Friday 29 December 2023

FantasyCon 2023 | report from Stephen Theaker

This report originally appeared in TQF75 in November 2023.

FantasyCon 2023 took place from 15 to 17 September 2023, at the Leonardo Royal Hotel Birmingham. The same hotel (then called Jurys Inn) was the location for FantasyCon 2021, and I was glad it was back there. The suite of smaller rooms is perfect for hosting several strands of events, the bar is downstairs out of the way so no need to wade through boozy blokes to get to anything, and best of all it’s in Birmingham so we (Mrs Theaker and I) can get home in a taxi at the end of the night.

Wednesday 20 December 2023

Godzilla Minus One | review by Stephen Theaker

It’s a good time to be a Godzilla fan! His next encounter with King Kong is in cinemas next year, the Monarch tv series is currently showing on Apple TV+, and now we have Godzilla Minus One, already the highest-grossing live-action Japanese film ever in both the UK and the US. Most Japanese Godzilla films are sequels to the original Godzilla (1954), while often overwriting each other, but like Shin Godzilla (2016) this is a complete reboot.

Shin Godzilla, from the creator of Neon Genesis Evangelion, was very enjoyable, but it was quite radical in its approach to the monster: for most of the film he wasn't recognisably Godzilla at all, although he did have a spectacularly impressive tail by the end. Most of the fun of the film came from the comedy of a calcified bureaucracy responding to a giant monster attack with a series of ever-growing meetings.

Friday 15 December 2023

Office Invasion | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

If you like dumb, watch this horror/sci-fi/comedy mash-up. If you like humour, don’t.

Melusi Nkosi (Kabomo Vilakazi), the merciless new leader at mining company AMI, takes some extreme cost-cutting measures that put the three heroes of Office Invasion in financial peril:  geologist Sam (Rea Rangaka) can’t afford medication for his ailing daughter, accountant Prince (Kiroshan Naidoo) needs to stay in the finance department for five years to get access to his trust fund and therefore escape his tyrannical father’s hold on him, and security guard Junior (Sechaba Ramphele), frustrated by his mooching flatmates, just needs to make ends meet. 

Melusi sells the South African business to an international firm represented by a patently duplicitous trio consisting of Gregory (Greg Viljoen), a chipper Australian with bad hair, Badrick (Stevel Marc), a Jamaican ready to throw down, and Anya (Aimee Ntuli), a conniving Eastern European. 

The desperate heroes hatch a plan to steal some Zulcanoid, the liquid metal at AMI mines, and then sell it to a Chinese gangster who says he’s going to use it for benevolent purposes.   

Overarching all of this is an impending alien invasion, implied by the attack that opens the film and toward which it builds. It takes a long time – too long, in my opinion – before the aliens appear. 

The film’s primary shortcoming is its lack of humour stemming from an imbalance in characters: while the leads lack the eccentricity that would have made them more compelling, the secondary characters’ performances feel overblown and derivative. The outrageously idiotic Paul (aka Knobface), for instance, is clearly a rip-off of Brick (Steve Carell) in the Anchorman series. 

The protagonists have their moments, the best of which involve Prince and Junior showing their frustration. Prince has visions of extreme violence, but they seem tossed into the film for no other reason than to shock the viewer. 

Most of the scenarios in which the trio finds themselves end up feeling stagnant. When Junior loses his gun as part of the cost cuts, he gets sent to a training session where a supposed-to-be-funny-but-not-funny overly serious instructor shows security guards how to defend themselves with typical office supplies.

Office Invasion plays the typical, stale feel-good cards like victims revolting against corporate oppressors and putting the needs of others before personal needs. Yawn.—Douglas J. Ogurek **

Monday 11 December 2023

Doctor Who 60th Anniversary Specials | review by Stephen Theaker

During the lockdowns, Russell T Davies (former Doctor Who showrunner), David Tennant (the tenth Doctor) and Catherine Tate (Donna Noble) came up with a plan to return to their previous roles for a special story, initially intended to be a flashback. As plans developed, it turned out that the former showrunner would follow on from Chris Chibnall as the next showrunner, and so we have three whole episodes, now integrated into the ongoing story, with Tennant as a fourteenth Doctor and Catherine Tate as an older, slightly wiser Donna. The unspoken hope is that they can bounce the ratings out of the crater before the new Doctor, Ncuti Gatwa, takes over.

I think the problem for Chris Chibnall and his thirteenth Doctor, Jodie Whittaker, had been that Steven Moffat set the bar so high with his stories for Doctors eight through twelve: a recent poll placed five of his stories in the all-time top ten. How do you top that? Instead of taking the show in a more serious, dramatic direction, Chris Chibnall tried to carry on in a similar vein. But though everyone acted like they were still in the same, hilarious programme, the dialogue wasn’t as funny, and wasn’t as impactful. Watch “The Night of the Doctor”, the eight-minute episode Moffat wrote for Paul McGann: it has more quotable lines than the entire thirteenth Doctor era combined.

Returning to the show presents Russell T Davies with the same problem. Can he top what Moffat did? Can he top his own best stories?

Tuesday 5 December 2023

The Hair-Carpet Weavers by Andreas Eschbach | review by Stephen Theaker

This review originally appeared in Interzone #288 (September–October 2020).

The Hair-Carpet Weavers, which one could call either a mosaic novel or a collection of closely-linked short stories, was originally published in German in 1995 as Die Haarteppichknüpfer, and then by Tor in 2005 as The Carpet Makers. This Penguin Classics edition presents the same Doryl Jensen translation, but drops the Orson Scott Card introduction and restores the hair (and thus some strangeness) to the title; perhaps UK readers are thought to be less squeamish. It is part of a very welcome new range of science fiction Penguin Classics, on which Adam Roberts consulted in the early planning stages. It also includes work by Angélica Gorodischer, the Strugatskys, Stanislaw Lem and Robert Sheckley, with books by Kobo Abe and more to come in 2021.

Friday 24 November 2023

The Lighthouse Witches by C.J. Cooke (Berkley) | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Runes, grimoires, hexes, and bone triangles: three timelines weave together a complex tale of female empowerment.  

Something strange has happened on the Scottish island of Lòn Haven, and the answer hinges on a horrible occurrence at a lighthouse called The Longing. 

The Lighthouse Witches moves between three different timelines. The central story, which takes place in 1998, focuses on British artist Olivia “Liv” Stay and her three daughters facing economic peril. The wealthy and conspicuously absent owner of the ramshackle lighthouse commissions Liv to paint odd symbols on its interior. Liv meets a man named Fin and gradually learns more about Lòn Haven’s residents and history. She also learns there’s much more to the lighthouse than the water on the floor and the bats on the ceiling; this lighthouse has a history that is not favourable toward women.

This first portion also dips into the point of view of Liv’s combative oldest daughter Saffy, who seeks to learn more about the lighthouse by exploring the caves beneath it. 

The second timeline occurs in 2021 and is told from the perspective of Luna, Liv’s middle daughter and presumably the only surviving member of the family. Luna, now pregnant, is haunted by a sketchy memory of getting tied to a tree in a forest while her mother and two sisters disappeared. When Luna’s long-lost younger sister Clover resurfaces, her appearance and behaviour shock Luna and lead to complications. 

The third story, narrated by Patrick Roberts through his grimoire, takes place in 1662. It details his travails on the island, including a relationship with a special friend named Amy and an accusation made against his mother. 

