Trailer Trash – Gods of Egypt

In my younger years I used to be fascinated by the history and mythology of ancient Egypt, but I don’t remember reading about anything like this:-

The film has been slated, and deservedly so, for its whitewashing.

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Filler content with murderous appeal

A review that originally appeared in Black Static #41 as part of a feature on A. K. Benedict:-

REMEMBERING THE DARKNESS: A. K. BENEDICT

While it might be a little early to be talking about the emergence of a new subgenre, there’s a certain chill in the air that suggests the day of the time travelling serial killer has arrived. Lauren Beukes is most definitely making waves courtesy of The Shining Girls but A. K. Benedict was there a month or so before her with THE BEAUTY OF MURDER (Orion pb, 416pp, £7.99).

Stephen Killigan has just started in his new post as junior lecturer at Sepulchre College in Cambridge. Out one night he stumbles across the body of a woman he presumes to be the missing beauty queen Miranda, but when the police arrive the body has disappeared. Stephen faces being charged with wasting police time and also accused of bringing his college into disrepute. He remains haunted by the stone mask the dead girl was wearing and the words “This is your fault” carved into the flesh of her arm. And then another body is discovered, that of a young boy, a chorister who went missing the day before he is found, only the corpse is in an advanced state of decomposition, defying all the laws of science, at least those we know about.

From another lecturer, a man called Robert Sachs who is an expert in aesthetics and argues for the beauty of murder, dropping dark hints that he may have indulged in experiments of his own, Stephen first hears the name of Jackamore Grass, a killer who can travel in time and uses this ability to dispose of the bodies of his victims. Sceptical at first, Stephen can’t deny the evidence of his own senses when he too begins to shift back in time, finding himself sojourning in seventeenth century Cambridge. The police however, and quite understandably, are having none of it. Instead, with the discovery of Miranda’s body, displayed exactly as Stephen described, DI Jane Horn and her colleagues are ready to take a long, hard look at Stephen Killigan. It’s up to our hero to tackle Jackamore Grass himself, but first he has to master his time travelling abilities and take care of some very personal business.

For her first book, A. K. Benedict has produced a novel that eludes easy categorisation, one which melds elements of the thriller and crime drama, science fiction and horror, playing elegant riffs on the tropes of all four genres. It is meticulously plotted, with significant developments in each of the time periods in which the book is set, and details neatly dovetailing into the overall design, so a contest between artists in the seventeenth century has repercussions for the people of today and the theft of antique masks from a museum in Padua in 1742 assumes an importance that only becomes clear with hindsight.

Presiding over this labyrinthine plot, the evil genius of the book, is the character of Jackamore Grass, a killer with the intelligence of a Moriarty or Lecter and the chameleon like abilities of a Ripley. He is an eminently memorable villain who always stays one step ahead of Stephen and two steps ahead of the reader. Essentially amoral, thanks in large part to the ability that separates him from the vast majority of the species, Grass regards others as little more than subjects for him to experiment on, to be shaped by and suborned to his will, even as he despises them for letting him do so. In Stephen Killigan he thinks that he may have found somebody who is not contemptible, but the lecturer’s inability to cast off the shackles of conventional morality despite Jackamore’s manipulations is a big disappointment to Grass.

Stephen Killigan seems initially a brittle person, someone with a sharp tongue, using wit to defuse situations but also a bit of a smart arse. As the plot unfolds we learn something more of his past, the tragic event that perhaps made him the way he is, and the man grows in stature as he resists the lure of the ubermensch that Jackamore dangles before him. Killigan is a philosopher whose beliefs are challenged, and a man who has to learn the lesson of acceptance, that there are things he can’t change and lives he can’t save. He makes mistakes, in love and lust, and they cost him dear. Benedict spares her character nothing, but as a result of the rite of passage the narrative puts him through he makes the transition from potential buffoon, somebody we aren’t quite sure if we like or not, to a person of gravitas, and we respect him the more for that, that his triumphs haven’t come easy.

