Well it can’t be any worse than their last cinematic outing:-
Or can it?
I’m not feeling the love.
Well it can’t be any worse than their last cinematic outing:-
Or can it?
I’m not feeling the love.
ITEM: Eyes up and right. You will observe a ‘new’ column heading suggestively titled Rolling News.
This is where from now on you will be able to find news of my latest writing endeavours, or ignore it completely if that’s how you roll.
Things are a little complicated at the moment, so for the foreseeable future the news will primarily consist of TTA/Black Static updates, but at some point I hope to spread my writing wings a tad wider.
We shall see.
ITEM: So, the election has come and gone, and ever since I have felt like I am living in some horrendous dystopian SF novel.
Call Me Dave’s cabinet appointments are not encouraging. The man appointed Minister of Housing has outside interests that include being a landlord. The new Minister for Disability includes among his friends a man who was sacked for making disability hate comments. The new Pensions Minister previously wrote a report stating that people should be encouraged to work longer and may need to engage in some form of voluntary (or other) activity to justify their state pension. The new Minister for Equality is a woman who voted against legalising gay marriage. And, of course, Jeremy Hunt who once called the NHS Britain’s biggest mistake continues in office as Health Minister.
One suspects that if Jimmy Savile were still alive he’d be in charge of Child Protection Services.
ITEM: Staying with the political theme, Isaac Asimov wrote a story in which the future government was determined by computer Multivac asking a series of questions of one man designated as the voter (I think it was called “Franchise”, but I’m not fussed enough to get up and check).
I’d suggest something similar for future UK elections. Instead of wasting huge amounts of time, effort, and money on the sad charade of democracy, let’s just ask Rupert Murdoch who he’d like to run the country and be done with it.
ITEM: I was discussing Charlize Theron with a friend, and she said that she always got her confused with another actress, but couldn’t remember who that actress was.
Me (after putting various names out there): Can you at least remember a film in which she appeared?
Friend: She was in “The Cider House Rules”.
Me: Erm, that was Charlize Theron.
For anyone who gives a shit, the actress my friend was trying to think of turned out to be Scarlet Johanssen.
And no, I really can’t see the resemblance either.
ITEM: To the list of little things that annoy me a lot, please add online forms that assume everyone lives in a city and water metres that are impossible to read unless you have whatever special tool it is water company employees use to get the ruddy lid off the inspection hole.
ITEM: Recently by way of work avoidance activity I spent an evening checking out Facebook pages and photos of people I used to know way back when.
Feeling really smug that, out of the guys, I am the one who has kept most of his hair.
ITEM: Reasons to Be Cheerful #195 – in June, TAG and I are going to see this:-
I’m Shrek and TAG is Fiona.
Two reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #41:-
MATHESON AND SON
The cover blurb from Stephen King declares that Richard Matheson was “The author who influenced me the most as a writer”, and yet there’s a moment of disconnect when you look at the slim volume that is A STIR OF ECHOES (Tor pb, 211pp, £7.99) and compare it with the doorstops that have become King’s prevailing modus operandi.
Originally published in 1958 Stir is every bit as entertaining now as it must have felt then, though of course it brings with it a considerable cultural baggage, not least of which is the 1999 film of the book, in which a slightly histrionic Kevin Bacon attacked his cellar floor with a pick-axe and a vengeance. The plot is relatively straightforward, with family man and all round good guy Tom Wallace turned into a kind of psychic sponge after dabbling in hypnotism. He has premonitions and starts to pick up on the feelings of others, a window into their souls and all the dirty little secrets that they hide even from themselves, information that he really doesn’t want to know. There’s much worse to come though when Tom sees a woman in his house late at night, and starts to wonder if she is the spirit of somebody who was murdered there. The woman needs his help, but Tom really doesn’t know what to do or how to deal.