Cooke pulls off an impressive balancing act with the alternating timelines, breadth of years, and variety of points of view (i.e. first-person past, first-person present, third-person present). She also uses Lòn Haven’s gloomy weather to thicken the pall of mysteriousness that shrouds the island, a place whose residents fear supernatural creatures called wildlings and where some children have numbers branded on their arms. Perhaps the novel’s greatest accomplishment is its treatment of the age-old problem of the suppression of women.—Douglas J. Ogurek ****

Monday 20 November 2023

Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #75: out now!

Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #75 is now out in all formats!

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

Welcome to our seventy-fifth issue of Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction. Thank you for your patience, which we have repaid with four short stories, an essay by Rafe McGregor on "The World-Ecology of Climate Change Cinema", a lengthy report from FantasyCon 2023, and forty pages of reviews!

The stories in this issue are "Piggyback Writer" by Matthew G. Rees, "Kleptobiblia" by Harris Coverley, "Recovery Mission" by Eva Schultz and "Two Friends" by Antonella Coriander, the final chapter in the story of Beatrice and Veronique, which began all the way back in TQF47.

Our reviews this issue are from Douglas J. Ogurek, Rafe McGregor and Stephen Theaker, who consider the work of Josh Malerman, Nate Southard, R.B. Lemberg and David Owain Hughes, plus the films Blue Beetle, Children of Men, Knock at the Cabin and Terrifier 2, plus the television shows Carnival Row, Season 2, and Star Trek: Picard, Season 3.

The cover art for this issue was generated using Wombo Dream, based on a photograph by Stephen Theaker.

Monday 13 November 2023

Dream Scenario | review by Stephen Theaker

Paul Matthews (Nicolas Cage) is a mid-to-late-career professor with tenure. He is married to a beautiful wife (Julianne Nicholson), has two daughters, and lives in a big gorgeous house, but he is still dissatisfied with life. He dreams of finding a publisher for his book on ant intelligence, but has never actually got around to writing it. His classes are poorly attended, engagement from students is low, and he can't do anything about an old colleague who is planning to build on his unpublished work.

Sunday 5 November 2023

Clown in a Cornfield by Adam Cesare (HarperTeen) | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Town mascot turned madman: young adult slasher tale with political underpinnings explores the battle between tradition and change.

Have you ever been in a situation where you thought older people weren’t listening to you? Of course you have. What about a scenario where younger people push for a change you don’t want? Admit it: you’ve been there as well. These are the issues at play in Adam Cesare’s Clown in a Cornfield, though the stakes are likely much higher than you’ve ever encountered. 

When financial hardship hits, Dr Glenn Maybrook and his teenage daughter Quinn move from Philadelphia to Kettle Springs, Missouri. Here, elders view teens as a threat to their rural town’s hallowed traditions, and teens suspect adults are trying to impose their values on them. 

Quinn soon meets Cole Hill, a charismatic quarterback. You know the type: attractive, confident, admired by his peers yet haunted by his past. She gets involved in Cole’s group of ne’er-do-wells: Janet, Ronnie (who clearly likes Cole), the bodyguard-like Tucker, and the beer-swigging party boy Matt. Power-hungry Sheriff George Dunne, resenting the changes happening under his watch, has his sights set on the teens. 

Overshadowing all of this is Frendo, the unofficial town mascot invented by Cole’s grandfather. Initially, the only evidence of Frendo that Quinn sees is the faded painting of the clown on a burned-down factory across the cornfield next to her house. But Frendo will make more appearances, and not all Frendos in Kettle Springs are kid friendly. 

Though there’s nothing groundbreaking about this young adult horror story in which characters gradually get picked off by someone or something, it zips along and keeps the reader engaged. The over-the-top weaponry (e.g., chainsaw, circular saw, machete) fits the typical slasher fare. 

Not only does Cesare defend the voice of young people, but he also combats the notion that heroines need to be rescued by a male figure. Quinn Maybrook is a strong, thoughtful, and brave young woman not prone to swooning at the slightest threat. Cesare also explores the complexities of Quinn’s relationship with her father and how her mother’s drug problem complicated their lives.

At its core, the novel advocates for youth-inspired change, which is nothing to clown around about.—Douglas J. Ogurek***

Sunday 22 October 2023

Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam (Ecco) | Review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Details and tangents detract from dystopian tale.

Something bad has happened, but what? Such is the concept that propels Leave the World Behind, Rumaan Alam’s apocalyptic novel about two families converging at a rental home in the Hamptons amid a mysterious catastrophic event. 

Many compelling works – Paul Tremblay’s The Cabin at the End of the World and M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs come to mind – have successfully used this strategy. Characters are confined to a remote location, where they speculate and gradually learn about what has happened in the larger world. 

This work, however, suffers from two major problems. First, the characters and their behaviors/conflicts are not compelling enough to keep the reader engaged. It takes far too long to get to the inciting incident (i.e., the knock on the door). Vacationers Amanda and Clay and their two nondescript children are surprised when G.H. and Ruth Washington, owners of the property, show up amid what they believe could be a disaster. 

My second gripe against this book is that Alam goes on too many tangents and whips up a whirlwind of irrelevant details. An encountered object, for instance, stops the novel’s progress and allows a character to reflect on a memory. I often found myself thinking, Wait. Why are you stopping here? Don’t tell me about that. This is most apparent at the beginning, where the author gets mired in the mediocrity of middle-aged parenthood. I don’t need a list of what Amanda’s buying at the grocery store. 

The omniscient narration compounds the problem. Although this strategy enables Alam to slip in hints about what’s happening beyond the Hamptons, dipping into each character’s head slows the progress. Moreover, the narrator tends to break into the story and state, in effect, what the character didn’t know was that [fill in the blank] was happening or what was happening was much worse than they were imagining.

Nevertheless, some details, such as changes in characters’ bodies or the local wildlife, are intriguing. The novel does get better and the tension escalates near the end, but it’s not enough to recommend this one.—Douglas J. Ogurek**

Monday 16 October 2023

UNSPLATTERPUNK! 7 open to short story and art submissions

To disgust and instruct: Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction welcomes short story and art submissions for seventh instalment in annual UNSPLATTERPUNK! anthology that gives splatterpunk the kick in the nards it needs. 

Extreme horror authors and artists: are you fed up with calls for submissions stating, “No excessive gore?” Here’s your chance to let out your innermost degenerate… and your hidden saint.  

Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction, purportedly the UK’s second-longest running sci-fi/fantasy/horror ezine, has opened the floodgates for submissions to the seventh instalment in the UNSPLATTERPUNK! “smearies”. Douglas J. Ogurek returns to edit the anthology slated for release in summer 2024.

We’re on the hunt for short stories (10,000 words or fewer) that not only exaggerate the ultraviolence and subversive content of the splatterpunk genre but also incorporate a positive or morally instructive message. That’s what makes it unsplatterpunk. We’re also looking for cover art submissions that support the unsplatterpunk concept. 

Forget the squeamish fans of mainstream horror, the instructors who told you not to write with a theme in mind, and even the splatterpunk writers mired in nihilism and gore for gore’s sake. We’re open to any genre, from vile fantasy and gruesome sci-fi to backwoods perversion and raw realism, provided that your tale magnifies the visceral content and conveys a virtuous message. It’s all disgusting… and it’s all enlightening.

