Filler content with Eibonvale Press

Some reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #31:-


FEATHER (Eibonvale pb, 379pp, £8.99) is the second collection from Eibonvale publisher David Rix, and features a selection of stories, several of novella length, linked by the enigmatic figure of Feather, a young woman. Don’t expect much in the way of consistency from this though – Feather is a contradictory character, both feral child and computer user, a muse and an artist herself, with only the most oblique details carrying over from one story to another, and a sense that what we are witnessing is not strictly linear. Perhaps the best way to approach the character of Feather is to regard her as a Candidesque archetype, constantly questioning those she meets and throwing their artifice into stark relief by virtue of her own candour and innocence.

Rix himself is a character in the book’s Foreword, ‘The Tiny Window on River Street’, out walking late at night and spying a peculiar happening through the aforesaid window, one that involves a young woman who he decides to call Feather and whose presence continues to haunt him, prompting thoughts about the nature of reality and story, a theme that carries over into many of the stories in this collection.

‘Yellow Eyes’ gives us Feather’s back story, the first sixteen years of her life spent as a feral child, living with her mad artist father in a forest near an abandoned nuclear power station, his vision of the measuring men and the torments he inflicts on his daughter, all of it leading into the father’s death and the end of this period of Feather’s life, with episodes that show both the kindness and cruelty of humankind. Underlying it all is a subtext about the duality of faith and life, Feather’s perceptions of the world filtered through her father’s twisted mind set, and her liberation arising from the will to question, a quality that seems to be her foremost character trait. It’s a harsh story, cruel and compelling in equal measure, but with important issues being addressed. In ‘The Angels’ Feather spends time with a ghost writer who realises something of her true nature as the two of them attempt to hold the world at bay by containing it in a work of sculpture. It is an attempt that is doomed to fail, and yet the writer appears to learn nothing, in the wake of Feather’s passing incorporating her into his fiction, idealising what took place between them until it is rendered unrecognisable, lines of fact and fiction blurred.

The next two stories find Feather in an urban setting, the companion of Richard, a man who specialises in procuring rare items. ‘Touch Wood’ tells of what happens when a friend of Richard suffers from a broken heart and becomes detached from reality thanks to a special drink. With her feral instincts, Feather is the one who can save him, the story magical and dealing with the trials and tribulations of unrequited love, with sparkling dialogue and a sense of the numinous held at bay by social convention. Feather is peripheral to the action of ‘The Magpies’, just somebody on the other end of an internet connection. She sends a phial of Richard’s magical drink to her friend the composer Elizabeth Ise, who is living on her own in an isolated spot and being tormented by ghosts, including that of her deceased brother and a sort of magpie spirit, though nothing is quite what it at first seems with a need to reconcile ourselves to the past at the heart of the story.

In ‘The Book of Tides’ Feather spends time with a writer who collects whatever is washed up on the beach and endeavours to tell the story of each item he recovers, but at the heart of the text is a question about the nature of stories themselves: the writer sees the stories he tells as revealing the truth of the objects, while Feather sees them as control mechanisms, a way to ensnare meaning in a net of words. This difference of opinion is thrown into sharp relief by the arrival of dead bodies on the shore, and the two characters appearing to swap tracks into each other’s reality, with a subtext as to how thought mediates existence.

The longest story and to my mind the best, ‘To Call the Sea’ is set in an art college where Feather is a student and Kay finds a mysterious pipe that enables him to summon the sea. With a mounting barrage of special effects, almost Jamesian in nature, and erudite asides on student life, artistic endeavour and unrequited love, the story is uncompromising and powerful, with Kay hurting the ones he cares about the most, simply because they don’t care enough about him, or at least that appears to be how he sees things. It is a tour de force of storytelling.

Set in Slovenia, ‘The Whispering Girl’ is the least successful piece, with Tallis living in one building and studying the empty apartment in the mirror image tower block opposite, apparently undergoing several deaths despite the efforts of Feather and others to prevent him dying, the story fascinating but a little too oblique for its own good, a symphony of effects with no readily discernible pattern and that fail to reach a climax.

Finally we have an Endword to book end the Foreword, ‘The Sea Train’, in which Rix once again encounters Feather and gives her the opportunity to rewrite her own story, dealing with the recurring theme of the interface between fiction and reality. It was a fitting finale to a powerful and intriguingly different collection of fictions, one that I thoroughly enjoyed reading, and I hope that Rix brings us more adventures of the lovely Feather in the future.

