The Cold Equations

Back in the early 1990s, when my friend Martin Tudor and I were publishing the journal Critical Wave, we had an editorial philosophy of helping raise the profile of writers, artists and other creative souls we felt deserving of a wider audience. It has been pointed out on many occasions since that we probably did so to the detriment of our own professional careers, and that we could have used those same contacts to get ourselves a news-stand distribution deal, but I guess our focus was elsewhere. By the time SFX hit the racks in 1995, Martin and I were just a year away from giving our enterprise up as an interesting but expensive experiment (paying Critical Wave‘s debts off only took another five years).

The creative landscape has transformed utterly over the two decades since, and by no stretch of the imagination for the better. Even a shallow trawl of social media reveals vast numbers of would-be novelists, illustrators et al, clamouring for attention and getting drowned out by everyone else. There is an astonishing amount of self-delusion, of course, especially from people who seem to believe adding “author” to their username magically makes them one. I’ve recently been exploring setting up a new magazine, with more formal distribution, but finding a fresh angle is dispiritingly difficult, and the likelihood of financial viability worryingly slim.

Meanwhile, Chrissie Harper and I came up with this cartoon last year, which pretty much summarises our joint misgivings about the current state of affairs…


Photo Album: David Sutton, 2016

2016-10-01 by CH.jpg

I interviewed the author and editor David Sutton at the October 2016 meeting of the Birmingham Horror Group, the text version of which subsequently appeared in the magazine Fear. We first met at the third Fantasycon, held at a nearby hotel in February 1977, so we were well familiar with each other’s work (I’m holding a copy of the journal I co-edited, Critical Wave, which carried a feature on Fantasy Tales, the award-winning digest he co-edited).

Photo by Chrissie Harper

Talking Tales

The special guest at this month’s Birmingham Horror Group was David A Sutton, author and award-winning former co-editor of the highly influential magazine Fantasy Tales. I interviewed David and his partner-in-print Stephen Jones back in 1989, for Critical Wave (which I co-edited with Martin Tudor), so we simply resumed those roles for the evening and brought our previous conversation up to date. This time, the text version is earmarked for the recently resurrected Fear.

Profile: Ramsey Campbell [1991]

The Far Reaches of Fear

[From Critical Wave #24, 1991; thanks to Chrissie Harper for scanning these pages for me.]

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A shortened version of this interview had appeared in Fantazia, a monthly magazine published by Birmingham-based Pegasus Press and which was later rebooted as the short-lived Academy. For a more recent chat with Ramsey, check out the first episode of Ghostwords TV.

Film review: Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (1988)

MyersHalloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (1988)

[From Critical Wave #17, 1990. Copies of Platform Entertainment’s 2010 DVD release are currently available via Amazon, as is the 2012 Blu-ray edition.]


There are essentially two schools of thought when it comes to horror movies. The first, typified by John Buechler and Clive Barker, holds to the theory that emotional response is directly linked to visual bombardment: the gorier the image, the greater the impact. The other, which informed Robert Wise’s superlative 1963 screen adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, opts instead for intensity and suggestion rather than graphic anatomy lessons, shadows rather than splatterfests.

Regrettably, the latter school has had few graduates in the past decade, the box office success of Freddy Krueger and his rivals too much of a temptation for young film-makers eager to make their mark and all too ready to jump aboard the bloody bandwagon if it seems to be heading in the right direction. That’s not to say I’m not in favour of a little gore once in a while, just that by the time you’ve seen your tenth eye-gouging or your fortieth disemboweling, the entire affair loses its initial shock value, much as a stag night comedian who peppers his routing with “fucks” soon becomes merely tiresome.

