9781848270206.

I first came to Ken Bruen in 2002.  I was researching for a military police procedural series that I hoped would launch a writing career and was reading or watching every mystery with a military setting I could find.  I read a review of The Guards (2001), the first Jack Taylor novel, and because either the review or my concentration were lacking came away with the impression that it was about a murder in a London barracks.  Not even close – it’s actually about an alcoholic ex-guard (Irish police officer) who works as a private investigator in Galway, a small city on the west coast of Ireland.  I devoured it anyway and immediately sought out the second in the series, The Killing of the Tinkers (2002), which had just been published and which I read in a single sitting.  Like his protagonist, Bruen has suffered from addiction and his no-holds-barred noir fiction is nothing short of addictive itself – extremely difficult to stop once one starts, even if one later wonders if it was the wisest use of one’s time.  While I was waiting for the third Jack Taylor, The Magdalen Martyrs (2003), to be released, I got stuck into Bruen’s Detective Sergeant Brant series, police procedurals set in south-east London: A White Arrest (1998), Taming the Alien (1999), The McDead (2000), and Blitz (2002).  I also read two excellent standalones, The Hackman Blues (1997) and London Boulevard (2001).  The fourth Jack Taylor, The Dramatist (2004), won the Shamus Award, but it was at this stage that my appetite for Bruen started to wane.  First, there was simply too much personal tragedy in The Dramatist and too little mystery for my taste.  Second, it was at about this time that I realised The Magdalen Martyrs, which I had also loved, was essentially an inferior retelling of London Boulevard (which is an adaptation of Billy Wilder’s 1950 film, Sunset Boulevard).  I read the next three Jack Taylors and Brants with a strong sense of diminishing returns and gave up in 2008 with Sanctuary (the seventh Jack Taylor; the Brant series ended with Ammunition, published the previous year) and Once Were Cops, a disappointing standalone.

One of my problems with both the Jack Taylor and Brant series is that all of Bruen’s characters are not only deeply flawed, but seriously self-destructive.  In consequence, their lifestyles soon take tolls on their physical and mental health, which is not conducive to a lengthy series without some authorial innovation.  Taylor, for example, has most of his teeth knocked out and is left with a permanent limp by the end of The Killing of the Tinkers, adds Class A drug addiction to his alcoholism in The Magdalen Martyrs, and is deaf in one ear by the time I left him in Sanctuary.  Which is not to say that he can’t still be a detective – Cormoran Strike is missing half of one leg before J.K. Rowling’s wonderful Strike and Ellacott series even starts – but that Bruen adjusts neither the style nor the substance of the stories as the series progresses.  Taylor is still trying to be an Irish Philip Marlowe, but is increasingly unable to imitate him with conviction as his physical capacities deteriorate.  On reflection, I think Bruen is best suited to the standalone and that his best work is a set of three noir thrillers themed around different poets: Rilke on Black (1996), Her Last Call to Louis MacNeice (1998), and Dispatching Baudelaire (2004).  There is something about the way in which he combines poetry and noir in both his form and content that makes these novellas exceptional and it’s such a shame that they are all out of print.

In spite of my unfaithfulness, I was delighted when Bruen hit the big time two years after I stopped reading him.  In 2010 (the year in which The Devil was published in hardback) the Jack Taylor series was released as a television series of the same name by TV3 Ireland, with Iain Glen in the title role, and London Boulevard was released by Entertainment Film Distributors as a feature film directed by William Monahan and starring Colin Farrell, Keira Knightley, Ray Winstone, and Ben Chaplin.  The following year the fourth and best Brant – Blitz – was released as a feature film by Lionsgate, directed by Elliot Lester and starring Jason Statham and Paddy Considine.  A second season of Jack Taylor was screened in 2013, a third in 2016, and a fourth is currently in production.  Blitz is pretty much what one would expect from a Statham vehicle, which is not necessarily a criticism, but London Boulevard is one of the most underrated crime films of the twenty-first century, perhaps of all time, with outstanding performances from both Farrell and Knightley.  As such, Bruen’s critical success has finally been matched by commercial success and the Jack Taylor series is currently on its fifteenth instalment, Galway Girl, which was published in 2019.  I decided to return to Bruen because of my interest in occult detective fiction, reading in reviews that I attended to more carefully than in 2002 that the supernatural elements of The Devil made it Bruen’s ‘marmite’ novel, meaning that it polarised fans of the series (though apparently didn’t do his sales any harm.)

The novel opens with Taylor at Shannon Airport, attempting to fulfil one of his long-term ambitions by emigrating to the US.  He has exchanged some but not all of his previous addictions for Xanax and is managing to keep a lid on his alcoholism.  When he is refused entry to the US, he nonetheless heads straight for the airport bar, where he is joined by a mysterious ‘Kurt’.  One of the airline staff tells Taylor that Kurt has been following him ever since he arrived at the airport and she subsequently dies in suspicious circumstances.  Several reviewers have made much of this prologue and three chapters in which Bruen uses third person omniscient narration instead of his usual first person from Taylor’s point of view.  If one applies Occam’s razor to one’s literary criticism – the principle that the simplest solution is usually the right one – there is nothing to suggest that Kurt, who also calls himself Mr K and Carl, is anything other than a very dangerous psychopath.  Taylor is Galway’s most famous (if not most successful) private investigator so it is little wonder that a serial killer seeking attention would stalk him.  When Taylor returns to Galway he is hired to find a missing student, who becomes Kurt’s second victim.  The shape the story takes as a work of crime fiction is not the whodunnit – we know Kurt dunnit from the prologue – but the howdunnit, with the suspense created by the question of if and how Taylor will catch or kill him.

In chapters nineteen to twenty-one (of twenty-three), the howdunnit suspense is intensified by Taylor’s self-confessed unreliable narration (regarding what actually happened to Sawyer, the meeting with Father Ralph, and the purchase of the Zippo).  By the time the narrative reaches its climax – the confrontation between Kurt and Taylor – Kurt has killed six people and Bruen has suggested three possibilities as to his identity.  The first and most likely is that Kurt is a serial killer pretending to be the Devil who has, in consequence of his personal magnetism, acquired a small cult following.  In order for this solution to be plausible he would also have to have some command of magic (the art of illusion rather than genuine occult power) and to research his victims carefully, neither of which would be out of character.  The second and third possibilities are that Kurt is either a man who has been possessed by the Devil or is the actual Devil incarnate on Earth.  Whipping out Occam’s razor again, there is no compelling evidence for the existence of the supernatural until the final chapter, which is deliberately – deliciously, perhaps – ambiguous.  The eleventh-hour twist (often, but not always, including a reversal of fortune for the protagonist) is a trademark of Bruen’s narratives and in this instance the last chapter is discontinuous with the rest of the novel.  Keeping one’s razor stropped, I think the answer is to read that chapter and that chapter alone as a case of unreported unreliable narration, too much Xanax, a post-traumatic breakdown, or some combination of the three.  Others might prefer to take the conclusion as retrospectively infusing the occult into the rest of the narrative and, in truth, there is little to choose between the two interpretations.

