Some reviews that appeared in Black Static #33 (and as this was a rather big chunk of reviews I’ve split it between today and tomorrow):-
Having taken on one horror archetype in her Vampire Gene series, author Sam Stone now turns her attention to another famous monster with ZOMBIES AT TIFFANY’S (Telos pb, 187pp, £9.99)
The year is 1862 and feisty Kat Lightfoot gets a job at fabled New York store Tiffany’s by way of contributing to the family budget and as a distraction from the dark deeds of the Civil War in which her brother is fighting. But there are horrors on the home front too, with strange, shuffling men and women attacking innocent civilians and stopping only when shot in the head. Mr Pepper, returned home from the front, tells Kat of an ominous darkness and how it brought the dead back to life. And before you can say hoodoo voodoo hordes of the living dead are banging on the doors of Tiffany’s like Christmas shoppers desperate for that last minute present, but fortunately their master jeweller dabbles in making firearms and so, with Kat at their head and armed for bear, the survivors prepare to make a stand.
Canny readers, clued in by the title, will already have surmised that this short novel takes its inspiration from the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s (starring Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly and George Peppard as Paul Varjak, and based on a Truman Capote novel), and stated so bluntly the idea might perhaps seem slightly absurd, but Stone has such fun reinventing the material and running it through a horror come steampunk grinder that it works and marvellously well, even the ludicrous deus ex machina that is introduced at the end (again with a strong nod to the film). Larger than life Kat makes an engaging protagonist, one with whom the reader can identify, obviously a product of her times but with enough chutzpah and independence that she doesn’t allow her times to rule her, and when the moment comes to break out the weaponry she is a woman who knows which end of a gun is which. The zombie blasting action is handled with aplomb, and setting it against the Civil War backdrop works extremely well, suggesting that society itself has been afflicted with a spiritual malaise that can only find release by unnatural means. The other characters are finely drawn, with enough depth to them that, rather than serving simply as shreddies, they are people we feel as if we know. And, while it takes the film as a template of sorts, with in-jokes and references to be picked up by the knowing reader, Stone doesn’t let that hobble her and the book stands perfectly well on its own as an entertaining diversion into zombie fiction. The obvious progenitor in this field is Pride and Prejudice and Zombies but Stone’s work is far more engaging and less forced than that one joke outing and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Tim Lebbon also tackles zombies in the much heavier, in more than one sense of the word, tome that is COLDBROOK (Hammer pb, 635pp, £6.99). The title refers to a secret research facility hidden deep in the heart of the Appalachian Mountains, and also the scientist, now deceased, from whom it takes its name. At Coldbrook the big brains have opened a gate to the other worlds of the multiverse, only what comes shambling through the gate from the other side is, to all intents and purposes, a zombie with an unthinking agenda to spread its plague far and wide. Before you can say “Captain Trips!” three times over the hills are alive with the sound of screaming as disbelieving reader and dramatis personae alike stare at the end of the world as we know it. Oops!
Lebbon has four main characters and shifts between them to give us an overview of what is happening, neatly contrasting the claustrophobic atmosphere of the Coldbrook facility itself with the greater picture of a world descending into chaos. Jonah Jones is the chief scientist and head honcho, a man in love with unravelling the mysteries of the universe and now having to deal with the fact that it’s turned round to bite him. He is tormented by visions of some minatory figure who wants to enlist his help in destroying worlds without number, and feels that he may be going mad. Engineer Vic Pearson wants to be with his family and after escaping Coldbrook spends the rest of the book trying to make amends for deserting his colleagues in their hour of need (and kudos to Lebbon for making this guy sympathetic, as my initial desire was to see the irresponsible shithead die horribly). Holly Wright escapes the zombie in the control room by fleeing through the gate, but the post-zombie apocalypse world she finds on the other side with its wary band of survivors led by the enigmatic Drake, a man pursuing his own agenda, offers as much in the way of madness and despair as it does hope. Last but not least, there is churu victim Jayne Woodhams, whose rare illness might hold the key to immunity, but Jayne is stranded out in the world, amid the zombies and death throes of a civilisation on its last legs.
And that is the bare bones of the plot, with little reference to all the details that flesh it out, the wealth of incidental invention, such as the case of the survivor on Drake’s world who is used to breed others in the hope they will prove immune, and the incidents of far seeing. On a smaller scale I’ve ignored the various tangled relationships, such as Vic being torn between Holly and his wife, and Jayne’s love for Tommy, who is brutally slain before her very eyes. All of these things add depth to what is superficially a fast paced, plot driven adventure story in horror mode with a touch of science fictional underpinning.
At bottom what we have here is a variation of Stargate, with a fanatical theocracy hellbent on genocide instead of the parasitical and domineering Goa’uld. . And, as with the film Pontypool, spreading the plague is paramount for the victims, rather than eating the living. What Lebbon gives us is a textbook example of the zombie apocalypse, one that is as familiar as it is horribly realistic, with images of social collapse and bloody death effectively playing counterpoint to scenes of sacrifice and nobility, so that we are by turn both touched and appalled. There are subtexts waiting to be picked up on – about the grandeur and potential spirituality of science, the perils of fanaticism, the morality of sacrificing one for the many etc. – and there’s plenty of incident, the obligatory fire fights with the living dead and plane crashes, but in the end it’s the human aspect that I think will stay with me, the people and their relationships. In Hollywood parlance, it’s not about the sfx budget so much as the characterisation and the storytelling.
