Monday 27 May 2024

Stray Pilot, by Douglas Thompson (Elsewhen Press) | review by Stephen Theaker

After World War II, American pilot Thomas Tellman decided to stay in Scotland. He joined RAF Squadron 576, married a Scottish woman, and had a daughter and son with her. They lived in a prefabricated house just outside of Kinburgh, a little place that was hardly much more than a village, up until 1948, when he pursued a UFO high above the clouds and never came back. His seven-year-old daughter, Mary, grew up, had children of her own, and grew old and infirm. His wife died, his son died.

And then, eighty years after he disappeared, he returns, only a year older than when he left. His 87-year-old daughter has dementia. Kinburgh is now a town. Pollution has changed the air, sea and land. All the other prefab houses have long since been demolished, but his daughter still lives in theirs, and when he returns she is delighted. She barely remembers the last half-century anyway, so she’s not asking why he’s so young, she’s wondering why she’s so old.

Friday 24 May 2024

The Arrest by Jonathan Lethem (Ecco) | review by Stephen Theaker

This review originally appeared in Interzone #289 (November–December 2020).

Journeyman used to be a screenwriter, though none of his films ever got made. His name back then was Alexander Duplessis. He spent a long time working with producer Peter Todbaum, a Harvey Weinstein-like friend from college, on a pet science fiction project, Yet Another World. Now he lives in Tinderwick, a small town on an isolated peninsula in what used to be New England, wiping up the blood left by the butcher and delivering the meat.

Wednesday 22 May 2024

The Night Parade by Ronald Malfi (Kensington) | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Plague story infected by lack of action and conflict.

The Night Parade, yet another outbreak story, introduces Wanderer’s Folly, a disease that enrages people, makes them lose their minds and eventually kills them. Moreover, the birds have disappeared, and insects are getting larger. 

English professor David Arlen and his eight-year-old daughter Ellie, holding a shoebox with unhatched bird eggs, hit the road after wife/mother Kathy dies in hospital. David is convinced that Kathy was immune to the disease and that the medical establishment tested her to death. Now, those same individuals want to get their hands on Ellie, who has a blossoming special power. 

David, who may or may not be infected with Wanderer’s Folly, disguises Ellie as a boy, and they drive around aimlessly until David decides he wants to go to a relative’s house. Like many fictional children, Ellie displays unrealistic intelligence and wisdom beyond her years. 

Although there are tense passages and the ending ratchets up the action, the novel suffers from stagnation and meaningless scenes and dialogue. The main characters wander around and converse about uninspiring topics. Their psychological underpinnings are weak, and most goals are short-lived. The Night Parade also includes superfluous backstory about the early days of Wanderer’s Folly and Kathy’s death. Moreover, the novel gets bogged down in details that do not support the plot. We do not need, for instance, a step-by-step explanation of David dyeing his hair black. 

When the characters finally get to a potential conflict, Malfi effectively keeps the reader guessing whether strangers’ hospitality is genuine or feigned for some nefarious purpose. Additionally, some characters’ physical characteristics – droopy eyes or lanky bodies, for instance – add to the realism of scenes. Another creepy detail: when face masks run short, some people resort to cheap plastic Halloween masks, while others wear paper plates with eye holes cut out. 

The Night Parade is just as much about a father’s willingness to accept his daughter’s point of view as it is about a rampant disease. Unfortunately, the novel’s wavering nature detracts from the story. Douglas J. Ogurek **

Monday 20 May 2024

IF | review by Stephen Theaker

After being so excellent in later seasons of The Walking Dead as Judith, the equally capable daughter of Rick Grimes, Cailey Fleming now takes the lead in possibly the worst-titled film of the year, IF – short for Imaginary Friend, and a nod to the infinite possibilities of the imagination. Fleming plays Bea, a twelve-year-old girl who, after losing her mother to illness, could now lose her father too (John Krasinski). While he’s on a long stay in hospital, being prepped for what he assures her will be a routine heart operation, she stays in a cosy apartment with her lovely but (if you ask me!) nigh-on criminally negligent grandma (Fiona Shaw).

Friday 17 May 2024

How to Mars by David Ebenbach (Tachyon Publications) | review by Stephen Theaker

This review previously appeared in Interzone #290-291 (March-June 2021).

Two years ago, a small colony was established on Mars, funded by a reality show, Destination Mars! Unfortunately, the show was cancelled once life on Mars turned out to be extremely boring. Even the Martian water was dull, with not a microbe nor a minibeast in sight. Fortunately, the production company continued to send supply rockets, so life goes on.

Friday 10 May 2024

Machine by Elizabeth Bear (Saga Press) | review by Stephen Theaker

This review originally appeared in Interzone #289 (November–December 2020).

Dr Brookllyn Jens (Llyn for short) is the rescue co-ordination specialist on the Core General-affiliated medical vessel I Race to Seek the Living. The current mission: Big Rock Candy Mountain, a very old generation ship, has been found hurtling through space at high speed in the wrong location and the wrong direction. Its crew was placed in rickety frozen hibernation by an insane captain and a buxom AI named Helen Alloy (a pun, apparently, on Helen of Troy). Helen has spent the subsequent lonely years upcycling the ship into new components for an intelligent machine, one that looks as if it is made of Tinkertoys (a colourful, wooden, American equivalent of Meccano). But that might not be the machine of the title: the police-issue exosuit that makes it possible for pain-ridden Llyn to live life as she does is just as important to the plot.

Tuesday 7 May 2024

Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas (Swoon Reads) | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Young adult novel muddies message of acceptance with lackluster writing.

Sixteen-year-old Yadriel, a trans gay boy (born female, identifies as male, attracted to males) and member of a Latinx family, wants more than anything for his East Los Angeles brujx (a gender-nonconforming variant of the Spanish bruja/o, meaning “witch” or “sorcerer”) community to accept him as a brujo (a male who finds lost spirits and sends them to the afterlife). He plans to do this by summoning the ghost of his murdered cousin Miguel, then guiding him to the afterworld. Alas, Yadriel’s father holds firm to tradition, which prohibits people born female from becoming brujos — they must develop into brujas. The only two who seem to wholeheartedly embrace Yadriel’s identity are his cousin and friend Maritza and his uncle.