Bruen provides a metafictional clue as to his intent, but it is just as ambiguous as the conclusion.  In chapter twenty-one, Taylor recalls a conversation with a man from years before, who told him: ‘It’s known as horror.  Occult fiction, I call it the Further-Out genre, like in David Lynch movies.  You’re in the middle of a crime story.  But then the camera finds, say, a painting.  Pushes into it.  Turns a corner into the realm of the metaphysical.  Which, in the sense of the real origins of suspense, might actually take us closer than men with guns ever could.’  Is The Devil noir fiction with occult misdirection or Bruen’s first stab at further-out fiction?  Either interpretation is valid, but I think I’ll give the last word to another Irish crime fiction writer, Declan Burke.  In his review of The Devil, he writes that everything ‘that happens in (all the) Taylor narratives are subordinate to the needs of Taylor himself.’  Taylor, according to Burke, combines both self-loathing and narcissism in equal measures and that is why, while I thoroughly enjoyed my return to Taylor’s world, I also remembered why immersing oneself in that world becomes tedious if indulged too long or too often.

Friday 20 November 2020

Burials in Several Earths, by Radiophonic Workshop (Room 13) | review by Stephen Theaker

The Radiophonic Workshop created electronic music for BBC programmes, innovating all the while, and inspiring more than one generation of electronic musicians. After some surviving members reunited for live performances, they went on to make this excellent instrumental album. Four of the tracks are so long that two CDs are required, and when it is playing I’m never quite sure what is happening, but I like it a lot. It reminds me of classic Tangerine Dream albums like Alpha Centauri and Zeit. Stephen Theaker ****

Sunday 15 November 2020

Ragged Alice, by Gareth L. Powell | review by Rafe McGregor

Ragged Alice by Gareth L. Powell, 202pp, £9.99, April 2019, ISBN  9781250220189

It would be an exaggeration to state that rescued the novella as a literary form in the twenty-first century, but that form certainly appeared to be in an irreversible decline by the end of the last century and’s series of speculative fiction novellas has made it a commercially-viable option for authors again.  The revival of the novella (and, to a much lesser extent, the short story) may also be a consequence of the shift from hard copy to hard and digital copy over the last two decades, however, as the chunky – and often clunky – ‘airport’ novel seems to be as popular as ever.  Notwithstanding, deserve credit where it is due and the renaissance in which they have at the very least played a significant part has been achieved in the simplest and most effective way possible, by publishing great novellas.  In the last four years alone, these have included: Victor Lavalle’s The Ballad of Black Tom (2016, reviewed in TQF here), Cassandra Khaw’s Hammers on Bone (2016) and A Song for Quiet (2017, TQF review here), David Tallerman’s Patchwerk (2016, TQF review here), and Caitlín R. Kiernan’s Tinfoil Dossier (2017–2020) series.  Personally, I couldn’t be more pleased about this.  If one follows Stephen King’s definition, the novella as a narrative of between twenty and eighty thousand words, it is my preferred form for most genre fiction.  It not only suits speculative fiction, but crime fiction too and almost all of Agatha Christie’s ‘novels’ as well as all four Sherlock Holmes ‘long’ stories were in fact novellas.  This review is of a particular combination of the two, an outstanding occult detective story that fits the novella form with pleasing perfection.

Holly Craig left Pontyrhudd, a small fictional town on the south-west coast of Wales, for London fifteen years ago, after she nearly drowned in a river at the scene of her mother’s unsolved murder seventeen years before.  Holly’s near-death experience coincided with her discovery of a supernatural gift, her ability to see the good and evil of people’s souls in the same way that other people see light and dark.  She refers to the object of this sense as ‘souls’ only because she cannot find a more appropriate secular term.  ‘Selves’ might be closer, but her description of it as ‘a talent for picking up on a person’s shame and remorse’ is probably the best, although it fails to do justice to the full extent of her extrasensory powers of perception.  When psychiatrists and counsellors failed to ease the burden of the gift, Holly discovered that exhaustion and whisky were the only things that could provide relief and has been working and drinking to excess ever since.  The longest explanation of the gift is only a single page and this is in keeping with Gareth Powell’s crisp, economical style of writing.  He makes use of the minimum number of words required to drive the plot forward and no more, just enough to prompt the reader’s imagination before moving quickly to the next character, setting, or action.  Powell has an enviable affinity for evoking a rich combination of sensory, affective, imaginative, and intellective experiences with a single phrase, for example: ‘pub regulars with roll-ups dangling from faces hacked out of boiled ham’; her ‘hands looked like sausage skins filled with walnuts’; and his ‘beard was the speckled colour of a badger’s ass’.  Motivated by her mother’s murder, Holly joined the Metropolitan Police Service, specialised as a detective, and rose quickly through the ranks, reaching detective chief inspector by the age of twenty-seven.  The suggestion is that this career trajectory is courtesy of her analytical mind and relentless work ethic, but the gift couldn’t have done it any harm either.  Following an incident at a school where she was unable to prevent a multiple murder, Holly left the city for Dyfed-Powys Police, the largely rural force that covers central and south-west Wales.  No sooner is she back in country – before she can even unpack her bags or visit her late grandfather’s house – than she is leading another murder inquiry.

