NR: Do-Overs and Detours: Eighteen Eerie Tales

As far as I can recall I’ve only ever read one book by Steve Vernon – Hard Roads, put out by Gray Friar Press back in the day and consisting of two novellas. It was a review copy received via Black Static, and if you’re interested in seeing what I thought of it, then go here. With an introduction by Cemetery Dance publisher and Stephen King collaborator Richard Chizmar, Do-Overs and Detours consists of horror fiction that, despite the description in the book’s full title, I would classify as surreally slanted or even at a stretch Rabelaisian, though eerie is definitely on the menu.

Opener “Hyperactive Cleaning Power” has a very simple idea at its heart, with a man at a launderette witnessing a miracle, the concept both striking for its novelty and at the same time entirely apposite, with a strong ending, a subtext that speaks of redemption for us all, and echoes of the act of baptism. There’s more than a suggestion of Shirley Jackson to be found in the grim “A Fine Sacrifice”, as a man is bullied by his neighbours into committing a horrendous act. The story is fascinating both for the larger than life characters and the obliqueness of what takes place, the lack of any explanation and matter of factness of the telling adding to the minatory atmosphere of the piece, while demonstrating that violence against women can be learned behaviour.

“I Know Why the Waters of the Sea Taste of Salt” merges kaiju monsters with WWII drama as a Japanese suicide bomber summons a sea monster to halt the American fleet. We don’t know if this is real or simply a death fantasy, but what comes across is the sombreness of the moment, the pain and futility of war and how lives are chewed up. One of my personal favourites, “The Takashi Miike Seal of Approval” has a contract killer inflicting poetic justice on his victim and giving the concept of the snuff movie a novel twist. There’s a subtext about the futility of revenge, but at the same time the trip to the surprise ending is an engaging one, making the story a fine example of the just desserts school of horror fiction.

“Rolling Stock” is the first story to feature recurring character Easter Noon, a vagrant with something of Jack Reacher about him, here taking on a monster that shifts from one body to another. It’s a clever diversion into the supernatural, entertaining and with an original creature as the feature in the menace of the piggyback man, while Easter’s laidback narration is eminently agreeable and slightly reminiscent of King at his most folksy. I can easily identify with Texas Jack Page, the protagonist of “The Last Stand of the Great Texas Packrat”, a book collector whose obsession ultimately costs him dearly. While the love of books shines through the text, there’s a codicil that love can be destructive, and a delicious irony in the final fate of TJP.

Easter Noon is back for “Gin Bottle Heaven” in which a drunken hobo’s heart’s desire is granted. Whether this is a happy ending for the character or not is debatable, but Easter has a killer line to end the story, one that makes us uneasy even as we appreciate the appositeness of it. “Do-overs and Detours, Somewhere North of Bigfoot” has another of life’s losers given a second chance courtesy of the biggest loser of all, the story a modern version of the Wandering Jew legend complete with a monster truck. It’s a piece with its heart in the right place, one that is inventive and ultimately satisfying.

“Tinseled Trailer-court Viscera” is probably the most complex of the stories on offer. The protagonist lives in a trailer park, but his trailer has a basement and it contains magical Mason jars that empower him to avenge some of life’s injustices. Intercut with this are scenes from the protagonist’s childhood that go some way to explaining his current situation, with a resolution that turns everything around. It’s a masterly story, compelling and totally convincing for all that the ideas it contains are so far over the top only astronauts can see them clearly, and at its heart is a moral about how childhood abuse can warp and twist a life out of true. The hilariously titled “Voodoo Trucker Clucker Futz-up” combines resurrection and revenge in a gleeful brew. The punchline to the story is almost a cliché, but the lively writing, black humour, and an interesting take on the zombie trope make it memorable.

Having dealt with the Japanese in WWII, Vernon turns his attention to the Germans in “Under the Skin, Under the Bones” with a unit on the Russian front discovering a hellish church and a red nun of supernatural origin. This is the most visceral story in the book, populated with images of slaughter that linger in the mind’s eye and show how if war is hell, then hell is a whole lot worse. The reader almost feels sorry for the Nazis, but then, nah! They’re Nazis, so fuck ’em. Set in a post-apocalyptic world, “Pray for the Clockwork Twister” has passengers trapped on a bus and finding hope of a kind, though one suspects it won’t last much beyond the story’s end. The appeal of the piece lies in the hints at the nature of this world and what has happened to it, and the depiction of the human spirit in adversity, reaching out even when matters seem hopeless.