While Benedict is excellent at fleshing out her hero and villain, she doesn’t stint on the supporting cast either, with the story told from several different character perspectives, each sounding distinctive and convincing. Robert Sachs is a man who is essentially a moral coward, using aesthetic theories as a pretext for the crimes he commits and abets, only finding anything like personal nobility at the end when he is beyond redemption. Stephen’s best friend is the irrepressible Satnam, a man with a quick answer to everything and a superficial persona that masks real depth. The girlfriend Stephen acquires during the course of the story and much to Satnam’s disapproval, librarian Lana Carver, is able to match his every double entendre with one of her own, a thoroughly independent modern woman who isn’t afraid to go after what she wants or to criticise behaviour she finds demeaning, and her undoubted research skills help to move the action on. Discredited physicist Iris Burton, who must surely be modelled on Roberta Sparrow from Donnie Darko, in some other space-time continuum if not this one, provides Stephen with valuable information and practical help, while remaining an endearingly wacky old lady, like Miss Marple on speed. Perhaps most significantly, mainly because a coda implies she will feature with Stephen in future stories, there is DI Jane Horn who is fighting cancer and at the same time dealing with her most difficult case, acutely conscious that she is a woman in a man’s world and that all it will take is one slip or misjudgement for the pack to turn on her.

Nor is Benedict remiss in describing the physical locations in which her story is set, bringing to life on the page the cloistered confines of modern Cambridge where the very stones seem steeped in history, and then zeroing in on that history by transplanting her characters in time. Her depiction of Cambridge in the seventeenth century is remarkably detailed and convincing, so that you can smell the air and hear the sounds of life as you read, unchanging human nature in conflict with the forces of progress. In the struggle of the fen men to preserve their heritage in the face of ambitious drainage schemes you can find echoes of very modern concerns, such as the threat of fracking, though that is probably incidental to where Benedict is coming from. She even lets Stephen and Lana loose on a day trip to my stomping ground of Yarmouth, and I can personally vouch for the verisimilitude of that outing.

It’s a fast paced book, with short chapters that flash by at a ferocious clip and a prose style that continually delights with its verve and invention. Like Stephen Killigan, Benedict is never one to shy away from a memorable and vivid phrase, one that sounds just right in context, so that we read about a character who “folds up like a deckchair” or a building that “looms over the Cam like a silent movie villain”. There are a few cringe worthy moments when she seems to be straining just a little too much for effect and originality, but far more often the metaphors and similes are bang on target, making the prose a joy to read, to just luxuriate in the language used. And, while this is at heart a murder mystery, serious themes are being dealt with, questions raised about aesthetics and philosophy, quantum physics and morality. If Benedict doesn’t have the answers any more than Stephen Killigan does, she is asking the right questions and doing so in an engagingly dramatic manner.

It’s not a book without flaws. There are several occurrences of what I’ve come to think of as WTF moments – in particular I am dubious about the economics of Stephen’s plan to save Sepulchre College – and I don’t recall any attempt to address the problems of paradox implicit in the concept of time travel. But perhaps these things will be addressed next time out of the gate, and I do hope there will be a next time, as overall this was an impressive and strikingly original work with some memorable characters and serious themes from a writer who, on this evidence, is going to be somebody to watch in the coming years

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Song for a Saturday – Right Through You

It’s an Alanis day.

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Filler content with great old ones

Two reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #5:-

THE GREAT OLD ONES

Necronomicon: The Best Weird Tales of H. P. Lovecraft (Gollancz hardback, 886pp, £20) is described as a ‘Commemorative Edition’, though nobody actually pins down exactly what it is that’s being commemorated. My cynical side opines that it’s the 70th anniversary of HPL’s death, post which his works have now all passed into the public domain, and my acquisitive nature forgets for a moment that reviewers get free copies and rubs its metaphorical hands in glee at the prospect of such a beautiful book with a ‘non-collector’s item’ price tag.