Economically written and plotted, this is an elegant novel that touches on the supernatural, but uses it in a story that is all about human nature, and much of its effectiveness lies in the characterisation. Tom is a fully rounded individual, the sceptic who gets his comeuppance when he somewhat unwisely challenges a true believer to prove his case. And yet what happens to him also seems undeserved, in that Tom is a decent guy placed in a near impossible position, gifted a power that places his relationship with his wife and child in peril as his visions grow more powerful. We can easily identify with his dilemma, in that so many of our relationships flourish and grow in the light of what we don’t know about the other person; Tom doesn’t want to know that his work colleague is a wife abuser or that the sexy neighbour has unwelcome designs on his body, and learning stuff like this handicaps his ability to function socially, eventually placing his marriage in jeopardy. Like Cassandra he finds that uncommon knowledge can be a terrible curse, with the line between sanity and madness approached. That it isn’t crossed is down to the fact that ultimately Tom finds a way to do the right thing, blunders into a solution for what ails him and enables a restless spirit to find peace. Human malice and folly are the reasons for what is happening and, whatever unnatural twists and turns the narrative may take, the story can only be resolved with a human, all too human denouement. There’s a timeless quality to much of what happens – we might not be so wary of hypnotism nowadays, but sadly things like misogyny and murder are still very much part of the plat du jour.
Matheson died in 2013, a cruel year that also took from us James Herbert and Joel Lane, but his legacy will endure. He was truly one of the greats labouring in the field of speculative fiction, and this short novel provides an eloquent testimony to his genius.
The point of departure for Richard Christian Matheson’s novella THE RITUAL OF ILLUSION (PS Publishing jhc/signed jhc, 118pp, £15/£28) is the disappearance of actress Sephanie Vamore after a car in which she is travelling crashes with the death of all the other passengers including her director boyfriend who was driving. And later, several people connected to the film industry are slaughtered at a party at a producer’s house in Malibu, with no explanation for what happened or how, the only suspect an extravagantly large man who disappears from the trunk of a police car en route to the station. At back of all this, hinted at in the text, is a book with instructions on how to perform the so called ritual of illusion, which will grant power and influence to whoever enacts it.
Written in a collage style and predominantly told in the form of dialogue extracts, this is a daringly different exercise in storytelling, keeping the reader in a state of perpetual uncertainty as all the members of the dramatis personae chip in with their own versions of the truth, and enough alarums and excursions, footnotes and personal asides, to give Shakespeare a run for his money. It is very much a product of its time, turning the sound bite of celebrity culture and commercial excess into an art form and forcing the media to eat the message in an orgy of cannibalistic frenzy. There’s also a golem, or at least a passable substitute. Underneath the surface vim it clinically and wittily exposes the mercenary nature of the Hollywood dream factory, holding our values up to a harsh light and questioning the things we have been taught to hold dear. At bottom it is about the relationship between the movie makers and their audience, the ways in which the latter will chew up and spit out the former, the needs and expectations we place on our stars, the creation of a new pantheon in an age of cynicism when all our deities must tread softly on feet of clay. For insight into the character of the great whore that is Hollywood and sheer verve of execution it reads like the offspring of a pity fuck Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckinridge gave to Theodore Roszak’s Flicker in a back alley on a night when the stars were perfectly aligned and James Ellroy gazed down on them from a flophouse window. I loved it.
It wasn’t planned, but I recently watched a number of films in which Gemma Arterton appeared, and so that’s the theme for this filmic offering.
Quantum of Solace (2008)
Daniel Craig’s second outing as James Bond, in a film with a more or less random title and a plot that many people thought a tad oblique. From my perspective it was pretty much Bond business as usual, albeit most definitely a lull between the glories of “Casino Royale” and “Skyfall”. Dominic Greene has made a fortune out of caring for the environment and general philanthropy, but of course you just know he is a bad guy (subtext – don’t trust the tree huggers), and his firm turns out to be a front for criminal organisation Spectre. Their latest plot involves taking control of the utilities of a South American nation after installing a deposed general as the head of state. Naturally James Bond is on hand to make sure that it all blows up in their faces. You pretty much get what you expect from a Bond film, including lots of fire fights, car chases, life or death struggles, Bond forced to go off the radar (again) because of traitors in the ranks, and so on and so forth. It’s all ridiculous, and ridiculously entertaining, more or less, and you’ll only tie yourself up in knots trying to make it sound credible and/or convincing. In parts it reminded me of Matthew McConaughey vehicle “Sahara”. There are, naturally, ridiculously good looking women in the mix, with Olga Kurylenko the main female lead as the daughter of a man killed by the general and seeking revenge. Gemma Arterton’s role is more or less negligible, eye candy even, as signified by her character’s name of Strawberry Fields. She’s an MI5 (6?) desk jockey sent to bring James Bond in from the cold, naïve and hopelessly out of her depth, and inevitably she ends up bedding our hero and then gets killed horribly to provide him (and us) with one more reason to hate the bad guy, while adding a touch of poetic justice to his demise.
