Book review: Dark Sister by Graham Joyce

sisterDark Sister by Graham Joyce

[From Critical Wave #30, 1993. Originally published by Headline, this novel is now available as a Kindle e-book.]

 

Whilst Joyce’s debut novel, the critically-praised Dreamside (1991), voyaged across the metaphysical inner landscape of its protagonists’ subconscious desires, its successor remains on the more traditional terra littera of supernatural dark fantasy.

Maggie Sanders, already uneasy with her role as supportive wife and mother-of-two, finds a vent for this relentlessness when an ancient diary is discovered in the chimney of their Victorian villa; through the cryptic entries and their mystical resonances, Maggie is seduced by forces she can barely understand into completing a transmigration held in stasis for more than a century, reckless as to the price she might have to pay.

Well-constructed, with solid pacing and characterisation, Dark Sister nevertheless lacks certain of the subtleties of its predecessor; the flavour of its narrative is smooth rather than rich, whilst the conclusion holds few surprises for those versed in this particular genre form. That said, Joyce again displays a firm grasp of language and structure, and I for one look forward to his third novel with optimism.

Come the Revolution

The Sharp End

[Published in Omega, 1999]

 

Harold Wilson once claimed a week was a long time in politics; had he spent an hour on the stump with Baldrick, he’d have narrowed his timeline considerably.

VoteIt’s not as if the bugger doesn’t enjoy a walk. Fifteen-plus years old by our reckoning (pulled from beneath a passing car in November 1988, he was at least four then) and selectively deaf as a post, Baldrick (aka “The Fossil”) bursts into a hairy flamenco whenever he spots his lead looming into view. Trouble is, it lasts as long as a Mayfly’s teabreak.

This, mind you, is now irreparably intertwined with my current political sidebar. Once a member of the Ecology Party before it mutated into the Greens (no sniggering at the back, puh-lease), then (and still) a member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (so sidelined, it seems, by the Reagan/Gorbachov circus that one – somewhat younger – fellow worker recently claimed never to have heard of CND), I finally took the party plunge a year or two back and became a card-carrying Liberal. (Yes, I do realise it’s officially the Liberal Democrats these days, but no one in Olton – a Lib stronghold even pre-1974, when councilors didn’t have to publicly declare their affiliations – was ever that convinced by Roy Jenkins and his Gang of Four).

The main drawback is that I let myself be talked into taking over one of the local newsletter routes (the previous volunteer having become too crumbly for the task). This wouldn’t be so onerous if I were a Conservative or Labour supporter, but Liberals publish almost as regularly as Ansible editor Dave Langford – more so in the run-up to an election – and I frequently find myself lumbered with an issue fresh off the press before I’ve actually had a chance to drop off the one previous.

Baldrick, on the other hand, thinks these door-to-door distributions are the best invention since the bark. The moment he sees me reach for my trainers, he springs into semi-action, lethargically dragging himself across the carpet towards me, cleverly combining a purposefully nebulous sign of interest with the casual indifference of continental drift. After all, if Baldrick chooses to let me take him out for a walk, he wants to underline the fact that he’s doing me the favour.

If only. Just before the May local government elections, I ended up with a bundle of leaflets to stuff into my neighbours’ letterboxes. (At this point, I’ll spare you all a lengthy discourse on the cretins who install said slots about three inches off the ground and compound this by fitting a wire brush immediately behind it tough enough to snare a cruise missile, let alone a humble duplicated flyer.)

Come Saturday night, shoulderbag stuffed and beer can packed (one of the boons of a semi-pro camera bag is the abundance of pockets), we hit the pavement. Baldrick does his customary war dance and I resign myself to his terrierist demands, much to the amusement of our next-door neighbours David and Chris (who, coincidentally, do the Liberal leaflet drop in our own road). Hey, it’s only 150 or so houses, I tell myself.

Trouble is, my shaggy companion enjoys the chase far more than the catch. No sooner have we left our own road, Baldrick operates with as much enthusiasm as a tram which has taken a wrong turning and slipped the overhead wires. A block on, and I’m forced to unclip the lead and let him amble along in the background whilst I walk up folks’ front paths. Eventually, even that’s too much bother for the old scrote and he begins to catch up on the installment plan; the overall effect is like running full-motion video on a 286.

There’s a danger of this changing, however, when I spot a couple of labradors being escorted into view. In common with all small dogs, Baldrick exhibits a frothy-mouthed desire to assert his authority upon any four-legged beast with a head bigger than his entire body; it’s genetic, almost Glaswegian. Eager to avoid bloody conflict and UN troops having to walk the streets of Olton, I scoop the hirsute horror up with my one free arm and head down the next path out of peril.

