Friday 19 July 2024

The Sea Inside Me by Sarah Dobbs (Unthank Books) | review by Stephen Theaker

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

In a nation traumatised by a series of terrorist attacks on primary schools, people just can’t cope. So an experiment is going on in Newark-by-the-Sea. When a crime is committed, both criminal and victim have their minds wiped of the incident, the goal being to lessen the criminality of the former and the fear of the latter.

Tuesday 16 July 2024

Growing Things and Other Stories by Paul Tremblay (William Morrow) | Review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Shut up! You’re getting too philosophical and esoteric. No wait… tell me more. Experimental horror collection sprouts a spectrum of reactions.

In “It Won’t Go Away”, one of the more impressive entries in Paul Tremblay’s sometimes brilliant and sometimes baffling Growing Things and Other Stories, the protagonist discovers strange dark areas on photos of a horror writer friend who recently committed suicide. This protagonist, also a writer, begins to extract and rearrange these black spots. 

Similarly, Tremblay’s inaugural short story collection gives readers odd, difficult-to-interpret dark spots. It challenges the reader to pull out excerpts, to twist them, to place them next to others. Sometimes, the beginnings of a picture emerge. Other times, the reader is left with a bunch of dark areas. 

In his story notes at the back of the volume, Tremblay doesn’t offer much in terms of interpretation but rather reveals what inspired the stories. This reminds one of the irritating creative writing student who says, “It means whatever you think it means.” 

These stories refuse to give clear-cut answers – the author even refers to himself as Mr Ambiguity in one story. This strategy leads to entries that vacillate from refreshing and thought-provoking to rambling and annoying. Often, Tremblay leads readers to think the story is going one way but then pulls the carpet from under them.

Without its forerunner The Cabin at the End of the World, this collection would barely make it through the front door of William Morrow. Some stories, reading like commercials for men’s cologne, leave the reader completely in the dark. Others are pontificating and cumbersome. “Notes from the Dog Walkers”, for instance, is written as a series of notes left by dog walkers at a man’s house. What starts as cute reports devolves into hulking paragraphs of self-indulgent, meandering rants that stitch together random thoughts.

The concluding story, “The Thirteenth Temple”, which resurrects sisters Merry and Marjorie from Tremblay’s innovative 2016 possession novel A Head Full of Ghosts, gets lost in a miasma of repetition and vagueness. 

Despite striking out in some cases, the collection does offer some winners – several stories were so intriguing that I read them twice. One of the best entries, the Hell Boy-inspired “Her Red Right Hand,” is a beautiful exploration of the grieving process. When Gemma’s mother dies, her father turns into a sulking, drunken mess. He often retreats to his bedroom, and he says things out of anger. The girl spends time near a well, where she confronts a goblin who degrades her and, interestingly, has her father’s voice. The girl’s drawings start to create a new reality at the well. This story exemplifies the power of art in overcoming inner demons, expressed in this case as an outer goblin. 

Another engrossing offering is “The Teacher,” in which a beloved high school history teacher exposes his students to “special lessons”, one of which is a paused video of a preschool boy sailing through the air toward a wall after being thrown by his teacher. As the weeks progress, the teacher slightly advances the frame, causing the suspended boy to get closer to the wall. The image captures what Tremblay is doing with most of these stories – showing people on the brink of disaster and encouraging several possible interpretations.

“The Getaway”, ostensibly about four men gradually disappearing while fleeing a crime scene, turns out to be a commentary on the repercussions of neglectful parenting. 

In “Nineteen Snapshots of Dennisport”, a man reflects on photographs from a boyhood family vacation in Dennisport, Massachusetts. Most of the photos are innocuous, but the narrator gradually reveals more about his mysterious father until the story ends with a surprising revelation.

“Our Town’s Monster”, one of the entries I read twice, intrigues despite its lack of clarity. A realtor showing a home to a dull, yet attractive couple nonchalantly reveals that a monster lives in a nearby swamp. A centenarian who is supposed to be (but isn’t really) the last teacher at a one-room schoolhouse is perceived as a kind of monster. A boy attempts to frighten his ultra-philosophical younger brother at a graveyard. The brother, immersed in his extremely violent video games, isn’t having it. Tremblay seems to be commenting on the human tendency to be so wrapped up in our own issues that we don’t see the monsters right in front of us.

When I was in elementary school, I did an experiment in which I placed the same kinds of seeds in separate pots and fed each one a different liquid (e.g. water, milk, coffee, tea). While some plants rose quicker than I expected, others never even broke through the soil. In Growing Things and Other Stories, Paul Tremblay feeds each horror story with a different elixir to inspire several questions: What is a monster? When, if ever, will it surface? Or has it already surfaced? Unfortunately, all that experimentation suffers from a fair amount of muddiness.—Douglas J. Ogurek ****

Friday 12 July 2024

Ormeshadow, by Priya Sharma (Tordotcom) | review by Stephen Theaker

This review previously appeared in TQF69 (April 2021).