Thus, Cemetery Boys is a young adult novel about transitioning, from the spirit world to the afterlife, from female to male, and from one mindset to another.

The trouble begins when Yadriel, accompanied by Maritza, inadvertently summons the ghost of high school classmate and reputed gang member Julian Diaz. Yadriel wants to use his special knife to cut the magical thread that binds Julian’s spirit to Earth and therefore send him to the afterlife. But Julian begs for Yadriel to hold off so he can make sure his friends are okay. Yadriel relents, flaunts the brujx rules, and takes the “reckless and beautiful” Julian through various obstacles while attempting to avoid detection by most people (who can’t see Julian) and Yadriel’s magical kin (who can). 

Yadriel and Julian get to know each other and their shared inner struggles. Clearly, Yadriel is attracted to Julian, who, despite his immaturity, unconditionally accepts Yadriel as a boy. But it seems the feelings aren’t necessarily mutual. Author Aiden Thomas adds tension by setting a deadline: if Yadriel doesn’t send Julian over by Día de Muertos (the Day of the Dead) in just a few days, Julian’s spirit might turn maligno.

The message that this book attempts to convey is a good one. The story, however, falters. It suffers from several repeating elements that become grating. Examples include physical gestures (lip biting, arm crossing, hand raising) intended solely to punctuate dialogue, an obsession with Julian’s dark eyes, meaningless chatter, and frequent mentions of Yadriel’s binder to remind the reader he was born female. Thomas’s excursions into the rituals and foods of Día de Muertos also cause the story to drag, and melodramatic speeches worsen an ending that stretches out too long. Douglas J. Ogurek ** 

Friday 3 May 2024

These Lifeless Things by Premee Mohamed (Solaris) | review by Stephen Theaker

This review previously appeared in Interzone #290–291 (March-June 2021).

These Lifeless Things is a novella published as part of the new Solaris Satellites series.

Fifty years ago, ninety-nine per cent of our species died during "the Setback". It lasted three years, and yet no one is sure what it was, even those who survived. Or at least no one believes what they have to say. Until a student on a field trip to an abandoned Ukrainian city discovers an old poetry book that might change everything: Eva, a woman who survived the initial disaster, kept a journal in its generous margins.

Tuesday 30 April 2024

Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #76: now out!

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

Welcome to Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #76, edited by Stephen Theaker and John Greenwood!

Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction #76 features four short stories, a non-fiction article, and fifteen reviews. In “The White Body” by Harris Coverley, shipwrecked sailors encounter a dread being on the open seas. Scottish master of surrealism Douglas Thompson provides “The Apparatus of Yearning” and “Cupid and Psyche”. “Controlling the Lights from Above” by Charles Wilkinson is a tale concerning the long-term consequences of workplace bullying. In “Cultures of Climate Change, Changes of Climate Cultures”, Rafe McGregor considers fiction’s role in the face of ecological disaster. Then Stephen Theaker and Douglas Ogurek review books by Adam Cesare, Grady Hendrix, Kazuo Ishiguro, Rumaan Alam and C.J. Cooke, plus the films Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom, The Creator, Dream Scenario, Godzilla Minus One, No One Will Save You and Office Invasion, and the television shows Ahsoka, Doctor Who, Invasion and Monarch: Legacy of Monsters.

The cover art for this issue was generated using Wombo Dream.

Here are the contumacious contributors to this issue.

Charles Wilkinson’s publications include The Pain Tree and Other Stories (London Magazine Editions, 2000). His stories have appeared in Best Short Stories 1990 (Heinemann), Best English Short Stories 2 (W.W. Norton, USA), Best British Short Stories 2015 (Salt), Confingo, London Magazine and in genre magazines/ anthologies such as Black Static, Interzone, The Dark Lane Anthology, Supernatural Tales, Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction, Phantom Drift (USA), Bourbon Penn (USA), Shadows & Tall Trees (Canada), Nightscript (USA) and Best Weird Fiction 2015 (Undertow Books, Canada). His collections of strange tales and weird fiction, A Twist in the Eye (2016), Splendid in Ash (2018), Mills of Silence (2021) and The Harmony of the Stares (2022), appeared from Egaeus Press. Eibonvale Press published his chapbook of weird stories, The January Estate, in 2022. He lives in Wales. His work previously appeared in TQF41 (“Notes on the Bone”), TQF44 (“A Lesson from the Undergrowth”), TQF46 (“Petrol-Saved”), TQF48 (“A Thousand Eyes See All I Do”), TQF54 (“Septs”), TQF56 (“Mr Kitchell Says Thank You”), TQF59 (“The Constant Providers”), TQF60 (“Evening at the Aubergine Café”), TQF64 (“September Gathering”), TQF70 (“July Job Offer”) and TQF73 (“The Arrival of an Acquaintance”).

Douglas J. Ogurek is the pseudonymous and sophomoric founder of the unsplatterpunk subgenre, which uses splatterpunk conventions (transgressive/gory/gross/violent subject matter) to deliver a positive message. His short story collection I Will Change the World … One Intestine at a Time (Plumfukt Press), a juvenile stew of horror and bizarro, aims to make readers lose their lunch while learning a lesson. Ogurek also guest-edits the wildly unpopular UNSPLATTERPUNK! “smearies”, published by Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction. These anthologies are unavailable at your library and despised by your mother. Ogurek reviews films and fiction for that same magazine.

