Book review: Roofworld by Christopher Fowler

RoofRoofworld by Christopher Fowler

[From Critical Wave #9. 1989. Both the original Legend hardcover and Avon paperback editions are currently available via Amazon. Reviews of Christopher Fowler’s subsequent novels Rune and Darkest Day are also archived on this website.]

 

Every so often a novel appears which contains an idea both totally implausible and so wildly entertaining that you simply have to run your disbelief up the nearest flagpole and leave it suspended until the final page; Roofworld, Christopher Fowler’s promising debut as a novelist, is one such book.

The central concept — a separate society inhabiting the skyline of London, flying across the rooftops on wires — is gloriously offbeat, the gory rituals of its villains well-handled and the action confidently paced, with sufficient loose threads for the sequel to weave itself. Only the unconvincing tabloid clippings and the repetitious sexism of Fowler’s hard-boiled cop dented my enjoyment of this ripping yarn.

Book review: The Night Mayor by Kim Newman

MayorThe Night Mayor by Kim Newman

[From Critical Wave #14, 1989. Originally published as a Simon & Schuster hardback, Titan’s 2015 paperback edition is currently available via Amazon.]

 

Ridley Scott has a lot to answer for: ever since Blade Runner melded Chandler and Dick into a template for the literary hybrid thence dubbed ‘Cyberpunk’, we’ve been deluged by film noir pastiches masquerading as science fiction.

Kim Newman’s stroll through the rain-soaked backlot is better than some, but its basic premise — government agents chasing a criminal genius through a construct of his own mind, reminiscent of Christopher Priest’s A Dream of Wessex — rapidly degenerates into a conveyor belt of cinematic references. Remarkably, the one element which distinguished so many of the films Newman salutes in this slim novel — suspense — is sorely lacking, blunting the narrative’s edge and leaving us with what is little more than an extended in-joke.

Book review: Scared Stiff by Ramsey Campbell

StiffScared Stiff by Ramsey Campbell

[From Critical Wave #15, 1990. Initially released in the UK by Macdonald, this collection was issued as a Tor paperback in 2003; copies of the latter are currently available via Amazon.]

 

Subtitled ‘Tales of Sex and Death’ and originally published in 1987 by the American small press Scream (although Campbell’s afterword is new to this edition), this showcase draws together eight stories with a sexual subtext, all but two dating back to the late 1970s (when Michel Parry tried to inject a little spice into British horror anthologies and gave Mayflower’s a few sleepless nights in the process).

Ironically, the most effective stories are those in which the sex scenes are underplayed, such as ‘The Seductress’ and ‘The Other Woman’. Individually workmanlike, the remainder suffer from being grouped together, the descriptions of limp penises, “smacking” vaginas and imprisoning legs rapidly becoming monotonously repetitive. Where once such stories might have shocked, even incurred the rage of the judiciary, now they look curiously old-fashioned.

Book review: Scudder’s Game by D G Compton

ScudderScudder’s Game by D G Compton

[From Critical Wave #6, 1988. Originally published by the small press imprint Kerosina, copies of both this edition and a 2011 Kindle reissue are currently available via Amazon.]

 

The constant theme throughout David Compton’s career has been the human subtext to scientific and social change, the moral perspective on Toffler’s shockwave. This latest work is not only no exception to this trend, but is its virtual epitome.

Compton visualises a future where global overpopulation has been defused through a combination contraceptive and sex aid, offering the perfect orgasm with one hand whilst wiping out the resultant spermatozoa with the other. Quite how the device works, or how it thwarts the passage of diseases such as AIDS, is left unexplained; Compton is concerned with moralities, not mechanics.

This safe sex technology is soon revealed as a metaphor for the impotent society it has spawned. The nuclear family has exploded, depersonalised coitus has superseded emotional intercourse, the Wall Street carnival is now open to all via third wave technology and a framework of business ‘games’.

But technician Scudder shuns these diversions, choosing to devise a scenario of his own, social revolution his goal. That his insurrection is itself the centre of a larger game, making Scudder’s impotence total, only renews the metaphor.

Lie much of Compton’s work, this latest book ends upon a downbeat note. Scudder’s son is bequeathed an insight into the deep flaws within their society, but appears resigned to his race’s entropic demise. Unfortunately, this feeling of resignation pervades the latter half of the novel, but it’s to Compton’s credit that the clarity of his characterisation preserves the momentum.