Clash of the Titans (2010)
Remake of the 1981 ‘classic’ that showcased animation by Ray Harryhausen, with a plot that plays fast and loose with Greek mythology. When mortals antagonise the gods they unwittingly play into the hands of Hades, who wishes to usurp the primacy of his brother Zeus. Both mortals and Zeus himself must rely on the demigod Perseus to thwart the plans of Hades, who is going to release the monstrous Kraken and send it against the city of Argos unless the Princess Andromeda is sacrificed. To defeat the Kraken the hero must secure the head of the gorgon Medusa. It’s all pretty much a by the numbers remake, with plenty of spectacle – fights against harpies, giant scorpions, blind witches, the gorgon, and the Kraken itself – but while the cgi might be state of the art it all feels a little lacking in soul compared to the glorious stop motion of Harryhausen. Star Sam Worthington mails in his performance as lead Perseus, while thespians of the stature of Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes try to bring a little gravity to the roles of Greek gods but at times seem to feel slightly embarrassed at finding themselves in this trite and trivial production. Gemma Arterton plays Io, who has been keeping an eye on Perseus throughout his life, for reasons never clearly specified, and steps out of the shadows to guide him on his quest, and she doesn’t really make much of an impact on the movie, though her role has a bit too much meat to it to be dismissed as simply eye candy. For reasons we needn’t go into, I smirk like an idiot every time somebody shouts ‘Release the Kraken!’
Gemma Arterton takes on her first starring role as the eponymous Alice. The daughter of a millionaire she is kidnapped and held for ransom by two men, Vic and Danny. But one of the kidnappers is not who he claims to be and Alice herself soon learns how to use her feminine wiles to turn the tables on her captors, becoming as ruthless as they are to survive and prosper. This is low budget, with a cast of three and most of the action taking place in one room, but it manages to hold the interest and entertain with believable characters and a selection of twists and turns. Initially Alice is stripped naked by her captors, but there’s nothing gratuitous or ‘sexy’ about this; it is simply a device to make her situation feel all the more harrowing and adds an extra frisson to our fears of what will happen to her at the hands of these men, before we realise that Alice is more than capable of holding her own. You never really know where the film is going, and I could almost feel sorry for career criminal and hard man Vic as he gets sucked further into the games going on between Alice and Danny. Almost, but not quite, and by the end of the last reel everyone has got more or less what they deserve.
As children the two are abandoned in the forest by their parents and find their way to a witch’s house made out of candy, where they escape from the oven and burn the witch, and at this point any resemblance to the story recorded by the Brothers Grimm ends. Hansel and Gretel grow up to be Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton; leather clad and armed with an assortment of unlikely firearms they make a career out of killing witches, rather like some steampunk version of the Winchester boys acting with extreme prejudice. To paraphrase an earlier template – Who ya gonna call? Hansel and Gretel! A trip to Augsburg where children are disappearing brings the pair their greatest challenge, as they have to deal with a gathering of witches under the leadership of grand witch Muriel (Famke Janssen). Along the way they have to deal with the secrets of their own past and learn that not all witches are bad, plus there is human treachery and a troll. Not much to be said about this. The plot is pretty basic and ditto for characterisation, though I have a sneaking suspicion it was intended to be seen as deep, with character development etc. (in parenthesis, I did cheer when Gretel ‘punched out’ a male chauvinist pig). Janssen as the leering Muriel acts everybody off the screen, and appears to be throwing her all into the role while chucking spells and fireballs at everyone else. It is primarily an sfx vehicle and horror-lite, encompassing lots of witchy shenanigans, plenty of fights, and copious use of big weapons, resulting in copious bloodshed, with bodies flying apart and turning to crimson mush at the drop of a hat, and if you take it at face value then it’s tolerably entertaining, or does what it says on the tin, as the saying goes. I enjoyed myself for the ninety odd minutes it lasted, but don’t think I’ll watch it again any time soon or rush out to catch the sequel that is reputed to be in the works.