Bookish boy Gideon and his parents John and Clare are forced by reduced circumstances to leave Bath and return to the family sheep farm. Bath, in Gideon’s view, had been a city of graceful townhouses, where children played with hoops and oil lamps hung like magic lanterns. The children of Ormeshadow, on the other hand, stare at him in baleful silence. The village gets its name from the legend that it was built atop a dragon, but don’t read this expecting The Dragon Griaule. It’s a historical drama, tinged by the possibility of fantasy towards the end. The family farm is run by John’s resentful brother, who is far from happy that his private secretary of a brother has returned, and his children are just as aggressive: they attack Gideon the first time they are left alone with him. Tragedy will result from these wildly different families sharing a single home. I thought this was a well-written book, and the family drama rang true, though a more overtly fantastical story would have been more to my taste. I liked that the chapters had proper titles, which seems to be quite rare in fiction these days, and fellow Richard Herring fans will be interested to learn that a certain amount of stone-clearing is involved. Stephen Theaker ****

Monday 8 July 2024

Kalki 2898 AD | review by Stephen Theaker

The last time I saw Amitabh Bachchan and Deepika Padukone in a film together, he was complaining about constipation and she was playing his long-suffering daughter, in the charming romantic comedy Piku. This time the stakes are even bigger, as is the budget – this is reportedly the most expensive Indian film ever made. Bachchan plays Ashwatthama, a character from the ancient Indian epic the Mahabharata. In one of several spectacular flashbacks we see his character in battle, firing an arrow of light into a far-away woman’s pregnant belly. For this crime he is cursed by Krishna to live forever, his wounds never healing, until the time when Krishna is due to be reborn, as Vishnu’s tenth incarnation, the Kalki of the title.

An animated title sequence then sweeps us through all the cruelties of our history and into a ruined, drought-stricken future. The rest of the world is dead and the last drop of water in the Ganges will soon be gone. Padukone’s character has no name at first, just a serial number: SUM-80. At the end of the world, few women are fertile, and those with potential are taken to a lab for implantation. If they were being used for breeding, that would be bad enough, but the women and babies are being juiced mid-pregnancy to produce a life-extending serum for a wizened dictator, the Baron Harkonnen-ish Supreme Yaskin (Kamal Haasan). SUM-80 is hiding her pregnancy, not knowing her baby might be the reincarnation of Vishnu predicted six thousand years before.

The third main protagonist and his robot were introduced in a fun little computer-animated prequel on Amazon Prime, B&B: Bujji and Bhairava, which was my first clue that the film wouldn’t be as dour as it looked from the trailer. Bhairava, played by Telugu star Prabhas of Baahubali fame, is a beefy, cheeky Han Solo type, if Han didn’t have Chewbacca to act as his conscience. Living in Kasi, formerly Varanasi, the world’s last and first city, he is a bounty hunter, desperate to earn his way into the floating Complex, where the rich live in luxury. A flashback shows him sneaking in for the film’s one song and dance number before being caught and kicked out. In the cartoon and film, we see Bhairava do a bit of bounty hunting and fighting, before eventually getting dragged against his will into the main storyline. (He’s not on screen anywhere near as much as one might expect.)

I was looking forward very much to this film, ever since I saw the trailer, and it was just as enjoyable as I expected, especially after the interval, when it took off the handbrake and slammed down hard on the pedal. Like some other Indian blockbusters I’ve watched recently (for example the brilliant Leo, heavily inspired by History of Violence), it feels like a patchwork of earlier movies: Dune, Mad Max: Fury Road, Flash Gordon, The Matrix, etc. It looks like a Zack Snyder film but in its plot and sense of humour reminded me more of The Fifth Element. When the twelve foot tall Ashwatthama went into battle to protect SUM-80, it was like seeing Gandalf fight against a mech! Which is to say, it may be a patchwork, but it’s a patchwork of things I love, and highly imaginative in its own right too.

The audience I was with enjoyed it even more than I did. The cinema was packed, and they frequently applauded, whistled and cheered, sometimes for cameos, for example by the directors Ram Gopal Varma and S.S. Rajamouli, and at other times for revelations of characters having returned from the Mahabharata. It was like being back in the cinema for the “No sir, all thirteen!” moment in The Day of the Doctor, over and over again. I wish I had waited forty minutes or so to watch the Telugu version, though, rather than watching a Hindi showing. Although some scenes were reportedly reshot in Hindi, it was pointless losing the original voice performances for no benefit to my understanding. Even with subtitles I may have missed a lot, given that the English subtitles were sometimes inaccurate even for the English-language dialogue.

For such a long film – after an 8pm screening I left the cinema at ten to midnight – it leaves a lot undone, rather like the first two Rebel Moon films, but it’s hard to complain when it ends with a series of spectacular battle sequences. It’s full of fun supporting characters, my favourite being feisty rebel Kyra (Anna Ben). The special effects are superb. We’ve come a long way from the days when Indian films were renowned for being filmed on a shoestring in a rush. Kalki 2898 AD puts down a real marker, showing that the subcontinent, and specifically this talented director Nag Ashwin and his team, can produce science fiction blockbusters every bit as spectacular as those made in Hollywood. Maybe it isn’t an absolute classic, but it’s great fun and it strongly suggests a classic is on its way. I’ll be first in line for the sequel, albeit at a daytime screening. Stephen Theaker ****

Friday 5 July 2024

Sea Change by Nancy Kress (Tachyon Publications) | review by Stephen Theaker

This review originally appeared in Interzone #286 (March–April 2020).

Quite a difficult book to review without spoilers, since it's as slow as its protagonist to trust the reader with any information, Sea Change begins with a self-driving house holding up the traffic, and only gets more mysterious from there. Renata knows what the teal paint on its window sill means: the house belongs to a member of the Org. She uses her electronic key to gain access, and investigates. There's no one inside, not even a corpse, though she suspects foul play. She nabs a toothbrush for DNA testing and bluffs her way out past the police.