Douglas Thompson has published more than twenty short story and poetry collections and novels from various publishers in the UK, Europe and the Americas, including The Brahan Seer from Acair Books (2014) and most recently Stray Pilot from Elsewhen Press (2022). He won the Herald/Grolsch Question Of Style Award in 1989, 2nd prize in the Neil Gunn Writing Competition 2007, and the Faith/Unbelief Poetry Prize in 2016. His work previously appeared in TQF28 (“Anatomy of a Wounded House”), TQF29 (“Madame Mortadore & the Clouds”), TQF37 (“Apoidroids”), TQF39 (“Escaladore”), TQF41 (“DogBot™”), TQF43 (“Quasar Rise”), TQF44 (“Black Sun”), TQF60 and TQF61 (“Yttrium”). See for more details.

Harris Coverley has had more than a hundred short stories published in Penumbra, Crimeucopia, JOURN-E, and The Black Beacon Book of Horror (Black Beacon Books), amongst many others. A former Rhysling nominee, he has also had over two hundred poems published in journals around the world. He lives in Manchester, England. He previously appeared in TQF70 (“See How They Run! See How They Run!”); TQF72 (“Father Figure”); TQF73 (“The Scorpion”); TQF74 (“Kung Fu Sue: Origins”) and TQF75 (“Kleptobiblia”).

Rafe McGregor is a critical theorist publishing on culture, climate justice, and policing. He is the author of thirteen books, including Literary Theory and Criminology (2023), Narrative Justice (2018), and The Adventures of Roderick Langham (2017). He can be found online @rafemcgregor.

Stephen Theaker’s reviews, interviews and articles have appeared in Interzone, Black Static, Prism, Dark Horizons and the BFS Journal. His story “The Reader-Queens of Tranck” appeared in the BFS anthology Emerging Horizons, edited by Allen Ashley. He has written many novels, none of them well-regarded. The full range of his enthusiastic literary endeavours may be viewed on his ISFDB summary bibliography:

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

Monday 29 April 2024

Boy Kills World | review by Stephen Theaker

Tortured by the memory of his mother and sister’s public execution by their city’s totalitarian rulers during the annual Culling, a boy (known only as Boy) vows revenge. He trains hard in the jungle for years with the mysterious Shaman, who tests him physically, mentally and pharmacologically, and since his mentor is played by Yayan Ruhian, so spectacular in The Raid 2 and John Wick: Chapter 3, the kid picks up some amazing moves. Grown up and now played by It star Bill Skarsgård, he is on a rare trip into town for supplies when a new Culling begins. He can’t hold back, and the ultra-violent action begins.

Friday 26 April 2024

The Four Profound Weaves by R.B. Lemberg (Tachyon Publications) | review by Stephen Theaker

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

Uiziya e Lali and the nameless man known as nen-sasaïr live in a world where magic is real and one can change one’s sex. A cloth of transformation, woven from the wind, summons sand-birds of bright fire. They cocoon the summoner, who burns without burning before emerging as the desired sex. They attribute this ability to the goddess Bird – who gives the series of stories of which this novella is a part its overall name, the Birdverse – but from what we see in this book it might well be a symbiotic biological process that has evolved on this world.

Monday 22 April 2024

Stitches, by Hirokatsu Kihara and Junji Ito (VIZ Media) | review by Stephen Theaker

This short, quick read collects nine short horror stories (the "stitches”), prose rather than comics, albeit with a bonus manga story. Originally published in Japan in 2010, the major appeal to English-speaking readers in 2024 is likely to be the ghastly illustrations by Junij Ito, famed for his critically-adored horror comics, such as Uzumaki, adapted into a highly memorable film at the peak of the J-Horror boom. (His cat comics, though possibly of less interest to our readers, are also much adored.) The bonus manga story is "Summer Graduation Trip", a fairly spooky and supposedly true story of two young women who go to a spa and find themselves in a spook-filled sauna.

Friday 19 April 2024

Under the Skin | review by Jacob Edwards

This review originally appeared in TQF65 (December 2019).

Out from under but still only skin-deep.

Under the Skin features Scarlett Johansson as a vulnerable yet predatory alien whose dark incomprehension of the world sets up a contrast by which director (and co-writer) Jonathan Glazer sets out to capture something of the human condition. Whether Glazer achieves this is debatable. Assuredly his film encapsulates the best and worst of the arthouse experience.

Tuesday 16 April 2024

47 by Walter Mosley (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers) | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

An alien among the alienated: young adult novel puts sci-fi twist on slave story to comment on freedom and equality.

In Walter Mosley’s young adult novel 47, a slave story collides (or intertwines) with colourful little people, ghouls, lasers shot out of eyes, and magic devices. 

The tale begins with 170-year-old first-person narrator 47 revealing that he’s going to reflect on his experiences as a slave in 1832. This framing device strengthens the author/reader connection, reinforces the authenticity of the tale, and lends the novel a genuine “Let me tell you a story” feel.

Monday 15 April 2024

Geethanjali Malli Vachindi | review by Stephen Theaker

A much more stylish sequel to the 2014 Telugu film Geethanjali, this 15-rated horror comedy from first-time director Shiva Thurlapati introduces us to an unattractive, middle-aged street food vendor hoping to persuade the military father of his very young girlfriend that he’s a catch worthy of her, even though he obviously isn’t. To this end, he proudly declares that within a year he will be respected by everyone, that they’ll all be calling him “sir”: he is about to star in a film! Unfortunately, the purported director – played by Srinivasa Reddy, returning from the first film – has no film in the works, and has in fact been bilking the vendor to support himself and his two writers.

Sunday 14 April 2024

Civil War | review by Stephen Theaker

Kirsten Dunst plays Lee, a celebrated and determined photojournalist who hopes to get one last photograph of the US president before his inevitable execution by rebels from the Western Alliance, who are closing in on Washington. Texas and California fight together in the alliance, the traditionally Republican and Democrat states setting their differences aside to depose what the director has called in interviews a fascist president. I don’t think that’s spelt out as clearly on-screen, though I saw it in 4DX and it’s easy to miss dialogue when the fans are blasting away. We do learn that he disbanded the FBI and ordered airstrikes on US citizens, and that something called the antifa massacre happened. Florida has also seceded, and the Portland Maoists are among those taking their guns to the White House. The president is in it so briefly and yet played so perfectly by Nick Offerman that Ned Beatty’s record could be under threat.