A young, local woman named Lisa has been run over by a car and killed and Holly is the only police officer to recognise that the evidence points to murder rather than manslaughter.  With the exception of Detective Sergeant Scott Fowler, she finds her squad of officers severely lacking in both experience and expertise, placing the burden of responsibility for solving the case firmly on her shoulders.  One of the many aspects of the narrative that I loved was the way in which the plot begins with a case that is like the vast majority of murder investigations handled by the police, contrary to what we are used to seeing on television or reading in crime fiction.  The murder has been planned poorly, the suspect – Lisa’s boyfriend, Daryl – is obvious, and the focus quickly shifts from mystery to manhunt.  When Daryl is found, he is not only dead but has been murdered in the same bizarre, ritualistic manner as Holly’s mother three decades ago.  At this point the plot takes a more sinister and more complex turn, the already brisk pace picking up with a second ritual murder.  Holly and Scott identify a single suspect that is connected to all three of the deceased and the possibilities once again appear to be narrowing in her favour.  There is an attempt on her life on her way back from police headquarters at Carmarthen and when she is discharged from hospital hobbling on a crutch she is told that there has been a third ritual murder – of that very suspect.  Holly and Scott decide that the murderer must either be a jealous spouse or someone connected to her mother’s death and, for the first time in her life, she begins to seek answers to the latter.  Her mother, known locally as ‘Ragged Alice’, has passed into local lore as a ghost who haunts the riverbank where her body was found and when Holly identifies a suspect with links to past and present, he disappears.  There is a danger that the narrative is going to tip from the thrilling to the ludicrous at this stage – there have been four murders in as many days and the novella is just over the halfway point – but Powell avoids this with great skill, maintaining the suspense of the second half with clever detection rather than gratuitous corpses.

My only criticism, which is minor, is that while the dénouement is both compelling and plausible, the narrative does not offer any clues to it.  In other words, Powell deprives his readers of the intriguing irritation of realising that had they only been a little more astute, they could have worked it out for themselves.  This lack detracts from Ragged Alice as a murder mystery, but Powell more than makes up for this failing with a setting that combines the eerie and chilling with the everyday and commonplace in an entirely convincing manner.  His conclusion, too, is very satisfying indeed, leaving one with the sense that the novella ceases at precisely the right place and that this destination has been inevitable from the very first page.  These days it is rare that I pick up a book that hasn’t been recommended to me or whose author I am unfamiliar with and am nonetheless immediately and relentlessly gripped by the narrative.  Ragged Alice is the first in a long time.  As such, I can honestly say that this novella was a total joy to read and I can’t recommend it enough to anyone who likes either horror, murder mysteries, or combinations of the genres.

Friday 13 November 2020

The Vision, Vol. 1: A Little Less Than a Man, by Tom King and Gabriel Hernandez Walta (Marvel) | review by Stephen Theaker

This was an unexpected treat, and I can see why it got a lot of attention. The art is terrific, and the story is a real tragedy, as the Vision tries to set up a home with his synthezoid family and step by step things get worse and worse. It reminded me of The Leftovers in that way, and was somehow just as moving despite the protagonists being robots. Stephen Theaker ****

Thursday 12 November 2020

Sherlock Holmes and the Beast of the Stapletons, by James Lovegrove | review by Rafe McGregor

Sherlock Holmes and the Beast of the Stapletons
Sherlock Holmes and the Beast of the Stapletons by James Lovegrove

Titan Books, 408pp, £11.75, October 2020, ISBN 9781789094695

Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles was serialised in The Strand Magazine from August 1901 to April 1902 and then published as a novel (or, more accurately, a novella) by George Newnes the following month. The tale is probably the best known of all the Sherlock Holmes stories and is certainly one of the most filmed, with big and small screen adaptations stretching from 1914 to 2016 at the time of writing, including retellings in both BBC One’s Sherlock (2010-2017) and CBS’s Elementary (2012–2019) series (The Hounds of Baskerville in 2012 and Hounded in 2016 respectively). I think it may also be the narrative about which I have written the most, in terms of number of publications: a review of one of the sequels, David Stuart Davies’ The Tangled Skein (1995) in TQF24 (2008); an article for Crime and Detective Stories (2008) in which I propose an alternative solution to the case; a review of SelfMadeHero’s graphic novel in TQF29 (2009); a chapter in Josef Steiff’s Sherlock Holmes and Philosophy (2011) in which I suggest that the novella is primarily a work of horror rather than crime; and a short story sequel, “The Wrong Doctor”, first published in TQF50 (2015) and reprinted in Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine 20 (2016) and The Adventures of Roderick Langham (2017). The reason for my fascination – or perhaps I should say fixation – is my interest in crossover between crime and horror fiction (particularly, but not exclusively, the occult detective) and my agreement with Christopher Frayling’s claim that The Hound is one of the four great Gothic horror stories of the first century of the genre, alongside Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; Or, The Modern Prometheus (1818), Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). In the chapter for Sherlock Holmes and Philosophy I examined both the creative context of the novella, which was originally intended to be a supernatural story co-authored with Bertram Fletcher Robinson, and the narrative itself to show that the mystery plot is underpinned by tropes much more common to the horror genre.

If my fascination is a fixation, I am at least not alone in my neurosis. My alternative solution (which made the case for Dr Mortimer as the mastermind behind the conspiracy) followed Arthur Robinson’s “Justice Deferred: Deaths on Dartmoor” (2006), also in Crime and Detective Stories, which identifies Henry Baskerville himself as the villain, and Pierre Bayard’s Sherlock Holmes was Wrong: Reopening the Case of The Hound of the Baskervilles (2007), in which Beryl Stapleton takes centre stage.  Until reading James Lovegrove’s novel, which is advertised as ‘Continuing the story of The Hound of the Baskervilles’ on the cover, I had read three sequels: Michael Hardwick’s The Revenge of the Hound (1987), Davies’ The Tangled Skein, and a short story I have been unable to track down since. Though I enjoyed The Tangled Skein when I first read it, in retrospect none of the three comes close to doing justice to Doyle’s original.  If anyone can, Lovegrove seems to be the author to do it. He has been publishing novels since 1990, has written for children, young adults (as Jay Emory), and adults, has a military science fiction series called The Pantheon, and currently writes for the Firefly franchise. He is also the foremost writer of Sherlockian pastiche, publishing three separate sets of novels in imitation of Doyle: six titles in Titan’s The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes series; The Cthulhu Casebooks Trilogy, the first of which I reviewed for TQF here; and two standalone novels, Sherlock Holmes and Christmas Demon (2019) and Sherlock Holmes and the Beast of the Stapletons – all since 2013.