Dig into the first six anthologies, all available for free download: UNSPLATTERPUNK!, UNSPLATTERPUNK! 2, UNSPLATTERPUNK! 3, UNSPLATTERPUNK! 4, UNSPLATTERPUNK! 5, UNSPLATTERPUNK! 6

The UNSPLATTERPUNK! anthologies boost the distasteful content of the typical splatterpunk story while adding a lesson in virtue. The message can be straightforward or subtle — we’ve even used extended metaphors. Background photo: Eistreter, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Tips for Writers

Unsplatterpunk submissions get rejected for two key reasons:

  • Not controversial/visceral enough – You’ve just written a story full of decapitations, amputations, and eviscerations? We can get that by turning on the TV. How will you take it to the next level?
  • No positive message – You’ve completed a transgressive piece that will shock and disgust even the most dedicated splatterpunk enthusiast? Great, but if it doesn’t have some positive message, we’re not interested.

Other advice:

  • Make the story as attention-grabbing as a stripper in a nunnery. 
  • Make the content so revolting that readers think to themselves, Why am I reading this?
  • Approach your subject matter with a thirteen-year-old boy’s “gross is great” mentality and your writing with the technical skills of a seasoned author.
  • Gorge yourself on splatterpunk stories so you understand what’s already been done.
  • Read previous entries in the UNSPLATTERPUNK! series. Why not? They’re free.
  • Imagine a man with a violin standing next to you as you write. Each time your writing gets dramatic, he starts playing. Don’t let him play! In other words, don’t impress us with big words, abstractions, and philosophical concepts – impress us with your story.
  • Please, for the love of all that is holy, don’t write your story in a chatty style full of colloquialisms. You’re writing to your reader, not your bestie.  
  • Don’t end your story in a quagmire of esoteric nonsense. 
  • Avoid standard revenge stories – vengeance isn’t morally enlightening, and the market is flooded with these tales.
  • Our thoughts on classic creatures: Vampires brooding around a castle? Cliché. Zombies wandering through woods? Dumb. Werewolves at a sexual harassment prevention training seminar? You have our attention. 
  • Make comedy your friend: some of the most successful splatterpunk authors recognize the excessive nature of the genre and therefore incorporate humour in their stories. Those who take things too seriously often devolve into dramatic hogwash. Thus, if you’re going to yuck it up, why not yuk it up? 

The Gory Details

Send stories (no poetry, please) and artwork to Put “UNSPLATTERPUNK! 7 submission” in the subject line. In your cover letter, include a bio and tell us about the positive message your story conveys.

  • Deadline: 30 April 2024
  • Max word count: 10,000
  • Reprints: No
  • Multiple submissions: Yes
  • Simultaneous submissions: No. We’ll get back to you within a couple of weeks.
  • File type: .doc (preferred) or .docx files for stories; .pdf or .jpg files for artwork
  • Payment: This is a non-paying zine. However, free epub and pdf files will be available to everyone.

After publication, you are free to reprint your story elsewhere, but please credit Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction for original publication. See the TQF standard guidelines for additional information on rights and legal matters. 

A Note on No Payment

Because our contributors do not receive monetary payment, some have accused us of using authors’ “slave labour” to get rich. The UNSPLATTERPUNK! series (and the TQF ezine in general) is not a moneymaking venture. Rather, it’s a group of dedicated hobbyists trying to have some fun. That’s why we make .pdf and ebook versions of all UNSPLATTERPUNK! anthologies available for free (with an option to purchase a hard copy on Amazon). Over the course of the UNSPLATTERPUNK! series, we have collected less than nothing from hard copy sales, and all of this nothing has gone right back into the publication of the anthology. We will also work with authors to ensure their stories are concise, precise and hard hitting.

Nevertheless, if writing is your job – or one day you want it to be your job – then of course you won't want to do it for free. Submit your stories to a paying journal or anthology, or save them for your collection. And if you've been inspired to write something unsplatterpunkish, let us know so we can send readers your way!

Also, keep in mind that while some anthologists select contributors from a tiny pool of acquaintances, we take a different approach here. First, our sole criterion for acceptance is a good story that follows the parameters. Thus, everyone who submits has an equal chance of getting a story selected. Second, we read every submission from beginning to end. If we reject it, we tell you why. If we find promise in a story, we work closely with the contributor to make it as illuminating and nauseating as possible. 

Earn the UNSPLATTERPUNK! badge. Submit stories and artwork by 30 April 2024. 

Tackle Problems and Turn Stomachs  

The world overflows with problems: speciesism, environmental degradation, inequality, poverty, intolerance, and so many more. Now pick one and address it through fiction. 

Hacking off heads and limbs. Tearing skin. Removing organs. Breaking bones and shattering spines. Sticking objects both chewy and pointy into this or that orifice. Ingesting vomit and other expulsions. Splatterpunk fans have seen it all. How will you take it to the next level? 

Join the ranks of Hugh Alsin, Antonella Coriander, Garvin Giltinan, Joe Koch, Eric Raglin, Triffooper Saxelbax, Drew Tapley, and many others who’ve earned the unsplatterpunk badge.

You have until Tuesday, 30 April 2024. 

Shock us. Nauseate us. Edify us.

Friday 13 October 2023

Search Party, Season 5 | reviewed by Stephen Theaker

I would usually be quite reluctant to review the fifth and final season of a television programme, given that it can be hard to do so without revealing spoilers for the entirety of the preceding episodes. But in this case I don’t think that’s a huge problem because season five of Search Party is barely connected to the previous four seasons.

Season one was basically a hipster Nancy Drew show. Dory (Alia Shawkut), Drew (John Reynolds), Elliott (John Early) and Portia (Meredith Hagner) were four aimless New Yorkers. When Dory threw everything into a search for a missing acquaintance from college, the other three were dragged along with her, with consequences both hilarious and tragic.

Seasons two to four, rather than moving on to new mysteries, explored the consequences of season one in ever-greater depth, becoming a gripping psychological comedy-thriller. It took the story in some extremely surprising directions, and to be honest I would have preferred three more seasons of hipster Nancy Drew, but it was still rather brilliant.

Season five – and stop now if you don’t want any spoilers – sees the four protagonists leave all that behind, become the leaders of a cult, start working with a Steve Jobs type played by Jeff Goldblum, who wants to sell whatever they have to the masses (or at least to investors), and then they start a zombie apocalypse. Seriously!

Reading that paragraph back to myself, I think it sounds great. I usually love it when programmes do off-the-wall things, take weird turns, and surprise me. And of course I love fantasy and science fiction television programmes more than any other kind, so why didn’t I love it when Search Party became one too?

I’m not sure. Perhaps it’s because the show abandons any sense of realistic characterisation. It almost felt like they were trying to get cancelled, as if they were sick of making it but contractually had to do more. For a show about the consequences of our actions to have people levitating felt wrong, like it undid everything that came before.

But it didn’t, really. The first four seasons are as good as they ever were, and adding a bizarre epilogue can’t change that. Perhaps I would have felt differently if I hadn’t watched all five seasons in one go on the iPlayer. If I’d watched them over the course of six years, per its US broadcast, perhaps I’d have been ready for a change of pace.

I would still say anyone watching it should watch it right to the end. Speak to me a year from now and I may have forgotten how terrible most of the episodes were, and praise the boldness of ending a television show this way. But now, I just remember how painful it was to watch. Physically so, since I spent almost the entire season frowning in dismay. Stephen Theaker **

Monday 9 October 2023

Ahsoka, Season 1 | review by Stephen Theaker

Ahsoka is a sequel to several projects all at once, as well as setting up projects to come. This eight-episode season follows on from The Mandalorian and The Book of Boba Fett, in which Ahsoka Tano, as played by Rosario Dawson, made an appearance (and met Luke Skywalker), and it also follows on from two animated series: Star Wars: The Clone Wars, which showed Anakin Skywalker take her on as an apprentice during the war with the Trade Federation and its allies, and Star Wars: Rebels, about a ragtag bunch of rebels who appear in Ahsoka too: Sabine Wren (Natasha Liu Bordizzo), Hera Syndulla (now a general, and played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Ezra Bridger (Eman Esfandi).

