A review of the Audible Original audio-drama “The X-Files: Cold Cases.”

“The X-Files:  Cold Cases” is an addition to the “Audible Original” range of audio dramas.
If you are new to the X-Files, welcome to a world where shape-shifting aliens bent on colonising the planet, various monsters and supernatural happenings are grist to the mill for our two dogged FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully.  The show aired ran for nine seasons from 1993 to 2002, spawned two follow up feature films, a recent new series in 2016, and various spin offs, novels and graphic novels.
This drama is based on a graphic novel of the same name by Joe Harris. Series creator Chris Carter provided creative direction, and it was adapted specifically for this audio format by Dirk Maggs, who has been behind the excellent ‘Alien’ audio dramas on Audible.
And what a fantatsic listen it is.  I loved the show for at least it’s first three seasons, before losing patience with the patchy quality of the stories and the increasingly convoluted story arc, where someone revealing things like, “actually, I’m really your father” became increasingly eye-rollingly familiar and ridiculous.  However, when the show was on form it was really on form, with scary, original monsters (remember Tooms?), an epic feel and knuckle chewing cliff-hangers.
This drama feels like those earlier,  show stopping episodes.  The mystery is back and it’s a successful re-boot, scary, thrilling and fun.  The original cast of Mitch Pileggi, David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson are back and clearly enjoying what they are doing, which is completely infectious.  Also get ready for the return of William B , Davies, literally resurrected as Spender, or Cigarette Smoking Man.  That familiar voice of quiet, genial menace together with the rustling packet of Morleys will bring a huge grin to any fan.  Get ready also for many familiar names, monster, bad guy and good guy.  I won’t spoil them all here, but warring alien factions, shape-shifters, and a certain black oil feature.  It’s like a roll call of the original shows’ greatest hits, and yet it is testament to the writing and production that this never feels contrived.  When each familiar face took the stage, I felt like cheering.
I loved this, and can’t wait for the follow up due next month.
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A review of Stephen Donaldson’s fantasy novella “The King’s Justice”

“The Kings Justice” is a fantasy novella of sorcerers,  elemental forces, and good versus evil.

It begins with the enigmatic, cloaked figure who calls himself “Black” arriving at a small town settlement called “Settler’s Crossways.”  He’s driven by a burning purpose that draws him on, a need to ensure that a terrible war between elemental forces is not repeated.  He can smell evil, and Settler’s Crossway’s reeks of it.  He gradually learns of the brutal murder of a small boy that has left the community stunned and reeling.  What has this to do with his wider mission?  Is someone or something attempting to conjure monstrous new elemental forces?  What is the nature of “The King’s Justice” that the townsfolk have called for and how can Black deliver it?

This book is a rock hard diamond of compact storytelling.  Not one word is superfluous, each syllable drives the story forward with a terrible urgency.  In  119 pages it’s a masterclass in concentrated world-building.  Donaldson’s Kingdom of elemental wars, Sorcerers, “Shapers” and “Shaped men” focused on a small community visited by a terrible evil has complete narrative integrity.  Black is a familiar genre figure, the driven, cloaked and armed loner as an agent of justice.  But the difference here is that he is a “shaped man,” covered with glyphs and sigils that can summon the elemental magic he strives to keep in balance in his world.

The tale’s examination of wider themes of good and evil does not stop at cliche.  They are powerful and transcendent.  The evil here is not just a fuming Dark Lord, but crimes of the most appalling violence that unfortunately we are all to familiar with in our own world.  Donaldson writes compellingly of the effect of these crimes on those most closely affected, such as a grieving father.  The powers of goodness are described are not twee or completely overshadowed by the evil as in some current popular fantasy series, but compelling and redemptive.  Donaldson starts by having a his hero describe a reductive worldview where the world and all its elemental forces are all there is,(substitute these forces for science and our world and you’ll get the idea), and then transcends it  as Black and those around him experience much more.

I listened to the audio-book version, narrated by the excellent Scott Brick.  His reading has a contained, driven passion that completely suits the tale.

A review of the graphic novel “Arkham Asylum: Living Hell”

This is one glorious fever dream of a graphic novel from DC, one of their hits from 2003.