The Hound was published after Doyle had terminated Holmes’ career and life (albeit half-heartedly, with no corpse) in “The Final Problem”, which was published in the Strand in 1894 and explicitly dated to 1891. The Hound was not intended to be Holmes’ resurrection – that would come in “The Adventure of the Empty House”, published in the Strand in October 1903 – and, as such, is one of the cases undertaken by Holmes and Watson prior to the detective’s apparently fatal clash with Professor Moriarty. The dating is somewhat vague, prompting much speculation among Holmes enthusiasts, and my own choice is autumn 1888. Lovegrove has selected the equally convincing autumn 1889 and begins his novel with a foreword by Watson that addresses precisely this question and is itself dated to 1903. The foreword, as well as Lovegrove’s occasional discussions of Sherlockian lore – solving, for example, the mystery of Watson’s disappearing dog in A Study in Scarlet (1887) – will endear him to the audience to which he has dedicated his novel, ‘HOLMESIANS AND SHERLOCKIANS EVERYWHERE’. What might not endear him to that audience is his representation of Watson, who is more petty and more timid than Doyle’s original and, maybe more importantly for contemporary readers, than either Martin Freeman or Lucy Liu’s Watsons. This is a personal preference and, in consequence, a minor criticism, but I favour pastiche that recognises Watson’s own extraordinary qualities. He is, after all, something of a polymath – a doctor, a soldier, a detective, and a bestselling author.

Let me state at the outset that Beast of the Stapletons is by far the best of the three sequels to The Hound that I have read (I exclude my own from the comparison, of course). My main – and only substantial – problem with the novel is its structure, to which I must draw attention before proceeding to its content. The novel is composed of three parts of six, sixteen, and eighteen titled chapters respectively (for a total of forty). Part I begins with an incident that establishes the personality of Lovegrove’s Watson, is followed by four chapters in which Benjamin Grier, Baskerville’s friend, consults Holmes, and ends with a detailed recap of the first case. I understand the need for the recap, but it constitutes an entire chapter and, combined with the preceding four chapters of exposition, facilitates a reading experience in which we are told rather than shown the sequence of events. This experience extends to Part II, the whole of which is a summary by Watson of Holmes’ recounting of the week he spent on Dartmoor while Watson remained in London. Lovegrove’s play of similarity and difference to and from the original is inspired, but his reversal of the Holmes–Watson dynamic in The Hound (in which it is Holmes who – ostensibly – remains in London) detracts from the suspense of the narrative. As readers, we immediately know that whatever may have transpired during that week, Holmes has escaped entirely unscathed. Part III employs a more engaging style of storytelling, involving a more active and adventurous Watson, but Lovegrove applies the brakes as soon as the pace picks up: Chapters 26 to 29 are all set aboard a Transatlantic steamer as Holmes, Watson, and three accomplices pursue the villain, who has been revealed in Chapter 25. It is very difficult not to read these chapters as, at best, a distraction and, at worst, a delay in the narrative that has no parallel in the original.

The premise of Beast of the Stapletons is straightforward but intriguing: history is repeating itself in Dartmoor, with the victim being Baskerville’s wife rather than uncle and the murder weapon a huge Calyptra moth rather than a giant black dog. The appearance of the vampiric moth seems to implicate Stapleton, the villain of the original, who was an entomologist by inclination and whose body was never discovered. Whether the moth (if it exists at all) is Stapleton’s ghost or a corporeal servant he has spent the last five years breeding, is (like the true nature of the hound in The Hound) all part of the mystery, but given that Doyle never involved Holmes in the occult, it is fairly obvious that Stapleton has not returned from the dead (which is not to say that he has not returned at all). Lovegrove revisits the pleasures of the original by setting up a similar pool of suspects: Mortimer, Frankland, Laura Lyons – and of course Grier and Stapleton (if he survived). As soon as this pool is established, however, it is drained almost as quickly as Grimpen More, which is being emptied by an enterprising Grier in search of Stapleton’s skeleton. One of Holmes’ suspects commits suicide by the same method used to murder Audrey Baskerville and conveniently leaves the solution to the puzzle of the moth in a cupboard (readers familiar with Stoker’s unfinished The Lair of the White Worm will have anticipated this particular dénouement). Case closed, or so it seems until Holmes concludes his recitation with: “There is something about it that I cannot put my finger on. I feel that I am missing something obvious, something so glaring that by rights I should have seen it long ago.” Three days later Baskerville’s son, Harry, is kidnapped and one of his servants, Mrs Barrymore, poisoned. Once the perpetrator of the crimes is identified, the novel changes form from a murder mystery to a crime thriller, with the thrills coming courtesy of the dual attempts to rescue the child and apprehend the suspect – or, suspects. Once the sea voyage is over, the action rises quickly and there is a tense climax consisting of a spectacular variation on a Mexican standoff. The novel concludes with a deathbed confession that imbues retrospective meaning into the narrative and foregrounds the depth of Lovegrove’s engagement with the original and with the Sherlock Holmes canon as a whole.

While avoiding spoilers, I am compelled to commend the author for noticing two features about both the canon and The Hound. The former is concerned with Doyle’s recycling of certain names and certain syllables within those names. This was probably unconscious on his part as he did not keep any kind of database or even detailed notes on the stories, in which there are numerous inconsistencies (the most famous of which is probably the location of Watson’s war wound). The latter is concerned with the physical similarity between one of the canon’s villains and a character in The Hound. I cannot say any more, but as far as I know, Lovegrove and I are the only ones to have both identified these phenomena and put them to use in fiction. As his novel will have a much greater readership than my short story, I look forward to the idea reaching a wider audience and maybe even being used in future pastiches and adaptations. Lovegrove has nonetheless made an error in Beast of the Stapletons, albeit a forgivable one: he appears to have forgotten that Dr Mortimer had a wife. The following is by Holmes from Chapter 6 of The Hound: “There is our friend Dr Mortimer, whom I believe to be entirely honest, and there is his wife, of whom we know nothing.” The mysterious wife is only mentioned once more in the novella (by Mortimer) and never seen at all or, strangely, considered to have played any part in the case whatsoever. My suspicion is that Doyle himself forgot about Mrs Mortimer – he wrote very quickly and used very few drafts – and was not the last author to forget the details of his own plot (Raymond Chandler’s comments on the murder of the chauffeur in his 1939 novel, The Big Sleep, spring to mind).

In closing, the compilation of a history of my own engagement with The Hound inspired by Lovegrove’s striking sequel reminded me that I’ve now been reviewing for TQF for twelve years…which is two years longer than I’ve ever committed to any job, though not quite as long as my marriage… long may they both continue.