With fourteen stories between its covers, A GLIMPSE OF THE NUMINOUS (Eibonvale pb, 168pp, £7.99) is the first collection by Jeff Gardiner, and after the excellence of the Rix I have to admit to finding this somewhat underwhelming. The stories are hit and miss, with too many weak entries, pieces that a writer with a more substantial back catalogue to choose from would have excluded from a showcase first collection.

Title story ‘A Glimpse of the Numinous’ is one of the better entries, grabbing the attention right away, albeit with a lack of subtlety, by plunging the reader straight into a sexual situation. What follows involves the sexual awakening of a repressed woman, but couched in visionary terms, with her psychologist brother-in-law apparently bearing witness to a physical transformation, the style of telling very much in the reader’s face but with the narrative ultimately fizzling out, after simply presenting its new paradigms, an interesting but failed adventure.

Near as I can make out, ‘The Curious’ is little more than a word picture of some abstract intelligence experiencing the physical world, and left me feeling that it was an idea the writer should have scribbled down in a notebook and hung onto until a suitable plot vehicle came along instead of just thrusting it out of the door and into the world. We get something more substantial in ‘Withdrawal’, the story’s protagonist dating a man whose best friend disappeared many years ago, an event that he recreates in his own psyche, the text offering a subtle exploration of need and vulnerability, showing the fear that leads us to reject those we need most. Another high point, ‘Gull Power’ is as humorous as its punning title would suggest, the story of a man and his gull, and how the one saved the other, making him rich and famous by association, but at the same time denied any human interaction, with asides on the fickleness of celebrity and media culture.

‘More Sinned Against’ is the story of Adam, who steals the beautiful Fern from another man only to then lose her to a religious cult, before eventually regaining her again when she comes to her senses. It’s a readable story, but doesn’t really go anywhere or have much insight to offer into the nature of cults and why people are drawn to them, and on that basis I have to consider it a missed opportunity. The two very short stories that follow are the nadir of the collection. ‘Delirium Tremens’ has some powerful imagery, but overall is pointless and dull, an episode in the life of somebody with mental illness and their carer, with nothing else to tell us other than that such situations are painful, a truth so self-evident as to be mundane, while ‘Heartwood’ is a simple description of a woman who falls in love with a tree, and allusions to dryads aside it’s little more than a word picture.

‘Bred in the Bone’ is a story in which Gardiner gets down and dirty, and to my mind the best in the collection, an economical black comedy detailing how a family of killers survive and prosper in the modern world, sombre and depressingly grim, like a cross between Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door and The Addams Family. There’s an element of gratification by proxy to ‘Foresight’, as the boy with glasses reduces the school bully to a quivering mess, the story engaging but somewhat pushing credibility and ultimately with little to offer beyond our satisfaction at seeing the bad apple get what’s coming to him.

A young girl is besotted by the singer ‘Dionysus’, her reality merging with mythic archetypes in a scene where the teenager turns into a maenad, finding liberation through slaughter, this in turn inspiring the singer to greater creativity. There’s an attempt to tap into our fears of the young, and the subtext that genius is grounded in bloodshed, with sacrifice a prerequisite to artistic endeavour, though Gardiner doesn’t do much with these themes. ‘Past Away’ has a woman dealing with a stalker, the story leading up to a revelation about his identity, one that seems to be of the common or garden variety in genre circles lately (a similar idea is used in a story in the Chômu Press anthology reviewed later in this issue, and a while back Ralph Robert Moore took it out for a run round the block), but the story has little to offer beyond the cleverness of the conceit.

Finally there’s ‘Writer’s Block’ in which a wannabe author with delusions of genius records his setbacks, before realising the nature of the masterpiece he was destined to write, only first he needs to watch the television. It was another largely indifferent piece, and while I think Gardiner has some talent my feeling is that there are too many duds in this collection, dragging down the book as a whole. In fairness to Gardiner, I’ve ignored a couple of the better stories, ‘351073’ and ‘Phobophilia’, as I’ve reviewed them previously and space is limited, but even allowing for that this remains a very uneven collection, one where too many stories are unsatisfying because the author doesn’t fully explore their implications.

Eibonvale’s latest anthology, WHERE ARE WE GOING? (Eibonvale pb, 262pp, £8.99) edited by Allen Ashley, presents sixteen stories and one poem based on the idea ‘that the world we live in is still something of an unknown planet’.