Chances are anyone who has more than a passing familiarity with supernatural fiction will recognise the name H. P. Lovecraft (1890 – 1937) and know of his work. He was arguably the most important genre writer of the last century and, while some critics have mocked his occasionally verbose and unwieldy style, the man’s influence on the genre and subsequent writers cannot be doubted. The back cover quote from Stephen King is apposite – “Lovecraft opened the way for me, as he had done for others before me.” Robert Bloch, Fritz Leiber, Brian Lumley and Ramsey Campbell are just some of the main beneficiaries of Lovecraft’s legacy.

Lovecraft’s great contribution to supernatural horror lies in a shift away from a universe centred on the concerns of mankind, be they spiritual or materialistic, and to a cosmos in which we bipeds are creatures of little consequence. He was not a prolific writer of fiction, but in the dozen or so tales that make up the ‘Cthulhu Mythos’ (a term coined by August Derleth) Lovecraft constructed a new template for the weird tale. Cthulhu was one of the Great Old Ones, fearsome creatures of monstrous size and unfathomable abilities, who ruled the Earth in a time before recorded history and were driven away by Elder Gods. But these creatures remain, biding their time and waiting for the moment of their return. Mankind means nothing to them, though some humans, scholars of arcane law who have learned too much for their own good or genetic throwbacks to an earlier time, serve the Great Old Ones or conspire to bring forward the date of their return. Written by the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred, the Necronomicon from which this volume takes its name was a treatise on these Great Old Ones, an invention of Lovecraft’s to add depth to his works’ back story, which has since been the subject of several literary hoaxes and taken by many to be genuine.

But enough of what everybody probably knows already and to the book at hand, which is certainly a handsome volume. It’s leather-bound in an attempt to mimic the ancient tomes of which HPL was so fond, with a wealth of aptly weird and weirdly apt illustrations by talented artist Les Edwards to complement the text. The front and end pages have a street map of Arkham, the ghost haunted New England town which was so often the setting for HPL’s stories. There are two ‘book end’ poems by HPL and a sample page of text in his own handwriting. Stephen Jones, who edited this volume, also contributes a 40+ page afterword, “A Gentleman of Providence”, in which he discusses Lovecraft’s life and career, both pre and post-mortem (largely unknown during his lifetime, HPL’s literary reputation blossomed after his death, thanks in large part to the efforts of August Derleth), complete with quotes from a host of genre worthies acknowledging their debt to Lovecraft and plentiful photographs of the writer, publications in which his stories appeared etc. Jones’ role is to catalogue Lovecraft not to criticise him – there is little discussion of his shortcomings as a writer or attempt to address the racism that informed some of his work – but perhaps such comments don’t belong in a ‘commemorative edition’ and for those interested there is a wealth of criticism available.

The bulk of this book consists of thirty four stories, some two thirds of Lovecraft’s solo fictional output, though in practical terms the inclusion of longer works, such as “At the Mountains of Madness”, “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath” and “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward”, means that it represents much more of his oeuvre. All the important stories are there, including those attached to Lovecraft’s mythos, beginning with “The Call of Cthulhu” and continuing on through “The Dunwich Horror”, The Whisperer in Darkness”, “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” and “The Haunter of the Dark” (in which Lovecraft’s protagonist Robert Blake is named after Robert Bloch, with whom HPL corresponded). There are also earlier stories, such as Lovecraft’s very first publishing credit, “Dagon”, Dunsany influenced tales such as “The Doom That Came to Sarnath” and my personal favourite from Lovecraft’s oeuvre, his account of a hideous alien intrusion, “The Colour Out of Space”.

Lovecraft’s work is a part of my personal history with the genre I love. I’ve read all of these stories at least twice over the years, sometimes more than that, and they are meant to be savoured, not gulped down wholesale by a reviewer with a deadline to meet. And besides, to essay an in-depth review of the fiction in this book, even if I had the time, is hardly necessary: Lovecraft’s record speaks for itself as to the quality of his work, and regardless of how you feel about his place in the horror pantheon, any aficionado of supernatural fiction with a cosmic bent is going to want to have his work on their shelves. The chance to acquire the cream of his stories in a beautiful volume such as this, which provides limited edition quality at only a quarter of the price, is simply too good to be missed.