The latter's disappearance during the rebellion (round about the events of Return of the Jedi, I think) is what motivates Ahsoka and Sabine in this show. They think he's still alive, somewhere, and they think they can find him -- but only if they can repair their broken relationship, and Hera can keep the jobsworths and penny-pinchers and traitors in the New Republic administration off their backs.

The problem is, Ezra wasn't the only one to go missing that day. So did Grand Admiral Thrawn (played here, as in Star Wars: Rebels, by Lars Mikkelsen), and efforts are afoot to find him too. Leading the search are two fallen jedi, Baylan Skoll and Shin Hati, the former played so brilliantly by the late Ray Stevenson that the show is almost spoilt by the knowledge that he won't be returning. If they manage to find Thrawn, what will follow?

Dedicated fans will remember Timothy Zahn’s sequel trilogy from the 1990s, which breathed new life into Star Wars, and in which Thrawn was the primary antagonist.

For such fans, especially those who watched the two animated series, I’m sure that Ahsoka had all sorts of resonances that passed me by. But I still loved it. You don't need to have watched anything else to understand why Sabine wants to rescue her friend, or why everyone is afraid of a powerful grand admiral from the Empire. I found it gripping, and although there were moments here and there that dragged, the overall effect was rather majestic.

Ahsoka herself is an interesting character. She knows by this point that her master, Anakin, became Darth Vader, and she struggles with that knowledge – her fear of that happening again damaged her relationship with her own apprentice. But she also remembers what was good about him, before his turn to the dark side. Her movements in combat are perhaps a bit less fluid and precise than one might expect from a jedi; it would be interesting to know if this was a deliberate choice, to reflect the character's age at this point, or if perhaps the actor needed a bit more time on combat training. By the final episodes that's much less of an issue, with multiple jedi engaging in combat and all sorts of fun things happening. Sabine's combat style is particularly entertaining: a jedi in a Mandalorian suit of armour, fighting with both pistol and lightsaber, is truly a sight to behold!

The special effects are, just like The Mandalorian, almost unfairly good. The ominous approach of Thrawn's damaged imperial destroyer to a tower was particularly stunning, but the space whales and David Tennant's ancient robot character Huyang were also excellent. If we have passed the high-water mark of Disney's spending on science fiction shows, as the cancellation of Lando and Marvel cutbacks might suggest, it's a shame, but one can understand why such extravagance wouldn't be sustainable.

Hopefully the story will be concluded, whether that's in another programme bringing all these characters together, or in a feature film. If not, Ahsoka is still worth watching on its own merits, for the spectacle, for all the lightsaber battles, for the performances and for the surprises, which I won't spoil here… Stephen Theaker ****

Wednesday 4 October 2023

The Creator | reviewed by Stephen Theaker

In 2055, Los Angeles was devastated by a nuclear bomb. Artificial intelligence was blamed, and the US government decides that all AIs must be destroyed, both within its borders and outside them. The AIs in this film are individual beings, each with their own robotic bodies, who talk and emote in ways that seem very human. Some, known as replicants, are given humanoid faces, replicas of existing people. Others are more obviously robotic, with big blocky heads.

The determination of the US to wipe them all out leads to war with the East, where AI beings have more or less integrated into society.

Joshua (John David Washington) was an undercover operative in that war, on a mission in the East to uncover Nirmata, the father of AI, but he fell in love with his target, Nirmata's daughter (Gemma Chan). When an impatient US government attacks the rebel base, using their deadly new sub-orbital weapons base, the USS Nomad, Joshua loses his wife, his unborn child, and his desire to keep on fighting. He takes a job clearing up the mess of LA.

Five years later, his old bosses get a lead on a new superweapon being developed by the AI, and they show Joshua photos of his wife at the scene. He reluctantly rejoins. By one twist and another that leads to him on the run in Asia, with an adorable AI child in tow, pursued by and under fire from all sides.

I loved watching this film. I've wondered how much of that was the rare pleasure of seeing an original science fiction film in the cinema. (And one that uses the full width of the cinema screen too! This really is a film to see on the big screen if you can.) But I didn't react like that to 65. Yes, the plot of this is very similar to something like Children of Men, and yes, its portrayal of AI as very human, individual intelligences, rather than the networked, alien consciousness it would more likely be, felt a bit old-fashioned. But it does everything so incredibly well.

Take the special effects, for example, which are magnificent. Compare it to Expendfourbles, in cinemas the same weekend, which was set in the real world but looked completely fake throughout. The Creator portrays a near-future science fictional world and makes it look utterly realistic, a place that could be right around the corner. The director Gareth Edwards has talked about the innovative approach he took to making the film: shooting the whole thing first, much of it on location, using a small, indie-style crew whenever possible, before applying all the effects in post-production. The results would be stunning on a budget twice the size.

Like many of the most popular science fiction films, it is also a great action film, but the action is grounded in plot and character. John David Washington, his character put through the wringer, physically and emotionally, is as good here as he was in Tenet, a film with a similar tone. Let's hope he makes a habit of starring in such intelligent science fiction thrillers. Little kids can be hard to cast, but Madeleine Yuna Voyles is also very good in a demanding role, while Allison Janney makes a superb villain (or last-ditch desperate defender of humanity, depending on your point of view). That their performances distract the viewer’s attention from the stunning scenery and effects is impressive in itself.

Whether it's robot children with cooling holes running through their heads, or gigantic wartech that looks like it emerged from a Chris Foss book cover, the film delivers. And thematically it has much to offer too: about change, and how to adapt to it, and what our species is willing to do to stay on top. If like Children of Men this takes a while to find its audience, that will be a shame, but there’s no doubt it'll happen. If there were a film like this on at the cinema every weekend, I would be at the cinema every weekend. Highly recommended. Stephen Theaker ****

Sunday 1 October 2023

Klara and the Sun: a Novel by Kazuo Ishiguro (Vintage) | Review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Superhuman observational skills meet childlike naivety in moving AI story that shines light on hope

Klara and the Sun is a testament to the power of friendship, a eulogy to broken relationships, and above all, an ode to hope. Klara, the story’s protagonist, is a solar-powered artificial intelligence with the power to discern human emotions and navigate the complexities of relationships while remaining calm and somewhat detached. And yet, she repeatedly tugs at the reader’s heartstrings. 

When sickly 14-year-old Josie adopts Klara as her Artificial Friend (AF), the latter leaves the metropolitan retail shop where she’s lived her short “life” and enters a whole new, much more rural world. The book focuses mainly on Klara’s interactions with and responses to Josie, Josie’s mother and father, and a wise-beyond-his-years boy named Rick, who has known Josie for many years and plans to marry her. 

When she discovers Josie is suffering from an illness, Klara hatches a plan involving the sun and “his nourishment” for banishing the illness. The plan and its miraculous implications are preposterous from a human point of view, but not necessarily from an AI’s perspective. Josie’s mother, who is no stranger to life-threatening illness, has another plan. It involves the man – there’s something fishy about him – whom she has commissioned to do Klara’s portrait.

