Filler content with Cern Zoo

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

Cern Zoo: Nemonymous Nine
Edited by D. F. Lewis
(Megazanthus Press paperback, 265pp, £10)

This ninth volume in the Nemonymous series collects together 24 stories, all inspired by the cryptic tags Cern Zoo and published without the authors’ identities being linked to the stories, though their names are shown on the back cover. Some of the stories concern zoos, some of them are about the Large Hadron Collider built by CERN, and some of them reference the Cerne Abbas giant, and a few don’t have any connection at all to Cern Zoo, or at least none perceived by this reviewer, which isn’t to say that a connection is not there.

Opener ‘Dead Speak’ falls into the Hadron Collider camp, with journalist Linda meeting a scientist who hints at terrible consequences if CERN’s grand experiment is not stopped, deftly capitalising on ‘real world’ fears about just such a catastrophe, but although it’s well written the story doesn’t really go anywhere, ending in a spiritual cul de sac that toys with the God not playing dice gambit in lieu of anything more solid. There’s not much more to the second entry, the siren song to literary fetishism that is ‘Parker’, a three page prose poem about a man bonding with his pen. It was however more enjoyable, both for the precision of the writer’s prose, and the general air of quirkiness. With third story out of the gate, Cern Zoo unleashes its first big gun. Set in a bar called The Cerne Abbas, ‘Artis Eterne’ is an elegant tale of a man who, quite literally, decides to live in the moment, and by doing so achieves a kind of immortality. There’s a strong mood feel to this and sense of place, with the narrator a wayward soul who only finds what he is looking for when he returns to the place where he first lost it. It’s a fantastical story, but with a firm enough grip on reality to make you think just maybe it could happen as described. ‘The Last Mermaid’ is another winner, a beautifully written fable about the fate of the mermaid and how it brought down the House of Hapsburg, with delightful imagery and rich prose, and a feel of sleazy decadence that put me in mind of Huysman and others of that ilk.

The longest story in the book, ‘The Lion’s Den’ was also my personal favourite, a tale with the whiff of J-Horror about it and more than a hint of Kotzwinkle’s Doctor Rat. The story opens with a young man sacrificing himself in the lion’s den, and from there it develops into a tale of a haunted zoo, with the animals roaming free at night or simply disappearing altogether, while their keepers are barricaded in the control room and not believing what they see on their CCTV monitors. This variation on the lunatics taking over the asylum builds gradually and with assurance, the author slotting in details of zoo life that compel belief, and giving us characters with whom the reader can easily identify, all leading up to a finale of understated menace, one that like Machen’s ‘The Terror’ suggests man’s reign over the animals may finally be over.

To abandon linear reviewing altogether now, it seems to me that generally the shortest stories in this collection are the weakest, though not necessarily bad in themselves. ‘Dear Doctor’ is nothing more than a joke, the whole thing very tongue in cheek, and pretty much the same can be said about ‘Just Another Day Down On The Farm’ and ‘Sloth & Forgiveness’, both of which juxtapose animals and Hadron Colliders for comedic effect and with varying degrees of success. Cutting to a short of a more sinister complexion, ‘Pebbles’ is all about the power of suggestion, with a young boy meeting a girl on a beach and helping her take pebbles up to her house, the real thrust of the story being what has happened to her family and why is she there alone, with the hint of answers we may not wish to hear.

Somewhere just past the halfway mark we get a double whammy of horror stories, or rather stories that are more overtly horrific than their companion pieces. The world of street musicians is focused on in ‘Turn The Crank’, with a sinister organ grinder and his monkey wreaking havoc among the busker set, the back story stretching into the past, and a resolution that succeeds in being both downbeat and triumphant in the same beat. It is perhaps the most traditional piece on offer, but no less successful for that, with a skilled and beautifully paced delivery, and touches of detail that bring the life of street performers to the page with a compelling authenticity. There’s yet more creepiness in ‘The Devourer of Dreams’, a title that reeks of Lovecraft, and a monster to match, a strange, spider-like creature that can feed on the dreams of men, and a writer who milks it of their essence to fuel his own creativity. The story holds the attention all the way, with its truly unnerving creature, and a framing scenario in which the matter of creativity is addressed and the reader’s collusion solicited.