“Death Rides a Quartered Horse” is a joke story with a laugh out loud punchline worthy of Pratchett, as the Grim Reaper has to match and mend to carry on with his daily grind. It appeals by virtue of the sheer silliness of the whole situation. “Once More Round the Block” is the story of a taxi driver who ends up chauffeuring a killer with an unusual method of dispatching his victims, and this method is the single grace note in a story that doesn’t have much else going for it. Bottom line, it’s more idea than story and the least satisfying tale in the collection.

A street performer with an unusual act deals harshly with a heckler in “Jugular”, and I guess you could diss this story in similar terms to the last one, but it’s executed at greater length and the nature of what is happening fascinates the reader just as easily as it does the observer/narrator of the piece. “The Last Few Curls of Gut Rope” is the most surreal story in the collection, solving the age old question of whether the chicken or egg came first through the medium of an unusual restaurant and a down on his luck customer. This whole thing is so absurd that it’s hard not to like it, as one unlikelihood is piled atop another, the whole structure teetering but never falling, and the reader left gobsmacked by the writer’s audacity. I’ll never think of chickens the same way again.

Revenge reaches out from beyond the grave in “Nail Gun Glissando” as a woman gets her own back on three construction workers. It’s a simple piece, another entry in the just desserts school of horror fiction, like an EC comic story with only the words, and a starkly horrific illustration of the cruelty people are capable of when they believe there will be no comeback, ultimately as satisfying as it is unsophisticated. And finally we have Easter Noon’s return for “Harry’s Mermaid”, in which he attempts to save a friend from a sea creature that takes the appearance of the person you most want to see and have back in your life. It’s an engaging tale, one that marks the border between reality and our desires, a variation of sorts on the theme of being careful what you wish for, with some excellent characterisation and a truly repulsive monster.

By way of a codicil we have Vernon giving out details of where the stories first appeared and writing about what lay behind some of them. It’s a fine end to an entertaining collection, and the Kindle edition is only 77p on Amazon at the time of writing, so get clicking.

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Trailer Trash – Dune

I’ve read the book a couple of times and watched the David Lynch film, so looking forward to at last seeing what Denis Villeneuve does with the material.

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OR: Still Bleeding

A review that originally appeared in Black Static #11:-

STILL BLEEDING

Steve Mosby has things to show us: there is about his work the feel of something terrible taking place, an event unfolding before our eyes at which we stare and are unable to look away. In the new world where all the lines have blurred, in publishing as much as in life, and all the old genre labels don’t hold up to close examination, his work straddles the boundary between crime fiction and horror, catering to the one’s hope of resolution and appeal to rationality, while at the same time offering up all the atrocities and gore streaked nihilism we associate with the other.

The typical Mosby protagonist is a lovelorn and guilt haunted male, with Alex Connor, the (anti)hero of his fifth and latest novel Still Bleeding (Orion hardback/tpb, 336pp, £18.99/£10.99), a perfect example of the breed. In the wake of his wife’s suicidal jump from a bridge, for which he blamed himself, Connor fled to Europe, hoping to outrun the memories, but now his friend Sarah, the one who helped him hold onto his sanity in that darkest hour, has been killed. Alex returns home to find his brother charged with her murder, a domestic dispute having escalated into violence, but Sarah’s body was not found where James left it and is still missing, suggesting the involvement of some third party with an agenda of their own. Alex decides to investigate and his starting point is the files Sarah compiled in the pursuit of her job as a journalist, and in them he discovers a link to a website where atrocities are shown, which to his horror introduces a very personal element.

In the second main plot strand, Detective Paul Kearney is in charge of the hunt for a serial killer who exsanguinates his victims before dumping their bodies, and this in turn leads him to an artist who works in the medium of human blood, recording his victims’ deaths on canvas. With the artist dead the case appears to be solved, but the last victim still has to be found and Kearney’s focus on a promise he made to the woman’s husband leads him to act unwisely.