Not all scenes in this novel are riveting. For instance, Ishiguro details a game that Josie and Rick play. She draws pictures of children with dialogue bubbles and Rick fills in the words. It’s meant to be complex communication between the two of them, but it’s rather dull. More interesting in these scenes is Klara, who pretends to stare out the window and instead listens to and watches the reflections of Josie and Rick. 

By making Klara the tale’s first-person narrator, Ishiguro aligns the reader with her as she experiences not only her adoptive human family but also a near-future society in which some children are “lifted,” meaning that they have more opportunities to succeed in life. Not too foreign a concept, really. Moreover, the author is careful not to impose human emotions on the protagonist. What a strange brew of outrage, pity, and helplessness the reader feels when Klara remains polite and calm despite the quarrels and manipulations that surround her. When Josie and her mother use Klara as a tool against each other, for example, the AI remains neutral and attempts to handle the situation judiciously.   

One of the most fascinating aspects of Klara is the contradictory nature of how she views the world. On the one hand, she skilfully reads human emotions and intentions via their facial expressions and hand gestures. Typically, such details would weigh down a story; here they add authenticity. Ishiguro describes how Klara’s vision splits into different boxes that enable her to analyse people. At one point when talking with the mother, Klara “could see joy, fear, laughter, sadness in the boxes.” She draws from this data to make decisions, most of them wise. On the other hand, Klara has a skewed – one could even say juvenile – perception of the sun as a godlike entity that can be bargained with so it will intervene in human affairs. From her viewpoint, when the sun sets, it physically lands in a place near Josie’s home. A party pooper might question why such a technologically advanced being fails to understand the science behind the sun. A more illuminated reader, however, will recognize Klara’s sun as a powerful symbol of her hope, determination, and… um… heart?—Douglas J. Ogurek**** 

Monday 25 September 2023

No One Will Save You | review by Stephen Theaker

Brynn, a seamstress in her early twenties, lives alone in a house in the woods. She isn’t popular. Her postman deliberately throws her packages around, anonymous callers shout abuse at her on the phone, and when she comes to town she is met with hostility and disgust. It’s unclear why, though we can guess it relates to the death of her best friend, ten years ago, at the age of twelve. She doesn’t speak to anyone, she dances on her own, she writes letters to her dead friend.

From there the film could have developed into a tedious emotional drama about isolation, trauma and small-town life, but thankfully evil aliens intervene! Brynn is woken by what she assumes is an animal going through her bins. She gets up to investigate, but then hears footsteps downstairs. It’s a grey alien, one of those with an oval head and big black eyes, and, as she unfortunately finds out, it has telekinetic powers which let it pick her up, throw her around and, erm, open and close the refrigerator doors.

Brynn knows that no one is coming to save her – that no one would even want to save her. For the entire film, through one brush with extraterrestrial danger after another, she has only herself to rely on, and we root for her as she does it. That’s partly thanks to an excellent performance from Kaitlyn Dever, previously so good as the teenage wannabe kingpin in Justified. Even without dialogue, she conveys Brynn’s desperation perfectly, and comes close to making it a very good film.

The main problem is that it is so clearly a mish-mash of greatest hits from other films: Signs, 10 Cloverfield Lane, Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, Nope, Skyline, Communion, etc. It synthesises them well to produce some alarming scenes, but it hews so close that with a few jokes at key moments it would feel like a parody. Younger viewers who haven’t seen those films will enjoy it the most, I think, and perhaps on a second viewing I would enjoy it more for what it is, rather than seeing the jigsaw pieces.

Apart from the aliens’ weird finger-toes, the most original aspect of the film for me was how it has you cheering for the violence she inflicts on the various types of alien she encounters, sometimes by luck, sometimes by design, but then asks you to consider whether that capacity for violence is a good thing, even as it is saving her life. The ending will be divisive. I thought it was perfect, but I was wholly unconvinced by the route the film took to get there. See what you think. Stephen Theaker ***

Monday 18 September 2023

Anchor’s Heart, by Cavan Scott (Absinthe Books) | review by Stephen Theaker

Cavan Scott is a well-regarded and astonishingly productive writer of media tie-ins. A search for his name on Goodreads or Amazon brings up a panoply of books, comics and audioplay spin-offs for Doctor Who, Star Wars, Pacific Rim, Judge Dredd, War
hammer, Transformers, Assassin’s Creed, Sherlock Holmes and the Teen Titans. He was even credited, in the most recent issue of Empire magazine I read, for inspiring an upcoming Star Wars television series. This novella, however, is set in a universe of his own creation, and it’s rather a glum place.

Mark Poole is a paramedic who after seven years on the job took a call that left him seriously traumatised. He wasn’t responsible for the death, but that only seems to have made it worse. If he had messed up, he could learn to do better next time, but the inevitability of such moments, of turning up to find dead bodies, of how often it happened during the pandemic, was too much for him. And now four months later he’s staying home, helping Beryl from the downstairs apartment with her gardening. He starts to hear music no one else can hear, has visions of disturbingly erotic artwork, and becomes convinced that someone in the house next door needs his help.

I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I had hoped, given the excellent track record of PS Publishing when it comes to novellas. (Absinthe Books is a boutique PS Publishing imprint run by Marie O’Regan, who also provides a brief introduction to the book.) It isn’t terrible, but for me it didn’t rise above being a three-star book, a readable enough slice of horror that never really takes off. Part of the problem is that it’s told in the first person present tense, and Mark isn’t a very interesting narrator. His phrasing is quite humdrum (“The most I know about him is that his car is an absolute beauty”) and when describing sexual stuff his language can be off-puttingly pornified. He frequently uses short one-sentence paragraphs for dramatic effect and they tend to fall flat.

Another problem for me was that although Mark is obviously not in his right mind during the events of the story, his actions often beggar belief. As a health worker, he would have been on as many safeguarding courses as any of us. Despite the supernatural elements, he should have known perfectly well how best to go about raising the alarm over what he believes to be a mistreated child. The lack of consequences for his actions also bothered me. For example, at one point he persuades his sister, a GP, to access a patient’s medical records, with serious consequences for the patient, but none for Mark or his sister.

But the book does have its strengths. It’s very good at conveying Mark’s mounting frustration, and the reader can only share his distress as things get worse for him rather than better. It realistically portrays the way his relationships (with Beryl, Jason in the apartment upstairs, and his sister) crumble under the pressure of his obsession with the house next door. The short, intense chapters encourage the reader to share his sense of panic, since there’s never enough time in them for anything to be fixed. And the book’s revelations end up being not quite what one expects. Dedicated horror fans may find that it provides a satisfying enough portion of what they want from a book. Stephen Theaker ***

This review originally appeared on the previous version of the British Fantasy Society's website, and then in Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #72. The book is available in signed and unsigned editions from PS Publishing.

Monday 4 September 2023

Blue Beetle | reviewed by Stephen Theaker

When Jaime Reyes returns from college, having successfully graduated, he gets the warm welcome from his family (mum, dad, grandma, sister, uncle) he expected, but they have bad news for him. His dad has been unwell, and has lost his auto-repair shop, and the family is about to lose their home. Jaime sets his plans for post-graduate study aside, and via one twist and another his quest for a well-paid job brings him home with a cybernetic blue beetle in a takeaway box. As soon as he touches it, it crawls into his spine and transforms him into the armoured, agile Blue Beetle, able to create any weapon he imagines.