Opening the batting is Gary Budgen with ‘Dead Countries’, a story that put me very much in mind of the work of Alasdair Gray, with its protagonist whose life goes into decline while his childhood friend is enervated by thoughts of Quassia, a country whose stamps he collected. The crux of the story appears to be in how one finds escape through imagination and obsession, while the other’s dalliance with drugs leads him into a blind alley. Each plays games with the nature of reality, but only in the case of the former is the mind expanded with endless possibilities opening up.

Kathy, the protagonist of Joel Lane’s ‘A Faraway City’ is haunted by the idea that her husband is visiting vice girls from Eastern Europe, eventually taking on the guise of such a woman, the keenly felt story showing how we can become alienated in our own lives, and seek to control the very thing we fear most by embracing it. In ‘The Way the World Works’ by Ian Sales a miraculous discovery is made in an air bubble at the bottom of the ocean, the story beguiling with its elaborate build up and the mythic resonances attendant upon its final revelation, but having arrived at his destination Sales doesn’t seem to know what to do and so the story fizzles out with the literary equivalent of an actor knowingly winking at the audience. It felt anti-climactic.

There’s a wonderful sense of the almost whimsical about Ian Shoebridge’s ‘A Guide to Surviving Malabar’, an island holiday destination where the very landscape changes constantly with a view to taking the life of the hapless tourist, underlining the message that there is no way out except death, with even those who survive drawn irresistibly back. Malabar is perhaps intended as a metaphor for the human condition itself, but the appeal of the story resides in the humour and casual invention that informs it. Acronyms based on place names are at the heart of Andrew Hook’s inventive ‘The Human Map’, the story hinting at an unreliable narrator and his attempts to get back to some idyllic past state, with a witty end twist.

Alison Littlewood’s ‘The Discord of Being’ takes Emma to Morocco to discover the fate of her mother’s grave and make her own peace with her estranged father, but there are strange events going on in the background of the story. Beautifully written and with a real feel for the foreign setting, so that sights and sounds and smells come vividly alive on the page, this is a sensitive tale of loss and reconciliation, of learning to let go of the things we can no longer control or need. And from the sublime to the exuberantly over the top with ‘Xana-La’ by Stephen Palmer, a glorious tale of adventure and derring do, as explorers set off to a mythical land simply to prove its existence, but in doing so must take on the laws of time and space, the whole thing gleefully over the top and informed by a pseudo-steampunk sensibility.

Cleverly written, ‘The Bridge’ by A. J. Kirby is a backward running narrative in which the reader becomes aware of the terrible thing done by the story’s protagonist, even while he only suspects that something is horribly awry. There are echoes of Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 in Frank Roger’s ‘The Chain’, with a journalist’s interest in a found art project detouring off into terra incognito and conspiracy theory, along the way providing a pertinent commentary on our surveillance society and the nature of aesthetics.

Ralph Robert Moore’s ‘Our Island’ is the story that impressed me most, a simple and heartfelt rite of passage piece, as two children who believe they live in an island paradise, learn the truth of their world and how it came to be. The power of the story lies in its sense of creeping realisation, as the innocents come to see how their whole existence, everything that they take for granted in their lives, hangs by a thread, while the spare, economic prose renders this discovery all the more painful.

Marion Pitman’s story ‘Overnight Bus’ tells of a woman obsessed with a cricketer and following him on a tour of South Africa, who has an unusual experience on her journey cross country. Again, with a real sense of place and feel for the alien setting, the narrative cleverly uses elements of the weird to force a moment of epiphany for the protagonist, throwing her own behaviour into context. With ‘Entanglement’ by Douglas Thompson we do get to travel to an actual bona fide alien world, albeit the protagonist’s ‘real’ body remains on Earth. The story adeptly stage manages its toy box of science fictional tropes while delivering a compelling account of one individual’s descent into madness, the text seeming like nothing so much as the Patrick Bateman remix of Robinson Crusoe on Mars.

Geoff Stevens provides the poem, while stories by Terry Grimwood, Andrew Coburn, Daniella Geary and Jet McDonald help to fill out one of the best anthologies of the year so far.



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Song for a Saturday – Comfortably Numb

Okay, it’s not Pink Floyd, but I really like this video from the Scissor Sisters:-

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Oh, Meryl!

Three films starring the mighty Meryl Streep, watched over the course of last weekend:-

Dark Matter (2007)

This film is based on the Iowa University shootings of 1991. Chinese student Ye Lui is all sorts of a genius, so much so that he is able to challenge the work of his mentor theoretical physicist Professor Reiser (Aidan Quinn). This does not go down well with said mentor, who is so affronted by his protégé’s show of independent thinking that he uses his influence to sabotage the boy’s academic future. Faced with disgrace, Ye Lui turns up with a gun and shoots the people he regards as responsible, and then himself.