From horror to science fiction, with ‘The Ozymandias Site’ about an alien expedition from Cerne to a derelict world that is almost certainly Earth, mankind’s current status indicated by the title with its Shelley reference. In this complex piece the aliens are a form of gestalt, and their group psyche is disrupted by arguments over the action to be taken regarding what they find. Strong in its depiction of the aliens and their concepts of intelligence, this is a subtle and absorbing story that will probably need a couple more readings to tease out all its levels of meaning and nuances. ‘Being of Sound Mind’ has a retired man welcoming into his house a young girl who thinks he is her grandfather, and naturally enough the authorities suspect the worst, but the truth is far stranger. There’s an intriguing concept at the heart of this story, which deftly blends a growing sense of unease with an appreciation of the very best in human nature.

‘The Rude Man’s Menagerie’ sees a return of the Cerne Abbas giant, whose chalk outline is found in the female protagonist’s back lot, but as with M. R. James’ ‘The Mezzotint’ this is a picture that changes, the figures of animals appearing each night alongside the man. The woman protests this enslavement, but can only defeat it when she is ready to fight the rude man on his own terms. There’s a Peter Pan quality to ‘Mellie’s Zoo’, with Paul leading abused and neglected children to a special zoo where they will find the ideal animal, but while Mellie takes consolation from her new friend there’s a sinister feel to the story as well, the possibility that these animals will break out and destroy the adult world. ‘Strange Scenes From An Unfinished Film’ has a movie buff learning rather more than he wants to about the methodology of the largely unknown director he is obsessed with, in a disturbing story with a strong atmosphere of nihilism at its core.

These stories, along with seven others, make up a collection that has more surprises in store for the reader than most, one where nothing can be taken for granted other than the unexpected.

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Song for a Saturday – Spider-Man

Everyone’s favourite web slinger gets the Ramones treatment.

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Hulks and Heroes

Excelsior, as Stan the Man might have put it.

Three more offerings from Marvel’s House of Ideas.

Red Hulk – Hulk of Arabia

Written by Jeff Parker, illustrated by Patch Zircher

Back when I was reading the comic the Hulk was green, and he still is in the films, but this iteration of the character however is red. In fact he is Bruce Banner’s old nemesis General Ross, who got himself all hulked up to take care of the green menace, only to find that things aren’t quite that simple. Subsequently, as close as I can figure, he has become an agent of the US government under the supervision of Captain America, but is still inclined to go off the reservation when it suits the plot for him to do so, and that’s what happens here. When an old friend from the military is killed by terrorists/freedom fighters in Arabia, redskin sets off to tear some new arseholes, a quest that takes him to the newly founded state of Sharzhad, whose head honcho is Dagan Shah, the Sultan Magus. The Secret Avengers intervene to focus our hero’s anger, and with Machine Man as an ally he investigates the nature of Shah’s power, finding that it is based on access to Rigellan technology, along the way clashing with local super hero the Arabian Knight, before the politicians rein him in. And reading this what occurred to me first and foremost is what a complicated place the Marvel Universe has become in my absence, with a plethora of alien races and new characters. The story here seems highly contrived, and personally I had a problem with Red Hulk haring off to avenge a mercenary, even though he himself had criticised his friend for taking that career path. The Arab characters look like refugees from an Aladdin panto, though the subtext about foreigners interfering in the Middle East rings heartfelt and true, and I found myself sympathising with Dagan Shah and his apparent success at making the desert bloom and providing peace for his people. The ending feeds into this, with the UN’s acceptance of Sharzhad, though I suspect in the long run Shah’s use of alien technology will damn him and Red Hulk, who wants to take the guy out, will be vindicated. Visually the book is impressive, with some striking imagery and solid use of colour. It is however a minor Marvel, rather than major.