Wednesday 11 November 2020

Vampires vs. the Bronx | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Stranger Things partners with Fright Night and moves to the city to take on gentrification 

Kids find out vampires are trying to take over their neighbourhood. Adults don’t believe it. And so a familiar scenario plays out in Vampires vs. the Bronx, directed by Oz Rodriguez. Lots of clichés in this one: hissing, baring teeth, gathering weapons, taking notes from movies. However, one thing does set this film apart from other vamp flicks: the predators use the guise of a real estate firm to pursue their malicious goal. They even go so far as to enlist some of the neighbourhood thugs to help them.

All kinds of “coming soon” signs hang on vacant buildings in Miguel/Lil Mayor’s (Jaden Michael) Bronx neighbourhood. The signs advertise upscale restaurants and high-end retailers – The Butter Shop, for instance – that don’t exactly fit the vibe of this minority community. Another thing the signs have in common is Marnau Properties’ wicked gothic font logo. 

Meanwhile, Miguel is on a quest to “Save the Bodega,” a convenience store that doubles as a hangout where kids can do homework or play video games. Miguel and friends soon discover the true identities of Marnau Properties’ employees. Here’s a hint: they dress in black and they only come out at night.

These all-white vampires are stand-ins for the greedy developers that enter urban neighbourhoods and snatch up as many properties as possible. Out go the low-income minorities. In come the high-earning whites. Bloodsuckers, indeed. 

At a couple points in the film, characters allude to the Bronx being essentially cut off from the rest of the world. Both locals and invaders suggest that if any residents went missing, nobody would really care.

Miguel, a good boy whose mother repeatedly embarrasses him, is the unspoken leader of the trio. Luis (Gregory Diaz IV) is a Puerto Rican (and less crude) version of Richie (Finn Wolfhard) from It. Luis even reads Stephen King (i.e. Salem’s Lot, of course) and, interestingly, wears a Slayer T-shirt at one point. The other member of the trio is Bobby (Gerald Jones III), a black boy who is on the brink of getting seduced into violence by older gangbangers.  

One irksome element of Vampires vs. the Bronx is a young lady who periodically enters the scene to comment on neighbourhood developments via live stream on a social media channel. This was also an annoyance in Adam Sandler’s recent Hubie Halloween

Vampires vs. the Bronx is cute and funny at times, although highly derivative.—Douglas J. Ogurek ***

Tuesday 10 November 2020

The Dark Knight Rises | review by Rafe McGregor

The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan (Warner Bros. Pictures)

Bruce Wayne, Bill Gates, or Donald Trump?

Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises (2012) is the third instalment of his Dark Knight Trilogy, which began with the unimaginatively-named Batman Begins in 2005.  The latter title was selected to indicate that Nolan’s trilogy is a reboot, starting the story afresh after Warner Brothers’ initial film series ended with its fourth instalment, Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin (1997), which was very poorly received by critics.  As the title of the Trilogy suggests, Nolan wanted to return to the hardboiled realism of Frank Miller, Klaus Jackson, and Lynn Varley’s The Dark Knight Returns (1986) rather than continue the comedy that Schumacher brought to Batman Forever (1995) and Batman & Robin, which was reminiscent of the camp humour that popularised ABC’s Batman (1966–1968) television series.  Batman Begins finds millionaire Bruce Wayne (played by Christian Bale) setting out to train himself as an outlaw in order to return to Gotham (a fictionalised New York) and perform the role of a law enforcer – against the threat of organised crime – a role that the corrupt police department cannot fulfil.  In Bhutan, he is trained by the League of Shadows, which initially appears to be a monastic order but is subsequently revealed as a kind of Hegel-inspired insurgency that has existed for centuries and shapes world history by destroying civilizations when they become too decadent.  Wayne escapes when he learns that Gotham has been selected as the League’s next target and returns to save the city from organised crime as Batman, with the benefit of his physical and mental training at the hands of the League and the technology produced by Wayne Enterprises.

As Batman combats both organised crime and the corrupt police department, the public demonstrates an ambivalent attitude towards him, somewhere in between friend and foe.  When he delivers Gotham from a biological attack by the League, he is acknowledged as a saviour and the film finishes with the newly-promoted and incorruptible Lieutenant Jim Gordon (played by Gary Oldman) establishing Batman as Gotham’s guardian angel by means of the Bat-Signal.  The Dark Knight (2008) sees Batman pitted against the Joker (played by Heath Ledger), who terrorises Gotham using a trademark combination of hyper-violence, complex planning, and lack of regard for the safety of either himself or his henchmen.  The Joker succeeds in turning the citizens of Gotham against Batman and when Batman decides to accept responsibility for murders committed by District Attorney Harvey Dent (played by Aaron Eckhart) in his guise of Two-Face, he makes the transition from hero to villain.  The Dark Knight Rises begins eight years later, with Gordon as police commissioner, organised crime in Gotham all but eliminated courtesy of the extra enforcement powers bestowed by the Dent Act, Batman as an outlaw, and Wayne living as a recluse, disabled by his exertions against the League, the Joker, and Two-Face.  Meanwhile, Bane (played by Tom Hardy), a mercenary captain who was expelled from the League of Shadows for his extremism, kidnaps a nuclear physicist and establishes a base in Gotham’s sewers.

The plot of The Dark Knight Rises draws on Miller, Jackson, and Varley’s The Dark Knight Returns as well as two other Batman storylines: Jim Starlin, Bernie Wrightson, and Bill Wray’s Batman: The Cult (1991) and Chuck Dixon, Jo Duffy, Alan Grant, Dennis O'Neil, and Doug Moench’s Batman: Knightfall (1993–1995).  Although organised crime has been destroyed and at least some of Gotham’s financial elite persuaded to invest in the city’s welfare, large numbers of homeless people live in the sewers, turning Bane’s mercenary band into a small army of the discontented.  When this army is discovered and Gordon injured, Officer John Blake (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) goes to Wayne for help and Wayne employs new technology to overcome his disability and return to the role of Batman, albeit still as an outlaw.  His return is for the specific purpose of saving Gotham from Bane, who is determined to complete the League’s final mission, the destruction of Gotham.  Bane defeats Batman in single combat and sends him to the prison where Bane was born, an anonymous pit in an undisclosed country.  He then lures most of the police department into the sewers and traps them there.  As befits his name, Bane has planned a twofold destruction for Gotham.  He empties Gotham’s prisons and takes over the city with his army of mercenaries, the homeless, and convicts, creating a Reign of Terror by the formerly disenfranchised.  At the same time, he activates a nuclear bomb that will destroy Gotham in five months, telling the citizenry that it is simply the instrument of their liberation, i.e. a nuclear deterrent is required to save the city from outside interference by the US military.  Bane’s real motivation is to prolong the destruction of Gotham, but the interim period provides some kind of communist experiment in which the capitalist order is inverted, a city run by the poor for the poor with the rich pushed to the margins, forced into hiding to escape victimhood.  The final act of the narrative – and indeed the Trilogy taken as a whole – begins with Batman’s escape from prison to take on Bane for a second time.