Alex meanwhile has stuck his nose in places where it is not welcome and brought serious trouble down on his own head, and those of friends who aided him. Hunted by unknown parties, he believes his life to be in deadly danger and seeks help from Kearney, who is now operating outside the law and pursuing a maverick path of his own. The two men learn that they have got on the radar of a powerful criminal organisation, one with a decided aversion to loose ends, and for each of them there is closure of a kind, though to use the term ‘happy ending’ would be stretching it a bit.

While marketed as crime fiction come thriller, Mosby’s book has many of the trappings of horror – a shadowy organisation that will do anything to further its ends, a mad artist and aesthetes whose voyeurism feeds his creativity, an archetypal killer who haunts the dreams of one of the characters, in Garland a larger than life monster who will linger in the memory once the book is done. There’s even a vampire of sorts. What makes the book so unnerving though is how firmly Mosby has his finger on the pulse of the times, his awareness and understanding of the ever new ways in which we human animals torture and torment each other, our endless capacity for causing harm and the justifications we concoct for doing so.

Take the mad artist in Mosby’s book as an example. Roger Timms commits to canvas hellish scenes of torture and depravity, using his female victims as models and painting them in their own blood. Regardless of how obviously wrong this is, there are patrons of the arts who admire his work, even collectors who know and are prepared to overlook its means of production, who will pay lavish prices to own a Timms original and actually have a secret hankering for some ‘wet work’ of their own. On the surface it sounds patently absurd, something that is obviously a fictional creation and could never take place in reality. And yet Timms is not so far removed from real world exemplars, such as the Chapman brothers, with their distorted sculptures; Marc Quinn, who has worked with his own blood; Gunther von Hagens and his exhibitions of plastinated bodies. I don’t mean to suggest that the works of these artists are synonymous with those of somebody who kills his subjects, but rather to show that while Timms remains within the pages of a book his methods are seen in the art world in a diluted form. That knowledge informs our reading, while begging the question of how far can art go before reaching some moral tipping point, before becoming the thing Mosby writes about.

As with his previous book Cry For Help, the potential of technology is an important part of Still Bleeding. Alex Connor stumbles across a website on which scenes of atrocity are shown, www.doyouwanttosee.com, and again this seems like something which could only occur in a book, but Mosby places the site in a list of other sites that includes the very real www.rotten.com where similar, albeit not as extreme, material is posted. In all this he seems to be implying that we are only a short stretch from the world of Still Bleeding. Or perhaps we’ve already arrived, just don’t know it as yet. Alex finds a clip on the site that shows the suicide of his wife, recorded on the camera of a mobile phone by a bystander, a man who was more interested in capturing the moment of Marie’s death to share with his online friends than he was in attempting to save a human life. One reads this and thinks of real world stories of violence and bullying recorded on mobile phones and passed round by interested parties, the whole happy slapping phenomenon, and suddenly it all seems horribly plausible. Concerns like these are not are central to Mosby’s story – he is, first and foremost, writing a thriller, crime fiction, horror story, call it what you will – but the way in which they are touched on bestows a little more gravitas and verisimilitude on a narrative that is intent on pushing the envelope, gives you pause to stop and think.

Of course, the plot is the thing, and as far as that goes Mosby gives us a wonderfully twisty and tricky story, one with developments that come as a complete surprise but seem perfectly obvious with hindsight. Mosby appears in total command of his story, so that tangled as the web in which Alex Connor finds himself may become, the reader has no doubt that everything will add up at the end. Back of it all is a never named organisation that, like the Sodality of Sade’s novels, caters to the needs of the depraved and amoral, making a handsome profit by doing so. Their agent Garland is the main bad guy and prime mover behind events, an efficient and ruthless merchant of death who is indifferent to pleas for mercy, but might be swayed from his course if you can put a little coin his way. Garland’s attitude of ‘it’s only business’ chills completely in its indifference, the total estrangement from common humanity it marks. He is the accountant as serial killer and in his world life or death is simply a matter of best business practice and profit margins. Garland’s henchman, Banyard, is in many ways his antithesis, a monster whose brutishness is obvious from his outward appearance, and yet grotesque as Banyard is, it is Garland who disturbs more, perhaps because of that indifference, his very reasonableness as he negotiates the end of a woman’s life.