Red Hulk – Fall of the Hulks

Written by Jeff Parker, illustrated by Carlos Rodriguez & Fernando Blanco

Now here is where it all gets just a tad too complicated. Red Hulk, who may or may not be General Ross this time around, joins forces with a Blue Abomination to invade an A.I.M. base where they empower a robot Hulk. The original Hulk is supervising in his Bruce Banner role, and there’s also reference to a Cosmic Hulk, and maybe one or two more Hulks (you need a score card). Overarching all this is a plot by the Leader and M.O.D.O.K. to take control of the world for the greater good of humanity, and helping them forward this agenda are a number of super villains whose motives may not be quite as pure. Oh, and Thundra from the future gets involved, as does her She-Hulk offspring. Everybody fights everybody, with bonus material in which Red She-Hulk battles first the She-Hulk, and then a tag team of Elektra and Domino. And, in case you haven’t guessed, it all left me feeling a bit confused, not least because the characters are continually referencing stuff that took place in other storylines. It is, to be blunt, a total mess, one where the reader struggles to keep track of what is going down and why, a struggle that most of the time I felt I was losing. This is the Marvel Universe getting too top heavy for its own good, and the more Hulks you throw into the mix the weaker it all becomes. The artwork is excellent, but in this case that seems to be nothing more than a consolation prize. Call me old fashioned and backward looking, but I much prefer the days when Bruce Banner’s alter ego was green and one of a kind.

Nova – Realm of Kings

Written by Dan Abnett & Andy Lanning, illustrated by Kevin Sharpe & Mahmud A. Asrar

I remember reading and collecting the old Nova comic, but this version of the character takes Nova back to his cosmic roots as commander of the Nova Corps (an intergalactic law enforcement outfit, similar to DC’s Green Lantern Corps). Briefly, Nova and his cohorts and various allies, including Mr Fantastic, are sucked into a virtual universe as part of the Sphinx’s plan to revitalise himself and take control of reality. And when that’s done, Nova and Darkhawk must return to Earth to fight a rogue Quasar and prevent a many tentacled alien monstrosity from breaking through. As side issues we have the escape from captivity of Ego, the living planet, and Nova defying natural law by returning his dead love Namorita to life (you know that one is going to go sour). It’s all golly gosh, wow stuff, packed with sensawunda and enough fight scenes for a third world police action. While I can’t quite convince myself that the Nova uniform is anything but silly and impractical, and the character little more than a cipher with never clearly defined powers, there is no denying that the book delivers in cosmic terms and is a thoroughly entertaining read. And all that blue sky plotting and space adventure is the prompt for some gob smacking artwork, with each page a treat for the eyes as you drink in the wide open vistas and myriad colours out of space. I just wish the characters had been a bit easier to identify with and care about which, actually, is true for all three of these books. Creating convincing people used to be Marvel’s strong point, but it seems to be a quality that’s been held in abeyance for these books. Nuff said!

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Filler content with Telos – Part 2

Continuing on from Monday’s post, three reviews comprising the second part of a feature on Telos Publishing that appeared in Black Static #43:-


Raven Dane’s collection ABSINTHE & ARSENIC (Telos pb, 244pp, £12.99) contains stories inspired by and written in homage to the Victorian ghost story tradition, though ghosts are far from being the only monster on offer.

Set in 1877 ‘The 10.15 to Lealholm’ is pitched as the journal entry of Edwin Hazeldine, telling of a zombie attack on a train that led to derailment and then of how he and his brother were besieged in a farmhouse, the tale ending with their need to go in search of food, and as far as it goes it’s a competent piece of storytelling, well written and vivid, needing only a stronger ending to fully satisfy, the story seeming to fizzle out rather than reach an ending. We move on to 1888 and a fogbound London for ‘Annie by Gaslight’ in which a young girl is threatened by Jack the Ripper and gets help from an unexpected source, the plight of the protagonist engaging, but the resolution something of a mixed blessing, on the one hand uplifting and on the other entirely predictable.

