Filler content with Rik Suntan

A review that originally appeared in Black Static #13:-

Charlie Williams: Stairway to Hell

(Serpent’s Tail paperback, 281pp, £7.99)

Rik Suntan is a club singer in the boondocks town of Warchester with ideas way above his station. While Rik’s life might appear, to the onlooker, as rather humdrum, inside Rik knows that if he stays true to his principles, then it’s only a matter of time until the rest of the world cottons on to his greatness. When his latest shot at stardom falls through, Rik’s manager reveals to him a secret. Back in the 70s Jimmy Page (lead guitarist with Led Zeppelin) stayed in the town and experimented with the occult, placing several of his peers’ souls in other bodies. Rik is not at all who he appears to be; he is in fact David Bowie, or at least Bowie’s soul transplanted into the body of a man with a harelip. Manager Ted has discovered the magic book used by Page and plans to put things right, not only for Rik but for other victims as well, those who ended up with the souls of George Foreman, Cat Stevens etc. Rik does not believe in any of this for a single moment, but unfortunately circumstances conspire to force him to take part in Ted’s plans.

There’s a familiar feel to this story. In many ways Rik Suntan is Royston Blake, the nightclub bouncer protagonist of Williams’ three previous novels, here repackaged as a singer. He has the same delusions, the same grandiose affectations and the same lack of self awareness. Where Williams ups his game is in the supernatural elements of the story, which are to be not to be taken seriously and add loads of comedic potential to the story. In between each chapter proper are set various inserts taken from the occult text allegedly used by Jimmy Page, and these are quite simply hilarious, with their straight faced discussion of how to acquire urine (a necessary magic ingredient, in case you didn’t know) and where to place the souls of those taken, while at the same time these do, albeit in a very strange and roundabout way, enhance the verisimilitude of the main text, empowering the reader to suspend disbelief about this crazy stuff and swallow it down. Imagine, if you will, or even can, that mad old Abdul Alhazred had been a physician in his day job, and the infamous Necromonicon came with footnotes on the kidneys and renal system.

There are some marvellous comic set pieces as well, such as the case of the dwarf who happens to be the soul of George Foreman involved in a boxing match, and attempts by bouncer Martin to take on the identity of the bank robber he was supposed to be. Rik has an extra dimension to him also, and you feel that, unlike Royston Blake, he is capable of growth as a character, with a willingness to at least consider sacrificing his dreams for the sake of the woman he loves, even if she does betray him with some ginger bloke. In the end, this is not so much horror fiction as a subversive text in which tropes of the genre are added on to a comic novel dealing with aspects of modern life, such as the lust for fame, reality TV and the superficiality of the media, all of which get the piss taken out of them (sorry, but I couldn’t resist that). Bottom line, Stairway to Hell is a barrel of fun, probably best read to a soundtrack of The Song Remains the Same and Ch-Ch-Changes.

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Song for a Saturday – Look On

Not John Frusciante’s best work, but still better than most of everything else, and call me a sentimental fool but I happen to think the video is brilliant, a real tearjerker.

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Filler content with Bryant & May

A review that originally appeared in Black Static #13:-

Christopher Fowler: On the Loose

(Doubleday hardback, 352pp, £16.99)

The last Bryant & May book ended on a bleak note for London’s Peculiar Crimes Unit, and the opening of this one picks up on that, with leading light Arthur Bryant in the doldrums, the Unit’s Mornington Crescent HQ ‘sold’ out from under their feet and the whiff of disgrace in the air. But then the discovery of a dead body in a freezer with the head missing, and a perceived threat to the King’s Cross redevelopment scheme, sees political expediency come into play. The PCU are called back to active duty, albeit with a rundown warehouse that once belonged to an occult society as their base of operations, and with no access to the boons of modern policing. While May investigates the more mundane aspects of the case, Bryant is off like a hound on the scent, intent on linking the murder to the presence of a man dressed as a stag, seen on the streets of the area at night. As the case unfolds more bodies pop up and the history of London itself becomes an issue, all trails leading back to a serial killer in the making.

Though not impossible, the plot here is contrived, with roots sunk deep in the legendary past of the city that Bryant (and, I suspect, Fowler) adores so much. In particular I found the circumstances behind the re-establishment of the PCU unconvincing, with a very flimsy justification for taking the case out of the hands of the regular police. Plot is a side issue though, just the framework within which Fowler plays his games and puts these beautifully realised characters, warts and all, through their paces. As one of the characters admits, the PCU are family, a large and diverse family at that, complete with charming bounder, black sheep, child prodigy, miserable uncle and a loony old aunt who is kept locked in the attic, for her own good as much as that of everybody else, and so much of the appeal of these books lies in the opportunity given the reader to spend time with these oddballs, to step into their world and feel welcome. Imagine The X-Files reified, only with Holmes and Watson in place of Mulder and Scully, and the books written by P. G. Wodehouse, and you have some idea of the idiosyncratic and distinctly British flavour of the Bryant & May novels. And yes, humour is a definite part of the mix, with some lovely tongue in cheek dialogue and sly asides, gentle satire of the rush to modernise and redevelop in which so much of value gets heedlessly swept away.