The woman in the house is watching me through her bay windows, particularly the juggling act I perform in order to prevent Baldrick plummeting Earthwards whilst simultaneously extracting the latest mailing from my bag to drop it into her porch.

Suddenly it struck me. For years, the Liberals’ small membership size relative to the Tories and New Labour resulted in our being ridiculed as the party of “one man and his dog”. And there was I, on the stump, hound underarm, the living embodiment of the joke. No wonder she viewed the entire operation with an expression of bemused condescension.

I wonder if the Monster Raving Loonies have any vacancies…

Book reviews: Reaper Man by Terry Pratchett

ReaperReaper Man by Terry Pratchett

[From Critical Wave #23, 1991. This novel is currently available via Amazon as both a 2013 standalone hardback, and a 1998 single-volume collection entitled The Death Trilogy, which also includes Mort and Soul Music.]

 

As regular readers will be aware, I’m a great fan of the early Discworld books, finding much to comment even in the eighth volume, 1989’s Guards! Guards!, but this — the eleventh installment — provides a strong argument that the series has now passed its best-by date.

In part a reprise of 1987’s Mort, with Death this time forcibly retired rather than taking a holiday, the book comprises three separate plots running parallel to each other: the Grim Reaper’s new career, the effects upon Discworld of his disappearance (taking its cue from the old fairy tale about the soldier who imprisoned Death) and the antics of Ankh-Morpork’s supernatural community. The first is an entertaining novella which would have worked well on its own, the second a slapstick patchwork featuring the magi of the Unseen University and which reads like a re-run of all their other appearances, the third a parade of mildly amusing gags in the tradition of Charles Addams.

But there’s an air of desperation about it all, the restatement of certain plot-threads and jokes (one of which appears three times, as though Pratchett didn’t trust his audience) only serving to underline the novel’s failure. It may be that the next book — and there will be a next book, no doubt of that — will recapture the spirit and the flair of its predecessors; if not, it’s time to quietly move on. In the meantime, even die-hard Discworld fans would be best advised to wait for the paperback release.

Book review: Only You Can Save Mankind by Terry Pratchett

JohnnyOnly You Can Save Mankind by Terry Pratchett

[From Critical Wave #28, 1992. Reissued as a Gollancz paperback in 2004, this novel is also available via Amazon as part of the three-volume ‘Johnny Maxwell Collection’, along with the sequels Johnny and the Dead and Johnny and the Bomb.]

 

Whilst I still harbour deep suspicions that the Discworld franchise is suffering from too many trips to the well, even if Witches Abroad had many excellent moments, there’s no denying Terry Pratchett’s skills as a humourist, particularly when allowed to exercise them in a fresh arena. This addition to the ranks of his children’s fiction is precisely that, combining the current trend towards realism (its hero, Johnny, lives in “Trying Times”, his phrase for the off-stage collapse of his parents’ marriage) with straight fanyasy (Johnny’s discovering that an alien armada has drifted into the electronic microverse of the latest computer game, Only You Can Save Mankind).

There are a couple of minor irritants (Pratchett’s decision to substitute his own titles for a well-known Aussie soap opera and a highly successful movie series being principal), but there are so many deft touches (Johnny’s relationship with Kirsty, who prefers to be called ‘Sigourney’, the wonderful sequence recalling the days of Space Invaders) that this becomes nit-picking. On the dustjacket (intriguingly rewritten after the proofs went out), the author says he writes “fpr anyone old enough to understand”; Only You Can Save Mankind will certainly be enjoyed by readers of all ages, especially Johnny’s contemporaries

Book review: The Count of Eleven by Ramsey Campbell

rc_thecountThe Count of Eleven by Ramsey Campbell

[From Critical Wave #25, 1992. Published by Macdonald, both the original hardback and subsequent paperback edition are currently available via Amazon.]

 

When Jack Orchard’s video shop is burned to the ground in a freak accident, his natural good humour persuades him to laugh it off — till he discovers the premises were uninsured. An obsessive numerologist, Orchard finally pins the blame for his ill-fortune on his failure to distribute a chain letter which arrived the morning before the fire.

Trouble is, the bad luck continues: Orchard is unable to find work after local gossips accuse him of arson, his teenage daughter is mugged, his wife is implicated in her employer’s fraud. Orchard’s analysis of the apparent failure of the chain letter is simple: those lucky souls he included on his mailing list failed to continue the chain, and the misfortune this should have earned them has unfairly rebounded upon the Orchard family.