I was predisposed against this film. It was a tv movie released for some reason in cinemas. The trailer was nothing special. It wasn't my Blue Beetle, Ted Kord, the funny one from Justice League International – the guy who inspired Nite Owl in Watchmen. It was the new guy, albeit a new guy who first appeared in the comics 17 years ago. I read Blue Beetle: Jaime Reyes, Book One a few weeks before watching the film and wasn't that impressed. But then the title sequence of the film showed pictures of Ted Kord in action as Blue Beetle, and I was ready to give it a chance.

Turns out I loved it. The film is better than the trailer, and everything you see in the trailer works better in the context of the film. My favourite moment was the Cypress Hill needle drop during a marvellously kinetic fight scene, but there was plenty of competition, not least a visit to Ted Kord's secret lair. Jaime Reyes is played with immense charm by Xolo Maridueña, who was also immensely likeable in Cobra Kai. He proves himself adept at everything the film requires of his character: action, angst, grief, romance, humour, he does it all with panache. And those playing his family are equally good, each of them getting a chance to shine.

We saw it on an Imax screen, and you would never have guessed it began as a tv movie. The effects were superb, and the suit looked great, whether Blue Beetle was flying, fighting or throwing up shields to protect his family from a hail of bullets. The only hints of its television origins is perhaps that Blue Beetle had just one super-powered enemy to fight, Carapax, cursed with OMAC technology, and that there was just one big boss, Susan Sarandon as Ted Kord's evil sister. But the film was no worse for it. I'm amazed to see that it was 2 hours 7 minutes long, because it felt so streamlined.

Overall, a delight. I laughed all the way through. It will be a shame if there isn't a sequel. For a tv movie released in cinemas I think it's done very well, though nowhere near as well as it deserves. It knocks the likes of Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania and Eternals for six. My prediction is that it'll find its audience on television, Blue Beetle will pop up in upcoming DC universe films, and then we'll get another. Unlike Henry Cavill's Superman or Ben Affleck's Batman, the Blue Beetle refuses to kill, so I think he'll get on well with the new Superman. ****

Thursday 31 August 2023

TQF74: UNSPLATTERPUNK! 6: out in paperback and free to download!

Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction #74
is now out in paperback and ebook!

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

This issue features “Kung Fu Sue: Origins” by Harris Coverley, “Man-Eating Mother of the Year” by DW Milton, “The Fall and Rise of Donna Harrington” by LJ Jacobs, “The Great Him-Horse / Horsehekin War” by Antonella Coriander, “We Who Are About to Die” by Jack Thackwell, an editorial and reviews from Douglas J. Ogurek, reviews from Stephen Theaker, and a cover by Edward Villanova.

Optimism smothered in ghastliness!

Sometimes to learn a lesson, you need to get a little dirty, or in this case, covered in bodily expulsions. The UNSPLATTERPUNK! smearies continues with a new batch of gore-infused horror with a positive message. This sixth instalment introduces five stories about women who take a stand (or stand back as men destroy themselves). Brace yourself for shattered teeth, smashed bones, ruptured organs, plucked eyeballs, torn-off limbs, and for the first time in the USP catalogue, spaghettification.

A modern-day Cinderella stumbles across a rare book containing the secrets to physical and spiritual empowerment. A bounty hunter couple that uses toilets to travel between times and dimensions discovers something unexpected about their latest target. A sex-starved jerk confronts his grieving wife at the zoo just before things go apeshit. Women in a futuristic society turn an analytic eye on how 21st-century men wiped each other out… because of a cartoon. A gladiator imprisoned by aliens and stuck in a cycle of killing, drinking and fornicating meets his match in a fed-up sex slave.

Edward “Eddie V” Villanova's cover art makes us question everything about this volume: Is this death, or is it life? Is it dark, or is it light? Sinner or saint? One thing is for sure: these stories won’t just drop your jaw – they’ll rip it off and hurl it!"

Wednesday 16 August 2023

Inspection: A Novel by Josh Malerman (Del Rey) | Review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Don’t mess with puberty: Orwellian tale takes unconventional narrative route to show repercussions of assuming too much control over children’s lives. 

The Parenthood has withdrawn a group of boys from society to test the organisation’s premise that the opposite sex is an impediment to intellectual advancement. Thus far, the experiment is working: the twelve-year-old Alphabet Boys are already reading at a college level… and they have no idea that females exist. How jarring a juxtaposition: the same boys on track to become the most advanced scientists and engineers the world has ever seen think babies grow on trees. 

There is, however, one major threat to the Parenthood’s plan: puberty. Because of the absence of females, the boys are understandably confused. In one charming scene, they observe what they call “fighting bugs”. The reader knows the bugs are doing something else that starts with an f. 

Part of the book is told from the perspective of J – each Alphabet Boy is named a letter – who is concerned that headmaster Richard (known by the boys as D.A.D.) and other members of the Parenthood are withholding something from the boys. Some boys are completely devoted to D.A.D., while others are more open to J’s inquisitiveness. One particularly intelligent boy, Q, is developing a kind of religion and starting to bring in other boys. Eventually, J has a pivotal meeting that puts into overdrive his quest to unveil the lie in which the students have been raised.

Richard, who oversees activity within the campus and the dormitory high-rise called the Turret, is intent on maintaining power and keeping his boys in the dark despite their blossoming sexuality. For the boys, the moniker D.A.D. has no fatherly connotations – it is simply a combination of letters assigned to their administrator. Richard/D.A.D.’s refusal to use videos to monitor boys says something about the extent of his megalomania; he wants psychological power over the boys, wants them to trust him so much that they will readily share their inmost thoughts.

Inspection reads partly like an adventure story, with its young protagonists venturing into unknown passages, running into strange characters, and gradually unveiling bits of information.

Will they bring down the lie that’s been built around them? It sounds like young adult fiction. It’s not. It does not sound like horror. It is. By the time you finish, you’ll understand why.  

The authorial temptation with a story like this is to restrict the reader’s point of view to that of the victims… in this case, the boys. Thus, the reader is just as much in the dark as the victims and comes to discover the full extent of the world along with them. That’s the typical pattern. Malerman, however, makes a bold narrative move by also sharing the perspective of those who have perpetrated this experiment. He explains why they’re doing it and how it got started. Getting the victims’ and the perpetrators’ viewpoints makes the reader both sympathetic and complicit: What adult hasn’t been a child? And what adult hasn’t withheld something from children?

The Alphabet Boys have been duped into thinking they will contract a disease if they stray from the compound. The Parenthood conducts daily inspections ostensibly to determine whether the boys have “vees”, “rotts” or other diseases. The hocus-pocus inspections put the boys in fear about overextending their boundaries. If an inspection does turn out badly (i.e. the boy has discovered the other sex), he gets forced to walk through the door in the Corner, a mysterious, undesirable place in the Turret’s basement. Nobody knows what’s behind that door, nor what happened to A and Z after they walked through it. 

Another obstacle to the Parenthood’s master plan is in-house novelist Warren Bratt, who’s fed up with churning out cookie-cutter female-less adventure stories under the pseudonym of Lawrence Luxley. He’s tired of selling himself out, and his creative side yearns to produce something that will shake things up. But there is a risk: the difference between Bratt writing in a yellow notebook as Luxley versus writing in a white notebook about his true thoughts could mean the difference between life and death. 

Inspection appeals to the exploratory side in all of us, the side that seeks to unshackle whatever binds us and venture out into the unknown. The work also forces us to “inspect” the present-day tendency to helicopter parent children. Do that for too long and you risk running out of gas and crashing.—Douglas J. Ogurek ****

Saturday 29 July 2023

Terrifier 2 | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Knives, hammers, and scissors speak louder than words: gore exhibition holds a mirror up to visceral horror and carves out new slasher villain superstar.