Anyone caught “Byzantium”? Looking at GA’s back catalogue that would seem to be the one I ought to have watched.
John Cougar Mellencamp has the mic.
Continuing on from Tuesday’s post, four more reviews that appeared as part of a feature in Black Static #42:-
FRIENDS & FAMILY (continued from Tuesday’s post)
Stephen Volk has been writing his column for Black Static since the very first issue, so in terms of word count of the writers getting reviewed here he is almost certainly the one whose work we’ve published the most of, though his only appearance with a work of fiction was back in #9 with ‘Fear’. That story along with fourteen others, two of them previously unpublished, appears in Volk’s second collection, MONSTERS IN THE HEART (Gray Friar Press paperback, 248pp, £8.99).
The collection opens with what I personally regard as Volk’s finest story and one of the best to appear in print in recent years, King Kong inspired ‘After the Ape’, in which a bereft Ann Darrow sojourns in a New York hotel while her lover lies rotting on the streets below. Beautifully told and keenly felt, this story captures a moment in time with pinpoint accuracy, touching on the loss of nobility and, by association, in the character of the bell boy foretelling the rise of fascism. In ‘Who Dies Best’ the latest development in the motion picture industry sees people with terminal illnesses taking part in films and dying onscreen, the idea examined through the eyes of a young man who is endlessly fascinated by the death of his mother. Poignant and heartfelt, this is a story that almost makes the unacceptable seem like a positive thing, raising questions about practicality, but then giving it all a very human dimension.
‘Monster Boy’ is the story of a young boy who, when bullied, receives help from the movie monsters that so enthral him, using their strength to pass his ordeal by fire, the narrative hinting at how some of us can find inspiration and solace in the things that might repulse many people. ‘Notre Dame’ has a polemical element to it, set in a future Britain ruled by religious fundamentalists and in which help conceiving a baby is strictly regulated so that God’s “mistakes” are wired into the system. It’s a story that packs a powerful punch, dramatizing the moral dilemma at the narrative’s heart, though I felt Volk perhaps weighted it a little too much in favour of the conclusion he appears to want the reader to reach, not just in the person of the hateful spokesperson for religious views with his dogmatism but also in the extremity of the unborn child’s handicaps.
In ‘A Paper Tissue’ an unhappily married couple find that their relationship is revitalised by a chance encounter with somebody from the past while on a foreign holiday, the story hinting that sometimes it is good to be unambitious, to find a job you enjoy rather than push to go as high as you can, and that those who do follow the latter course are not necessarily nice people, all of this conveyed by a certain and assured subtlety so the tissue itself, despite its portentous message, is simply a McGuffin for the real thrust of the narrative.
When a baby comes into the world with a ‘Swell Head’, for his older brother it is the beginning of a lifetime as a carer, initial resentment turning to an almost parasitic dependence on the invalid whose existence validates his own, the whole thing destined to end in tragedy.
There are vicious undercurrents to ‘In the Colosseum’ in which a TV producer’s idea of reality TV leads a young man to an unpleasant discovery about himself, the story examining our role as voyeurs, the way in which we can be corrupted by the openness of technology, or rather how it panders to our worst traits, producing the modern equivalent of gladiatorial games. ‘Hounded’ is a Sherlock Holmes story, but with Watson as the lead man, revealing the true story behind The Hound of the Baskervilles and with a séance at which the phantom hound is unleashed on London. It is an entertaining piece, rich in period atmosphere and presenting a direct challenge to the rational world view espoused by Holmes. There’s a magic realist feel to ‘Air Baby’, with two women taking in a baby thrown up by the sea, its presence causing tension between them as one doesn’t accept the need to return the child back to the water from which it came. This was a little too out there for my liking, beautifully written and characterised, but not really going anywhere much I felt, though it could simply be a matter of context given that the other stories are so strong.