It is at this point that The Count of Eleven, which opens as a broad black comedy (not to mention a platform for the author’s fascination with the cinema), begins to darken. Like Norman Bates in Robert Bloch’s Psycho (1959), Jack Orchard is transformed in the readers eyes from innocent victim to malevolent predator, metamorphosing into the vengeful ‘Count of Eleven’ and leaving a bloody trail of violent homicide in his wake.

Campbell’s latest novel (his eleventh, coincidentally) is something of a departure from his previous work, though the serial killer theme has echoes of 1979’s The Face That Must Die. Slapstick and sociopathic murder make for unusual bedfellows, and whilst the mix isn’t always successful, The Count of Eleven offers a refreshing change from the usual stalk ‘n’ slash formula.

Book review: Bedlam by Harry Adam Knight

Brosnan-BedlamBedlam by Harry Adam Knight

[From Critical Wave #28, 1992. ‘Harry Adam Knight’ was a well-known front for Leroy Kettle and the late John Brosnan. This hardback edition is currently available via Amazon.]

 

There are many occasions on which a reviewer opens a book full of optimism and enthusiasm, only to have them dashed upon the reef of the author’s creative limitations. The reverse is rarely the case, although this horror novel from one of Britain’s more successful pseudonymous teams certainly qualifies.

Indeed, as Stan Nicholls observed in the October Dark Side, there’s a case for arguing that Bedlam is actually a science fiction novel, since its plot revolves around such genre elements as psychotropic drugs, psychic manipulation and telekinesis; still, it’s the manner in which these ingredients are blended which no doubt persuaded Gollancz to apply the ‘horror’ tag, and the liberal splashes of sex and gore will most definitely please fans of that particular literary vein.

Where this book rises above contemporaries such as Shaun Hutson’s ludicrous Captives or Guy N Smith’s endless reworkings of his ‘Crabs’ sequence, however, is in its imaginative plotting and its precision when dealing with the more blood-soaked scenes; true, certain of the images cut to the bone, the trail of carnage left by enhanced sociopath Marc Gilmour reminiscent of the shattered London in the first volume of Alan Moore’s Miracleman, but there’s always a sense of purpose in their use.

The irony, of course, is that Bedlam – as the authorial acronyn implies – was probably never intended to overstep its genre niche. But it has, and the end result may not be a Great Novel in the sense of a glowing TLS critique, but it’s a damned sight more fun than most of the tedious tosh served up for the Bookers and their ilk.

Dangerous When Wet

ShowerHead

[From Zoo Nation, 2006]

 

I have to confess I haven’t bothered to check via Google which came first, but the indoor shower remains one of the greatest boons to horror movies.

Hot TubIt’s not just that vertical ablutions mean scream queens can’t shield their cleavage under thirteen layers of bathfoam, but the incessant hiss of the showerhead also ensures no endangered damsel can detect the approaching footfall of the generic maniac with an absurdly heavy knife. (For further reference, check out the extensively-researched instruction video Hollywood Scream Queen Hot Tub Party and the rather gorgeous Brinke Stevens’ demonstration of maximising breast exposure by soap avoidance and minimising pubic flashes with careful positioning of the outermost leg.)

Meantime, mid-December, I hear some guy explaining on BBC Radio 4 that a Belgian scientist has invented a shower which offloads into the neighbouring toilet cistern, dramatically reducing water usage; apparently, he’s already having discussions with hotels in Saudi Arabia.

My first thought, should all British bathrooms get one of these devices, is that should you feel the need, piss in the shower. Goes the same direction in the end, you’re cutting out the middleman and – multiplied by, say, twenty million thirty-second micturations per day – the thousands of hours saved would probably propel the UK back into the top ten of global productivity.

Needless to say, this is not recommended for those who prefer to take a bath. Nor should this idea be extended to more solid bodily functions – at least not without a full time and motion study.

Millennial Blues

Decayed

[From Tortoise, 2001]

 

He was already leaning against the bar as I pushed open the doors of the Twilight Café and stepped inside – but given that this particular watering hole resides within a spacetime pocket tucked down the back of the cosmic sofa, punctuality is pretty relative. Nice suit, I thought: a bit Ed Straker, perhaps, but maybe silver’s going to be all the rage in 2010. Still, good to see I stuck with the beard.

“Hey,” he said as our eyes met. “What kept you?”

“You don’t recall?” He pushed a pint of our usual across the counter towards me. “Don’t tell I’m about to succumb to Alzheimer’s.”

“Well, they do say the first sign of senility is talking to yourself. Anyway, let’s cut to the chase: I have.. other commitments tonight.”

We grinned simultaneously: café rules officially prohibit crosstime contamination, but the occasional teasing was par for the course. “I just needed to touch base for a piece I’m writing for Tortoise on the inevitable death of hope and the onslaught of grim destiny. Nothing too heavy.”