‘Worse Things Happen at Sea’ is the story of mudlark Tom, a scavenger who scours the banks of the Thames in search of treasure trove. He confronts a vengeful spirit that lures young men to their death, the story touching in places with a genuine feel for the material, particularly the guilt felt by Tom’s mentor who never shared the old legends and so left the boy vulnerable. There’s more than a touch of humour to the satirical ‘An Inspector Falls’ in which a police detective manages to prove that a scullery maid found with ten knives in her back was the victim of an unfortunate accident. It wasn’t a laugh out loud story, but certainly worth a smirk or two as it gleefully sent up the intricacies and occasional absurdities of the detective genre.

‘Shadows in the Limelight’ is set in the world of vaudeville, with the ghost of a young dancer returning for vengeance on the showman who murdered her, the story told from the viewpoint of the singer who was her friend in life, entertaining enough in its way but all a little too obviously staged for my liking, with no real surprises, albeit there is a nice touch of emotion at the end. The ‘Breath of the Messenger’ is a killing fog that envelops London in a story that is billed as “A Lovecraftian Steampunk Tale”, a lively jaunt that put me in mind of James Blaylock’s work, but here told with tongue firmly in cheek as Dane’s insouciant psychic detective Cyrus Darian and his demonic sidekick Belial take on a Great Old One, or a reasonable facsimile thereof, in a fun tale.

Set against the backdrop of the Irish Great Famine of the 1850s, ‘An Máthair Ghrámhar’ has an act of kindness by the daughter of an English landowner as the key that keeps the family safe from a vengeful spirit raised by the famine, the story competently told but not really getting under the skin of the reader, so that the harrowing plight of the starving isn’t as keenly felt as we might wish. A man who exposes fraudulent mediums is cursed by ‘The Chill’ and the only way to solve his problem is to find someone with a genuine mediumistic talent, the story deftly asking questions about whether it is right to rob people of the comfort of a belief in the afterlife, even if it is based on lies and deception.

‘Daniel and Lydia’ reminded me somewhat of the film Skeleton Key, as the innocent Lydia moves in with Aunt Anne, who she suspects of wishing to acquire her inheritance, but whose actual plans are far worse, and then there is the young man wandering the grounds at night in a story that is cleverly constructed and never less than entertaining. Last up is ‘Heart of Brass’ in which a clockmaker is driven mad by his attempts to understand a device left with him by a mysterious young man he comes to believe is the Devil, the story ending on a note that brings to mind del Toro’s Kronos.

These and six other stories make up a solid collection, one that if it seems unlikely to win any awards or have accolades heaped on it, is an entertaining enough way to pass a few hours on an afternoon when the fog mitigates against going out.

Simon Clark’s THE FALL (Telos pb, 398pp, £14.99) was originally published in 1998 and, as with Stone’s The Darkness Within, you could make a case for this novel straddling the dividing line between horror and science fiction.

As a teenager Sam Baker survives a lightning strike, though his two friends are killed. Fourteen years later Sam is a TV director sent to the UK to film a rock concert, but while he and personal assistant Zita are inspecting the site for the concert, a natural amphitheatre in Yorkshire known as Watchett Hole and dating back to Roman times, something unnatural occurs. The site and everyone on it, including a coach party of tourists, is sent back in time, and as the novel continues to unfold these shifts in time grow ever greater. People are free to leave the site, but when it jumps back again they are instantly transported back to the spot where they were standing or seated when the original shift took place. And as the landscape is changing so too is their corporeality, with some finding themselves joined with trees that weren’t growing in their present, and others finding that their flesh is amalgamated with that of birds or insects. Eventually the site comes to rest in Victorian times, and the travellers manage to make a home for themselves in the town of Casterton. But this isn’t the end of their travails. Casterton is to face a terrible threat and it may be that Sam and the others are the only ones who can save it and prevent reality itself unravelling.

Clark has crafted a clever and appealing story, one in which the science fictional elements power the narrative, but still leave plenty of room for the moments of horror that are his trademark. People suffer terribly in the pages of this book, are murdered or horrendously changed, and in the figure of the bluebeards, who have embraced what has happened to them and become more feral, Clark gives us monsters aplenty, albeit he is careful to also give us characters who are transformed but retain their humanity, showing that it is not simply a matter of appearance. The central concepts of the book, time travel and the idea of invading armies moving through time, waves of exiles whose arrival will swamp the indigenous inhabitants of any particular era, are realised in terms that should give UKIP supporters heart palpitations.