Friday 12 April 2024

Firewalkers by Adrian Tchaikovsky (Solaris) | review by Stephen Theaker

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

Another short book exploring the effects of global warming. In this possible future, the equatorial region of Africa might be the centre of a ever-expanding desert, but it was still the most convenient place to build Ankara Achouka, an anchor for the space elevator to the Grand Celeste, a colony ship up in orbit.

Monday 8 April 2024

Twisted Metal, Series 1 | reviewed by Stephen Theaker

A Peacock original in the United States, PlayStation adaptation Twisted Metal took quite a long time to reach the UK, where, ironically, it joined Xbox adaptation Halo on Paramount+. Personally, I’ve been Xbox-exclusive ever since my PlayStation 3 got the yellow light of death, but I have a soft spot for Twisted Metal, from the original PlayStation. It wasn’t a complicated game: you chose a themed, armoured, battle-ready car, entered an arena, and fought against several other cars until one emerged the winner. Twisted Metal Black: Online was one of the first console games I ever played online, as part of a beta testing programme. The series petered out in 2012, presumably because its ideas were so easily merged into other car games. For such an old, dormant series to be adapted for television might seem a bit surprising, but books much older than that are adapted every year. I take it as a sign that this wasn’t produced simply for the sake of corporate synergy, but because people looked at the game and its concepts and thought it would make a good tv show. I think they were right. It’s a lot of fun!

Friday 5 April 2024

Every Day, by Jesse Andrews (Orion Pictures et al.) | review by Stephen Theaker

This review originally appeared in TQF65 (December 2019).

“A” is a being of unknown origin who wakes up in a different human body every day, one that’s about the same age as A. When asked if he or she is a boy or a girl, later in the film, A says, “Yes.” I suppose it doesn’t make sense to talk about being male or female if you don’t have a body. Or, to put it another way, in a male body A is male, and in a female body A is female, rather like Doctor Who.

Monday 1 April 2024

Femlandia, by Christina Dalcher (HQ) | review by Stephen Theaker

In the very near future, the American economy collapses and society follows suit. Trying to keep her 16-year-old daughter Emma safe from marauding men, Miranda, a formerly well-off woman, heads for Femlandia, the all-female radfem colony co-founded by her mother, Jennifer Jones. That might sound like the set-up for a feminist book, and it certainly has feminist elements (and a feminist author), but ironically I think anti-feminists might enjoy it more.

Friday 29 March 2024

Earwig by B. Catling (Coronet) | review by Stephen Theaker

This review originally appeared in Interzone #284, November–December 2019).

The cover of this short novel has traps for the unwary reader. Despite the artwork, the book does not feature a cat-faced girl, nor does the girl listen at walls with a glass. And do not read the cover flap, which provides a synopsis of the entire novel.

Monday 25 March 2024

Immaculate | review by Stephen Theaker

Sydney Sweeney, who also produces, plays Cecilia, a young American woman whose church has closed due to lack of attendance. Surviving a childhood accident on an icy lake left Cecilia convinced that God has a plan for her, so now she travels to an Italian convent to take her vows and become a novitiate. The work is hard, physically and emotionally: the rules are strict and the nunnery offers end-of-life care to those who require it, including patients with severe dementia. But Sister Cecelia is a true believer in the power of religion and she really takes to life in the convent. She even makes friends, like fellow nun Sister Gwen (Benedetta Porcaroli) and suspiciously charming priest Father Sal Tedeschi (Alvaro Morte).

Friday 22 March 2024

She-Hulk: Attorney at Law, Season 1 | review by Stephen Theaker

This review originally appeared in TQF73 (April 2023).

Jennifer Walters is a lawyer who gains the power to transform into She-Hulk, thanks to her blood being mixed with that of her gamma-infused cousin, Bruce Banner. This television version of her story is largely based on the Dan Slott run of She-Hulk comics, where she works as a lawyer with superhuman clients, but it retains the fourth-wall breaking of the earlier John Byrne run. Tatiana Maslany plays the lead.

Wednesday 20 March 2024

Positive: A Novel by David Wellington (Harper Voyager) | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

More than a mark: lesson on compassionate leadership disguised as zombie story.

During his westward journey, exile Finnegan (aka Finn) encounters a large sign that says, “The world takes.” It’s a fitting summary for the post-apocalyptic world he traverses, a world full of zombies and even more dangerous predators of the human variety. 

Monday 18 March 2024

Hell to Pay by Matthew Hughes (Angry Robot) | review by Stephen Theaker

Chesney Armstruther should be having the time of his life. The events of the two previous novels in the To Hell and Back trilogy (The Damned Busters and Costume Not Included, reviewed in TQF37 and TQF48 respectively) left him with superpowers, a nice girlfriend in Melda McCann, lots of money, and a cigar-smoking, weasel-faced, wish-granting demon at his beck and call. Plus, thanks to meeting a version of Jesus from an earlier draft of the universe, he’s now free of the autism that had previously bedevilled his interactions with other humans. But he isn’t really any happier. He might understand people’s emotions better now, but that doesn’t mean he knows what to do about them. Previously, he was at least happy within his areas of certainty, his pools of white light, but now it’s all grey areas.

Friday 15 March 2024

Chilling Effect by Valerie Valdes | review by Stephen Theaker

This review originally appeared in Interzone #284 (November–December 2019).

Eye-catching cover art by Julie Dillon gives a good idea of what’s inside: goofball space opera with a more serious protagonist. She is Captain Eva-Benita Caridad Alvarez y Coipel de Innocente, who hasn’t spoken to her family in years, since the awful incident at Garilia. She owns a slightly old-fashioned spaceship, La Sirena Negra, a keep-your-mouth-shut present from her estranged spaceship-dealer father, and we meet her just as she and her crew run into even more trouble than usual.