It tells the story of Warren White, a super- rich fraudster and embezzler who makes the mistake of pleading insanity in Gotham at his trial in the hope of a cushy sentence.   It doesn’t, it gets him committed to Arkham.   Here he finds himself in an infernal carnival of the criminally insane. Nothing is what it seems.  And Hell itself will shortly come calling…

Writer Dan Slott gives us a multi layered narrative who different threads interweave in a truly narrative fashion.  It has moments of genuine, creep you out horror, pathos, and very dark humour.  It’s an example of how the DC Universe can be more fantastical and lurid than its Marvel counterpart.  DC really pushed the limits of the comic book frame in what we can imaginatively accept without the whole thing becoming too absurd for even the most ardent comic fan.  It’s one reason why DC struggles more to make their stuff work on the big screen.

It’s great to see old favourites here, the Joker, Riddler, Poison Ivy, and more, as well as the beginnings of a new creature, “The Shark,” and those we know less about e.g. Humpty, Jane Doe.

Batman and Batgirl are on the margins here, with most of the heroics being dished out by weary Prison Guard Mr Cash.  He’s an intriguing character; cynical, maimed and almost defeated, it’s when things are at their most dangerous and bleakest that he truly finds his strength.  And this is a blueprint for the heroics in all of us.

Ryan Sook and Lee Loughbridge are penciller and colourist respectively, with the inkers being Wade Von Grawbadger and Jim Royal. Together they create a dark and murky world of dark tones and lurid hues where black, green and of course red predominate.  Frames tell the story at a rapid rate and you are left feeling that there is always a horror you have missed, something nasty glimpsed by the corner of your eye.

Mike Heisler’s lettering has some interesting variations including gothic script for he more infernal creations, and a storybook type for Humpty’s tale.

If you like DC tales that focus on the Super Villains, then you’ll love this.

 

An appreciation of horror pulp fiction of the 70’s and 80’s

As an inky fingered school boy, of 13 and 14 I remember certain lurid paperbacks being passed from sweaty palm to sweaty palm, avoiding the sweeping laser of the teacher’s glare.  Chief amongst these was James Herbert’s “The Rats,” and someone would know where you could find the choicest passages of sex and horror.  This was a window to the more shadowy areas of the adult world.

The first thing to grab you was the cover.    A bright, bloody image of a rat, huge gothic lettering, and punching back cover blurb basically saying “enter if you dare.”  The publisher of this and many other such works was New English Library.

The Rats.jpg

The next stage in my exploration was seeking out “the Rats” and “Lair” (sequel) and then the wider works of James Herbert in the public library.  Huddersfield library in this instance.   I remember reading of illicit lovers and tormented souls eaten alive, and the “boss fight” at the end, a battle with  huge mutant, two-headed I think, in “the Lair.”  I remember getting a disapproving comment off a well meaning old dear who saw me engrossed in such a tome.

herbertlair

So in my journey of puberty I hit on the timeless and intertwined themes of sex and death.  I reached out further into the genre and discovered the oeuvre of Guy N Smith.  His blog shows a decent, kind looking family man still writing and with his own cult following.  His books are wonderful cult fare.  They are short snappy hits that make the Rats look like War and Peace.  And one of his most beloved work of rampaging creature horror is not based around rodents but around crustaceans.

crabs

Welcome to “Night of the Crabs” and its series of sequels and prequels.  These monsters prove to be the terror of the Welsh coast.  And they are big.  Really big.  Capable of turning over a tank.  And in one memorable scene they do.  Their nemesis I remember was Professor Cliff Davenport, a pipe smoker and divorcee and expert in marine life.  In both the Rats and the Crabs series the formula for this rampaging creature strand of 70’s and 80’s pulp horror was set.  It is as follows:

An introductory scene describing the death of a character or characters.  Given the unfortunate person/s will only feature for one chapter, if that, some effort is made at a potted biography  and chain of circumstances that has led them to this particular moment of crisis.  In the Rats it was an outed closet homosexual, drunk and ashamed.  In Night of the Crabs it was the niece of Cliff Davenport and her boyfriend having a moonlight swim.  The chapter ends with these walk on characters being eaten, much to their shock and dismay.

This horror is followed by an introduction to the heroic protagonist.  Some biographical material may be given, and somehow they will be launched on their struggle with whatever mad horde of deranged creature is at hand.

Another minor character is then described, some biographical and situational information given, and they will meet the foe and be eaten.  Sometimes they will have sex and then be eaten. Sometimes simultaneously.

There’s a lot of sex.

There’s a lot of swearing.

There’s gore a plenty.

There are (initially) disbelieving and ineffectual authorities.