The past eras that Sam and the others visit, are vividly depicted on the page, with a wealth of incidental detail that convince us of the verisimilitude of each time period. There are wry comments and observations that touch on how much the world has changed, even in a short period of time, never mind the larger jumps back to WW2 and the Victorian age, allowing the reader to giggle at our own fashion faux pas of past decades and ponder how strange the world was before we personally came on the scene. The book’s greatest strength lies in its characters, from the decent Sam and Jud, who provide a moral compass of sorts, to the villainous Carswell, who is arrogant but not without his good qualities, suggesting that sometimes you need a bad guy to defeat some greater threat. I was particularly taken with the four young tour guides, each with their own distinct personality traits; initially, in their Laurel and Hardy getups, they provide a form of comic relief but they grow in stature as the book progresses, attaining something akin to nobility. And while the main threat comes from the bluebeard horde, an army of monsters with a predisposition to pillage and plunder, there’s plenty of other stuff going on, with tensions and murder in the group, accidents and fights, rivalry and romance, alarums and excursions of all stripes. Clark doesn’t give us a dull moment in a book that’s absorbing and full of incident, and at the end the reader is left wanting more.

THE IMMORTALISTS (Telos pb, 326pp, £12.99) is the first book in a series featuring Andrew Hook’s policeman turned private investigator Mordent. In it he is hired by Mrs Davenport to locate her son Patrick, who disappeared from a river ferry two years ago. The police believe he drowned, but all the same Mordent agrees to look into the matter, planning to do the necessary and collect a fee. He talks to informants, both on the police force and off. He talks to Patrick’s tutor and friends. He sleeps with Marina, who claims to be psychic and having visions relevant to the case. Then muscle for hire Derby Boy warns Mordent away from one source and somebody takes a shot at him. The bodies start to turn up, including that of Patrick who has aged badly. Somehow Mordent has stumbled into a search for the secret of immortality and a deadly rivalry between gangsters Kirby Muxloe and Bataille.

Hook first introduced us to Mordent in the story ‘Alsiso’, which is incorporated in this novel along with several other standalone stories, a couple of which help to round out the character and where he is coming from, and one that seems like a distraction, padding even. There are elements of the plot, such as the interest in immortality by two criminals that seem a little far-fetched, but not to the point where I’m willing to say that it couldn’t have happened, and for all that the central conceit is rather pleasing in the way it plays out, with a nice touch of irony in the mix.

Avoiding the slipstream vibe that has dominated his past work, Hook here plays it straight with a twisty plot and prose style that could have come straight out of a Raymond Chandler novel. The joy of the book is in the writing and the characterisation. Central to this is Mordent, an honest man with a patina of sleaze, so that he pretty much sleeps with any woman who asks and takes time out with prostitutes who tie him up in bubble wrap, and kudos to Hook for presenting someone who is into the BDSM scene in such a sympathetic and non-judgemental manner, making this just an aspect of his character and not the whole thing. At bottom, Mordent is compassionate, caring for the people whose money he takes and wanting to do right by them, though conversely he has no sympathy for those who have crossed the line, happy to deal with informants, using violence and blackmail when it suits him – he is very much an end justifies the means kind of guy. The interplay between him and the other characters, all of whom are convincingly drawn, is a delight to read, as is the prose throughout with its hard boiled sensibilities, short sentences that cut like diamond on glass and metaphors as apposite as they are off kilter. Hopefully Mordent will have many more adventures. On this evidence I’m looking forward to them.

Telos titles are available as eBooks from selected online retailers.

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Trailer Trash – Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2

They may, technically, be super heroes, but all the same, I’ve never seen any “TMNT” media.

I mean…  Seriously, turtles!!!

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Dancing with the Captain

Warning: may contain spoilers.