Saturday 9 March 2024

The Parades | review by Stephen Theaker

After a huge earthquake hits Japan, a 35-year-old single mother and journalist, Minako (Masami Nagasawa), drowns in the subsequent tsunami. Not that she realises at first. She wakes up on a beach strewn with wreckage and of course her first thought is to find Ryo, her seven-year-old son. Rescue workers ignore her questions. So do survivors, and a colleague from work. The first person to acknowledge her is her colleague’s daughter – because the little girl died too. Later, as Minako searches through the rubble, a young man, Akira (Kentarô Sakaguchi), calls to her from his van. He can see her, and she can touch his arm. She’s in such a state that he offers her a lift to where he is staying, a cosy outdoor bar in a little fairground in the middle of nowhere. He tells her it’s a gathering place for people like them, by which he means those who died with regrets and aren’t ready to move on.

Friday 8 March 2024

Fugitive Telemetry by Martha Wells (Tordotcom) | review by Stephen Theaker

This review previously appeared in Interzone #290-291 (March-June 2021).

The rogue SecUnit (an android "made of cloned human tissue, augments, anxiety, depression, and unfocused rage") returns for Fugitive Telemetry, its sixth adventure, though to its own slight discomfort it is somewhat less of a rogue than before. Now it has friends, and its friends have expectations. So when a murder is apparently committed on Preservation Station, a place where such events are extremely rare, SecUnit is expected to help. There is some discomfort on the station about having a former murderbot on board, but its new friend Mensah has enough sway to override objections.

Wednesday 6 March 2024

Cackle by Rachel Harrison (Berkley) | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Aimless woman desperate for a man finds mysterious woman desperate for a friend in dully taught lesson on female autonomy.

Cackle is a call for women to stop kowtowing to men and to develop their own voices. Unfortunately, excepting a charming spider and some unruly teens, the story isn’t all that interesting.

Monday 4 March 2024

Lisa Frankenstein | review by Stephen Theaker

1989: the unfortunately named Lisa Swallows (Kathryn Newton) has a new home and a new school. When Lisa was a little younger, her mum was killed by an axe murderer. Her dad has now married Janet (Carla Gugino), a nasty piece of work who thinks very little of Lisa. Stepsister Taffy (Liza Soberano) does her best to be nice but isn’t very good at it. After another girl deliberately gives Lisa a spiked drink at a party, and her science lab partner sexually assaults her, she takes a shortcut home through her favourite graveyard. She wishes she could be with the subject of her favourite bit of statuary, a piano player who died young in 1837 (Cole Sprouse, one half of the little kid in Big Daddy).

Friday 1 March 2024

Black Adam | review by Stephen Theaker

This review originally appeared in TQF73 (April 2023).

Archaeologists in the country of Kahndaq, currently in the grip of a private security company, discover the tomb of an ancient hero. Betrayal leads mercenaries to the scene, but when Black Adam awakes, they die, most violently. The film then follows Black Adam as he connects with his country's current inhabitants, fights its occupying force, and battles a quartet of Justice Society members, sent from the US to bring him in line.

Monday 26 February 2024

Madame Web | review by Stephen Theaker

Madame Web has been given a lot of stick for being a bad superhero film, which in my view is a complete misunderstanding of what it is. It’s not a superhero film at all, it’s a comedy horror thriller that takes place in a superhero universe. Comics readers are very used to this kind of thing, but it seems to have baffled some filmgoers. Imagine a Final Destination film, but where nearly all the heroine’s psychic visions are of the same disaster: an evil Spider-Man type called Ezekiel murdering everyone he gets his hands on, in one location after another. Admittedly, he is the film’s weakest link (the animation of his movements looks clumsy, and it sounds as if his dialogue has been dubbed by someone else), but, overall, like Morbius, the film is very far from being the complete disaster that some would have you think.

Friday 23 February 2024

In the Vanishers’ Palace, by Aliette de Bodard (JABberwocky Literary Agency) | review by Stephen Theaker

This review originally appeared in TQF65 (December 2019).

Some time ago, the world was conquered and enslaved by beings who subsequently left, vanished, and broke the world. Humans were left to survive as best they could among the wreckage and abandoned artefacts. Resources are scarce, plagues are rife, and life in Yên’s village is extremely difficult, the village elders always looking for an excuse to reduce the number of mouths to feed. Would-be scholar Yên is not regarded as terribly useful, but her mother is a healer, and knows a few words of power. When Head Phuoc’s daughter is seriously unwell, and all else fails, and exile is the price of failure, Yên’s mother calls on a dragon spirit to help. Yên is offered as the price.

Wednesday 21 February 2024

ProleSCARYet: Tales of Horror and Class Warfare edited by Ian Bain, Anthony Engebretson, J.R. Handfield, Eric Raglin, and Marcus Woodman (Rad Flesh Press) | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Overlords in saviours’ clothing: anthology takes a shot at capitalism with mixed results.

Despite its silly title, this horror anthology sympathises with those fed up with monied capitalists trying to take control of their lives, mostly in office and retail environments. It’s full of low earners (pizza deliverers, landscapers, gas station attendants, baristas) trying to make ends meet while suffering at the hands of the wealthy. In some stories, members of the upper class get their way, while, in others, the “rich fucks”, as one author puts it, pay their dues.

Monday 19 February 2024

Poor Things | review by Stephen Theaker

A woman tries to commit suicide, throwing herself off a bridge. We later find out that she was pregnant, with a husband who would have driven anyone to despair. Her body is recovered by Dr Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe), God for short. While watching, given that Godwin was Mary Shelley's maiden name, I assumed him to be Frankenstein's monster, now a mad scientist himself, but if so or not, he had a father who performed similarly ghastly experiments on him. Now he continues the family tradition, performing ghastly miracles such as binding the head of a pig to the body of a chicken, or reanimating the body of a suicidal woman by using the brain of her unborn baby.