Bane’s Gotham is framed by Nolan as a worse option than either the laissez-faire metropolis of Batman Begins or the security state of The Dark KnightThe Dark Knight Rises presents a mirror image of the situation in Batman Begins.  In the latter, Gotham is administered by a wealthy elite and a corrupt police department, both of whom are in league with organised crime.  In order to become a (true) law enforcer, Batman must oppose the (official) law enforcers.  In The Dark Knight Rises, Bane’s communist experiment has turned the former law enforcers into outlaws and the former outlaws into law enforcers so that Batman recovers his status as law enforcer by opposing the (new) law enforcers once again.  What is particularly interesting about Batman’s repeated role changes in the Trilogy – from friend or foe to friend to foe and then finally back to friend – is the perspective they offer on Gotham’s employment of mass incarceration.  The full scope of incarceration (and homelessness) is only revealed when Bane arrives in Gotham, transforming his mercenary band into an army by emptying the prisons (and feeding the homeless).  In reality, the US has over two million of its three hundred and twenty-seven million population behind bars and double that under community supervision – by far the highest proportion in the world.  Nolan provides a comprehensive perspective on mass incarceration through Batman, who begins the Trilogy by filling up Gotham’s prisons and is then incarcerated in Bane’s prison himself.  Batman’s reversal of fortune does not cause him to reflect on the effectiveness or efficiency of custodial sentencing, however, but simply creates an urgency for escape, the pressing need to return to Gotham and put the criminals back in prison (and the homeless back in the sewers).  This is a missed opportunity by Nolan – a deliberate omission that reinforces the directorial perspective from which mass incarceration and other hyper-punitive measures are represented in the narrative.

In Batman Begins, Batman is sensitive to the poverty and inequality in Gotham as well as to the pernicious influence of organised crime, but The Dark Knight replaces concern with welfare with concerns about security and the need to increase police powers to combat the threat of the Joker.  The question of social security and economic inequality is not raised again in The Dark Knight Rises and Nolan frames Bane as an unproblematic supervillain, secretly undertaking Gotham’s destruction (with the nuclear bomb) while inflicting the chaos of self-rule on the populace in the remaining months.  The destruction that Bane brings to Gotham provides an unambiguous endorsement of the measures used to prevent that destruction – the mass incarceration of the population and ubiquitous poverty – and Batman’s goal is the restoration of pre-revolutionary Gotham.  This callous and callow conclusion to the Trilogy seems to confirm the view that Batman is just a rich white bloke beating up the poor and mentally ill, captured concisely by Dare Obasanjo in a tweet last year: ‘It’s like Bill Gates focusing his money on beating up junkies in Seattle.’  The problem with Nolan’s reboot is that one doesn’t have to have ‘snowflake’ sensitivity to realise this.  The moral of the story, the message thinly-veiled in the cinematic medium, is completely clear, conveyed with very little subtlety.  Nolan's Gotham needs extrajudicial methods to prevent it collapsing into chaos and mass incarceration and ubiquitous poverty are simply necessary evils required to prevent the destruction of life as we know it.  It is not difficult to see Batman’s shadow behind Trump, his very own guardian angel, or perhaps even a younger, trimmer Trump in the Bat-Suit himself. ***

Monday 9 November 2020

The Ballad of Black Tom, by Victor LaValle | review by Rafe McGregor, paperback, £8.82, February 2016, ISBN 9780765387868

Read on its own, Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom is a fine example of a novella in the hybrid genre of the weird tale – or perhaps, more accurately, the new weird.  In The Weird Tale (1990) and The Modern Weird Tale (2001), S.T. Joshi defines the weird tale as a retrospective category of speculative fiction, published from 1880 to 1940, that is essentially philosophical in virtue of representing a fully-fledged and fleshed-out world view. The new weird was initially associated with China Miéville in the UK and subsequently Jeff VanderMeer in the US (although both Miéville and Joshi reject the term). In their introduction to the short story collection, The New Weird (2008), VanderMeer and his wife, Ann, distinguish the new weird from the weird tale in terms of the former combining real-world complexity with transgressive fantasy and contemporary political relevance. Read in conjunction with H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Horror at Red Hook”, which was first published in Weird Tales in January 1927, The Ballad of Black Tom is a deliberate and definitive deconstruction of the original short story. LaValle takes one of Lovecraft’s most overtly and viciously racist narratives and reimagines the character, action, and setting represented by Lovecraft from a twenty-first century that is conscious of racial prejudice, social injustice, and police impunity. LaValle dates his story to 1924, when Lovecraft and his wife, Sonia Greene, were living in Flatbush and the real horror of Red Hook for Lovecraft was the extent of its multiculturalism, which stimulated his racism and xenophobia and fears of miscegenation and evolutionary reversal. In contemporary terms, Lovecraft believed he saw first-hand at Red Hook evidence of the white genocide conspiracy theory, which is one of the reasons he returned to his sanctuary in Providence, Rhode Island, after less than two years. LaValle is an African American novelist and short story writer from Queens, who lives in Washington Heights, and his complex relationship with Lovecraft is revealed in the dedication of the novella, ‘For H.P. Lovecraft, with all my conflicted feelings’.