I have mixed feelings about all this. There’s a subtext of prejudice, with Reiser making a racist remark and a blonde waitress rejecting Ye Lui as boyfriend material, albeit this latter may simply be down to the fact that she has the sense to realise that genius doesn’t mix well with somebody who doesn’t know the difference between cosmology and cosmetology, and never mind how these things pan out in Big Bang Theory. As a case study of somebody getting broken by ‘the system’ it works very well, and with the proliferation of campus shootings this is something we need to understand. My problem however is that the film is a distortion of the real life events on which it was based – Ye Lui it appears wasn’t quite such a nice guy as he is made out to be here, and ‘the system’ didn’t collude in crushing him down. As for Meryl, her role is entirely negligible. She plays Joanna, a woman with too much time on her hands and too much money in her bank account, who takes on the role of patron of the arts, specialising in taking Chinese students under her wing. The role doesn’t involve much more than looking sweetly vapid and mouthing comforting platitudes. It appears to be there so that there’s a sympathetic white person for Ye Lui to bond with and, probably, to get a star name on the cast list. Not a highlight in the actress’ career, I’d imagine.

It’s Complicated (2009)

Meryl is Jane Adler, a successful restaurant owner and cook, who is finally getting over the desertion of husband Jake ten years after he left her for a younger model. Only Jake now comes back into her life, and they end up sleeping together. Will she get back together again, and delight their children, or does new guy on the scene, architect Adam who is designing the new extension to Jane’s home, have the key to her heart and future happiness?

As before, I have mixed feelings. There are some very funny moments here, with the webcam scene a particular delight, and overall it’s an eminently watchable romcom, but again I have a problem. I liked Jane and I liked Adam, but I absolutely detested Jake. As played by Alec Baldwin, he’s a manipulative arsewipe who makes everything about himself (he only wants to get back with Jane because his new crib isn’t as comfy as it was supposed to be) and isn’t above using their children as pawns in getting his own way. I hated the guy. Okay, the writers made Jake this way and I’m probably not meant to like him, but all the same that somebody as with it and on the ball as Jane would entertain taking back this douche for a second makes me respect her less. It appears I am doomed to overthink romcoms, on which basis I should probably keep Jennifer Aniston out of my life.

The Manchurian Candidate (2004)

Based on the Richard Condon novel and a remake of the 1962 Sinatra vehicle, this film has a platoon of American GIs going missing in Iraq for two days. When they return the survivors have vivid memories of being saved by their comrade Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber) and praise him to the sky. Awarded the Medal of Honour, Shaw goes into politics, with his ambitious mother Eleanor (Meryl) pushing him into a bid for the presidency. But Shaw’s old commanding officer, Major Marco (Denzel Washington in the Sinatra role), is having nightmares that hint at something terrible taking place in Iraq and suggest that Shaw may not be the hero he is thought to be by everyone else. With the odds stacked against him, Marco tries to get to the bottom of things.

A dirge for our political system and comment on the scope for manipulation of public opinion, with brainwashing of an individual standing as a symbol for that of the masses, this is an intriguing and very effective film. I’m not sure that I buy into the central premise, but as a study of paranoia seguing into fact it works very well. Mostly it’s faithful to the 1962 original, with Iraq for Korea and corporate power for communist conspirators, and where it does change, as in making Shaw a potential presidential candidate instead of a cat’s paw assassin, it only reinforces the story. Meryl is chilling in her ruthlessness as the mother from hell, one who wants what’s best for her boy and what’s best for America. I don’t know that I’ll watch this again any time soon, but I’ll keep some fond memories of it, in the main because it confirms all my suspicions about the corporate and political elite.

So, what Meryl movies do the rest of you like? Personally, I have a soft spot for The French Lieutenant’s Woman. And why has she never done a full-fledged horror movie (from memory, the nearest she’s got is comedy Death Becomes Her)? I think she would have shone in a Roger Corman adaptation of Poe, playing opposite Vincent Price.