So I suppose I should send a note of thanks to Dwight H Little, director of Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers, for not only creating (with screenwriter Alan B McElroy) a movie with sequences of real tension, but denting the view that horror sequels are by their very nature a worthless exercise in audience exploitation. The third chapter in the Myers saga (Halloween 3: Season of the Witch having no connection to its predecessors, you will recall) opens a decade after John Carpenter’s original, Jamie Lee Curtis’ character having survived her murderous brother only to die in a traffic accident, the focus shifting to her young daughter, now fostered by one of Curtis’ babysitting clients. Uncle Michael is safely locked up, of course, but (surprise, surprise) escapes to wreak havoc in tranquil Haddonfield yet again.

Several questions arise at this point, such as “How come psychopaths are always relocated in pitch darkness?” and “Why don’t people simply leave town for the Halloween weekend?”, but expecting a sensible answer is as pointless as wondering how Myers and monomaniacal psychiatrist Donald Pleasance survived the fiery finale of the second movie. You simply have to suspend disbelief, set your brain in neutral and go with the flow; gore fans may be disappointed by the conspicuous lack of on-screen carnage (folks get offed, sure, but with a refreshingly economical style), but I actually jolted at one point towards the close, which is quite a change from the usual predictable yawnfest. And make certain you catch the final few minutes, for one of the neatest twist endings in many a moon.

Film review: Edge of Sanity (1989)

Edge2Edge of Sanity (1989)

[From Critical Wave #11, 1989. Twentieth Century Fox released a DVD in 2004, copies of which are currently available via Amazon. Copies are also currently available on eBay.]


If Robert Louis Stevenson, awakening from the nightmare which spawned his novel The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, had been granted a vision of the legion of cinematic emetics his book would ‘inspire’, I suspect he’d have thrown his notebook to the floor, slid back under the sheets and vowed to never again eat strong cheddar before retiring.

However, we have Allied Visions’ Edge of Sanity as testament that such was not the case, with Anthony Perkins drafted in to essay the role of the deranged doctor. Intriguingly, the script is credited to J P Felix and Ron Raley, with no mention of the original source, though judging from the final result, this may be out of respect for the dead.

The core of Stevenson’s novel is its anthromorphosis of Victorian society, the Jekyll / Hyde split holding a mirror to the hypocrisy of the privileged few who preached morality in the daytime and spent their nights frequenting music halls and brothels. Its subsequent stage adaptation by the American actor Richard Mansfield struck a deep chord in a community then being terrorised by the Whitechapel murderer immortalised as ‘Jack the Ripper’, a relevance not lost on the makers of this movie.

What Edge of Sanity chooses to do, however, is to forge a direct historical link between the murders of autumn 1888 and the fictional antagonist of a novel published two years earlier. By dubbing the murderous alter-ego ‘Jack Hyde’, it attempts to cash in on the interest rekindled by last year’s centenary and at the same time legitimise its sado-sexual excesses; needless to say, it fails on both counts.

EdgeAnthony Perkins tackles his dual role with only a modicum of make-up (arguably the film’s single merit), playing the Hyde persona as a close relative of the homicidal priest he portrayed in Ken Russell’s excellent Crimes of Passion. This time, unfortunately, Perkins is allowed to go completely over the top and thus disastrously undermines his character’s credibility. His decision to take this course might be a conscious attempt to emphasise the difference between the mild-mannered workaholic Jekyll and his amoral doppelgänger, but it’s just as likely to be another coffin nail in director Gerard Kikoine’s reputation — particularly when Glynis Barber (as Elizabeth Jekyll) is allowed to be just as wooden as Kim Cattrall was in Kikoine’s previous genre effort, the dismal Mannequin.

Even more self-destructive that the erratic performances on screen is the film’s reliance on softcore titilation, underlined by Valerie Lanee’s bizarre costume designs, which totally eschew historical accuracy and opt for a cross between Ann Summers and Cyndi Lauper, decorated with more crucifixes than the Vatican. At some points, it out-Russells Ken himself, no mean feat but no reason for anyone to bother tracking this film down, either, unless you’re an s&m junkie. And if you are, I doubt you’ll find this dressed-up slasher yarn any more to your taste than I did.