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

I have to admit that the Captain was never one of my favourite super heroes – I thought his costume and shield were naff, never quite believed in his ability to defeat much stronger opponents, and was put off by the whole patriotism malarkey. Conversely, I seem to enjoy the CA films more than any other super hero franchise, even the much greater one of which they are such a small but significant part. This first film gives us the origin of the character set against the background of World War II, showing how an unfit for military service has been by the name of Steve Rogers is transformed by the super-soldier serum into Captain America. At the head of an elite squad of soldiers, with advanced weapons courtesy of Howard Stark (father of the more famous Tony), the Cap sets about dismantling the strongholds of Hydra, a rogue organisation sheltering under the Nazi umbrella and headed by his nemesis, the Red Skull (a high ranking Nazi officer whose exposure to a variant of the super-soldier serum had unfortunate side effects). In an attempt to prevent the Skull using weapons of mass destruction against the mainland US the Captain is apparently lost, ditching his plane into the Arctic sea, but we know better of course. In the two present day episodes that top and tail this movie we learn of the recovery of the Captain’s frozen and perfectly preserved body and witness Nick Fury recruiting him to serve in S.H.I.E.L.D. That’s pretty much an action oriented precis, omitting a lot of the personal stuff that helps to make this film special, such as Rogers’ friendship with Bucky Barnes, the bromance between the two characters that makes the latter’s death and all that follows so painful, for both Rogers and the viewers, and of course the relationship with Agent Peggy Carter that we, but not Rogers, know is doomed to fall by the wayside of the time stream. There are lots of subplots that have been included to move on the greater story unfolding in the Marvel Universe, as with their introduction and use of the Tesseract and the existence of Hydra itself, while the main strand with CA tackling the Red Skull powers the film through to its end. Best of all it made me, for the first time, believe that this star spangled super hero was actually a credible figure, somebody who wasn’t as ridiculous as his costume makes him appear, and could hold his own in battle against far more powerful villains. The character became interesting, a fully rounded individual with depth of emotion, something I had never got from the comics, where he seldom seemed like anything more than a walking, talking patriot with too many muscles, and a lot of the credit for that must go to Chris Evans for his nuanced portrayal of the character.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

Briefly, Hydra has infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D. at all levels and is planning to use a new weapon to eliminate all those who might oppose it. Nick Fury, who could have prevented this betrayal, reaches out to Captain America but is killed by a super assassin known only as the Winter Soldier, and Cap himself is declared a rogue agent by traitors heading up the organisation. Allied with the Black Widow, the Falcon, and S.H.I.E.L.D. loyalists led by Agent Hill, the Captain sets about foiling the Hydra plot, but to do so he has to go head to head with the Winter Soldier, who turns out to be his old best friend Bucky Barnes. The scene is set for a climactic showdown aboard a trio of S.H.I.E.L.D. heli-carriers. Yep, this is an exciting, action packed film on all levels, with some superb set pieces, all culminating in the final battle to prevent Hydra prevailing. While the Captain remains central, the others characters get to do their bit in the fight scenes, with Fury, Black Window, and the Falcon all strutting their stuff and making a good impression. We delve deeper into the world of international espionage, with an opening scene and aftermath in which the Captain realises that even Fury isn’t to be trusted totally, that he has his own agenda, and Natasha Romanoff is his agent more than she is the Captain’s friend. Part of the story involves the Captain learning to function in the modern world, taking time out to learn the ropes, and yet it is something from his past that drives the plot. Bucky Barnes has been subjected to a similar super-soldier treatment and brainwashed to the point that he is a ruthless killer, but for Cap he is still an old friend, the one he failed to save, regarding which he continues to carry a burden of guilt, and it is these feelings that complicate his response to this film’s titular nemesis. It isn’t so much about beating Bucky as saving him, and in a way by doing so Cap also has to save himself, to satisfy his, some might say outmoded, sense of what is right. Even more than its predecessor, this is a film that successfully marries the action side of super heroics and the personal issues that the characters have to deal with, along the way presenting the viewer with moral choices, allowing us to wonder how we might act in such circumstances. While I have some minor quibbles about the nature and credibility of the Hydra super weapon, overall this film is a splendid addition to the Marvel franchise.