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Filler content with Solaris

Three reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #32:-


THE FACELESS (Solaris pb, 415pp, £7.99), Simon Bestwick’s second novel, is set in the Lancashire town of Kempforth, where people are inexplicably vanishing and the Spindly Men, a local legend, are rumoured to have been seen in the mist cloaked streets. TV psychic Allen Cowell and his sister Vera return to their childhood home at the behest of his spirit guides, three boys that he abandoned to the mercies of a child killer. Local historian Anna Mason, who also has a psychic gift, makes discoveries that suggest events are somehow focused on Ash Fell, a hospital set up to house the worst victims of World War One, but closed after a variety of scandals and now an isolated and derelict site, unknown to most of the town’s people. Detective Chief Inspector Renwick is convinced to lead a police raid on the hospital, but things go disastrously wrong, and a much greater evil is unleashed.

There are echoes here of Bestwick’s previous novel Tide of Souls, but without the backdrop/prime mover that, for me at least, made it slightly risible and also, in the chequered history of Ash Fell, of his short story ‘The Slashed Menagerie’, an account of atrocities at an asylum. The latter concept is reprised here in descriptions of the abuse of WWI survivors at Ash Fell, but with a somewhat more purposeful intent to what took place, instead of simply presenting us with schlock horror and class warfare. Further fleshing out the plight of the WWI soldiers are the excerpts credited as the first person accounts of the dead, poignant material that brings alive on the page the horrors and heartbreak of that most futile of conflicts, while the descriptions of the wounded are appalling beyond measure.

The supernatural aspects of the novel are handled with great aplomb. Ash Fell itself is turned into a vast psychic trap, a key the turning of which will plunge the world into chaos, even though the motives behind its creation were altruistic, while the final chapters reminded me of nothing so much as Carpenter’s The Fog, only presented on a national stage and with the vengeful dead of WWI in lieu of ghost pirates. This interweaving of past and present, which is one of the book’s greatest strengths, is also seen at the personal level, particularly in the case of Allen Cowell, with his memories of childhood abuse and the way his abandonment of his friends has haunted him. At the end he does what he believes is the right thing, but is betrayed by others whose thirst for vengeance is such that they will sacrifice everyone else on the altar of retribution. Central here, and to the book itself, is lack of forgiveness and what it can lead to, a theme that comes powerfully into its own as the dreadful machinery at the heart of Ash Fell fulfils its purpose. Another pleasure is the way in which Bestwick handles characterisation and relationships, adding yet further strands and complications to his narrative, as with Anna’s hesitant attraction to Vera, the unspoken love of another officer for Inspector Renwick, the anguish and depression experienced by Anna’s brother Martyn at losing both his wife and his job.

Bleakness is woven into the texture of the narrative courtesy of the horrors of past and present, and the way they seem to play off of each other, and nobody is spared, with several of the main characters, including children, suffering agonising deaths. The grimness of all that happens is embodied in the dilemma confronting Anna at the novel’s end, when she has the chance to put things right but at a terrible cost. This uncompromising situation, the implications of which Bestwick has the courage not to shirk, elevate The Faceless above most horror fare, turning it into a book of true moral dimensions, and the final twist of the screw, which all too often seems like a step too far, here adds a coda that chills to the bone. This is Simon Bestwick’s finest work to date, the one in which he harnesses the sense of anger at social injustice that permeates so much of his work and uses it to a greater end, and it is among the very best of what the horror genre in the UK had to offer in 2012.

SILENT VOICES (Solaris pb, 384pp, £7.99) is the second novel in Gary McMahon’s Concrete Grove trilogy, and like its predecessor it seems to rework old material, in this case the novella ‘The Harm’ (copies of which are still available from TTA Press). Three boys disappear for a number of days, emerging from The Needle, an abandoned block of flats at the centre of the urban jungle known as the Concrete Grove, with no memory of what has happened to them, other than vague, inchoate images of torture and an earlier episode where they followed the monster known as Captain Clickety. Twenty years later Simon has moved away to become a millionaire property developer, Brendan is a night guard at The Needle and Marty has gained notoriety as a bare knuckle fighter and local hard man. Each though is tormented by dreams of what happened and drawn back by circumstances, joining together again for a visit to The Needle, where they cross over into the place of dreams known as Loculus, encounter its guardian and must fight against the Underthing’s avatar, Captain Clickety.

This is a powerful book, one in which McMahon carries on with the construction of a new mythology begun in the previous volume, adding depth to the mix and bringing to his work an invention reminiscent of the work of Clive Barker and Stephen King, particularly the latter. In parenthesis, obviously any horror novel in which adults return to confront the monster first encountered in childhood is going to conjure up thoughts of It, while the way in which McMahon uses hummingbirds as avatars here made me think of King’s psychopompic sparrows in The Dark Half. The book wears its status as middle volume in a trilogy lightly: there’s the feeling that the important work was done in the first volume, and now this title is moving the pieces on the board for the resolution in the third volume, an impression reinforced by the shocks of the final pages, with events that surprise when they occur but seem perfectly rational with hindsight, and yet none of that detracts from the work, there is no sense in which it is simply marking time. Silent Voices stands perfectly well alone, though those who have read what went before will benefit more from all it has to offer.