Fowler never forgets that he has a story to tell though, and a rather grim one at that. At the centre of the book, alongside the mystery, is a chilling character study of the evolution of a sociopath, a monster who flits in and out of the story like a cipher, or ghost in a machine, manipulating people and events, killing for the first time and then getting a ‘taste for death’. In the sly and cunning Mr Fox, Fowler may just have created a Ripley for the noughties and an arch-nemesis for Bryant & May. The novel ends on a terrible note of tragedy, one that while undoubtedly right for the story Fowler has to tell at the same time robs characters and readers alike of any sense of closure. I remember there being talk of this as the last book in the series, but it’s hard to believe Fowler will bring the curtain down at this juncture, not when there is unfinished business of such magnitude. I certainly hope not.

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Trailer Trash – Purge: Election Year

I always feel a little bit proprietorial regarding this franchise, as many years ago I planned to write a story titled “Der Tag” along similar lines.

Unfortunately I never got any further than the title, which is why my lawyers are not currently in discussion with their lawyers regarding an out of court settlement.

Sucks to be me.

 

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Filler content with catacombs

A review that originally appeared in Black Static #12:-

John Llewellyn Probert: The Catacombs of Fear

(Gray Friar Press paperback, 179pp, £8)

A sequel of sorts to The Faculty of Terror, Probert’s third collection shares the ingenious structure of that work. As the author explains in the Introduction, his inspiration for these books comes from the old style portmanteau horror film anthologies, as for example Tales From the Crypt and The Vault of Horror, and so what we get are five stories within a framework narrative.

That framework focuses on the Reverend Patrick Clements, who arrives at Chilminster Cathedral to take up a new post, but as part of his introduction to this new job he must listen to the strange stories of various people he bumps into while walking round the Cathedral and through its catacombs. We get a prologue and various interludes between stories in which the Reverend’s wanderings are chronicled, all laden with clues for the big reveal that crowns the book.

As to the stories themselves, in ‘The Neighbourhood Watch’ a couple new to the area attend a dinner party at which they are solicited to join the eponymous watch, who seem slightly more intolerant than they are comfortable with, and as the night draws in they see damning evidence of exactly how proactive these people can be. On one level this is standard revenge from beyond the grave fare, but Probert uses it to touch lightly on themes of social injustice, while his execution is flawless, using dialogue and gestures to convey how truly odious and deserving of a nasty comeuppance these people are.

‘At First Sight’ is more original, though just as well written and gratifying to read, with the exception of a few annoying typos (not a problem in the other stories). A picture of an unknown woman is delivered into Mark Stone’s hands by a faulty photo-booth, and he finds himself attracted to her, but all attempts to bring her into his life lead Mark into acts of violence and mutilation. I liked the story here very much, which starts as a clever variation on The Picture of Dorian Gray before veering off into more macabre areas, with echoes of things like Japanese* film Shutter and the playing out of a terrible curse, Mark’s descent into madness portrayed powerfully and convincingly.

In ‘The Markovski Quartet’ a young woman with yearnings to be a ballerina attends an audition, but her father is suspicious of the circumstances, and he has every reason to be. The brilliant surgeon and his disabled wife have an agenda of their own. I had some doubts here about the back story and whether what was proposed was actually practical, but the way in which the characters play each other and off of each other more than compensates. ‘Mors Gratia Artis’ has an ambitious television producer with artistic leanings falling under the spell of a mysterious painting, but as its secrets are revealed to him the man begins to realise that nothing is what it seems and he is the pawn in another’s grand design. This story was possibly my favourite in the collection, with the art world and that of popular television, the antipathy between the two, convincingly drawn, while the nature of the painting when eventually revealed added a morbid and sinister touch to proceedings, the whole topped off with a neat twist at the end.

Last story ‘A Dance to the Music of Insanity’ is almost as good, and on some days I might actually prefer it. The title references Anthony Powell, but with the family gathered at a stately country manse for a funeral and a series of brutal killings, a more likely source of inspiration is Coppola’s Dementia 13. It’s the liveliest of these stories, with an ever growing body count, madness and music abounding, a well drawn dramatis personae and a delicious ending, all combining to make for a romp of a story.