Paul Kearney and Alex Connor are two sides of the same coin, men haunted by the memories of their past. In the case of Kearney it is an incident from childhood that drives him and shapes the man who he is, gives him the overwhelming desire to save someone else even if he cannot save himself. The skill and depth Mosby brings to the character, adds yet another horrific twist to the story, with a man whose actions initially repel and then ultimately move the reader, the composite portrait of a troubled soul. For Connor it is the death of his wife that dogs his footsteps, the feeling that he was somehow to blame, that he should have done something different, and he’s been running from that ever since, no other point to all his wandering. Like Kearney he needs to save another, in the hope that by doing so he can redeem the omissions of his past and thus save himself also. Both men’s wishes are granted by the novel’s bittersweet ending, though in entirely different ways. Only Garland, the purveyor of illicit delights, is allowed to feel he has accomplished something, the bleakness of the final pages more than anything establishing the book’s horror genre credentials.

Still Bleeding is a narrative that is unrelenting in the dark and grim picture it gives us of lives that have been spoiled and tainted by past events, and compelling in its depiction of a vast organisation with tentacles in every level of society, including the police, and against which it is useless to fight, survival and an accommodation of sorts the best that can be hoped for. The novel offers us a glimpse into a terrible world of chaos and crime, where a new aesthetic is evolving, and it plugs into our own desire to see the unthinkable. It is the best yet I have seen from Steve Mosby, a writer who is growing in stature with each book that I read.

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Elected

Could he be any worse than BoJo the Clown?

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NR: Sisters

Published in 2020, Sisters is Daisy Johnson’s second novel and her third book. I discussed her first book, the short story collection Fen, earlier this week and Sisters has a similar feel and literary sensibility to it, though not set in the Fenlands. At its heart is a twist that instantly put me in mind of a rather famous horror novel, but to name drop that would be to give the game away and simply not cricket (though it doesn’t usually stop me).

After some initially unspecified climactic event sisters July and September have moved with their mother to an old family house on the edge of the North York Moors, a property that used to belong to their deceased father and is now owned by his sister. The sisters’ mother is a famous children’s author who has used them as the templates for the heroines in her books. The house is old and unsettling, with strange noises at night and something moving in the walls. More unsettling still is the relationship between the sisters, with July totally dominated by the slightly older September, and there are scenes that seem to imply some sort of telepathic link between these non-twins so that July is able to experience exactly what September is feeling. Their mother is acting strangely too, almost entirely absent from the lives of her daughters. Slowly the back story emerges, how the naïve July was bullied at school and the revenge September planned, and how it all went badly wrong.

Sisters starts slowly, with the eeriness of the setting and the old house seeming to be the focus of the action, the mother’s strange behaviour as a side issue. But as the story progresses and we have the back story filled in, a picture emerges of sibling love and rivalry, one that ultimately lends itself to extreme abuse, albeit July is an unreliable narrator whose fragile mental state is one of the main planks of the story. The snapshots we are given of bullying are convincing and effective in making the reader care for the picked upon July and urge September on to revenge, but at the same time it is obvious that September is slightly unhinged in the way she interacts with everyone else, including both her sister and mother.

Vividly written, one could almost say impressionistic, this short novel offers a compelling tale of sibling rivalry and abuse, with the end pages racing by as our suspicions about the nature of this relationship are confirmed in the most unsettling manner. and in parenthesis it seems legitimate to wonder if, through her literary portrayal of the two girls, their mother has helped create the twisted relationship between them, trapping each in a preordained role. Doubtful at first I became thoroughly won over by Johnson’s evocative prose and clever plotting, her atmospheric rendition of the story’s isolated setting and the element of misdirection that deftly keeps us from seeing the surprise that is waiting in the wings. While no doubt this book is going to be classed as mainstream/literary thanks to its antecedents, it is at heart a superb work of horror fiction, one that will be applauded by the cognoscenti, the kind of book that makes me wonder if genre labels no longer have any relevance except as marketing tools.