In the end, what makes the story truly special and compels us to read on, is the depth of characterisation, emotional acuity and a sure sense of who his characters are allowing McMahon to confer an “everyman” quality on the three friends as they learn to deal with their mixed emotions and the sense of betrayal one of them feels. Simon is unable to relate to women, and manipulates others. Brendan is dealing with both ferocious acne and fear that he will lose wife Jane and his children to her old lover. Marty hides his intelligence beneath a brutish exterior, and inside is terrified of the monster he names Humpty Dumpty. Each man is a flawed human being with personal demons to confront, and it is in how they deal with these, and also the petty jealousies of each other, that the story really strikes home, minor concerns illuminating the major notes of the greater story arc. This juxtaposition of the personal, the all too human in the three men, and the outré forces at play in the Concrete Grove is what gives the book its narrative drive and energy, the former grounding the latter, so that McMahon can venture into strange waters and carry us with him. His greatest achievement with this series so far is bringing something akin to a sense of wonder to the matter of horror, and I look forward to seeing how it will all turn out in the next volume.

MAGIC (Solaris pb, 279pp, £7.99) is critically acclaimed editor Jonathan Oliver’s third anthology for Solaris, and having dealt with horror on the underground and haunted houses, this time he offers us ‘An Anthology of the Esoteric and Arcane’, though purists may rest assured that there is enough of horror and the weird in among these fifteen tales to make this volume worth their interest.

Leading off is ‘The Wrong Fairy’ by Audrey Niffenegger which is based on the story of Conan Doyle’s artist father, who was committed to an asylum and had visions of fairies, the story deftly raising questions as to whether insanity is, in fact, a superior mental state, or at the least one which confers a certain contentment on its victims, though there is also the possibility that wonder can intrude into the everyday and remake the world in its image.

Sarah Lotz’s ‘If I Die, Kill My Cat’ is set in South Africa and involves the use of magicians in clearing up accident black spots, but the bad juju goes into the sorcerer’s cat subsequently causing havoc in the life of the hazmat worker who takes it in after the owner’s death, the story delighting in the weary, cynical voice of the narrator and details of hazmat life. The protagonist of Will Hill’s ‘Shuffle’ has been gifted a magical ability at cards, but it comes with a terrible price, the joy of the story residing in how we fit the pieces together and decipher what is taking place.

‘Domestic Magic’ by Steve Rasnic Tem and Melanie Tem depicts the downside of having a witch for a mother, showing how children are neglected thanks to her focus on higher things and ending with a note that implies an ordinary life might be much better after all, the witch shown as almost akin to somebody with mental health problems. Bewitched this ain’t. Dan Abnett’s ‘Party Tricks’ is one of the highlights of the collection, a deliciously tongue in cheek romp of a story dealing with magical machinations in the world of politics, delighting in what it shows us of those in power and how they manoeuvre to maintain their grasp, willing to sacrifice anything. There’s a fable feel to the prose of ‘The Art of Escapology’ by Alison Littlewood, with a distant father possessed by the spirit of Harry Houdini, his son seeing the man’s efforts at escape to be directed at him personally, the whole shot through with a bittersweet mood, so that it could almost stand as a metaphor for the dreamer eschewing family life.

Christopher Fowler’s ‘The Baby’ is perhaps the bleakest of what’s on offer, an under-age girl raped and impregnated by the rock star she idolised and then the situation going from bad to worse as she attempts to get rid of the child, culminating in a horrific birth, and all the way through the victim blaming herself and making excuses for her attacker in a way that is extremely disturbing as regards victim psychology. ‘Do As Thou Wilt…’ by Storm Constantine has a witch serving up poetic justice to the philanderer who dented her self-confidence, the story full of subtle touches of invention and an off the wall ending, one which seems perfectly appropriate with hindsight, even if it somewhat jars when first read. The mob are into magic in Lou Morgan’s ‘Bottom Line’ and a con must use his ability to get out from under, the story a compelling read but not really taking full advantage of its premise so that it feels vaguely unsatisfactory, a snapshot rather than a portrait.