My doppelgänger swigged from his half-empty glass. “I could dictate it from memory if you like, but that would definitely be cheating.” Another swallow. “So, how can I help?”

“I’m trying to rekindle my – our – feelings as each decade slipped away. How, for instance, a 10 year-old’s view of his future was inherently doomed to failure.”

“Especially one raised on science fiction. From 1970, a time when you could actually look up into the night sky and know there were men walking upon the surface of the moon, 1980 held so many promises. Remember those Brooke Bond picture cards with an artist’s impression of the first Mars expedition?”

I nodded. “Late 1970s, they reckoned. Mankind should have been taking its first steps into space, and instead we made do with a US president who claimed to have seen a flying saucer.” I signalled to the barman for another round. “Still, at least by the age of 20 I was following the career path I’d planned in my teens.”

“I always considered journalism more a condition than a vocation. And we only ever saw it as a stepping stone, surely?”

“Of course. What sf fan doesn’t secretly fantasise about becoming a fulltime author by the time they hit 30? And how few even come close? Like Eliot wrote, ‘Between the idea / And the reality / Between the motion / And the act / Falls the Shadow’. The bigger the dream, the bigger the shadow.”

“Yeah, all those early Novacons, listening to the guests of honour and thinking that with a little commitment and hard work, I could be up there with Priest, Holdstock, Aldiss and the rest. I’d kind of chosen to forget.” He seemed to drift off for a moment, then turned back. “But that seems a bit harsh on us both – we had just got married and quit newspapers.”

For a moment, a seriously off-limits question hung in the air, then a split-second glance caught the ring on his left hand and I left the query unspoken. “Thing is, by 30, you expect domestic stability and a more balanced view of the future. I ended up going broke in some misguided belief that I could make a living from freelancing.”

“You did get to meet Stan Lee.”

“True. What more can a fanboy ask from life?” Still, he had a point: getting to interview a childhood hero was pretty cool.

“Look, there’s something I want to point out before I have to go.” He put his empty glass back on the bar. “The future is just today, only more so. Extrapolating the present never works, especially on the personal level, because the real changes creep up on you when you least expect them. We didn’t get the spaceships from 2001 – as you’ll have realised, if you’ve kept your eyes open in the last couple of weeks – but we got computers that fit under your fingernail. You can fly to the Moon in three days, but no one can be bothered because it would take eighteen hours to get a train home from the spaceport. It’s all amazing, and it’s all crap.”

As he reached down and grabbed his case, I chanced it: “C’mon, give us something to go back with, even if it’s not next week’s National Lottery numbers.”

He smiled again. “Okay. Make sure you order Elvis’ comeback album early – it sold out in less than an hour. Keep away from the real ale at Novacon 34 – Tony Berry was in a coma for three days before anyone noticed. And finally, make sure you catch President Schwarzenegger’s inauguration speech – it’s a killer.”

We shook hands, he headed for the door and I turned to put my own glass back on the counter. As my gaze rose to take in the mirror behind the bar, I caught him again in its reflection, stepping through the doorway and greeting another, reassuringly familiar, figure standing nearby. White as it was, I still recognised the beard.

“Time, gentlemen, please!” called the barmaid as I headed out in the same direction.

Now that, I thought, is a matter of opinion.

Déjà vu All Over Again

Echo Beach

[From the programme book produced for the 2005 installment of the Oxford comics convention Caption.]barb-wire

 

There’s nothing original, so they say (and “they” probably stole that aphorism in the first place). Drama entire can supposedly be reduced to a mere seven plots (six-and-a-half fewer if you happen to be Barbara Cartland), which explains the sense of déjà vu typified by watching Barb Wire on video and realising Pamela Anderson is channelling Humphrey Bogart in a gender-reversed Casablanca.

I write as one who has succumbed: the appearance of the eponymous hero in “Inspector X”, a cartoon strip I produced for the amusement of classmates at age 12, was lifted wholesale from “I Spy”, a regular in Sparky, one of the many weekly comics of the early 1970s.

~~~

But such plagiarism is not always conscious. For the past couple of decades, I’ve followed Alfie Bester’s suggestion in Hell’s Cartographers and scribbled down passing ideas in a succession of notepads and sketchbooks. Amongst them was the synopsis for a short story: guy finds secret of immortality, is mistakenly convicted of murder, realises to his horror that this particular US state doesn’t have the death penalty.

Fast forward to early March 2004: I’m listening to BBC R7 on our new digital radio, and catch a 1990s adaptation of Rod Serling’s 1959 Twilight Zone script “Escape Clause”, wherein hypochondriac Walter Bedeker sells his soul to become immortal and is wrongly convicted of his wife’s murder, etc, etc.

Four days later, I tune in by pure chance to Oneword, another digital station, and hear The Inner Sanctum (a rather over-excited spin on the old EC Comics), wherein a scientist’s widow traps his killer, who committed murder in order to become immortal, but now finds himself behind bars for the rest of his (un)natural.