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Trailer Trash – The Last Duel

The latest from Ridley Scott.

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NR: Fen

It’s received wisdom in the publishing world that, unless you’re Stephen King or someone of similar commercial standing, short story collections don’t sell, and certainly no writer is supposed to debut with a short story collection from a major publishing house. Contrary to such wisdom, Daisy Johnson did just that in 2017 with a collection from Jonathan Cape that went on to win the Edge Hill Short Story Prize.

Fen contains twelve stories most of which are set in the Fenlands, intertwining myth and folklore, sexuality and human need, written from a female perspective and with a mainstream sensibility but touching on the themes and tropes of genre, particularly those genres at the weird end of the scale.

In opening story “Starver” a young girl gives up food, gradually transmuting into an eel, the story tapping into older legends of fen workers who fed on eels and found the diet unsatisfying. It is a weird and compelling tale, told from the viewpoint of the transformer’s sister. A trio of femme fatales find fen men not at all to their taste in “Blood Rites”, a strange and intriguing variation on the vampire tale. A house falls in love with a girl who lives there in “A Bruise the Shape and Size of a Door Handle” and blocks her attempts to form a relationship with other people, the story deftly written and ringing ornate changes on the haunted house tale, while at the same time exploring the nature of abusive relationships.

“How to Lose It” has the accounts of a mother and daughter losing their virginity intersect, illuminating and providing a dark psychology to both. Written in segments that run backward chronologically “How to Fuck a Man you Don’t Know” reminded me slightly of Dick’s tales of backward time, but Johnson’s use of the idea is more intimate and on a human scale, the narrative showing how we become strangers to each other even as we know each other the more. In “Language” we have a zombie variation, a tale of love that knows no bounds, not even that of death itself, though in this case the revenant feeds not on brains but on the words of the living rendering them speechless, the story elegantly written and brimming over with imagination.

A man abandons his pregnant lover to go to sea, but the connection between them remains thanks to “The Superstition of Albatross”, one of the less successful stories with events a little too vaguely conveyed for my liking. The mother of a cult figure is dogged by his followers in search of signs and portents in “A Heavy Devotion”, but has secrets and fears of her own in a story that works through suggestion, the strength of the narrative lying in what is not said but only hinted at. Longest piece in the book, “The Scattering: a story in three parts” tells of the rivalry between twin brothers and the tragedy that resulted, told through the eyes of the sister who has the hots for one of them and believes in animalism. It’s another piece that is strongly suggestive, with the reader left to fill in the gaps, but never less than readable and intriguing.

The final three stories are gathered together in a separate section, a division that seemed artificial and unnecessary to me. In “Birthing Stones” a woman waits in a restaurant for her date to arrive, mulling over the strange and unearthly circumstances of her birth, the story packing a powerful punch as it lays out its mysteries. In “The Cull” a farmer’s wife bears witness to attempts to deal with a pack of foxes preying on the locals’ domestic beasts, though there is a strong suggestion that something else entirely is going on and maybe, just maybe, foxes are not to blame for the crimes laid at their door.

And finally we have “The Lighthouse Keeper” whose obsession with a fish she sees proves to be her undoing, allowing the local fishermen a way to get past her defences, the story celebrating what it means to be different while at the same time showing that it is not necessarily a bad thing (or a good thing, come to that). It’s a fitting end to a collection of stories that was full of ideas, fine writing, and strong atmosphere, bringing to vivid life a liminal place and the unique individuals who flit in and out of existence within its borders.

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Trailer Trash – Halloween Kills

Another Halloween, another Michael Myers outing.