Edited by Peter Normanton, The Mammoth Book of Best Horror Comics (Robinson paperback, 544pp, £12.99) is both a history and a celebration of its eponymous subject matter (graphic novels, for the more po-faced). Normanton casts his net wide and hauls in a bumper catch, with forty eight stories (the cover blurb lays claim to “over 50”, but that’s a slight exaggeration), the earliest having seen print in 1944 and the very latest in 2004. He groups the material in three double decades for convenience (the 40s &50s etc) and adds a final grouping for the new millennium, prefacing each section with a brief essay setting out important developments, both commercial and cultural, in the history of the horror comics. Similarly, each strip comes with a short note on the comic in which it appeared and the creator(s), making the book informative but with a chatty style. You never doubt that for Normanton this is very much a labour of love.

I have one complaint about this book, and that has to do with the size. While slightly larger than your standard trade paperback it doesn’t have the surface area of the comics in which these strips originally appeared, and so the artwork is necessarily reduced from the scale at which it was intended to be seen. As a result, the illustrations occasionally look cramped and in a couple of places I had to reach for a magnifying glass to read the text. Still, my eyes are older than almost all of these comics and chances are most readers won’t have any problem.

The list of contributors reads like a who’s who of comic book artists, with such familiar names as Igor Studios, Jack Katz, Tom Sutton, Mike Ploog, Arthur Suydam, Michael T. Gilbert, Steve Niles and John Coulthart just the tip of an iceberg of talent. Most of the stories are written by the artists, though there are adaptations of classic work by the likes of Poe, Robert E. Howard and Lovecraft, and in the latter regard Coulthart’s sumptuous rendition of “The Dunwich Horror” is one of the undoubted highlights of this collection.

Given the book’s size and scope it’s possible to trace the development of the form, with early stories largely vengeance based or sting in the tail pieces, and more serious themes emerging later, as the creators become aware of the potential of this medium and stretch their muscles. Similarly the storytelling moves away from realistic drawings in carefully demarcated panels with complementary text boxes, and towards freer, looser formats, with illustrations and dialogue used more directly to tell the story. Another development takes place in the area of continuity, with a shift away from self-contained stories and on to greater narrative arcs, such as Gilbert’s “Mr Monster” series or zombie comic “Dead World”, these changes going hand in glove with the rise of smaller companies and creator owned titles.

“The Monster of Dread End”, a John Stanley strip from 1962, is a good example of what this book demonstrates so well. An urban community is devastated by the disappearance of its children one after the other. Families moves away leaving behind deserted buildings, and then one day a young boy returns and lures out the horrendous monster that lives in the sewers. He looks set to die, but out pop the police with heavy armaments to blast the monster; they have been lying in wait all this time. It’s a gripping tale, and representative of its time, with the usual panels and text boxes, the carefully drawn and meticulously detailed illustrations. The tale was read by a young Pete Von Sholly, and it ‘scared the living daylights out of him’, who as an adult in 2004 produced his own version of the story, “Dread End”. Von Sholly starts closer in to the action, with the boy walking the abandoned streets and back story filled in as we go. The rescue, when it comes, is by the military, not the police, and instead of the closure we got from Stanley’s tale, there’s a final scene which suggests even more horrors to come. Von Sholly sticks with panels for his artwork, but instead of drawings he tells the story by means of photo-montage, with minimum text superimposed on the art in lieu of the caption boxes, speech and thought bubbles of Stanley’s day.

For me, one of the pleasures on offer from this book was to finally get to read some of the old E C Comics, a chance to see what all the fuss was about (they were regarded as shocking in their time and contributed to the introduction of the Comics Code). Alas, in the post video-nasty age these titles seem very tame indeed, which is not to denigrate their value as pure horror hokum, but in the main hokum is all they are, not the disgusting texts of legend.

