A review of Darren Shan’s “ZOM-B Clans”

ZOM-B Clans, the eighth in this epic saga of what will be twelve books, does two things very well:  it develops the origins backstory of the zombie epidemic including some details on the malevolent Mr Dowling and sinister  ‘Owl-man,’ whilst raising the stakes and accelerating the pace as the series progresses towards its denouement.

The book begins with the closing moves of the battle at New Kirkham, a survivor settlement in the country.  Shan is good at the theme of difficult moral choices, and B here must decide how to fight for Owl man’s remaining prisoners, and how to deal with the prisoner he and her friends take, the loathsome Dan-Dan.  His repellent human villain makes a satisfying return and one of the joys of this series is wondering who, from previous instalments, will pop up next, and how.  There is also a tense scene where the New Kirkham survivors debate on the fate of those who have remained ‘neutral’ in Kirkham’s fight with human and non-human monsters.  Again, the best moral choice is not the easiest, and as with our most serious choices we have to sweat blood to get there.

Back at County Hall Dr Oystein has more revelations on this war with Mr Dowling and the undead, and some exposition on its origins.  Events move to the prisoner exchange at Battersea power station, where a brutal act of treachery and another massive shock for B propels us on to pick up the next book.

As usual the writing is clear and the narrative is fast paced, whilst managing successfully to tackle some weighty moral themes.

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Going back to our roots: A review of Terrence Mallick’s “Tree of Life.”

I took a chance on this film after hearing various bewildered critical responses from cinema goers and critics. At issue seemed to be the sprawling cosmic imagery, intercutting scenes of family drama, with sequences involving dinosaurs being singled out for especial derision.
Still, intrigued, I rented this, and I am incredibly glad that I did.
The film is long and sprawling, and you are put in the mind frame for the human wrestling the transcendent straightaway, with a quote from the Book of Job, the voice of God, no less;
“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the world…”
The film unfolds at a searching, meditative pace, but we go straight to intense human drama, with the O’Brien family receiving news of the death of a son. The action then rewinds, through the mind’s eye of Sean Penn’s middle aged architect reflecting on his boyhood with this family, and the character of the mother (Jessica Chastain) reflecting on the twin paths of ‘Grace’ and ‘Nature.’
The interplay between the sons and the parents in the America of their day (50’s Texas) is the human drama of the film. The mother is all gentleness and grace, but with steel too. The father (an impressive Brad Pitt), authoritarian and wounded, is scarred into an oppressive attitude to his boys by what he sees as the merciless, Darwinian struggle of life.
The Sean Penn character, as a boy, grows and rebels, increasingly testing his father. There are also landmark events that further underscore the frightening side of life. The drowning of a boyhood friend is a particularly chilling and effective example of this, with the grotesque suddenness and splintering horror of it breaking in when least expected to a carefree community event.
All this is juxtaposed by the wider cosmic ‘birth pangs’ of the universe and the world, with fantastic images of galaxies and worlds, our world, being born. We see the growing pains of creation, cosmic collisions and explosions, experimental life, dinosaurs.
So, the human struggle is given context, but not trivialised. In fact, it is given its meaning.
The Christian imagery, spoken and implied in the film will give meaning to some. Others will find the meaning in the cycles and struggles of nature. Some both. But for me, no film has so successfully linked the human struggle with the transcendent since perhaps 2001 a Space Odyssey. This earlier film, with its explosion of cosmic imagery and the sense of an incredible ‘other’ gave me a lasting sense of wonder similar to this. It’s fitting that both films are linked through the effects work of Doug Trumbull. If anything, this film has a greater human heart set in the realities of human life, without the distractions of homicidal supercomputers.
And the climactic vision, seen through the eyes of Sean Penn’s character, is a powerful emotional and spiritual drama of reconciliation and redemption.
This is an enthralling, wonderful film. Go see.