Captain America: Civil War (2016)

This has been described as a third Avengers film and yeah, aside from big hitters Hulk and Thor, all the gang is here, but the central conflict, as the poster makes clear, is between Cap and Iron Man. When a mission in Lagos goes disastrously wrong, with loss of civilian life including Wakandan aid workers, the UN proposes an accord by which the Avengers will be placed under their oversight. Tony Stark, who feels responsible for Ultron, supports the initiative, but Cap who has no reason to trust governments opposes it, and the other Avengers are divided right down the middle. Matters reach a head when the Winter Soldier attacks the UN, killing Wakanda’s king. Cap doesn’t believe that his old friend Bucky is responsible and certainly won’t let security forces execute him without a trial. The stage is set for a showdown between the two groups of Avengers, with guest stars Ant-Man and Spiderman showing up on opposing sides. And then subsequent events reveal that the Winter Soldier was innocent, at least of the UN attack, but other actions in his past see Iron Man wanting to kill the Soldier and willing to go through Captain America to do so. Friends and allies have irrevocably fallen out, as the mastermind behind all these events had planned. Yep, definitely an Avengers movie in all but name, with the introduction of new characters, and on that score it was great to see Ant-Man cutting loose as his Giant Man alter ego and tearing up the scenery, though I wasn’t quite so happy with the introduction of the new (and rebooted) Spiderman – the character seemed almost apologetic for his actions and, while that rings true for a teenager, it didn’t sit well with my personal conception of the character, and we didn’t really get an explanation for how he was recruited anyway, though I guess the forthcoming film will explain all. Also seen for the first time, and making an impressive impact, was the Black Panther, who appears motivated by anger, but ultimately lets a cooler head prevail. The divided loyalties of the other team members, and the ways in which they are forced to fight against friends, holding back but also determined to win, were put over well, especially in the case of Wanda, whose attempt to save lives went so disastrously wrong and was the impetus for much of what followed, while touching on questions of the greater good. Cap is meant to be the conscience of the film, acting out of the most admirable of motives, but at the same time with enough wriggle room that the viewer can question if he is right to behave as he does. The final showdown with Iron Man was edge of the seat stuff, though I found the result of their fight, satisfying as it was aesthetically, to be unconvincing given Stark’s superiority. I still have a sneaking preference for The Dark Knight but won’t argue too hard with anyone who wants to claim that this was the best super hero movie yet to come down the pike. Like TDK it had plenty of action but never lost sight of human concerns in among all the super heroics. And I’m so glad that I got to see it on a big screen.

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Filler content with Telos – Part 1

Three reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #43 as the first part of a feature on Telos Publishing:-


Sam Stone’s novel THE DARKNESS WITHIN (Telos pb, 180pp, £10.99) is set on board the colony ship Freedom, fleeing a doomed Earth for a new world. There is tension between the crew and the pampered colonists in their care, with strict demarcation lines that nobody must cross. When a scientist investigating meteorite debris has an accident he brings on board the ship an alien entity, a parasite that takes control of its human hosts. Sometimes the pairing takes and an intelligent being is the result, part of a hive mind, but more often it doesn’t and the host becomes a cannibalistic monster. It’s up to Chief Engineer Madison Whitehawk and the other members of the crew to join forces with the colonists and tackle these entities.

In her introduction to the book, Stone states that “I hadn’t really written science fiction before” and it feels to me very much like a genre in which she is still finding her feet. The book might be science fiction by virtue of its setting, but the genre trappings it uses are superficial and unconvincing. While the Freedom is named an Ark or colony ship, there is very little to define the scale of the venture, with only minimal information provided as to how the colonists fill their time, where their food comes from, what propulsion method is used in the ship, how long they are supposed to take to reach their destination, why cryogenics are not used. Even less information is available regarding the reason for this mass exodus from the Earth, just a vague remark about “the Sun darkening”.