The book captures perfectly the feel of the portmanteau films that inspired it. The structure has novelty value, but overall The Catacombs of Fear has nothing new or mould breaking to offer, and I don’t think it intends such. What we get is old style horror, stories with the proverbial beginning, middle and end, well told by a writer who comes across as a natural raconteur, with an ear for a telling phrase and the ability to occasionally shock, both with the audacity of his inventions and the graphic way in which they are played out. Bottom line, it’s a fun read, and if you’re not one of those who turn their noses up at the idea of entertainment for its own sake, then chances are you will have a good time if you let this book into your life.

*Yeah, I know, it was a Thai film, not Japanese.

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Song for a Saturday – Tubthumping

This will get you up and bouncing.

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Filler content with a golem

A review that originally appeared in Black Static #16:-

TWISTHORN BELLOW by Rhys Hughes

Atomic Fez paperback, 304pp, £11.99

Rhys Hughes describes this book as ‘the maddest thing I’ve ever written’, and although I haven’t read all of Hughes’ work I’ve read enough to know that he probably isn’t blowing smoke.

Twisthorn Bellow is a golem, the creation of mad genius Cherlomsky, the founder and head of a top secret organisation set up to keep the nation safe from the wiles of the evil French and the enticements of prog rock music. To this end he has assembled a team of ‘monsters’, most of whom are detached body parts – a hand, a foot, a foetus – with special abilities, but Bellow is the star player, handicapped only by the fact that, shortly after creation, he was dipped in nitro-glycerine, and so at any moment could go kaboom!!! (Tagline – ‘He’s dynamite – and he has a short fuse!’ – and I’m sure the possible double entendre is intended.) In what amounts to a series of interconnected stories rather than a novel, each with a title that references Greek mythology, Bellow and team indulge in adventures that are so far over the top having an oxygen tank on hand as you read them might well be a suitable precaution.

Hughes has claimed the book is his tribute to Philip Jose Farmer, with whom Bellow has a Riverworld rendezvous, but he is a writer who wears his influences lightly and the spirits of other literary worthies gleefully flit in and out of the text (Jules Verne, William Hope Hodgson – a descendant of Carnacki puts in an appearance – Charles Addams, Stanislaus Lem), each contributing something to the tasty brew that ultimately is all Hughes’ own. For the reader, part of the fun to be had is in picking up these references, but contrarily it doesn’t really matter if every single one goes over your head (and I’m sure I missed plenty). The most obvious inspiration is Mike Mignola’s Hellboy, with whom Bellow has an off the page encounter at one point in the book, losing his horn in the affray, the prompt for a running joke about changing his name. The difference is that with Hellboy, while certainly a vital element in its appeal, the comedy is incidental to the adventures, but for Hughes I suspect that the latter is true. A case could be made for his work being ‘comedy driven’, the plot simply the device that transports the reader to the next joke, sets us up for the next pun, the latest prat fall by a character. We are all Rhys Hughes’ straight men, Wise to his Morecambe, colluding in an attempt to make the next trick even more preposterous than the last.

Yes, there are serious matters addressed in the text, a richness of ideas, literary and philosophical concerns, but the comedy is the thing, within which the writer will trap the soul of the reader. Hughes is always willing to go that one step further, just when you think that you have his measure and he won’t be able to come up with anything more outlandish than what’s gone before. There are running jokes, such as the thing already mentioned with Bellow’s name, and others such as nobody noticing that the postman is French, and the one female member of the team being constantly treated as a skivvy. There are sight jokes (e.g. one involving the interaction between an umbrella and a sewing machine) and wordplay (e.g. a character called Hapi Daze), and just about everything else that you’d expect from Hughes, if you’re at all familiar with his back catalogue, with the reader not given a second in which to catch his or her breath. And then there’s the jaw dropping audacity of events like having the Eiffel Tower narrate one section and soliciting the reader’s help in destroying the monsters. With Hughes, anything seems to go. In fact, trying to keep up with his mercurial wit and invention gets slightly tiring on occasion (Hughes has moved onto his next gag, while you’re still chortling over the last one), but against that there’s the desire to read the book again, this time with pen and paper close at hand to make notes on all the stuff you missed the first time around.

If I have a reservation, it’s that the brand of absurdity Hughes has made his own, doesn’t engage the reader emotionally. Prog rockers Jethro Tull sang, ‘I may make you feel, but I can’t make you think’. For me, the reverse is true of Hughes. I laugh at his characters, but don’t care what happens to them. It’s the difference between witnessing genuine magic and sitting in the audience as a master conjuror goes through his routine. Of course, as Asimov and Silverberg demonstrated in a couple of stories, sometimes the only way to get people to appreciate real magic is by pretending that it’s all a trick. I’m not quite sure what point I’m making any more, other than that Rhys Hughes is more fun than one of those barrels of monkeys people talk about, and you’re probably going to have a good time with his book.

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