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OR: Eagle Rising

A review that originally appeared in Black Static #10:-

David Devereux: Eagle Rising

(Gollancz paperback, 233pp, £12.99)

This is the second volume in a series begun with Hunter’s Moon and chronicling the adventures of Jack, a field agent and magician in the employ of a top secret security organisation dedicated to keeping Britain safe from threats of an occult nature. It starts with Jack having to go undercover as John, a whiz kid of the financial world (his successes stage managed by his bosses), as a way to get friendly with fellow dealer Michael, his entrée to a secret organisation with people situated in positions of power and influence. John proves himself by helping out with some nasty racist and homophobic attacks, after which he is invited to join the ‘Eagle Society’, but the group’s aims are even more horrendous than suspected. They intend to bring Adolf Hitler back from Hell and with him at their head to re-establish Britain as a world power. Naturally Jack must stop them, but his efforts are complicated by the presence of MI5’s Penny Marsh, who has also penetrated the organisation and is not amenable to following his lead, at least not without more proof of good faith.

This is fun without being anything special. Jack has slightly mellowed from the previous novel in that, while he still does incredibly nasty things, he doesn’t feel so compelled to provide justifications, instead letting the actions speak for themselves, and that is slightly more effective when it comes to the ‘ends justifying means’ subtext of much of the book. Elsewhere, the obvious chemistry with Penny Marsh helps bring out the human side of the character, letting us see that when it comes to personal relationship stuff Jack is just as much at sea as the rest of us, and not nearly as capable of divorcing feelings from the job as he wants to pretend. The prose is workmanlike rather than remarkable, its job to keep the pages turning, and as far as that goes, mission accomplished. Overall not a lot happens in the plot, just undercover work punctuated by the odd moments of wet stuff and excursions into other realms, plus a couple of set pieces concerning rituals that go wrong, all groundwork for the grand finale. The bad guys, with their many unappealing traits, are just the kind of pricks that it is not only agreeable but de rigueur to hate, and so obligatory to root for Jack in his efforts to bring their card house tumbling down, whatever it takes, and yet they give rise to the one serious quibble I have with the book. Would such fiercely nationalistic creeps really be intent on summoning up the spirit of Adolf Hitler to run Britain? The inclusion of the ultimate fascist bogeyman in the book’s dramatis personae seems slightly clichéd and adds something that almost feels like nostalgia, a hankering for the good old days when we knew who the bad guys were because they all had swastika armbands and wore nifty black leather instead of grey suits.

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Thoughts on a Sunday #3

ITEM: If I say ‘Handyman’ five times while standing in front of a mirror, what are the odds that one will pop round and do the various odd jobs that need doing?

I’ve tried conventional methods, like phoning people who advertise locally and offering them money, but none of that seems to work.

ITEM: Pete’s rule of life #1337 – the most ruthlessly efficient wing of any large business will be the one that deals with collecting money owed.

And the least efficient will be the one that deals with refunds.

Invariably they will be part of the same department. Sometimes even the same people.

ITEM: The March 2020 lockdown hit at a particularly bad time for me (as it did for everyone, but this is my blog and all about me). I sold my house on the 16th of December the previous year, within a week of it going on the market, and had a timetable for moving out of my home of over forty years and moving in with my partner, and then lockdown was announced and the buyer, who’d been taking her own sweet time about exchanging contracts, announced that either I was out tomorrow or the deal was off. And so a meticulously planned evacuation of the former desres devolved into a mad scramble to get everything done in time.

Inevitably things went wrong. I had a couple of thousand books and DVDs that I’d planned to load into a van and go round all the local charity shops offloading until they were all gone, but the charity shops were no longer open to take donations and so they got left behind to the tender mercies of the house clearing firm. I kid myself that they somehow found a good home, because the alternative is too painful to contemplate.

Also left behind in the mad rush, a half empty/full bottle of Napoleon brandy and an extendable feather duster that I’d found particularly useful for cleaning in those hard to reach corners (of which my partner’s house has many). I miss them both far more than words can say.

ITEM: Saddest sight of lockdown – an elderly man diligently washing his hands in the toilets at Morrisons and then holding them under the condom dispenser next to the sink in the mistaken belief that it was a hot air drier.

ITEM: Most patronising lockdown moment – a sign in the toilets of a local pub urging customers to wash their hands for at least twenty seconds, and if they weren’t sure how long twenty seconds was to hum “Happy Birthday to you”.

I spend a lot of my time in public toilets. It’s to do with an enlarged prostate. Honest.

ITEM: At the end of October if all goes to plan, I will be back in a theatre for the first time in over eighteen months to see this:-

Really looking forward to it.

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