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.

It wasn’t just humans that were enslaved and damaged by the vanishers: the myths and legends of Earth were killed or severely traumatised too. Spirited away to the dragon’s palace, Yên expects to be eaten, but that’s not what the dragon is after, and the relationship they end up with is not what either of them was expecting. What we then get is a romance between a nice girl and a powerful, prideful grump in the tradition of Hades and Persephone, Beauty and the Beast, Howl’s Moving Castle and more recently Uprooted. But it also follows the traditional pattern of romantic comedies: the meet cute, the initial dislike, the slow growing-to-like each other, the seemingly insurmountable relationship obstacle, and so on.

It’s weird (the palace itself is a barely-controlled artefact of the vanishers and life there becomes very strange), romantic (Yên and the dragon’s relationship is passionate, intense and believable, right from the first moment they meet) and scrupulously ethical (the dragon being quite aware that a coerced relationship would be meaningless). And I’ve not mentioned some of the more interesting elements of the book because I think the book is better for them coming as a surprise. I very much recommend it. Stephen Theaker ****

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.

The worst entries are cryptic diatribes saturated in melodramatic language. These authors make the mistake of thinking readers will invest time in their philosophical ramblings without the backbone of a solid story.

Nevertheless, the collection offers enough strong pieces to make it worth the read. Several stories feature a bad guy or organisation, often an embodiment of corporate America, attempting to lure young, inexperienced people into what amounts to indentured servitude.

“Salen’s Found” by Corey Farrenkoph, for instance, introduces a young man working two menial jobs. He and his college student girlfriend struggle with whether they should join a commune, the walls of which they can see from their apartment. As the couple’s pressures mount, the cult’s vague brochures filled with smiling faces and promises of security (not so different from a corporate website) start showing up everywhere… even in the most private of places.

Another theme pervading this anthology involves the lack of appreciation and downright contempt among the privileged for those in the service industry. Stories such as “Empty”, arguably the strongest in the compilation, spotlight the unrealistic demands that the wealthy impose on others. When a demanding customer’s bratty children discover that a shop is out of Birthday Cake frozen yogurt, Leah and her co-workers must venture into a monster-infested storage area to get more. Risking their lives for their customers is something their corporate masters believe they should be willing to do. Author Noah Lemelson’s first-person narrator Leah doesn’t mince words or go into any kind of philosophical meanderings – the message is conveyed through the highly original story.

Dustin Walker’s “Return Policy” explores how the idle rich treat the less fortunate as a means to an end. The protagonist works for the returns department of ReGen, which takes advantage of grieving parents by transferring their dead children’s essences into beings that doesn’t live up to the original. He’s trying to help people get away from the company so they can grieve and accept the loss of their children.

Another strong entry is Tim Kane’s “Sweet Meats: A Grisly Tale of Hansel and Gretel”, which condemns corporate environmental exploitation with a retelling of the classic fairy tale. In this variation, the witch protagonist switches between raven and human, and she uses something very different to candy to decorate her house.

The authors within ProleSCARYet are likely to elicit one of two reactions among readers: “Shut up” or “Tell me more.” Douglas J. Ogurek ***


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.