Friday 16 February 2024

Bridge 108 by Anne Charnock (47North) | review by Stephen Theaker

This review originally appeared in Interzone #285 (January–February 2020), which also included a wide-ranging interview with the author.

In A Calculated Life, Jayna, a simulant in the midst of a low-key rebellion, goes on a sneaky trip to the Enclave market on Clothing Street and notes with distaste a striped cotton shirt with a fake fur collar. Nauseated to see such disparate things stitched together, she asks her friend Dave who would do that kind of work. Migrants, he tells her. Bridge 108 introduces us to the boy who made that shirt, and shows us how proud he was of it, and what it signified for him.

Caleb is a migrant boy of twelve years old who has been separated from his parents for some time. Europe is so dried out by global warming that starting a wildfire in France will see you imprisoned for life, and an arsonist in Portugal could face the death penalty. England and Wales, for now at least, have what we would consider a pleasant Mediterranean climate, warm enough for vineyards and sleeping outdoors in the summer.

Monday 12 February 2024

For All Mankind, Season 4 | review by Stephen Theaker

Season 4 of For All Mankind, Apple's big-budget alternate-history science fiction show, jumps forward eight years. In their world, Stanley Kubrick finished AI: Artificial Intelligence himself, John Lennon played the Superbowl half-time show, and the USA got its first lesbian president. In 1995, humans had barely a toehold on Mars and a bomb had devastated NASA's command centre. In 2003, the multi-national Mars colony is well-established and the next stop planned is asteroid mining. After an early attempt ends in disaster, it takes a particularly valuable prize to get things going again.

Though we barely see Jodi Balfour as President Waverley in this season (Al Gore now being President), and many other major characters have died or retired along the way, there are some survivors from the late 1960s. Astronaut Ed Baldwin is a cranky old man now; hardly a surprise since he was such a cranky young man. Joel Kinnamon's performance conveys the character's age better than his rather dusty make-up. He doesn't want to leave Mars, especially with his daughter and grandson on the way there. He's not happy when old friend Danielle Poole (Krys Marshall) is sent from Earth to become his boss. Her instinct was to decline the job, but she returns to service out of duty.

Friday 9 February 2024

Barbarians of the Beyond by Matthew Hughes (Spatterlight) | review by Stephen Theaker

About twenty-five years ago, in the year 1499 (New Reckoning) five of the galaxy's worst criminals, known collectively as the Demon Princes, led their henchmen in an attack on a farming colony, Mount Pleasant, on the world of Providence, leaving many dead and taking the rest as slaves. Such is the nature of life in the Beyond, beyond the civilised safety of the Oikumene worlds.

The parents of Morwen Sabine were among those taken, and sold into slavery, ending up in the possession of Hacheem Belloch, on Blatcher's World. And it was into slavery that Morwen was born. We join her subsequent to her escape, as she arrives on Providence, and makes her way back to the former home of her parents. They left something of value there, hidden in her tree, that might help bring them home.

Wednesday 7 February 2024

Such a Pretty Smile by Kristi DeMeester (St. Martin’s Press) | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Unrequited love and somnambulant sculpting: alternating timelines explore mother/daughter bonds and suppression of women’s voices.

Such a Pretty Smile tells the stories of a mother and daughter dealing with a variety of threats, the most dangerous of which is a serial killer called The Cur. On a deeper level, the novel comments on women having their voices stifled in a society that drives them towards certain behaviours and activities. 

Like many recent horror novels, the action alternates between two timelines. In 2019, eighth-grader Lila Sawyer – a surname with clear implications – has a crush on her attractive but self-absorbed classmate Macie, who is more interested in Cameron, a junior in high school. Macie tries to push Cameron’s awkward brother Andrew onto Lila. To top it off, a murderer who kills young girls is on the prowl. 

Monday 5 February 2024

All of Us Strangers | review by Stephen Theaker

All of Us Strangers tells the story of Adam (Andrew Scott), a gay writer in his forties, living alone in an empty London apartment block. He writes for film, and, when he has to (as he puts it), for television. He's trying to write a script about his childhood, but struggling, so he heads back to his home town to see his parents. Anyone who has seen the trailer will know already that his parents (played by Claire Foy and Jamie Bell) died in a car crash when he was a child. The film, however, doesn't tell you that they died until after we have met them, though one might guess from the conversation and their relative youth. Adam doesn't seem surprised to meet them, nor do they seem surprised to meet him, though they are aware that time has gone on without them.

In London, a nice chap knocks on Adam's door with a bottle of whiskey, looking for company. They are apparently the only people to have moved into the building yet and the silence is freaking him out. Harry (Paul Mescal) is from a younger generation, but bears similar emotional scars. Adam hates being called queer, because it was an insult thrown at him by bullies in the 1980s. Harry hates being called gay, because it was an all-purpose insult during the Chris Moyles era. Adam went a long time without ever having penetrative sex, because of AIDS, but for Harry's generation HIV would no longer be a death sentence and PrEP (Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis) drugs can prevent transmission. Though Adam understandably turns the drunk young man away at first, he later invites him over, and a tender relationship develops between them.

Eventually, Adam takes Harry to meet his parents.

Friday 2 February 2024

Tales from the Spired Inn by Stephen Palmer (NewCon Press) | review by Stephen Theaker

This review originally appeared in Interzone #284 (November–December 2019).

It’s not the end of the world. The planet is doing just fine. But this might be the last year that there are any humans living on it, at least as we know them. As we learn in the first story in this collection, a clever murder mystery called “Dr Vanchovy’s Final Case”, this is an Earth where people are killed by bladder blade plants, falling cushions of fungus, and cats with silicon implants in their claws. Abandoned buildings, thousands of years old, reach up to the clouds, serving only as anchors for the webs of whooping hunting spiders. The air grows ever less breathable and anyone coming indoors has to leave their boots in antiseptic buckets.