Early in Terrifier 2, the part-mime/part-clown known as Art the Clown (David Howard Thornton) uses his own blood to write “ART” on a mirror as his latest victim struggles to stay alive. Yes, this is the deranged villain’s name, but it’s also an announcement that this sequel will hold a mirror up to the cinematic phenomenon known as torture porn. Is Art solely a vessel for shocking the viewer? Or is he an artist? Is Terrifier 2 simply another bloody entry in the pantheon of pointless violence, or is it commenting on the splatterpunk subgenre?

When Art, constantly on the brink of breaking that fourth wall, rapidly raises his eyebrows twice, the mute murderer acknowledges other characters, but he also enlists the viewer and dares them not to turn away from the atrocities he is about to commit. And he takes those atrocities far… really far. 

Terrifier 2 bears the distinction of being both terrible and brilliant. Its weaknesses include bad dialogue, a flimsy plot, poor acting, female objectification, and a fair amount of senselessness. Why, for instance, does the electricity of a haunted house at an abandoned carnival still work? Why is there a little girl version of Art that only he and a few others can see? Also, why aren’t any cops following up on Art’s horrific murders?

High schooler protagonist Sienna (Lauren LaVera), who is destined to encounter Art, has no real goal other than to design a warrior princess Halloween costume that her deceased father sketched. He also left her a sword apparently endowed with special powers. Sienna’s nerdy younger brother Jonathan (Elliott Fullam) is obsessed with the Miles County Massacre that Art committed the previous Halloween. Their moody mother Barbara (Sarah Voigt) tends to berate both Sienna and Jonathan.

The interest level takes a dramatic shift the moment Art enters a scene. What he lacks in words he makes up for with his Ace Ventura-level exaggerated facial expressions and gestures. When he laughs (at the physical or psychological suffering of others), he throws his head back, shakes his shoulders, or puts his hands on his knees. When he sneaks up behind someone, he does so with a cartoon character’s panache. But there are also moments when Art stands motionless, creating a contrast to his typical flamboyance, a contrast that is both creepy and at times funny. 

When the time comes for Art to take centre stage, the story comes to a halt so he can indulge in his art: the brutal, prolonged, unrelenting, over-the-top maiming and killing of people. Art doesn’t just hit, whip or stab someone once. He does it over and over and over. Moreover, the camera doesn’t turn away. The film also empowers victims with near-supernatural stamina that enables them to stay alive and conscious during the attacks. And just when you think Art’s done, he might just come back and do more. 

Despite a contemporary setting, the film has an eighties feel thanks largely to its synthesizer-heavy music, aligning it with the classic horror films and villains of that era. If Art the Clown, with his tiny askew top hat secured with a rubber band, his weapons-filled black garbage bag, his terrible teeth, and the black dot on his nose, continues to appear in films, he may become a name as recognisable as Jason and Freddie. 

Terrifier 2 is Art.—Douglas J. Ogurek *****

Saturday 15 July 2023

Nate Southard: Selected Stories by Nate Southard (Independent Legions Publishing) | Review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Stories for guys who like stories: collection offers equal parts action and depth.

Here in the States, TBS used to have a television programme called Movies for Guys Who Like Movies. It featured films high on the action scale and low on the depth scale. A good chunk of Nate Southard’s Selected Stories would make the cut for the high-octane nature of these films. However, unlike those TBS selections, these stories also offer themes and deeper insights to impress the more intellectually inclined.

Within this collection, you will encounter speeding cars, rapid-fire tough guy dialogue, baseball bats and sawed-off shotguns, and men falling for prostitutes (usually not a good idea). Characters range from a gigantic fire monster to a couple having an intimate conversation, albeit under unconventional circumstances. Several stories involve people waiting to die. Characters who are weak or prone to panic don’t stand much of a chance of survival. 

Whether he’s detailing a bloody interdepartmental battle royale within an office building or a mysterious object in a barn, Southard balances action and intrigue while sprinkling in the right number of sensory details. In one story, he reveals a creature’s menace not by its appearance but rather by its diesel engine sound. Another character has a “record scratch laugh”. The reader will encounter a bar that smells like hot dirt and an alley that smells like dead fish, gunpowder and disease. 

My favourite works in this collection are straightforward and fast-moving. In “It Burns”, young adults wake up in their cabin to discover a raging forest fire has surrounded them. What follows is a desperate attempt to outrun the fire. The real challenge starts when they hear something that sounds like a bass drum. “A Team-Building Exercise” puts a supernatural twist on the film The Belko Experiment (2016).

Several of the stories deal with apocalyptic situations. After an event that has “made everyone and everything equal”, the gruff protagonist of “His Start” wants to find a plot of grass to bury a woman and fulfil a promise. What appears to be a tale about heroism and devotion turns out to be something entirely different.

“Three Two One” is an epistolary piece in which a man releases a powder that introduces “the complex”, a disease that causes people to go berserk. He is one of the few who has been chosen to stay behind and document the experience for future generations. The dangers he faces escalate as he observes the disease’s effects.

“Armageddon, Now Available in High Definition” offers a humorous take on celebrities who think that the rest of the world hangs on their every word. After an apocalyptic event enrages people, a self-absorbed, drug-addled heiress notices on her TV that the “ravagers” are outside her mansion. She thinks she can change all this by going out on her balcony and talking to them. Thinks is the operative word here.

Southard shows his versatility with a few pieces that are slower moving and even cryptic. In “Work Pit Four”, for instance, prisoners confined for minor infractions – twenty years for stealing a goose? – are digging a pit with their bare hands, but they’re not sure why. The narrator, who is in there for stealing a coat and a hat, is losing his mind. “Bottle. Paper. Samurai.” is an odd story told from the perspective of a homeless Japanese woman who spends time in a dumpster and thinks she’s a samurai preventing demons from entering a bottle of whiskey an angel gave her. The story evokes many questions. Does this woman have some form of dementia or insanity? Are the demons real or imagined? Are her origami dragons, gorillas, and scorpions actually helping her? 

Another story that leads the reader to wonder whether what the main character experiences is real is “Insomnia Is My Only Friend”, in which a man in a hospital awaits the condition of his severely injured wife after a car accident. He’s convinced that if he chugs enough coffee and forces himself to stay awake long enough, he can see what is really causing harm to the hospital’s patients.

If you’re the type who likes twists and breathtaking endings, you’ll find several strong examples in this collection. “Why I Do It”, a supernatural Vietnam story about a guy who likes to sleep under his bed, has one of the most shocking closing lines in horror fiction that I’ve encountered. The squatter narrator in “Yellow Triangles” describes a bleak urban landscape. Yellow triangles with the pointed side facing down keep showing up on rusted doors with no handles. The ending is appropriately foreboding. 

Throughout the collection, Southard withholds information to keep the reader on edge. One of the best examples is “Working the Bag”, which takes on themes of anger, religion and blame. In the middle of the night, Jerry, who lost his wife and his job, shows up drunk in his friend Marshall’s bedroom (while Marshall is asleep next to his wife!) with a strong desire to “work the bag” that’s in the barn. As the two men argue and constantly reference the bag, the reader craves to know what’s in it. The answer is a shocker.—Douglas J. Ogurek ****

Sunday 18 June 2023

Goblin by Josh Malerman (Del Rey) | Review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Six-novella collection reignites the magic of dark woods, mazes and graveyards in a perpetually rainy city.