Book review: Stay of the Shower: The Shocker Film Phenomenon by William Schoell

SchoellStay of the Shower: The Shocker Film Phenomenon by William Schoell

[From Critical Wave #9, 1989. First published by Dembner in 1985, this book was reissued by Robinson in 1988; copies of the original edition are currently available via Amazon.]


There’s a danger inherent in academic consideration of an artform as broad as cinema; the wider you cast your critical net, the greater the opportunity for misinterpretation, factual error or straight omission. Sincere though Schoell may be, his overview of ‘the shocker film phenomenon’ is guilty of all these.

Indeed, despite the promises inbuilt in that subtitle, it’s hard to evade the suspicion that this work begun its life as a tribute to the influence of Hitchcock’s Psycho (although Saul Bass might have a word or two to say about that description and its adherence to the ‘auteur’ philosophy that the director is the overwhelming creative force, especially as Bass was the real choreographer of that famous bloodbath). So many references are made to Psycho, so many comparisons drawn where the later films fare ill, that the strain begins to take its toll on Schoell’s narrative and expose the other (more objectionable) flaws contained in his text.

Schoell’s off-hand dismissal of Herschell Gordon Lewis, for instance, with no apparent research; it’s one thing to accuse someone of being a “terrible film-maker” when you’ve seen his work yourself (I have, and he is), quite another to preface your accusation with the damning “Reportedly his movies are worthless on every level” and so undermine your own credibility as a critic. Similarly, his seeming failure to perceive Blow Out as Brian de Palma’s homage to Blow Up, his description of Targets as Boris Karloff’s last movie (he made six more, including four for Luis Vergara of which only two were released prior to his death in 1971) — all add to the cumulative conclusion that Schoell’s critique, despite its usefulness as an introduction to this cinematic sub-genre, is founded upon some extremely dodgy homework.

Book review: Bimbos of the Death Sun by Sharyn McCrumb

BimbosBimbos of the Death Sun by Sharyn McCrumb

[From Critical Wave #12, 1989. Initially released by Penguin, it was reissued by Ballantine in 1997 and as a Kindle e-book by Rosetta in 2010; copies of the later editions are currently available via Amazon.]


Let’s be frank, with a title like that and a fur-clad airhead draped across the front cover, the last thing you’d expect would be for this to turn out readable, let alone one of the funniest novels I’ve read this year.

But prepare yourself for a surprise: not only is Bimbos a reasonably entertaining murder mystery (even if the identity of the killer is far from the shock one feels it should be), it is also a well-observed send-up of science fiction fandom (particularly costume and media fans) which manages to mix parody with perception, whilst never over-stepping the line from satire into ill-natured ridicule.

Book review: The Canongate Strangler by Angus McAllister

CanongateThe Canongate Strangler by Angus McAllister

[From Critical Wave #21, 1991. Copies of the original Dog & Bone paperback are currently available via Amazon.]

It’s appropriate that Angus McAllister should set this parapsychological thriller in the heart of Edinburgh, considering its clear parallel with Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde; indeed, he has the novel’s protagonist meet his nemesis in Deacon Brodie’s Tavern, a popular hostelry named after the very scoundrel whose exploits inspired Stevenson’s landmark work.

Whereas that book’s examination of subjective morality was conducted within its central character’s psyche, McAllister anthropomorphises his conflict by linking mild-mannered lawyer Edward Middleton telepathically to his “other”, the sociopathic Henry Cunningham. But even Middleton is not wholly innocent, growing to savour the adrenalin rush of murder whilst claiming to be horrified by his doppelgänger‘s bloodlust.

It is this exploration of the tale’s moral ambiguity which proves its strongest element, making up for a plot with few real surprises and a workmanlike style which places Middleton’s dilemma at one remove from its readership. That said, The Canongate Strangler is a refreshing alternative to the superficial stalk ‘n’ slash melodramas which currently proliferate in the horror genre.