Monsters living and undead: A review of Darren Shan’s “ZOM-B Mission”

ZOM-B Mission is the seventh instalment in this series about the teenage B Smith, a “Revitalised,” an undead-human hybrid that mixes human intelligence with heightened abilities that being a zombie can bring, such as super strength, speed, agility and extended life (these aren’t Romero’s geriatric shufflers!), battling with her fellow revitalised “Angels” to restore order and goodness after an apocalypse of the undead.  The “Angels” are under the tutelage of a Dr Oystein, himself a Revitalised scientist from World War Two, and their overall mission is to confront the mysterious evil that seems to be orchestrating the zombie plague, whose figureheads are a gory and grotesque clown figure called Mr Dowling, and a pot- bellied silver-haired tall man in pin-stripes and overlarge eyes called “Owl Man.”

B must also battle her own inner demons; a racist and abusive father has left her a terrible legacy, and following her father she has committed an atrocity for which she now seeks redemption.

‘Mission’ has a pretty big shock early on, and I won’t spoil it, but it is very well done, and involves the demise of one of the series good guys.  The story then moves to a mission B and her fellow Angels undertake, to escort a band of human survivors to a human compound in the country, New Kirkham.  The compound, although well run, has some deep shadows of unease.  B is shocked to find her old demon Racism alive and well and finding a terrible new strength, and aligning with some old foes…

Shan is pretty adept and underwriting his fast paced and gory zombie stories, primarily for young adult readers but enjoyed by a much wider and older readership (including me), with some serious themes on human corruption and evil.  It was ever thus with this particular genre (as with Romero’s satirical swipes), but Shan is good and illustrating the insidiousness and creeping nature of such ills as racism, and how passivity is just as destructive as complicity.  Here that point is very well made, and we see humanity at its worst, passive in the face of evil or actively engaged in it, and heroically defiant.

I also enjoy the referencing to other zombie fare in these books.  So we have a reverent nod to one of the most chilling scenes in Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later,” transmission of infection by a drop of zombie blood that falls from a bird, and the shadowy nature of human compounds of survivors that feature repeatedly in “The Walking Dead” franchise.  But this is different from being derivative.  Shan’s series, his mysterious demonic foes and zombie-human hybrids are very much his own.

A cracking read, then, and it’s good to see the series both develop its themes with this instalment, and take it in intense new directions.

A review of Stant Litore’s short story “Ansible 15717.”

Stant Litore’s third short story in the ‘Ansible’ series is splendid.   It’s both a synthesis of the previous two stories, and a development of their themes.

The backdrop of these stories is a future where interstellar space travel is now possible through a telepathic process, whereby the mind of a traveller is cast to its far flung destination where it must find a native host body, which it then inhabits to resume its mission.  The organisation responsible for these missions is called “Star-mind.”

In the first story, the travellers encounter a terrible, eldritch threat; creatures that possess the mind, plunging it into an eternity of nightmares, and then feed off the fear of the nightmares, and eventually the mind itself.

The second story diverts to a planet that is an immense desert of salt, and we discover what happens when the mind travellers occupy alien creatures very physiologically different from their human form.   It’s a study of loneliness and spiritual yearning in the face of alienation and a terrifying immensity.

This instalment introduces us to another exotic, weird and wonderful planet and creatures, this time based on a rain-forest habitat.  The bodies the travellers inhabit this time are physiologically wonderful plant creatures.  But they are not the only travellers.  Cue the return of the terrifying mind parasites of the first story.

The best science fiction, fantasy and genre stories have always been infused with two magic and essential ingredients, imagination and wonder.  Litore’s Ansible stories have them in spades.  He combines the wonder and awe of a vast cosmos with fascinating detail on the future of our world, and alien worlds, cultures and species.  The monsters are also a vivid creation, utterly repellent and shudder inducing;  a feeling of the spiders creep across the flesh, the cold slime of slugs and jellyfish, with the piercing horror of being able to invade and eat your mind.