~~~

Okay, okay, I get the point: even though I honestly couldn’t recall seeing the original Zone episode and had never heard of The Inner Sanctum before, I do possess the landmark Gary Gerani / Paul Schulman tvsf overview Fantastic Television (which confusingly juggles the “Escape Clause” details over three columns) and the Jean-Marc / Randy Lofficier programme guide Into the Twilight Zone, as well as Joel Engel’s excellent Rod Serling biography, so it’s pretty obvious this particular meme slipped into my head years ago. Bugger.

~~~

Still, at least I can now devote myself to my latest story idea, positively bursting with originality: two aliens called Adam and Eve crashland upon an unpopulated planet, trip over the Statue of Liberty and fall through a time vortex to kill their own grandparents. I suspect it needs a little work, but I’m sure Interzone will love it.

No More Heroes

No Capes Required

[From Procrastinations #5, 2008. This was the first half of a projected memoir inspired by the editor’s choice of ‘comics’ as an over-arching theme, but the second installment remains in the aether.]

 

You never forget your first love, and my own was comics. Not just the weekly anthologies peculiar to these shores, but the American superhero titles which in an oh-so-recent era were crammed into rotating metal racks in almost every corner newsagency. For every copy of Valiant or The Dandy, a glossy-covered and freshly-imported Fantastic Four or Tales to Astonish.

Shortly after I hit my teens, US tv executives finally wised up to the fact that comics were popular enough to merit their own series, thrusting their versions of The Incredible Hulk, Spider-Man and Wonder Woman upon the telesphere. That the last of these – Lynda Carter, a former Miss World USA in a shiny basque – proved the most accurate translation to screen pretty much sums up just how useless the rest of the field was.

~~~

superman-the-movie-movie-poster-1978-1010359887By the early 1980s, the success of Superman: The Movie and its first sequel – not to mention the middle-section Star Wars fables – had raised the ante. Tv networks and the direct-to-video market both tried to respond, but their hands were tied: soon as you bought the licensing rights to a major-league superhero and set aside the cash for minimal special effects, there was nothing left to license the requisite supervillains. Let’s be frank here: watching some bland goon in a spandex costume “battle” a gang of rogue bikers (The Flash), minor Mafia hoods (The Punisher) or manic mystics (Supergirl) is mildly more entertaining than stirring your own teacup.

Even the heightened cultural profile of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and the Alan Moore / Dave Gibbons breakthrough Watchmen failed to persuade tv execs to shift gear. Whilst both Superboy [1988-92] and Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman [1993-97] survived into a fourth season (the latter finally jumping the shark with an unbelievably absurd nativity reprise), neither had any more dramatic depth than most of the ludicrous yarns churned out during DC’s “silver age” (the birthplace of such atrocities as Krypto, Bat-Mite and Superhorse).

~~~

The launch of Smallville in 2001 marked a signal change in screen superheroism – with DC (now part of the Warner Bros cartel) aping Marvel by switching the focus from caped crusading to the more personal traumas of a teenage metahuman. Whilst the series remained in constant danger of fixating upon the “meteor mutant of the week” format, its attempt to dissect Kal-El’s family life – previously as impenetrable as the quasi-“S” on his chest – was an obvious nod to the genre influence of Miller and Moore.

The background detail, of course, was the sudden availability of cinema-quality special effects for higher-budget tv series. Where once George Reeve would hop out of a set window and assume his audience would presume he could actually fly above the cardboard skyline, Tom Welling could now juggle tractors and catch passing bullets with an ease unseen since the classic 1940s Fleischer Studios animations. Indeed, the only manoeuvre this version of Clark Kent couldn’t perform was slipping out of his civilian clothes (semi-regulation red and blue, ‘natch) into the uniform we all know so well: franchise copyright turns out to be even more powerful than Kryptonite.

~~~

But this remained ersatz Marvel: there was still a crying need for a series in which the central characters amounted to rather more than the sum total of their multi-coloured gym shorts. We needed tortured souls, twisted egos, doomed affairs, deranged villains, acts of personal bravery undermined by arrogance and self-interest – and all of this built into an intersecting cascade of story-arcs.

~~~

In other words, we needed Heroes.