With a man crucified on their lawn, the couple in ‘Easter’ adopt a very phlegmatic and matter of fact approach, one that seems quintessentially English, the story unfolding in a manner that roughly approximates something P. G. Wodehouse would have produced had he dabbled in surrealism or scripted for Monty Python. Set in the post-Soviet world, ‘White Butterflies’ is a grim and bitter story of people doing whatever it takes to survive, with all their hopes and aspirations running aground on the cupidity of others, and the children who comes to harvest the metal rockets that fall from the sky themselves becoming a source of income for other opportunists. ‘Pied-a-terre’ is a haunted house story, as a woman going to view a property has a spectral encounter that empowers her to overcome the troubles in her own life, the story one informed by a genuine feel of the outré and prevailing mood of sadness, but finding light among the darkness and ending on a redemptive note of hope.
‘The Hair’ is a story of voodoo and revenge, with a woman who suspects her man of cheating casting a spell that will turn her into the object of his desires, the narrative capped with a Dahlesque sting in the tail. I have mixed feelings about all this, in that I liked the setup and characterisation, and I didn’t expect the end twist, but at the same time it felt like a lot of effort for very little reward, a flash fiction played out at story length. A policeman who has an encounter with the numinous is the lead character in ‘Appeal for Witnesses’, the story very similar in tone to the work of Joel Lane in Where Furnaces Burn, pitched as a police interview and presenting nothing but the facts, Volk’s words effortlessly drawing the reader in until only one of two conclusions is possible: either monsters walk among us or the narrator is insane. Rounding out this excellent collection by one of the UK’s leading exponents of the short form, are some story notes that give the background and thinking behind the various narratives.
Lynda E. Rucker has only been writing her Blood Pudding column since #34, but her fiction has appeared in the magazine on three occasions. All three of those stories plus three stories that were originally published in The Third Alternative and five others, three of them appearing in print for the first time, are gathered together in Rucker’s first collection, THE MOON WILL LOOK STRANGE (Karōshi Books paperback, 216pp, £9.99).
After an introduction by Steve Rasnic Tem and a note by the author, we get right into things with ‘The Burned House’, a ghost story of sorts as aging biology teacher Agnes Swithin is lured into the house she feared as a child and becomes one with the children who died in the flames, the story deftly conflating past and present, imagination and reality, and at its heart the idea of a wasted life, of opportunities lost as surely as if they had gone up in flames. Backpacker Paul in ‘No More A-Roving’ washes up at the Seagull Hostel, but there are things about the place that unsettle him and as the story progresses we begin to wonder if Paul is in fact dead and this is some sort of halfway house between our world and the next, or simply emblematic of all the things in life he has missed out on because of his reticent nature. ‘The Chance Walker’ is the story of Kathleen, an American in the Czech city of Boleslav, who is haunted by her past and slowly getting sucked into the spectral landscape of her new home, the story one of mental disintegration and loneliness, displacement in space and time, packed with understated effects.
One of the best stories in the collection, there’s an almost stream of consciousness feel to title piece ‘The Moon Will Look Strange’, with grief stricken Colin left rudderless by the death of his six and a half year old daughter, wandering the world in search of a miracle to bring her back, and instead ending up exploited by black magician Yarrow, the words on the page reeking of death and desolation, of a despair beyond all hope of repair, and bringing to mind the oeuvre of Clive Barker. Mentally disturbed Grace has another personality in the story ‘In Death’s Other Kingdom’, one that she regards as a demon who has taken command of her life. The story moves deftly from one of an unhappy marriage made on the rebound, with back trips into a disturbed childhood thanks to religious fanatic parents, Rucker retaining a note of uncertainty throughout so that we cannot be sure how much of this is inside the character’s mind and how much is external.
‘Ash-Mouth’ is a creature who comes to take the dead in a story told by Ivy’s grandmother, but in searching for him as a child her sister Holly disappeared, the story cleverly overlapping events in the past and present, so that by the end we are not really sure what is happening, with Ivy’s need to believe in a scientific and rational universe undermined along with that of the reader. Flash fiction ‘These Foolish Things’ is a bittersweet tale of unrequited love, of a man who sees his estranged wife in the face of every woman he meets. ‘Beneath the Drops’ is the story of a relationship breaking up set against the background of continual rain, with mould and the constant sound of falling rain symbolic of what is going on between Evan and Gwen, his sense of displacement and growing awareness that they no longer fit, if they ever did.