“The Horror at Red Hook” is a traditional occult detective story and Lovecraft’s occult detective – Thomas F. Malone of the New York Police Department – is a sensitive, cerebral hero who pursues his supernatural inquiries while serving the public in his role as a police detective: ‘He had the Celt’s far vision of weird and hidden things, but the logician’s quick eye for the outwardly unconvincing; an amalgam which had led him far afield in the forty-two years of his life, and set him in strange places for a Dublin University man born in a Georgian villa near Phoenix Park.’  The ‘Dublin dreamer’ was a poet in his youth, is a regular contributor to the Dublin Review, and employs his ‘experiment in police work’ to investigate the macabre, the rotten, and the terrifying that lurks beneath the veneer of the everyday.  Lovecraft employs a third-person narration that adheres very closely to Malone’s perspective, with which the reader is intended to empathise. The story is divided into seven sections, the first of which introduces Malone with pathos, a tall, well-built, ‘wholesome looking’, ‘normal-featured, and capable-looking’ man who is convalescing in Pascoag, Rhode Island, and suffering from some kind of post-traumatic psychological disorder brought on by a particularly harrowing incident during his police service. LaValle’s novella consists of eighteen short chapters, divided into two equal parts, “Tommy Tester” and “Malone”.  The novella is also narrated in the third person, from Charles Thomas Tester’s (known first as Tommy and then Black Tom) point of view in the first part and Malone’s in the second.  The chapters written from the point of view of Tom, a twenty-year-old African American hustler with a limited command of both music and magic, adhere closely to his perspective, inviting the reader’s empathy. In contrast, LaValle maintains a narrative distance from Malone in those chapters written from his perspective and Tom replaces Malone as the protagonist of the story. LaValle’s Malone is described as follows: ‘Tall and thin and lantern-jawed, his eyes dispassionate and surveying.’ Malone is dispassionate, insensitive, and pitiless. He has been assigned to the Butler Street station in Brooklyn for the last six years and is content to be complicit in the structural, institutional, and interpersonal racial violence perpetrated by the police in order to pursue his supernatural inquiries. This departure from Lovecraft’s characterisation is indicative of departures from the original sequence of events to come, with LaValle employing the conceit that Lovecraft based his story on unreliable newspaper reports of the events.

In both the short story and the novella, the sequence of events that underpin the plot are initiated by Robert Suydam, the wealthy scion of an old Dutch family who lives in a mansion in Martense Street in Flatbush. Suydam is a student of the occult who has acquired some magical ability and whose researches have brought him into company frowned upon by his family, most notably that of the Southern European, Middle Eastern, and East Asian immigrant communities in Red Hook and Five Points. Suydam’s relatives are attempting to have him pronounced mentally incompetent, ostensibly out of concern for his wellbeing, but actually out of concern for their inheritances. In The Ballad of Black Tom, they have hired a pathologically racist private investigator, Ervin Howard (a thinly disguised Robert E. Howard), and used their social influence to secure police assistance in making the case against Suydam. Malone has been assigned to assist Howard in consequence of his well-known interest in the occult. Suydam is, however, completely compos mentis and preparing to initiate a two-stage plan: to first found a cult dedicated to the worship of the Sleeping King and to then enact a ritual to wake the Sleeping King. The Sleeping King is a reference to Cthulhu, the most famous of Lovecraft’s pantheon of Great Old Ones, who was introduced in the short story “The Call of Cthulhu”, which was first published in Weird Tales in February 1928. The Great Old Ones are initially represented as gods who have been imprisoned, but are subsequently revealed to be powerful aliens at rest in either the remote regions of the Earth, other dimensions, or both. Cthulhu lies at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, in the ruins of the sunken city of R’lyeh, a circumstance to which his devotees allude in their chant: ‘“In his house at R’lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.”’

Suydam decides that his recruitment drive will take the form of a party in his mansion and target society’s marginalised, oppressed, and victimised on the basis that they will be more receptive to what amounts to a religious revolution followed by an apocalypse. Suydam recognises Tom’s ability as a conjurer and hires him to assist at the party to which he has invited members of the immigrant communities with which he is already familiar as well as African Americans from Harlem. With Tom’s assistance, Suydam is successful in inaugurating his cult, although he is of course yet another rich white man assuming a leadership role over men and women of various shades of brown. Suydam then sets about the second part of his plan, the waking of the Sleeping King, once again with Tom’s assistance.  Malone meets Tom during his surveillance of Suydam, attends Suydam’s hearing, is pleased by his successful defence of his mental competence, and returns to his work on illegal immigration. In the weeks following Suydam’s hearing, his name is mentioned with increasing regularity in Red Hook and Malone suspects that he is involved in either criminal or occult activity, or both. Malone discovers that Suydam has bought three tenement buildings on the seafront and moved in with a gang of fifty hardened criminals, led by an African American known as Black Tom. He does not make the connection with Tommy until later and the racial prejudice he shares with Suydam results in both men underestimating Tom’s mastery of the situation. In pitting Malone (and Howard) against Tom, LaValle provides an explicit commentary on the racial, social, and political problems that have given rise to the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) and its various component organisations, including Black Lives Matter. He also addresses the related but distinct phenomenon of police militarisation in the US directly in spite of his historical setting. LaValle’s great achievement is that he succeeds in both telling a weird tale and providing overt political commentary without ever straying into the realm of the didactic. This is a difficult bit of authorial magic to pull off because the enjoyment of a tale well told and reflections on contemporary violence typically pull the reader in opposite directions, each distracting from the other.  Not so with The Ballad of Black Tom. I shall nonetheless conclude on a note of regret, that the circumstances to which LaValle draws attention seem to have deteriorated rather than improved since the novella was published.

Friday 6 November 2020

Supergirl: Book Four, by Peter David, Leonard Kirk and chums (DC Comics) | review by Stephen Theaker

Reasonably enjoyable but surprisingly religious adventures of an odd Supergirl. Not Superman’s cousin, nor quite the protoplasm Supergirl either, she’s a mixed-up kid who merged with the protoplasm while dying to become, well, an angel. Trying to do good while keeping her secret identity under wraps, in this book she learns that her literally god-given talents have an expiration date. Though not so obviously aimed at men as earlier books, it’s still not the Supergirl you’d pick out for girls. Stephen Theaker ***

Thursday 5 November 2020

Poison City, by Paul Crilley | review by Rafe McGregor

Poison City by Paul Crilley

Hodder & Stoughton, hardback, £15.49, August 2016, ISBN 9781473631588

I’ll begin this review with a confession: for idiosyncratic reasons in which the readers of Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction will have no interest, I have a soft spot for police procedurals set in Durban, South Africa’s ‘third city’ (after Johannesburg and Cape Town).  As far as I know, Poison City is the only police procedural set there aside from my own novella, The Secret Policeman (2008).  In consequence, I may have approached this novel in a less critical frame of mind than usual.  Having said that, this is not Durban as I or anyone else who has ever lived there knows it.  Scottish author Paul Crilley invites his readers to imagine a world similar to that of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods (2001), in which every legend, myth, cult, and religion ever invented by humanity is true and in which the orisha – these supernatural beings – all exist.  The difference between Crilley’s and Gaiman’s fictional worlds is twofold: first, Crilley is not afraid to confront the monotheistic religions and his God is simply another orisha, albeit one of the most powerful; second, the orisha are free to migrate where and when they wish rather than being reliant on humanity for their transportation and have accordingly dispersed across the globe.  A world where human and orisha live side-by-side requires a special police force and an international organisation of police officers along the lines of the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol) exists precisely for this purpose.  These Supernatural Divisions are part of the regular police forces of each country, clandestine units with obscure names run from secret headquarters whose primary purpose is to serve as peacekeepers, enforcing the Covenant, an ancient truce between humanity and orisha.  In South Africa, the Supernatural Division is called Delphic Division (DD), is part of the official Occult Related Crimes Unit of the South African Police Services (SAPS), and is based in Durban.  DD is nominally under the command of Divisional Commissioner Ranson, a political appointment, but actually run by Major Olivia Armitage, an Englishwoman in her fifties, and her senior investigator is Lieutenant Gideon Tau.