Another highlight, ‘Mailerdaemon’ by Sophia McDougall has an unemployed computer programmer gifted a demon to help with her insomnia, but there are complications and she must devise a solution that allows her to have a normal life, the story wonderfully inventive and with a low key ending, one that hints the trouble is still far from over, the character has won only temporary respite, and it is also very good in dealing with the sloughs and desponds of job seeking and the relief that internet contact offers to socially isolated people. From Gemma Files we have ‘Nanny Grey’, a short and sharp shocker about a spirit that serves a family and what happens to the young man who takes sexual advantage of a young lady, the atmosphere of quiet menace seeping off the page and playing counterpoint to the more overt eroticism of the piece. Last but not least there is ‘Dumb Lucy’ by Robert Shearman, with a magician and his assistant come familiar travelling through a blighted landscape and performing wherever they can, blackness and a war between angels and demons following hard on their heels, and the suspicion that in some way they cause this to happen, the story suggesting far more than is actually conveyed and capturing the spirit of magic in crisis, a time when miracles simply won’t serve any more, with a hint of The Never Ending Story in the text.

Stories by Liz Williams, Thana Niveau and Gail Z. Martin round out a satisfying collection of tales, editor Oliver deftly avoiding the literary world’s equivalent of music’s “difficult third album”.



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Filler content from a night room

Here’s a review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #41:-


Harper Collins hb, 330pp, £17.99                  

This book is a sequel of sorts to lost boy lost girl, which features here as the latest bestseller from the pen of Tim Underhill. The applecart of Tim’s life has been upset in no uncertain terms. He’s being stalked by the kind of fan who makes Annie Wilkes seem like a pussycat. Then there’s the vision he has of an angel and the e-mails he’s receiving from dead people. Tim is not a happy camper. Meanwhile Willy Patrick, an award winning writer of children’s books, has just discovered that the man she is to marry is a control freak and possible killer, one whose political connections make him virtually fireproof. Willy goes on the run, pursued by agents of her husband-to-be. She is drawn to Tim Underhill, who she sees signing books in a store, and asks for his help, a request that leaves Tim shocked to the core, as Willy Patrick is the name of a character in the book he has just started to write, and this complete stranger is exactly as he imagined her. The two of them set out for Millhaven, where Tim is to attend the wedding of his brother Phil, with Willy’s pursuers close behind. Tim is now in contact with Cyrax, an otherworldly entity who reveals that his writing of lost boy lost girl has seriously screwed up the psychic ether and it’s up to Tim to set things right, but he can only do so at great personal cost.

Straub’s latest is a clever concoction, one that reads like a thriller for much of the time, at its heart a tale of detection with otherworldly elements thrown in the mix to intrigue and enthral completely. Along the way he deftly addresses abstract concepts, such as the responsibility of an author to his creations and the onus on him to get his facts right. Without meaning to Tim Underhill distorted the truth for the sake of his fiction, and now his greatest fictional creation must be sacrificed to set the balance right. In addition Straub packs the narrative with throwaway ideas, as for instance the delightful conceit that for each book written there is some ideal Platonic form, one in which the writer said exactly what he wanted to say and of which all the others are only pale shadows, with collectors who hunt ceaselessly in the hope that they might find just such a definitive text (knocks the stuffing out of the whole signed, limited, numbered edition thing, that’s for sure).

In the Night Room engages the emotions as well as the mind, with the relationship between Tim and Willy developing in a manner that’s thoroughly convincing given their unusual circumstances and then with a tragic dimension added. The poignancy of Willy’s situation, the realisation of who she is and her desperate attempts to retain corporeality tug on the heartstrings, while Tim’s efforts to discover what he did wrong and set the record straight are compellingly portrayed, his ‘angelic’ mentor and guide brought to credible life on the page with his own distinctive method of communication (and no, it’s not SPEAKING LIKE THIS). Straub’s descriptive power is as finely tuned as ever, giving us scenes that will linger in the memory long after the book is done and character portraits that convince utterly, even the minor members of his dramatis personae drawn with painstaking attention to detail and the little peculiarities that make them real.

The end result of all Straub’s efforts is a novel that’s as thought provoking as it is beautifully written, one that will reward repeated readings and makes a worthy addition to the body of his work. Highly recommended.

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Trailer Trash – Sin City 2

Written and directed by Frank Miller, who is now on my list of obnoxious people, this looks big on style, but I wonder if it has any substance:-

Actually, I wonder if I care.