There is a passage in the story that  speaks to one of the series main themes, about the sometimes accidently rapacious and invasive characteristics of transplants.  The transplant may be cellular or biological, or cultural and sociological.  The intention may be to heal and discover, but the end result may be the consumption and destruction of the host, taking only what is needed in the process of transformation.

Litore writes uncanny and wonderful stories.  His writing has the music of poetry, and the pace and thrills of a white knuckle horror story.  Highly recommended.

The itch that can’t be scratched: a review of C.S.Lewis’s “The Pilgrim’s Regress.”

“The Pilgrim’s Regress” is an earlier work by Lewis which seeks to express an everyman’s journey of faith through an allegorical fantasy adventure, as with it’s obvious main reference point, Bunyan’s “The Pilgrim’s Progress.”

It is not as well liked or read as much of Lewis’s other work.  This is probably due, in large part, to a problem Lewis himself identifies in a foreword written ten years later.  Lewis admits he was too presumptuous in thinking that themes in his own spiritual journey and conversion would be readily understood by a contemporary readership (that was then, how so more now); in particular, his view of “romanticism,” and its different levels of meaning.  Lewis takes trouble in his foreword to draw out what he understands to be these meanings.  But the main one he uses in the story is, he admits, personal and obscure.  It relates to a kind of yearning for some golden ideal that warms the soul and is in fact a desire for God.  However, Lewis understands it to be often misunderstood by human beings as a desire to return to some comfort zone or nostalgia for the past, for natural beauty, or for the yearning that beautiful music or poetry may engender.   Lewis then warns that this yearning can never be fully satisfied in the human lifespan, as it is meant to lead to God.  Hence it gets twisted into idolatry for sex, the natural world, or some other such channel.  Lewis later gives us a German word for this, “Sehnsucht.”  It is also referred to in “Surprised by Joy” and other of his works.  It is the archetypal itch that can never be scratched in our lifetime.

The story tells the story of John, a boy who dreams of a beautiful island that he has glimpsed through some woods near his house.   This island represents the yearning and “Sehnsucht” in his soul.  In the meantime, he is surrounded by realities such as death, and the possibility of a “Landlord” (God), whose “Stewards” (Priests) direct the “tenants” of the land through a religion full of symbols and rules.  It is the dissatisfaction with this religion in the face of his yearning for the island that sets John off on a voyage of exploration through the land.

On his way he picks up a companion, Vertue, an intense and pained young man determined to lead a good life through his own works and efforts.  Together, on their way, they discover allegorical ciphers for the various philosophical, scientific, sociological and religious trends that have held sway and held sway in Lewis’s time.  This includes representatives of romantic paganism, rational humanism, Freudianism, liberal theology, and so on.   Some of these are more obvious than others, such as the Freudian giant that reduces all his captives to a grim literalism so they can “see through” each other so that each appears a collection of walking blood and guts.  Others are less obvious and allude to trends of thinking more prevalent in Lewis’s day, such as that represented by “The Pale Men.”  However, if we have eyes to see and ears to hear we can still see parallels with our own age, with those theologians and Church leaders who deny God and put in its place some “pale” construct (I think of the “Sea of Faith” movement).

The land where John and Vertue journey is split into a North and South; The North is all barren and rocky highlands (the land of rational humanist thought) and the South, all hot, humid and baggy lowlands (liberal theology and “anything goes” morality and lifestyle).  And in the end John and Vertue must defeat dragons in the North and South before completing their journey.

This is a complex and dense read at times, and it lacks the simplicity and straightforward allegory and narrative that have made Bunyan’s work so enduring.  Lewis himself admits in his foreword that it has “needless obscurity, and an uncharitable temper.”  However, it is still an intelligent, nourishing read, and as is often case with reading Lewis, I felt I was breathing mountain air after having spent a long time in the City.  Not a starting point for those new to Lewis, but definitely one to come back to once you are well acquainted with some of his more accessible and well known works.

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