‘These Things We Have Always Known’ is about the town of Cold Rest, where unusual events take place as a matter of course, and a family has to deal with the conflict between its inheritance and the appeal of the outside world, Rucker hinting at far more than is revealed in a strange, elusive story, one with the marvellous woven seamlessly into every page. Jolie returns to her childhood home in ‘Different Angels’, but the visit only brings to mind unpleasant memories of the past and hallucinations brought on by mental health issues and the religious upbringing to which she was subjected, the story a powerful evocation of a disturbed individual and the things that made her that way.
Finally we have something akin to traditional supernatural fare in ‘The Last Reel’. Sophie inherits the isolated house of her black sheep Aunt Rose, who is rumoured to have been a witch, but the visit to the desres doesn’t go according to plan. The story is told from the perspective of film critic husband Kevin who is unnerved by the changes his wife is going through, with a wealth of tiny details that only make sense as the narrative unfolds in this beautifully constructed tale with a Jamesian cast. It was one of my favourite stories in the collection and the perfect note on which to end.
I interviewed Conrad Williams in #4 and that issue of Black Static contained his only story to appear in the magazine. That story, ‘Zombie’, opens his latest collection BORN WITH TEETH (PS Publishing hc/signed jhc, 282pp, £19.99/£39.99). It’s about a man who has gone through his life believing that he knows the moment of his own death, but in doing so condemns himself to a life in death that is like the zombie state, the story evocatively written and offering an elegy for wasted opportunities. There’s something of the police procedural to the opening stages of ‘The Cold’ but it soon veers off into terra incognito with our detective chasing a serial killer who turns out to be an inhuman monster in a story that is intriguing and repellent at the same time, the pitch perfect prose playing counterpoint to the atrocities being described, and with the detective protagonist falling victim to his own nature at the end. The story of Malpas, ‘The Fold’ tells of a fallen angel who lives on Earth as a taxidermist, a being of great power who has forgotten who he is, the revelations hitting hard and fast as Williams unveils the truth of his condition and shows how he ultimately prefers to retain his fake humanity, even if it means dying for it.
One of two contenders for best story in the book, the chilling ‘Haifisch’ opens with a young man helping somebody in a wheelchair only to discover that he has become the target of a former U-Boat sailor with terrible secrets to reveal and an agenda that involves murder, the story deftly unfolding and digging its fingers into the reader’s subconscious, with an ending that put me in mind of the film Seven. A night guard tries to make contact with his female counterpart on another floor of the museum where they both work in ‘Perhaps the Last’, but what he discovers about her identity shocks the man to the core, the story a little too oblique for my liking, with an end twist that seems to reference del Toro’s Kronos.
MacCreadle agrees to hunt for a missing man in ‘The Carbon Heart’, the story unfolding against the backdrop of the Icelandic volcano eruption of a few years back with the world through which he moves coated in white ash. Ultimately MacCreadle is led to an unsettling revelation, the story playing an elegant twist on the usual ghost story plot, and with undertones that bring home to the reader a deep sense of loss, that we are haunted by an absence, of someone or something from our lives. ‘Once Seen’ is the story of a crime scene photographer who is drawn into a series of suicides by men who put out their own eyes, and his discovery of what they saw that led them to do such a thing is at the heart of the story, with the suggestion of something far more terrible than what is revealed on the page.
‘The Return’ takes David from Williams’ debut novel Head Injuries back to Morecambe and the friend he left behind in a coma, the trip stirring unpleasant memories of the past and ending with a strong hint that either David is a serial killer or that he is being followed by something that is, the whole thing a blurring of the lines between fact and fiction, reality and imagination, the subjective and objective, haunting with the implications that are coded into the text. In ‘Tight Wrappers’ the book collector and dealer Mantle’s pursuit of a rare first edition leads him to a discovery about his own nature and a reconciliation of sorts with his monstrous father, Williams seeding the narrative with his thoughts about literary merit, writing for posterity, and the dangers inherent in letting a hobby become an obsession.
A sequel of sorts to London Revenant, ‘O Caritas’ is set in the under city of Beneothan with Monck searching for a woman, in a strange, surreal story that seemed a little too convoluted and abstruse for my liking, so that I wasn’t sure why I was supposed to care about what was happening. Callaghan finds himself stalked by a woman who leaves notes in his library books in ‘Late Returns’, this strange affair leading to an encounter with the numinous and the protagonist’s punishment for all the wasted romantic opportunities in his past, the text hinting that literature should never be a substitute for lived experience.