The heroic protagonist will go mano a mano with the monster boss.  The monster boss will have revolting mutant qualities.  In the Rats it was fur-less and giant and blind and in a sequel two-headed.

The hero may live but don’t count on it.  The books tended to eschew the movie trick of a shock teaser laying the way open for a sequel.  But nevertheless sequels or prequels may appear.

So that’s the template.  There were some wild and wonderful examples of the hordes of critters genre; I remember Richard Lewis dwelt on the unpleasantness of “Devil’s Coach Horse” going rampant.  Spoiler alert: this is memorable for the shocking death of the hero when the creatures get inside a tear in his protective suit.  Shaun Huston went for sliminess over speed when he penned “Slugs.”  Don’t think I finished this one, although the death by slug  of someone’s pet rabbit sticks in my mind.

dch.jpgslugs

The recent (2016) “The Hatching” could revive the genre but it really is light weight when compared to the literary nasties of the 70’s and 80’s, and it’s counterpart then would be Richard Lewis’s “Spiders.”  The Hatching has product placements by Diet Coke and everything is diet or lite including gore and terror, and there’s are no scenes of sweaty love making.

Of course it wasn’t all nature on the rampage (although I remember one book called “Folly”  where even rabbits got a go).  There were other things for 70’s and 80’s horror to do and explore.  There was pestilence, madness, aliens, demonic entity.  Witness James Herbert’s “The Fog” where what seems bad weather actually turn people bat-shit crazy if they go into this particular poor visibility condition.  If you have read James Herbert’s the Fog you will know what happens to the PE teacher at the hands of his class and wince.  Guy N Smith also envisaged “Thirst” about the pestilential effects of a chemical spill in an estuary.  And lets look to James Herbert again for a rampaging demonic entity in “the Dark.”

fogdark

So to recap that formula; shock opening death; hello hero; sex and death; hero says “hmm this looks suspicious”; sex and death; hero meets love interest; sex and death; authorities say “move along, nothing to see here, nobody panic;” hero says “you fools!  Can’t you see what’s going on?”  The hero and love interest have sex;  death; sex and death; mass casualties make authorities sit up and take notice; the hero has the boss fight.  In most cases the hero lives.  The end.

Back to my smutty early teen self.  Mum and Dad found me reading some examples of the above.  Mum and Dad banned such works from the house.  They thought such books might turn me into a serial killer (which they haven’t, honest).  But banning made them even more enticing and of course soon I was hoarding them in a lockable LP case in our “Summer House” (a shed with windows) where I stored all contraband such as cigarettes.  I remember that box full of lurid horror covers culled from book stores.  You could get quite a haul in second hand stores.

case

Then I grew up to the point where as a 16 year old, I could read James Herbert’s “Domain” in front of my parents.  Nuclear war and killer rats anyone?  The opening scenes of  nuclear attack in London stay with me to this day.

And I haven’t even mentioned Stephen King who in those days was just getting started, with “The Shining” and “Carrie” leading the way.  I remember my copy of the Shining with its bright yellow cover based on the Kubrick film.  It had stills from the film in the centre (film tie- ins tended to in those days).

shining

Today the horror novel is still very much in play but the lurid pulpy punchy days of the 70’s and 80’s are gone.  Now it’s emo vampires and lots and lots and lots of books about the dead rising.  Zombies, it would seem, are the new Rats.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A review of Adam Bakers’ “Killchain.”

Horror writer David Moody runs “Infected Books,” a publishing company devoted to horror fiction.  Infected Books are roughly half way through a year long monthly series of novellas of zombie fiction by different horror writers.  “Killchain” is Adam Baker’s contribution.

Adam Baker has written a four book series of novels that tell the story of an infection that literally falls in to Earth from the stars, and spawns a change in people transmitted through scratch or bite.  They become a host to a  mutagen that shoots tendrils, spikes and tumorous growths, all metallic in nature and appearance, through the human body, whilst the personality is destroyed and the creature becomes part of a hive mind and a ravaging, snarling inhuman killer.  Book one, “Outpost,” is set on an oil rig in the Arctic as the infection hits civilisation, it is followed by “Juggernaut,” a prequel of sorts set in Iraq as a group of CIA hired mercenaries are tasked unwittingly to investigate one of the ground zero’s of the infection, Book three, “Terminus,” is set in an irradiated New York as a military hired rescue team go deep into the subway system to find  a Doctor who just mind have found a cure to the infection, and “Impact” sees the crew of a  downed military flight try to survive both the desert and the infected. For more on the books see the author’s website “Dark Outpost.”