Tau is the protagonist of a novel that merges the genres of occult detective, police procedural, and urban fantasy.  He is a Londoner who served in the Metropolitan Police Service, resigned for undisclosed reasons, and worked as a private investigator in Los Angeles before moving to South Africa and joining the SAPS.  Tau is no stranger to personal tragedy, with his father committing suicide when Tau was twelve and his daughter murdered three years before the narrative opens.  His wife left him after the loss of their child and he lives with his spirit guide, an alcoholic dog who has neither a name nor a breed, in a one bedroomed-flat just off the Golden Mile, the four-mile stretch of beach that constitutes Durban’s main tourist attraction.  He has a fondness for designer suits, mobile phones, and whisky, a fear of heights, and drives a beaten-up old Land Rover.  Tau is known as “London” or “London Town” to his colleagues and was recruited to DD by Armitage, who has become something of a mother figure to him.  Tau has ‘second sight’, the ability to see orisha in their true form and is a conjurer, i.e. able to use Shinecraft, like all of his colleagues at DD (some of whom are human, others orisha).  New recruits to DD are given a bone wand to assist their conjuring and a spirit guide as a mentor for the duration of their probationary period, by the end of which they are expected to have specialised in and mastered a particular branch of Shinecraft.  Tau has been in DD for five years, but failed to specialise – a literal jack of all trades and master of none – which is why he retains both the wand and the dog.  In addition, he has two Chinese dragons tattooed on his back and limited mastery of Sak yat, Chinese tattoo magic.  In the finest tradition of the occult detective, Tau must battle both human and orisha enemies, and like his more conventional police colleagues in South Africa, is heavily-armed for a typical tour of duty, with the wand, a magical silver dagger, a Glock 17 semiautomatic pistol, and a shotgun.

Crilley employs first-person narration by his protagonist, a convention popular in hardboiled detective stories, but writes in the present tense instead of the more common past tense.  I am not sure why he employs this device as it serves no obvious purpose, but it is used skilfully and he avoids the main pitfall of present tense narration, distracting the reader.  The novel is divided into twenty-four chapters and the first twenty-three take place over a single week, Sunday to Sunday in late November in a year that is presumably contemporary with the year of publication (or perhaps the previous year).  The first two chapters serve the dual purpose of introducing Tau and his world and immersing the reader in an exciting action set piece.  The plot begins in the next, but it is supervenient upon a particular complex sequence of events.  Lilith – Adam’s first wife, ‘First Mother of the Illium’, ‘Mother of the Watchers’, ‘The First Ruler of Eden’, and apparently Empress of the Vampires – has come to the decision that the Covenant is not in the interests of the orisha.  The Covenant prevents an apocalyptic war between the orisha and humanity, but over the last three hundred millennia it has facilitated the overpopulation of the earth by humanity and the reversal of Lilith’s preferred status quo, in which the orisha were the dominant species.  She plans to destroy humanity – or at least the majority of humanity – by means of sin, exploiting the for the most part secret practice of sin-eating.  Sin-eaters can be both orisha and human and can eat the sins of either species.  The way the process works is that a being who feels guilty about a sin they have committed consults a sin-eater, who eats their sin for a price, removing all memory of it.  The sin-eater does more than this, however: ‘“See, the sins are not just sins.  They hold memories and feelings.  Everything associated with where and when the sin took place.  The sin-eater takes all that into his very soul when he takes on a sin.”’  As such, sin-eaters have become a valuable resource and created a global corporation.  No sin ever disappears so before a sin-eater dies he or she must pass on their sins to their apprentice, otherwise the sins will return to those who committed them.  This has made sin-eaters not only a valuable resource, but sources of vast amounts of information.  Many human beings in the upper echelons of the financial, social, and political elite have taken advantage of the corporation’s services, contracting their own sin-eaters and attending the annual sin party, an orgy of violent and sexual harm, all physical and mental evidence of which is erased by the hosts by the following morning.  Crilley’s conceit presumes, of course, that the dominant emotion felt by members of the elite who perpetrate harm is guilt rather than, for example, satisfaction or pride, which is open to question, but the internal logic of his fictional world is entirely consistent.

The third chapter of Poison City ends with Armitage and Tau being called to the scene of a murder.  The victim, Jengo Dhlamini, is a ramanga (a low-level vampire) who is subsequently revealed to be a sin-eater and whose soul contains knowledge of the Sinwalker, the first sin-eater, who ate God’s sins and can only continue to contain them by sleeping.  Dhlamini was killed by a sin-eater working for Lilith, but his death proved useless as he had taken the precaution of hiding his soul.  When Lilith’s sin-eater fails to acquire the soul by committing a second murder, she captures Tau, who manages to escape.  Lilith’s sin-eater commits a third murder, but once again fails to acquire either the soul or the knowledge it contains.  The pace of the investigation – and the personal and public stakes – pick up when Tau discovers the existence of the corporation and the crescendo and climax of the narrative are planned and executed to perfection by Crilley.  Poison City is the first in the Delphic Division series, which follows Tau’s investigations and adventures in the occult.  Unfortunately the second, Clockwork City (published by Hodder & Stoughton in 2017), is a disappointment, replacing the murder mystery plot with a caper story that just doesn’t work.  At the time of writing there is no third novel on the horizon so we may have seen the last of Tau.  That’s a pity because aside from my interest in Poison City’s setting, Crilley has created a charismatic character with a rich and intriguing past that might have taken his readers to other locations in South Africa, Los Angeles, or beyond in future instalments.