The other contender for best story in the collection, ‘The Veteran’ managed the virtually impossible feat of interesting me in football, showing the camaraderie and zeitgeist of the men involved, and intercutting all this with a spectral tale of love and betrayal and revenge. It gives the noble game a very sinister twist, with an almost mafia like philosophy behind team spirit, but protagonist Deal’s confused memories are at the heart of what happens, with the reader left to discover the story behind the events unfolding on the page, what took place in Deal’s marriage to estrange him from his wife and child. Similarly in ‘The Pike’ fishing becomes emblematic of the human condition, with Lostock reminded of incidents in his own past, imtimations of his own mortality, by the capture of a sickening pike.
There are four more stories in the collection, and it ends with some notes by the author on the various texts.
Joel Lane’s British Fantasy Award winning story ‘My Stone Desire’ was published in the very first issue of Black Static and Joel was a regular contributor to the magazine thereafter, his work appearing seven times in all. I interviewed him in #13. WHERE FURNACES BURN (PS Publishing paperback, 210, £7.99) won the World Fantasy Award for Best Collection in 2013, shortly before the author’s tragic death in November of that year. Originally published in limited edition hardcover, PS released a mass market paperback edition in January 2014 under the umbrella of their Drugstore Indian Press imprint.
The collection contains a total of twenty six stories, with the longest weighing in at thirteen pages and the shortest a mere four pages in length. Written over a span of thirteen years, the stories cover a period of twenty four years in the life and career of the never named protagonist, a police officer working in and around the Black Country. The book opens with ‘My Stone Desire’, with its account of a failed relationship, but intercut with this is a preoccupation with missing persons and it ends with a powerful image that brings to mind the work of Clive Barker, memorialising people’s need to feel they belong to something greater than themselves, whatever the cost. And the book ends with ‘Facing the Wall’ in which, after leaving the force to pursue a killer of seemingly supernatural ability, the protagonist assumes a mythic quality in a moment of apotheosis. In between these two poles we get cultists who prey on the homeless and alcoholics, a vessel that might be the Holy Grail, a man with the power to share the pain of others, an ancient beast dwelling beneath a cemetery and feasting on human flesh, intangible creatures that drain the blood of their victims, a predator who steals your last breath, a coin operated toilet box that plays host to a vengeful spirit, a man whose presence incites violence in others, a pack of spectral dogs, and a dozen or more other menaces to life and sanity.
And if my description makes these stories seem like traditional supernatural horror fare, then that’s simply not the case. Steeped in genre, Lane is a writer who knows how to use all the tropes and make them uniquely his own, producing stories that could not have been written by anyone else, informed by an underlying compassion and sympathy for the human animal in extremis. All the qualities and features you associate with Joel Lane are in evidence, from the political subtexts with their insightful commentary on the corruption of the affluent and uncaring, the perils of racism and social injustice, to the concern for the dispossessed and alienated, people who have nothing to look forward to other than whatever respite and comfort they can take from sex, drugs, and other placebos. Each story is beautifully written, with phrases that capture the quintessential nature of a character or landscape in a net of well-wrought words and make us see those things in new and different ways. And perhaps what stands out more than anything is the way in which events in the personal life of the protagonist – girl friends, marriage, fatherhood, affairs, financial worries – all play into the greater picture and, through their very ordinariness, reinforce the outré elements in each story. An argument could be made that, while each story stands perfectly well alone, what we have here is a gestalt novel.
In a tell-tale moment, the protagonist reveals that other officers refer to him as Mulder, and yes, there is very much an X-Files feel to this book, but as if those events had been transplanted to the Black Country and written by Derek Raymond in Factory novel mode. And at the same time, to reiterate an earlier point, however apposite the comparisons you make and influences you list, in the end Where Furnaces Burn is uniquely the work of Joel Lane, a book that deserves all the accolades heaped on it and which any lover of genre and fine writing will wish to sample. It is also an eloquent testimony to how much the genre lost when Joel Lane passed away.
I could never get behind Marvel’s Ant-Man, though I did like his DC counterpart The Atom.
This however looks like it could be a lot of fun, and I’m curiously delighted at the thought of Michael Douglas in a Marvel movie.