Wednesday 31 January 2024

The Unbalancing, by R.B. Lemberg (Tachyon Publications) | review by Stephen Theaker

The star in the ocean off the city of Gelle-Geu has slumbered for almost a thousand years, but now it is beginning to have nightmares. And because that star is tethered to the Mother Mountain, a nearby volcano, the twenty thousand inhabitants of Gelle-Geu are in no small amount of danger. Unfortunately, the previous keeper of the Star of the Tides decided that nothing could be done to stop the disaster, and so kept it secret.

When new starkeeper Ranra Kekeri takes over, and discovers how little time remains, Ranra takes a very different view. If there’s a way to calm the star, Ranra will find it, but before that can be done the new starkeeper may have to figure out what the star actually is – all while dealing with the worries caused by an aggressive former partner, Veruma, a cruel and delusional mother, Adira, and a potential new partner, the poet Erígra Lilún.

Monday 29 January 2024

Badland Hunters | review by Stephen Theaker

Although not a direct sequel, this South Korean film is set in the world of Concrete Utopia, which doesn't seem to have had a UK release. Based on a comic called Pleasant Bullying by Kim Soong-nyung, the previous film apparently showed the aftermath of an earthquake striking Seoul so hard that all the skyscrapers collapsed. People tried their best to survive in a devastated urban environment, to build some kind of order among the chaos, but things went awry: a Sight and Sound review described it as "a Ballardian story set in a post-apocalyptic apartment complex".

I doubt many reviewers will use "Ballardian" to describe Netflix's Badland Hunters, which is a self-consciously pulpy and over-the-top affair. A prologue shows us that, when the earthquake hit, mad scientist Yang Gi-Su was trying to resurrect his daughter. Three years later, by which time a drought has added to everyone's problems, he is still mad-sciencing away, and with the help of soldiers has taken over an apartment block that still stands. With his new experiments, Yang Gi-Su aims to create humans who can survive the extended periods of dehydration and malnutrition that are practically inevitable in this dry new world.

Friday 26 January 2024

Lone Wolf 28: The Hunger of Sejanoz, by Joe Dever | review by Rafe McGregor

Holmgard Press, hardback, £19.99, November 2022, ISBN 9781915586056

I’ve been delaying my review of the most recently published collector’s edition because I was hoping to be able to report that Holmgard Press had achieved at least one of its goals: that either the whole cycle of thirty-two Lone Wolf gamebooks had been published or that a large proportion of the cycle was back in print. Unfortunately, both goals remain in development at the time of writing. Regarding availability, there are now three editions circulating: original (paperback and secondhand only), collector’s (hardback and secondhand only), and definitive (which can be purchased from Holmgard Press, Amazon, and no doubt other online bookstores). The only definitive editions in print at the time of writing are books 1 to 12, 1 to 5 (the Kai series) in hardback and paperback and 6 to 12 (the Magnakai series) in hardback. Books 13 to 20 (the Grand Master series) are relatively easy to find on the secondhand market (and usually not extortionate, for the original editions anyway), but books 21 to 31 (the New Order series) less so. People seem to be hanging on to the Holmgard Press Collector’s Editions pretty tightly and I’ve not seen any copies of books 28 to 31 available for a while now. The original edition of Lone Wolf 28: The Hunger of Sejanoz (which was published by Red Fox in 1998) reached a peak price of £1894 on the secondhand market in February 2022, but both original and collector’s editions are now completely unavailable fourteen months after the publication of the latter. Regarding the completion of the series, Lone Wolf 32: Light of the Kai is going to be released in two parts, which Holmgard aims to publish in October 2024 and October 2025 respectively. I have to ask why. Two parts mean that Joe Dever’s original conception of a thirty-book cycle has been changed to thirty-three, but the press’s stated intention is the posthumous realisation of his vision (Dever sadly passed away in 2016). I am also concerned that the perceived need to publish the final book in two parts is evidence of an exacerbation of the source of my criticism of Lone Wolf 31: The Dusk of Eternal Night, which I reviewed in TQF69. Finally, 2024 is the fortieth anniversary of the publication of Lone Wolf 1: Flight from the Dark (yes, that does make me feel old) and it would have been great to have the cycle completed in such an auspicious year.

Wednesday 24 January 2024

The Lost Village: A Novel by Camilla Sten (Minotaur Books) | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Strong storytelling compensates for tired concept. 

The Lost Village unites stories from two different timelines. The present-day component covers the danger that unfolds while Alice Lindstedt’s crew shoots a teaser for a documentary about the decades-abandoned Swedish village of Silvertjarn. There is a threat out there, and we’re not sure whether it’s human or supernatural. 

The second piece gradually reveals what happened to this mining town in the 1950s, as well as the story of the birth of a mysterious baby that was left when nearly nine hundred people disappeared. 

What happened? Was this a mass suicide? Mass migration? Was it aliens? Russians coming in and kidnapping them? Alice wants to get to the bottom of this mystery. Author Camilla Sten faces the challenge of creating something new in the arguably oversaturated film-crew-encounters-threat-while-documenting-mysterious-setting horror market. The present story, told from Alice’s perspective in first person present, takes a while to get going — there’s a lot of walking around the site and not much happening to suggest the place is dangerous. Where Sten makes up for that, however, is in the conflicts between Alice and Emmy, whose friendship with Alice was shattered by something that happened in college. This tension will mount as Alice continues to make decisions that put her team at risk. Other crew members include Emma’s boyfriend Robert, Max (interested in Alice), and Tone, an amateur photographer about whom Alice withholds critical information from the others.  

The past story unfolds in third-person narration from the perspective of Alice’s great grandmother Elsa. One of Elsa’s daughters, Margarete (also Alice’s grandmother), has already left Silvertjarn when handsome and charismatic Pastor Mattias arrives and captivates many villagers, chief among them Elsa’s younger daughter Aina. Relationships deteriorate as the pastor’s influence intensifies. 