Book review: Rune by Christopher Fowler

RuneRune by Christopher Fowler

[From Critical Wave #18, 1990. Both the original Century hardback and the 1998 paperback reissue are currently available via Amazon.]

 

Christopher Fowler’s first novel, Roofworld, was a masterly blend of urban thriller and the metaphysical, its descriptive passages and pacing clearly showing the influence of the author’s career in cinema advertising.

For his second novel, Fowler has attempted to take much the same ingredients, but to stir in elements of M R James’ ‘Casting the Runes’ (albeit with a technological rationale). For a while, this has a degree of charm and tension, but by the halfway stage, the plot is beginning to unravel and the pacing to flag. By two-thirds in, you have begun to eagerly await the conclusion (which includes a deliberately dangling plotline so naff one suspects Rune was originally conceived as a script for yet another movie series).

Perhaps producing 30-second commercials has ill-prepared Fowler for the demans of a 368-page novel. Certainly, this is nowhere in the league of its predecessor.

Book review: Darkest Day by Christopher Fowler

a fowl 2Darkest Day by Christopher Fowler

[From Critical Wave #31, 1993. Both the Little, Brown hardback and subsequent paperback are currently available via Amazon.]

 

Curiously, the impact of Fowler’s novels operates in inverse proportion to the weight of genre elements he introduces into the plot. Bizarre as the hidden society of Roofworld might have been, there are many less plausible ‘mainstream’ thrillers; Rune‘s updating of M R James’ classic short story ‘Casting the Runes’ (or, perhaps more accurately, Night of the Demon, Jacques Tourneur’s 1957 adaptation), on the other hand, jettisons its predecessor’s atmosphere in favour of dodgy pseudoscience.

Darkest Day, I’m pleased to report, returns to familiar ground, with Fowler regulars John May and Arthur Bryant (now in charge of a prototype police squad dedicated to investigating the oddball and uncanny) unraveling a complex web of colonial intrigue, family dishonour and voodoo slavery in the heart of London. At nearly 600 pages, the action is a mite stretched, but it’s a sin soon forgiven when balanced against Fowler’s ear for characterisation and his favourite city’s secret history.

Book review: Deadhead by Shaun Hutson

ShaunDeadhead by Shaun Hutson

[From Critical Wave #32, 1993. Originally released by Little, Brown, a single paperback ombibus twinning this novel with 1998’s Purity was issued by Time Warner in 2004; both editions are currently available via Amazon.]

 

Shaun Hutson claims he launched his career as a bestselling horror novelist after reading a particularly dismal effort from Britain’s former king of gore, Guy N Smith. After all, Hutson reasoned, if Smith’s giant man-eating crabs could see print, even he stood a chance.

To be fair to Hutson, he is a better writer; but to be fair to Smith, there’s not a lot in it. Both owe their success to a heady cocktail of explicit violence and gratuitous sex, poured over plots which don’t so much require readers to suspect their disbelief as tie a noose around its neck and hang it from the nearest tree.

Hutson’s recent novel Captives, for instance, asked us to accept that a prison governor would allow an insane surgeon to lobotomise the more psychopathic inmates, fake their deaths and then release them to take part in killing sprees across central London, all in the name of reducing the prison population. In comparison, even evidence from the West Midlands Serious Crimes Squad sounds believable.

This might explain why Deadhead, Hutson’s fourteenth novel under his own name, deliberately steps away from the supernatural and science fiction themes which dominated his earlier work. What his many fans may find harder to understand, however, is Hutson’s decision to confine the violence largely to the final 50 pages and to replace the regulation sex scenes with descriptions of two pornographic novels.

The book’s hero, or rather anti-hero, is cop-turned-private eye Nick Ryan, called in by his ex-wife after their daughter is kidnapped by a vicious gang of “snuff” video producers. Hutson even underlines the fact that Ryan has nothing to lose by giving him terminal cancer, though the sheer extent of the carnage at the finale may taken even regular readers by surprise.

Okay, so it’s fairly predictable, but in the age of the 30-second attention span, predictability can be a positive asset. What is new, though, is Hutson’s apparent determination to enter the ranks of the more thriller writer. Whether his existing fans are prepared to make the leap with him remains to be seen; that they might not is probably a prospect too ghastly for even Shaun Hutson to contemplate.

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.