This book was a great read, both entertaining and informative, with enough chills and thrills to guarantee that I will return to its pages many times in the years ahead. Besides, at only £12.99 it’s a real bargain and, for those who wish to read rather than collect, a more economical way to sample the gory treats offered by the horror comics than tracking down the original titles.

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Trailer Trash – Deadpool

My comic reading days were behind me (mostly) when this guy came along, but the film looks like it might be a lot of fun.

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Filler content with the apocalypse

Reviews of two Tim Lebbon novellas that originally appeared in Black Static #43:-

TIM LEBBON: APOCALYPSE X 2

Tim Lebbon’s very first novella, the award winning White, presented readers with a detailed and strikingly original account of the end of the world as we know it, and it’s a theme the writer has returned to with a similar verve in his latest novellas.

STILL LIFE (Spectral Press hc/pb, 67pp, £21/£12.50) is set in a milieu where the world, or at least that part of it featured in the novella, has been conquered by some never named nemesis, beings of immense power. Jenni lives in a small village where order is maintained by The Finks, human collaborators with the invaders. She consoles herself with visions of husband Marc and memories of their life together, before he was killed by the invaders and consigned to the Road of Souls, past happiness playing counterpoint to the misery of her present existence. Against her better judgement and Marc’s warning that the time is not right, Jenni is persuaded to take part in an uprising against The Finks, a desperate do or die gamble with serious consequences for them all if it goes wrong (the invaders have in the past destroyed villages that revolt).

Lebbon has produced a strange and compelling story, beautifully written and with a prevailing mood of hope underlying the surface despair, a tale in which what is not said is almost as important as what is, with so much more suggested than is laid out on the page. The never seen enemy are something of a side issue. Jenni and others must deal with The Finks, humans who have betrayed their own species and given into the worst aspects of their own natures, though even here Lebbon allows some ambiguity, that they may act as cruelly as they do simply to prevent something far worse taking place. The title is a double entendre, celebrating both the static quality of life in this new world and also in the Road of Souls, but also noting that there is still life, that the human spirit can and will endure. At the end Jenni finds happiness of a kind, united once again with Marc, and even if this is an illusion it is a source of comfort. Perhaps that is all we can hope for in this life, and if you want to put a contemporary spin on it all, then substitute financial institutions for the ineffable enemy and our politicians for The Finks. This probably wasn’t something the author intended, but reviewers are always going off on one and foisting their own interpretation onto the poor old writer and I don’t see why I should be the exception.

SHIFTING OF VEILS (PS Publishing jhc/signed limited edition jhc, 85pp, £12/£25) is the third novella in Lebbon’s Apocalypse trilogy, following on from Naming of Parts and Changing of Faces. The story is set in what, for all practical purposes, presents as a post-zombie world, where the great majority of the few surviving humans live on in fortified strongholds. Our protagonist Jack abandons his place in one such community to take up with the Walker Cass and chase down a rumour that his father is still alive and looking for him. They wander through a blighted landscape, haunted by echoes of the past and with only their own attendant ghosts to protect them. Guided by a were-creature and the ghost of Jack’s mother, they move into a wraith infested city in search of closure.

With its narrative arc an odyssey through the ruins of the world and the central relationship between father and son, you could make a case for this story being an upbeat, happy clappy version of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, or at least you could if such a thing wasn’t a contradiction in terms. Lebbon’s world is lusher though, with only the human race in decline, and thus providing lebensraum to alternative forms of life. The topography is very much an essential element of this book, a landscape populated by madmen and supernatural creatures, beings driven by desperation and hunger. It’s also a landscape infested by the past, one in which the veils are shifting as the title implies and different realities leak through, with the ghosts not realising what has happened to them. Lebbon excels in the creation of this alien milieu, putting an original spin on the spectral aspects. What makes the story special however is the characterisation, the skill with which he brings Jack to life, the archetypal son searching for his father, finding substitutes in Old Man and Cass, but always yearning for the genuine article. The moral of the story seems to be that the thing that makes life worth living, even in impossible circumstances, is our love for each other, the ties that bind blood to blood, kith to kin. Yes Thomas Wolfe, you can’t go home again, but for Jack in Shifting of Veils home is where his loved ones are. I wish I had read the two preceding volumes as I’m sure the work would have resonated much more.