There is little sign of hope that humanity will beat the infection in Baker’s stories.  They are incredibly bleak in tone, in that you feel it is a given that the cockroaches are humanity’s successor.  His lead character’s are usually female and they offer a tough goodness that offers some redemption as a testament to humanity, but it is a testament that is doomed not to be heard or remembered.

His prose style follows James Ellroy’s clipped staccato style.  The invention, gore and nature of the monsters are all a cut above and reference the Thing, the ‘fast’ undead of World War Z/ 28 Days Later, and David Cronenberg style body horror.

In his contribution to “Year of the Zombie,” Adam Baker sets his story in another of his infection’s Ground Zeros, where the infection has fallen to earth from downed satellites and space stations, this time in Mogadishu.  We begin in the home of a local resident, Daniel,   who learns that quarantined infected has broken out of a stadium where they were being held, and the city is close being overrun.  But before he can flee he is faced with the sudden intrusion of the CIA into his home in the form of agent Eliza, part of a kill-team tasked with eliminating a Russian Official, and  her “Mechanic,” a mercenary named Ben.  They are later joined by Sanjeev, an “asset” brainwashed into martyrdom through carrying out a human bomb mission against said Russian official.

The story of the infection in the city is the background to the story of Sanjeev’s mission, told in a tense POV from his hidden earpiece camera, watched carefully and guided by radio by Eliza.  Then there are the bluffs and betrayals the trio in the room play on each other.  As the situation in the city deteriorates, so does the situation between them in the room.

It’s a strong, black espresso of a horror story, gripping and bleak.  A recommended read, but I would say for genre fans only.

 

 

A review of Adrian Barnes’ “Nod”

‘Nod’ is one of those rare books that, on closing, you think, and may even say “Wow.” You may even feel a little tearful and moved, and want to immediately spread the word about what the novel has made you feel, or what you’ve learnt.  This is what this novel did for me.

Nod is an apocalyptic thriller featuring a disease that ravages the human mind and turns the sufferer into a zombified maniac.  At this point you would be right in pointing to a book mountain of similar works.  But what sets Nod apart is what makes it so brilliant.

First, it’s the originality of the premise.  It’s lack of sleep, and a consequent slow disintegration of the mind, that’s the plague in question here.  Set in Vancouver, it’s protagonist, a writer named Paul, is working on his latest treatise on the vagaries of words and the history of words that is also named ‘Nod.’  He’s living with his partner, Tanya, the breadwinner in the householder, and enjoying a comfortable existence, when he has a dream of a golden light.  It’s a dream he shares with everyone else.  At least those who slept.  And most people, it would seem, didn’t sleep, in a new plague of insomnia that is not slow to change the world into a crazed reflection of its former state, the benchmarks being, 6 days of mental and physical deterioration leading to psychosis, and 4 weeks, death.  All of this shot through with mother-lodes of rage and panic.

In this strange new world, those who can sleep, of which Paul is one, are termed “Sleepers,” those who can’t, the “Awakened.”  And those who society formerly pushed to its margins, the homeless wanderers, the already mentally ill, the dispossessed, now rise to an awful ascendancy.  Typical of this class is Charles, a “quick he’s coming, don’t catch his eye” type who would, if he cornered you, bury you in an avalanche of conspiracy theories.  The new world of ‘Nod’ allows him to rise in leadership status.  You see, Charles has found a draft manuscript of Paul’s ‘Nod’ and he is using this, Scripture style, to form a new Church of the Awakened where words take on savage new meanings, freighted with unholy power.  And he’s chosen Paul to be his first Prophet.

Paul meanwhile must watch the world and Tanya disintegrate before his eyes.  Ever had no sleep or very little, and felt your mood take on a heightened new pitch of depression, anger and anxiety?  Or a weird euphoria?  Well this is what happens to most of the world’s population now, with exponential acceleration, as they act increasingly like the rage filled undead your more typical zombie fare.  Strangely the Sleepers are disproportionately represented by children, who become silent and watchful and band together in new communities in urban parks.  They become demonised and hunted by the Awakened, or subjects of lab-rat experiments in an equally chilling group called ‘Cat-sleepers,’ those who pretend to sleep (through make up to cover dark circles, and a pretence of normality) to trap unwary sleepers to try and medically dissect from them what makes them sleep.

Throw into the mix a rogue nuclear warship piloted by a horrifically burnt morphine addicted Captain, and Hell has indeed come to town.