As the climax approaches, Sten steps up the tension by quickly flipping between timelines. 

The Lost Village does not top the charts in terms of scare factor. Rather, its strength lies in its handling of complex relationships and susceptibility to silver-tongued leaders.—Douglas J. Ogurek ***

Monday 22 January 2024

Hanu-Man | review by Stephen Theaker

The first film in what is hoped to be a new superhero universe, Hanu-Man introduces us to Hanumanthu (played with a good deal of charm by Teja Sajja), a feckless young man who amuses himself with petty larceny, and feeds himself by taking the food his sister (Varalaxmi Sarathkumar) makes, and insulting her while he does it. They live in a picturesque mountain village called Anjanadri, which might be a nice place to live were it not for the village champion, who demands a tax and engages those who protest in wrestling bouts to the death.

Hanumanthu is sweet on Meenakshi (Amritha Aiyer), who has returned from the city to spend the summer. After she incurs the wrath of the village champion, skull-wearing bandits attack a coach she is on and brutally murder the other passengers. Hanumanthu, in saving her, gets himself stabbed, kicked off a cliff, and likely to drown, but a kindly god takes note of his heroism. In the water, Hanumanthu is drawn to a pearl, a magic pearl that formed around a drop of the monkey god Hanuman's blood, a pearl which will heal his wounds and grant him the strength to fight.

As long as it's sunny in Anjanadri, that is...

Friday 19 January 2024

Hounds of the Underworld by Dan Rabarts and Lee Murray (Raw Dog Screaming Press) | review by Jacob Edwards

This review originally appeared in TQF64 (March 2019).

New Zealand’s answer to Richard Morgan.

I don’t read as much as I’d like to – life spills over; time seeps away – but there are names from my editing days at Andromeda Spaceways that I still look out for. Dan Rabarts is one of them. I particularly like the way Dan builds his stories, grounding them in both character and setting and then pursuing an idea of real substance. When I heard he’d written a novel – co-authored with Lee Murray – I put it at the top of my short but optimistic “to read” list.

Monday 15 January 2024

Monarch: Legacy of Monsters, Season 1 | review by Stephen Theaker

Shortly after the events of the excellent 2014 Godzilla film, a young American woman, Cate Randa (played by Anita Sewai), and a young Japanese man, Kentaro Randa (Ren Watabe) discover that they share the same father: Hiroshi Randa (Takehiro Hira), who disappeared after Godzilla fought the two MUTOs in San Francisco. He didn't die in the fight, he just said he had important things to do and scarpered, a bigamist abandoning both his families to the vagaries of an increasingly dangerous world. Cate's search for answers brings her to Kentaro, then to Lee Shaw (Kurt Russell), a mothballed Monarch monster-hunter with his own agenda, and then brings them eye-to-eye with a monster or two. For Cate and Kentaro it's the adventure of a lifetime, but this isn't Shaw's first monster mash.

Friday 12 January 2024

Star Trek: Picard, Season 3, by Terry Matalas et al. (Paramount) | review by Stephen Theaker

This review originally appeared in TQF75 (November 2023).

The first two seasons of Star Trek: Picard were divisive, to say the least. When it was first announced – with Michael Chabon on board! – I was delighted. The first two seasons of Discovery had been smashing, so I had high hopes. Hopes soon dashed by a programme that seemed to have exactly the same problem as the final film, Star Trek: Nemesis: it had been bent out of shape in order to tempt back its two biggest stars, giving them leaden, actorly storylines.

Patrick Stewart had rejected the proposals for season one several times before finally agreeing to it, and one of the things he didn’t want to do was a mere reunion. And so we had two seasons of a substitute crew running around while Patrick Stewart and Brent Spiner got their teeth stuck into some proper acting. There were episodes I enjoyed, there were others I didn’t, but it was disappointing and often quite dull. The lowest point was Picard persuading Guinan to stay on Earth for humanity’s sake, despite World War III being imminent.

Tuesday 9 January 2024

The Final Girl Support Group (Berkley) by Grady Hendrix

Disjointed, drawn-out and dull mystery comments on society’s obsession with violence toward women in film.

The Final Girl Support Group details Lynnette Tarkington’s journey from justifiable paranoia and reclusiveness – she’s a two-time survivor of attacks from killers who wiped out people close to her – to a focus on being part of a group and helping others. The novel also explores a collective obsession with films in which women get mutilated and murdered by crazed men, as well as why attractive, able-bodied white women dominate the final girl stereotype.

Lynnette, whose best friend is a plant, belongs to the Final Girl Support Group led by therapist Dr Carol Elliot. Each group member is the sole survivor of a killer’s rampage. Their ordeals have also spawned horror films whose storylines echo those of classics such as Scream, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Halloween, and Friday the 13th. The most entertaining final girl is the drug-abusing Heather, an abrasive type who drops f-bombs and isn’t beyond flicking a cigarette butt into a swimming pool.

When Lynnette, whose own brutal Christmastime trial inspired Slay the Halls (invented by the author), suspects someone is trying to kill everyone in her group, she goes on high alert and tries to warn the others. As the talky first-person narrator gets closer to unveiling the killer, the danger intensifies. 

Throughout the novel, author Grady Hendrix interweaves snippets from different fictitious sources such as horror fanzine articles, scholarly film critiques, text from the back cover of a VHS tape, and police interview transcripts. Despite their attempts to create a commentary on the horror genre’s fixation with harming women, these asides detract too much from the main story. All this shifting about makes it hard to get invested in Lynnette or the other characters. 

Several drawn-out scenes lack compelling content. When Lynnette is in a car with a teenage girl, for instance, nothing happens to advance the story. The two seem to repeat the same basic ideas just to keep the story going. 

The novel’s saving grace is its focus on women uniting to combat male aggression. Another aspect worth commendation is the juxtaposition of the quick, violent deaths of horror films with the slow, exhausting deaths of reality.—Douglas J. Ogurek **