It’s fitting that the final story in Goblin, Josh Malerman’s collection of six interconnected novellas, features a maze – the collection is, at its core, a kind of labyrinth challenging the reader with many dark passages, foreboding corners, and shifts in direction.

All stories focus on the eccentric residents (both likable and unlikable) of Goblin, a fictitious Michigan town where people are buried standing up and where significantly more rain falls compared to surrounding towns. At many points, the collection is thrilling and hard to put down… especially in those scenes involving excursions into the forbidden North Woods, where a witch is rumoured to haunt. 

The stories explore a lifelong friendship that gets challenged when one friend gets strange requests from a would-be lover, a secretive magician whose tricks appear a little too real, a historian who fears he’s going to be scared to death, an orgiastic party thrown by the city’s most prolific hunter, a zookeeper/slaughterhouse worker with some mental issues, and the widower builder of an elaborate maze. In each case, the characters want something desperately: a ticket, a body part, a mythical (or is it?) beast. Framing these stories is a tale of a driver delivering to a resident of Goblin a mysterious box with some detailed instructions.

The collection is a triumph of imagination that injects classic horror settings with a fresh voice and introduces terrors both supernatural and raw. Among the elements Malerman repeatedly references to create an eerie atmosphere are Goblin’s incessant rain and the Goblin police officers characterised by stilted speech, flexible arms, and putty-like skin. 

“Happy Birthday, Hunter!” keeps the reader wondering how far renowned hunter Neal Nash will take the lavishness of his sixtieth birthday party, replete with drugs, sex and, most disturbingly, a meat smorgasbord – there’s even a meat cake – made of out his most recent canned hunt. How far, the reader wonders, will Malerman take the party’s profligacy? Guests are gluttonous and avaricious, but none of them more so than Nash, who has one last creature he hasn’t killed. The bacchanalian celebration leads to a drunken hunt that Malerman describes with exacting detail and heavy suspense. 

In the last novella, “The Hedges”, a little girl overcomes one-in-seven-billion odds to complete the most popular tourist attraction in Goblin: the Hedges, a maze built by Wayne Sherman in devotion to his deceased wife Molly. Once she sees the prize, the identity of which Malerman withholds from the reader for a lengthy time, the girl goes to Goblin’s strange police. Thus begins a compelling story that bridges the girl’s situation and Sherman’s past. 

In “A Man in Slices”, Charles engages in strange behaviours in front of his only friend Richard, then a woman’s extreme requests take Charles’s peculiarity to the next level. This story dips into Goblin’s history, including the conflicts between its indigenous inhabitants and its first settlers, called the Original Sixty.

“Presto” introduces magic aficionado and middle schooler Pete, who discovers his idol, the enigmatic Roman Emperor, is coming to town to do a show. Pete wants more than anything to get a ticket to the midnight event. Emperor is closed-mouthed and not cooperative with other members of the magic community. A profile in Magic Monthly reveals the mysterious nature of Pete’s hero when it compares him to a leading magician. Whereas the latter has a long list of awards, Emperor has none. And he leaves blank the fields for origin and hobbies. Emperor embodies the artist who focuses solely on his art… even if improving it means engaging in nefarious behaviours. 

Occasionally, one comes across a passage in a book that delivers an emotional wallop. “Presto” conjures one such reaction, not in the form of magic but rather through a chess game between a father and his son and the implication of acceptance it imparts.

“Kamp” enables Malerman to dump information about Goblin’s dubious history and its connection to Native Americans through the viewpoint of fraidy-cat historian Walter Kamp. He’s so terrified a ghost is going to scare him that he renovates his apartment to ensure he can see all the way across it and there are no places for would-be apparitions to hide and pop out. Alas, Kamp must always contend with the corners of his mind. Though this tale was not as compelling as others, Malerman invites the reader to see what’s under the bed, to hover over what could be a horror cliché. 

“A Mix-Up at the Zoo” reveals the darkness swelling within Dirk Rogers as he continues to experience the “indefatigable horrors” of the two Goblin institutions at which he works: the zoo and the slaughterhouse. Malerman, ostensibly attempting to compensate for the protagonist’s lack of introspection, uses dream/hallucination sequences to depict his unravelling. Alas, it’s difficult to portray the thoughts of a troubled character without going overboard. My attention waned. 

Most of the scenarios that play out in Goblin are not new, yet Malerman manages to keep the reader under his spell. Take, for instance, the mystery package delivery story that bookends the collection. Not so innovative. But the author repeatedly brings up the rules (e.g. the package should only be delivered between midnight and 12:30, ignore any sounds coming from it) and details the everyman driver’s anxiety-provoking experience to create a gripping story – that box becomes an embodiment of the sinister and enigmatic stories that Malerman delivers to the reader, and by the time Goblin ends, that reader will feel a sense of triumph but also a sense of dread. What a strange combination.—Douglas J. Ogurek ****

Sunday 4 June 2023

Knock at the Cabin | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Film’s insistence on spoon-feeding answers to viewers detracts from magic of novel.

Paul Tremblay’s novel The Cabin at the End of the World made a huge splash in the horror community and beyond. The story details the plight of Andrew and Eric and their daughter Wen after a quartet of strangers approaches their remote cabin. 

M. Night Shyamalan’s best films – Signs (2002) and The Village (2004) stand out as examples – achieve a rare mixture of strong storytelling, distinctive characters, a goosebumps-inducing climax and a positive message. 

What happens, therefore, when a talented albeit idiosyncratic director adapts a masterful novel? 

Knock at the Cabin immediately pulls the viewer into the story with the intimidating figure of Leonard (Dave Bautista), blurred and bulky, approaching Wen (Kristen Cui) as she collects grasshoppers. It’s an unsettling scene characterised by extreme close-ups of the two as they talk. Adding to the tension is Leonard periodically glancing sideways and leading the viewer (but not necessarily Wen) to wonder: Is he making sure someone doesn’t see him? Or is he waiting for someone? 

Most of the film sticks to the source material, and this is where it succeeds. Each character is well cast, particularly Bautista’s Leonard, whose burly frame contrasts with his calm, “I’m sorry I have to do this” disposition. Though Andrew (Ben Aldridge) and Eric (Jonathan Groff) lose some of the distinctiveness of their literary inspiration (a forgivable offence considering the difficulty of condensing a novel to a one-hour-and-forty-minute film), both actors convey the tension, disbelief and anger of their characters.

A couple of flashbacks masterfully show the intolerance Andrew and Eric confront while casting further uncertainty onto the visitors’ intentions. One flashback, for instance, starts just after the couple comes out to Andrew’s parents. The father’s blatant disgust as he stares at Andrew is so arresting that it overwhelms whatever trivial thing the smirking mother says. 

Things start to derail toward the end of the film. Several key character outcomes deviate from those in the novel, and Shyamalan gives the viewer a much different takeaway than Tremblay gives the reader. 

What makes the novel so effective is its ambiguity: Are these visitors lunatics suffering from a collective delusion, or do they have a legitimate reason for the extreme request they are making of this family? Are the natural events that are unfolding in other parts of the world connected to this group, or are they merely coincidences?

Shyamalan, however, seems so focused on delivering his message that he dismisses that ambiguity. He puts his own spin on the conclusion, and the film suffers because of it. In his quest to put everything on a neat platter and spoon-feed answers to the viewer, he goes so far as to have one character announce what key characters symbolize. In one scene, it’s as if the film is saying, “See? Look! Here’s the evidence that proves the answer.”—Douglas J. Ogurek ***