Of course all this cavilling on my part is beside the point. Stone isn’t writing from a hard SF perspective and the genre trappings she uses are mainly by way of stage scenery. At bottom this is zombies on board a spaceship, even if the Z word is never used and regardless of the fact that some of the zombies are capable of rational thought and a great deal more. Stone isn’t all that concerned by the technicalities; she just wants to fling spectacle at the page. As far as that goes the book works tolerably well, with a convincing and tense build up as the parasite spreads in a manner reminiscent of Cronenberg film Shivers, and plenty of paranoia on offer to crank up the tension as crew members wonder who has been infected and who is free. All of which builds up to the final climactic showdown, with humans and parasites battling for survival, a fight that could go either way, Stone playing her cards close to her chest throughout. Darkness doesn’t mark the entry of a major new talent into the SF genre, and is perhaps not to be taken entirely seriously except as storytelling in the horror mode and intended, first and foremost, to entertain the reader for an hour or so, on which level it works well enough.

Back in #33 I reviewed Zombies at Tiffany’s, Stone’s first book featuring redoubtable heroine Kat Lightfoot and was thoroughly charmed, not least because I’d recently watched Breakfast at Tiffany’s and could pick up on all the inside jokes Stone peppered her work with. I don’t have that advantage with the source material come inspiration for her two follow ups, but still enjoyed them very much.

KAT ON A HOT TIN AIRSHIP (Telos pb, 230pp, £12.99) hits the ground running. After a prologue that sets the scene for what comes later, we get straight into things with Kat and George Pepper taking out a nest of demons in New York’s warehouse district in 1865. Next the Lightfoot family, with Pepper tagging along for the ride, wash up in New Orleans, where Kat’s brother Henry has just married his very own southern belle, but not all is well at the Pollitt Plantation. For starters son Orlando has eyes that hint at a demonic heritage, and for seconds Henry’s marriage to Maggie seems to have taken on a rather frosty tone, with the groom inexplicably cold to his beautiful bride. Kat discovers a secret room with a prisoner that nobody else can see, and stalking the estate is the demon Callon, with an agenda rooted in the past and broken promises made by the ancestor of plantation owner Big Daddy to a voodoo priest. With all this going on Kat calls out to her inventor friend Martin who arrives aboard his airship and with extra weaponry, though it will take more than massive firepower to sort out this fine mess.

As I stated above, lack of familiarity with the Tennessee Williams play meant that I probably missed many of the nuances of the story, but regardless this is a tale that stands alone and is a lot of fun for the reader. The characters are every bit as engaging as in the previous book, especially feisty Kat who is torn between conforming to the expectations of her family and constraints imposed by society, and the needs of her role as demon slayer. It has some of the trappings of steampunk, though perhaps a more adequate comparison would be Buffy transplanted to the milieu of Wild West, a world in which our heroine and her companions are just ahead of the curve in terms of the general level of technology, giving them the necessary edge when it comes to dealing with demons, zombies etc. Such considerations aside, with its use of demons, hauntings, and voodoo this has plenty of the true grue for horror aficionados, and there is also a strong subtext regarding the betrayals of the past and how they can cause trouble in the present day, with the need for closure central to the story.

The Peter Sellers film provides the template for WHAT’S DEAD PUSSYKAT (Telos pb, 230pp, £12.99) in which, after a visit to an abandoned and allegedly cursed church, Kat finds herself hopelessly attracted to Pepper and the feeling is mutual. A wedding date is set and all concerned parties retire to a luxury hotel where they are joined by a group of beautiful women who turn out to be vampires intent on catching Pepper. All the love fever clouds the minds of Kat, Pepper and Martin, who are unable to correlate the information they each hold until it may be too late. The stage is set for a showdown with Lucia and her brood in the ruins of St. Michael’s.

Again, this is a fun read with a twisty plot that keeps springing surprises on the reader, including an interesting variation on the vampire theme and some good stuff with gargoyles. A lot of groundwork is done for future adventures, with the unresolved (on his part at least) romance between Kat and Pepper, and a final revelation about her nature that should provide some interesting times in adventures to come, plus more about the mystery of cat Holly. And, while I might not have been familiar with the source material, there were many other little touches that brought a knowing smile to my face, as with the architect Charles Addams, and the character Priscilla, a vampire with an English accent who keeps asking for her spike. It’s as fast paced and high on thrills and spills as the previous adventures, while moving the greater story arc along. I’m now wondering what other film with Cat in the title Stone could seize on next and put to her own use.


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