Filler content with Titan Books

This cluster of reviews appeared back in Black Static #32:-


 DARK SHADOWS: THE VISUAL COMPANION (TB hb, 192pp, £29.99) by Mark Salisbury is a lavish coffee table book, produced to complement the recent feature film. For those not in the know, Dark Shadows was a TV show, or more specifically a soap opera featuring the vampire Barnabas Collins, that was very popular in America and ran for a number of years after its 1966 debut. Fans included director Tim Burton and actor Johnny Depp, who got together to make a film based on the characters that was released back in May of last year, and the story behind the film is told in this book.

The Visual Companion has about it the same feel as those featurettes that appear as extras on DVDs, with a similar superficiality of approach and emphasis on the visual side of things. Salisbury interviews both director and star, who are very articulate in pinning down why the TV series appealed to them so much and how that drove this project, but I could have done with a bit more on the background and the original show. There is no plot synopsis as such, or attempt to critique the film, and in fairness that’s something which lies outside the author’s remit: Salisbury comes to praise the film, not to offer a critical appreciation.

Where the book works best is in introducing us to the cast, revealing their feelings and the motivations of their characters, and showing the sets, the work that went into finding them and making them just right for the film, but chapters on costume, visual effects etc. all seem rather rushed, as if they were included simply as filler and with an awareness of the end credits looming. But perhaps I’m being unduly pernickety. The book defines itself as a visual companion and on that score it can’t be faulted, with lavish production standards throughout and a wealth of stills from the film and other relevant material. Turning the last page, I felt a mild twinge of regret that I’d missed the film when it hit a nearby multi-plex, so I guess that means mission accomplished as far as the dark lords of tie-in merchandising are concerned. Recommended, but mainly to those with a more than passing interest in Dark Shadows or a love of attractively packaged but lightweight texts about films.

A similar sensibility informs RESIDENT EVIL VOLUME I: THE UMBRELLA CONSPIRACY (TB pb, 281pp, £6.99) by S. D. Perry, the first in a series of novels based on the popular video game/film franchise. Near as I can figure these were first released back in 1998 and Titan are reprising them to tie-in with the recent release of film Resident Evil; Retribution (and there’s a John Shirley novelization of that, also published by Titan).

Fans of the game/films will know the drill. Raccoon City is being menaced by cannibal killers, and so S. T. A. R. S. (Special Tactics and Rescue Service) is called on to assist. When their first helicopter inexplicably goes down in isolated woodland the second team is sent in on a rescue mission, only to find themselves hunted by powerful, feral dogs. Trapped in the isolated Spencer mansion, built by the powerful Umbrella Corporation and thought long abandoned, they must take on an assortment of monsters to survive, a task further complicated by the possibility there may be a traitor in their own ranks.

There’s not really a lot that can usefully be said about this. Perry’s work is competent rather than inspired, and the end result of her efforts is okay in a pass the time sort of way, but the longer you read the more the cracks begin to show, especially in the end game when the characters must wander about in search of various ‘plot coupons’ to achieve their mission, monsters jumping out from behind every door. Characterisation is seldom more than stereotypical, with familiar templates put through their paces – the family man, the ingénue trying to prove herself, the suspicious one who just happens to be right – and we don’t get anything like a credible explanation for the mansion’s ludicrous layout beyond this is how a mad old man wanted it umpteen years ago. There is too much that seems contrived and reliant on plot conveniences, such as the mysterious man who appears at fortuitous moments to give the S.T.A.R.S. handy tips. Overall it struggles to rise above the formulaic nature of its source material, and doesn’t succeed. I’m afraid I didn’t enjoy it very much, and I suspect the video game will provide a lot more fun for those who want to get into this particular scenario.

SHERLOCK HOLMES: THE ARMY OF DR MOREAU (TB pb, 285pp, £7.99) is the second book by Guy Adams dealing with the further adventures of everybody’s favourite Victorian detective. As the title suggests, it conflates the work of Conan Doyle with that of H. G. Wells.

When strangely mutilated bodies start to turn up around London, Holmes and Watson are summoned by Mycroft, who reveals to them the true story of Dr Moreau and that he has reason to believe somebody may be using Moreau’s techniques. The problem for the detective is that everybody in the know would appear to be dead. Regardless, the trail leads them to gang leader Kane, who offers Holmes his assistance, and even though he doesn’t trust the criminal with much larger issues hanging in the balance Holmes has no alternative but to accept the help that is offered, and so the stage is set for a dramatic climax in the sewers and tunnels beneath London.