Elsewhere I’ve seen Lebbon refer to Coldbrook as “one of the most action-packed and exciting novels I’ve written”, and I’m not going to dispute that estimation while qualifying it by declaring that mostly what we have here is familiar stuff, done up with a new coat of paint and set within the greater context of the multiverse. From a future perspective I doubt it will stand out in Lebbon’s oeuvre, but sometimes writers just want to have fun, and in this case that means a lot of fun for the reader too.
First published in 1971 and now reissued with a blurb by no lesser personage than James Ellroy, THE LATE GREAT CREATURE (Overlook Duckworth pb, 256pp, £8.99) by Brock Brower is the story of aging film star Simon Moro, a contemporary of Karloff and Lugosi, and the making of his last film, an adaptation of Poe’s ‘The Raven’.
The story is told in sections, each from the perspective of a different character. First in to bat is writer on the make Warren Williams, who has researched and written an article about Moro for a prestigious magazine, only to finds it’s yesterday’s news thanks to the actor’s bad behaviour in “publicising” the movie. Warren’s recollections include a meeting and interview with Moro, a liaison with co-star Hazel Rio, the discovery of a hypno-therapist who claimed that Moro once worked for him and learning something of the actor’s past, including claims that he produced a pro-Nazi film and suggestions of underage sex with Hazel. The second section is done from the viewpoint of Terry, the film’s director, who is in New York to do damage limitation by finding a way to curb his star’s aberrant behaviour, and the solution that he comes up with would put the antics of William Castle to shame. In the third section, as the macabre scam plays out, we learn the truth about Moro’s life and career from the actor himself, with nearly everything reduced to the level of smoke and mirrors, but at the same time underlining the message that lies can be the way to impart a greater truth. By way of a coda, there are a number of quotes from sundry publications that hint at how the plan turned out.
While horror is the soul of the plot, with numerous references to Poe and Corman and others, and a sense of the cinematic tradition within the genre, it’s not really a horror story so much as a story that marks the artifice of Hollywood and the celebrity machine, showing that only by adopting similar methods can a genuine note be struck, and compelling the reader to constantly re-evaluate in the light of new information. Humorous and effortlessly inventive, it peeks behind the curtain to show us perhaps rather more of the magic than we would like to see, but always with a firm hand in control of the material, so that puzzling truth from fabrication becomes as much fun as fabrication itself, with lives and careers invented just as much as the films that depend on them, and at the end what is believed counts for more than what actually happened. Moro’s real performance is his own life, rather than anything he committed to celluloid, and a similar modus operandi applies in the case of writer Warner and director Terry, each of whom shapes material to their own ends. Each in his way becomes a performer, the star of their own lives, acutely aware of audience expectation but with no clapperboard snapping shut and no director to shout ‘Cut!’ at the end of a scene. There are moments of horror here, certainly, insights into damaged psyches and aberrant behaviour, all of which will endear the book to genre aficionados, but over and above all that The Late Great Creature is about how we can become the victims of the archetypes we long for, audience and creators in a symbiotic relationship, with our gods put up on the silver screen and staring down at us in judgement, while really we only create and judge ourselves, and Brower delivers that message with an enviable wit and style.
GHOUL WARNING AND OTHER OMENS (PS Publishing hb, 64pp, £14.99) by Brian Lumley originally appeared from Spectre Press in 1982 and again from Necromicon Press in 1999, and is now reissued by PS as part of their Stanza Poetry line. As far as I can recollect, this is the first time I’ve reviewed a poetry collection, and it’s not something I feel especially confident about, so I’ll approach it from the perspective of an ordinary reader saying whether he likes something or not, and ignoring stuff like whether the lines scan or not. (Actually, that’s my perspective with all my reviews, but don’t tell anyone or my affiliate membership of the Pretentious Git Society might be rescinded.)
The first section of the book is labelled ‘Acrostics’ and consists of short poems in which the first letters of each line spell out the title. Most of these are inspired by Lovecraft’s mythos (e.g. ‘Tindalos’, ‘Kadath’) and while at times they seem rather stretched for effect, portentous and cumbersome, mostly the poems paint evocative word pictures with a sound command of language and effective, apart from the occasional misstep, use of alliteration to enhance the musicality of the verse. The second section, aptly titled ‘Stories’, to my mind worked much better, with each verse having a little tale to tell, the skeleton of what, in other circumstances, might be developed into one of Lumley’s works of fiction. And without the burden of having the first letter of the next line pre-determined, Lumley’s language is far more engaging and natural sounding, with all the virtues of the previous section and few of the vices, effortlessly drawing the reader into the world of the poem. Poe is as much an influence here as Lovecraft, with deft touches of the macabre and black comedy all part of the mix. For the third section we get ‘Odds and Ends’, with a mix of poems that are mainly word pictures, and some of them very funny, as with the sly ‘Ghoul Warning’ and the delightful ‘Good God! – Goodrod’. By way of a final trump there are three 50 word stories, which are precisely what they say on the tin.
In addition to the poetry, there are some striking illustrations by David Carson, plus some complementary text courtesy of Dave Sutton and Lumley himself, and there’s not much to complain about, with one tiny exception. In his Introduction Lumley explains why the typo “gails” for “gales”, but I picked up on several more errors in the PDF I was sent for review, which wasn’t marked as “Uncorrected” and so presumably they carried over into the printed book. That caveat aside, this is an entertaining collection, showcasing the author’s abilities, but also rather slight and one which will probably appeal most to collectors, fans of genre verse and Lumley completists.