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Thoughts on a Friday #4

ITEM: I see David Cameron is getting hauled over the coals for referring to Muslim women as “traditionally submissive”.

Heaven forbid that I should defend this jumped up little public schoolboy, but it’s as well to keep context in mind here – Cameron is the commander-in-chief of a political party that worships at the altar of Mammon and the Blessed Margaret, so his ideas on what constitutes a submissive woman may be somewhat out of step with those of the general population.

ITEM: Staying with the subject of politics, I see that shortly we are to have a referendum on Britain’s continued membership of the European Union and I find myself torn as to how to vote.

Usually when I have seen no compelling arguments either way I simply plump for the option that will upset those I detest the most. Now the obnoxious Cameron creature so obviously wants us to stay in and will have his nose seriously put out of joint should the referendum go against his wishes, but the equally obnoxious Farage creature is eager to leave and will end up with egg all over his ugly visage if the British people vote to remain in the Union, so which way to vote? It’s a conundrum, it truly is.

The only certainty is that however we decide, shortly afterwards the media will assure us that it was the wrong decision and lay the blame squarely at the door of Jeremy Corbyn.

ITEM: I used to be a huge admirer of the band Pink Floyd, and still am I guess though I haven’t kept up with their recent work, and so I subscribed to the band’s newsletter to learn more of their musical exploits.

Imagine my surprise then, in the run up to Christmas 2015, to receive a string of emails offering all sorts of old tat for sale – Pink Floyd branded baubles for my tree, Pink Floyd themed wristwatch and cuff links, Pink Floyd style lounge pants.

Seriously?

Oh, how fallen are the once mighty, and all the rebels and iconoclasts of yesteryear are become the commercial whores of today.

I was also sent an advert for a Durex gift pack, but as far as I can recall that had nothing to do with the band, which is a shame as it at least would have been amusing and cheeky, and also serve as the launch pad for an impromptu rendition of ‘The Great Gig in the Sky’, whereas the touting of over priced bric-a-brac and the like was just sad.

ITEM: I think I may have discovered a new, modern malady (because we don’t have enough already), one that I shall call purchaser paralysis, for want of a somewhat more scientific sounding name.

I recently purchased a new chair for my office, something that was badly needed and which I’ve been shopping around for now for over a year. A friend of mine spent three years looking for the right computer.

It’s not that we can’t make informed purchasing choices, but rather that we have far too much information in the age of the internet. While reading product reviews for office chairs on Amazon, I’d initially be attracted by the four and five star ones, then I’d hit a cluster of one and two stars and be put off the item. The negative reviews might not be representative, but at the same time who is to say that they might not be an omen for your own experience?

We are so scared of making the wrong decision, getting a one star service/product instead of a five star, that we put off making a decision altogether.

Puchaser paralysis.

Eventually I bought a new office chair, not online though but from a bricks and mortar store where I got to try it out for size and comfort first.

Now I have to wait for it to arrive to discover if the one from the warehouse is as good as the one on display in the shop.

Purchaser paralysis with added second thoughts syndrome.

ITEM: Back when I was a kid we used to trap wasps in jam jars. You’d put a mixture of jam, sugar and water in the bottom of the jar, then pierce the metal lid to create a hole the wasps could crawl through, subsequently finding that they couldn’t get back out.

And for those who believe in karma…

Recently I had a similar experience at some public toilets, which were easier enough to get inside, but once you’d done your business the combination of a minute cubicle and inward opening door made getting out a feat worthy of Houdini.

Actually I’m still there. It’s been three days now, and the battery on my laptop is starting to run down, so if you don’t hear from me for a while it means

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