I imagine that Adams had a great deal of fun writing this, mixing and matching not only Holmes and Moreau, but drafting in Professor Challenger, characters from the oeuvre of Verne and others, so that for the reader spotting the references and literary allusions becomes very much part of the game. The plot holds together well and there is plenty of excitement, as the tide of battle swings first one way and then the other, with the atmosphere and fog shrouded streets of Victorian London brought to the page with enough conviction to satisfy a fan of the Jeremy Brett iteration of the character, though I’ve no idea how someone more familiar with the era would feel. On the minus side, though it’s been a long while since I read any Conan Doyle, I don’t think Adams quite captures the tone of the original work. There’s little of the deduction that is Holmes’ trademark, as the character himself acknowledges, and the element of humour, as with the antics of the blustering Challenger and his rival scientists, and the occasional joke that Holmes makes at Watson’s expense, didn’t really work for me. But, in the end, this is Guy Adams’ interpretation of the character, and overall it’s an engaging read, providing a few hours decent entertainment without being anything truly special.

ROMEO SPIKES (TB pb, 489pp, £7.99) is the joker in this gang of four. Billed as ‘Lo Life Book 1’ it’s an ambitious debut from former TV documentary maker Joanne Reay, with a large cast of characters and a sound mythological underpinning. I suspect it has more of a foot in the urban fantasy/paranormal romance camp than horror, but there are more than enough thrills and chills to merit a broader readership.

Central to it all are the Tormenta, a race who have co-existed with and preyed on mankind for countless centuries. They maintain their lengthy existences by driving humans to suicide and then draining them of whatever lifespan remains. Opposed to the Tormenta are the Sinestra, who train those humans who survive an encounter with the Tormenta as Hunters and send them out into the world to kill the Tormenta. Lola is one such Hunter, but she has learned something about the Sinestra that has turned her against the organisation and now operates as a freelance. She finds herself involved in the search for the Mosca, a legendary Tormenta who will unite all their warring factions against mankind, and there is the suggestion that Lola herself may be the Mosca’s arch enemy, the Moera.

So far, so complicated, and there is a hell of a lot more to it than this. I haven’t as yet mentioned SCURO, a powerful organisation derived from the Catholic Church and pursuing its own agenda. Or the reformed Tormenta Dali, who gave up his human life on the Romeo Spikes of the title and is now playing both sides against each other in a dangerous game. Or prodigy Mo’zart, or Detective Alexis Bianco, Lola’s sidekick, and her ‘lover’ Siggurson, or the old voodoo lady who probably knows a hell of a lot more than she is letting on. Oh, and let’s not forget another renegade Hunter, BeeBee, who is tracking down her Tormenta lover. Yes, this is complicated, and I still haven’t gotten to the various visionaries and the terrible killings they commit, or mentioned that Judas Iscariot has a part to play.

Of course, there are a lot of familiar tropes here, with the Tormenta obviously a reinvention of vampires, stealing span instead of blood, and hints of Buffy crossed with The Da Vinci Code in the Hunters and Sinestra, while the SCURO bring to mind Men in Black with a soupcon of the Illuminati, and the way in which spirits can occupy bodies and ancient secrets are revealed is pretty much Genre Plotting 101. And yet, Reay makes a tasty feast out of these stock ingredients, even if at times she seems a little too heavy handed with the info-dumps. While comparisons with the vampire are unavoidable, the appeal of the Tormenta lies in how they interact with their prey, indulging in petty acts and humiliations that drive the victim to suicide and then feeding at the moment of death. As monsters go, they are a compelling new addition to the horror canon. Add to that some marvellous larger than life characters and a snappy prose style that drives the book along at a ferocious pace, with a sense of something akin to detachment about it all, so that we often don’t realise who we are dealing with until well into a scene, allowing Reay to constantly surprise the reader. Throughout there’s a feeling of being in safe hands, that the author has worked out all the ramifications of the mythology/history she is bringing to the table and so, no matter how convoluted or abstruse the plot gets, Reay knows exactly what she is doing. It’s not a horror classic or something that pushes the envelope, but it is an impressive first novel, plot driven and entertaining, and I’ll be interested to see if Reay can maintain this pace in future volumes and what else she comes up with when she really gets going.

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