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Hard Boyle(d)

Three films by director Danny, watched over the course of a slow weekend.

Sunshine (2007)

2057 and the sun is dying, so a team of astronauts are sent to reignite it with a massive bomb. At the point we meet them, The Icarus II is several months out and tensions among the crew are mounting, a factor that gets upped when they lose contact with Earth. Then they hear a beacon indicating that the previous mission, thought lost, is within range. The choice is whether to carry on with their mission, on which the future of the planet and billions of lives depend, or to divert and find out what happened to their predecessors. It’s the first of many hard choices that confront the crew.

To my mind this all played out like an art house rendition of Armageddon - less action, but plenty of soul searching and stunning visuals. Some of it was rather obvious, such as the saccharine sweet end note foreshadowed in Capa’s transmission back to his family and the way in which the pacifist in the crew is forced to kill, while they couldn’t resist throwing a sociopath into the mix. There are lots of echoes of similar films, such as Solaris and, inevitably, 2001, but enough that’s new to maintain interest instead of dismissing the whole thing as simply derivative. The cast play their roles well, with the suggestion of madness bubbling away beneath the surface, and I liked the way in which they were forced to make hard choices, the ways in which that turned out. The picture of life aboard a spaceship was convincing, though they could have done a bit more to show how the crew spent their time, and the visuals were breath taking (well, lung searing might be a better term), using a palette of light and dark to telling effect. I liked it a lot.

28 Days Later (2002)

A zombie movie in all but name. Animal rights activists invade a top secret research facility to release the apes being used for experiments, but in doing so they also release the virus Rage, which is spread by blood and turns everyone infected into a lunatic intent on mayhem and murder. Jim (Cillian Murphy) wakes from a coma to find London deserted – something similar happened to Milla Jovovich in Resident Evil a few months earlier. He links up with heavily armed survivor Selena, and then with an older man and his daughter, from which point on they put all their efforts into reaching a place of safety, only to discover that the army who offer protection are every bit as much of a menace as the Rage victims.

I have vague memories of really liking this when I saw it at the cinema, but watching it again I found it rather slow and slightly tedious. Yeah, there are some tense moments with the Rage victims, but not that many, and one of those turns out to be just a dream. A lot of the time the plot seems awash in sentimentality or just wandering aimlessly, with a subtext about how easily human civilisation crumbles and how healthy the world looks without us. The military guys were a little too over the top for me to believe in them, and the way in which Jim outsmarts and overcomes trained soldiers didn’t really ring true either. It was a film that, to me anyway, felt a little too bogged down in sending a message, or several – about the nasty scientists and politicians and their experiments, about the nasty soldiers who turn into potential rapists at the drop of a hat, etc. At bottom it was all about how pragmatism can become an excuse for barbarity, and I guess I agree with that message, but the delivery mechanism felt a little too obvious.

Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

Two brothers, Jamal and Salim, growing up parentless in the slums of Mumbai, doing whatever it takes to survive, even when it takes them outside the law. Salim ends up in a criminal gang. Jamal becomes tea boy at a call centre, then wangling a spot on the Indian version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? but only in the hope of once again contacting his true love Latika. An uneducated tea wallah’s skill at answering the questions correctly earns him the attention of the police, who want to know how he is cheating, but Jamal illustrates how he acquired his knowledge via incidents from his past. But will he find Latika, and what will be the reaction of Jamal, who now works as hired muscle for the gangster keeping her as a mistress?

I also saw this at the cinema when it came out, and I’m happy to report that I enjoyed it every bit as much on the small screen, albeit I really, really could have done with larger subtitles. It’s a film that reeks of sentimentality, but it works because it knows exactly what strings to pull, what cultural memes to plug into. Basically it’s a cross between Romeo and Juliet and the story of Cinderella, with a quizmaster who is both fairy godmother and wicked stepmother, all picked up and transplanted to the foreign culture of the Indian subcontinent, bolting on a subtext that shows how that foreign culture is being ‘westernised’. The use of a quiz show as a framing device is a brilliant conceit, while the visuals bring to life both the beauty and squalor of the Indian setting. It succeeds so well because it touches on universal themes of love and desire, sibling rivalry and loyalty, divisions of class and religion offset by the ties that bind us all, counterpointing the serious things it has to tell us with a mood of exhilaration and joy. Or perhaps it’s simply that we all like to see the nice guy get the pot of  gold and ride off into the sunset with the girl he loves. Jai ho!!!

So, what Danny Boyle films do the rest of you recommend, if any?


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