Paul is a compelling narrator of events, and his love of words and appreciation of their power to shape meaning and worlds, and their most eccentric forms, historical and present, is the prism through which he views events.  His book within he book ‘Nod’ is not dissimilar to “Brewers Dictionary of Phrase and Fable” and each chapter begins with something like an entry from that work.

It’s this strange marriage of the cruciverbalist (lover of crosswords) and the apocalypse survivor that makes this such a smart and original read.  I’m a fan of cryptic crosswords and other word games myself, and often reading Nod I was reminded of the hours I’ve spent in this world.

The book finishes with an essay by the writer on his brain tumour, of which he was diagnosed slowly after sending Nod out for publication.  It’s a powerful essay on the ending of worlds and the attendant re-calibration of values and meaning.  It is powerful and I urge you to look it up here, and read ‘Nod.’  Don’t worry if you are not a genre fan of apocalyptic thriller, this novel truly transcends genre.

 

 

 

 

A review of Peter Newman’s “The Vagrant.”

In a desolate, demon blasted landscape, a lone Seraph night, and his winged, eyed sword, treads the road.  Behind him trails a goat, and hidden under the flaps of his coat nestles a small baby girl.  He finds corrupt and corrupted humans, out and out monsters and demon Lords on his travels.  He eschews companions but where the need greatly outweighs the harm, and where it will aid his quest, he does take on various companions.  A petty criminal named Harm, a raging demon yearning for its lost innocence and humanity called The Hammer, and other more transient helpers, some more ambivalent than others, join the quest.  Their quest is to return the winged and eyed sword to the Seven, the original Seraph rulers.  But what this will mean is uncertain…

Peter Newman has accomplished an incredible feat of world building.  My initial feeling on starting this work was disorientation.  Was this Earth of the far future or a different reality / dimension?  The archetypes are ours (people, Hell, Knights, Demons, Animals etc.), and yet the strangeness, the otherness, is bewildering.  Twin suns in the sky.  A demonic invasion through a huge breach (crack) in the ground that has remained dormant for centuries.  A demonic essence that infects and mutates like radiation.  An ancient order of Seraph Knights that has ruled before the Infernal invasion.  A technology including sky-ships, Centipede tanks, laser lances, all framed in medieval and feudal archetypes.  It is head-spinning stuff.  Then there’s the adventure, the quest, which is more straightforward; lone hero, a man with no name, must deliver a powerful talisman to the high powers to rid the world of a massive evil.  But that itself is spun by the wonderful tricks in the narrative.  The titular, eponymous Vagrant does not speak.  Instead his thoughts are reflected by his expressions, actions and interactions, including with the baby he protects, and with his companions.  And his goat!  How the Vagrant got to this position is told in intervals in a thrilling back-story that begins with the demonic invasion.

Characterisation of subsidiary characters is also very well done.  The baby (Vesper) and the Goat are powerful characters in their own right.  In the audio-book, wonderfully voiced by Jot Davies, Vesper’s infant gurgles and expressions are convincingly done.  Also, the main companion, Harm, is a wonderful piece of character development,  from jittery low-life to a redeemed man both grateful and anxious about the shelf life of his redemption.  Again, Jot Davies’s audio-book narration imbues him with humanity.  Other characters such as snarling demons and Knight Commanders are given a wonderful range of expression.  The monsters are truly alien and frightening.  Shape shifters that feed off souls and clothe themselves in corpses, or inhabit and posses and mutate live bodies, they are a cross between Anime/Manga monsters and HP Lovecraft.  The chief baddies have wonderful names like “The Uncivil.”

The Vagrant himself is a true Knight in that, where he can, he will right wrongs and save lives.  He won’t where it will mean the failure of his mission and where he does have to leave people to die, it is shocking and he is racked with anguish.  He also redeems others and wins followers of the most broken in humanity in a very Christ like way.  Harm vocalises this more than anyone, speaking about how he has been changed and his life give new meaning.  This goodness is set against an  evil that can only consume, corrupt and destroy, not build anything new.  The book portrays good versus evil with a refreshing (take note Game of Thrones) lack of cynicism.

If there are weaknesses, it’s that sometimes the multiple strangeness’s combine to make the action confusing.  Events seem to be heading for an epic conflagration that never quite happens.  Yet.  There is so much here the book could have been much longer.  There seems so much to explore.  I hope there is more from this strange, compelling and yet familiar world.  Very recommended.