A review of Darren Shan’s “Zom-B Fugitive.”

Teenager Becky Smith, an undead activist fighting for the overthrow of the undead army that infected her and took over the planet, is back.  This time she’s horribly alone, on the run from friend and foe alike.  Have to be extremely careful of spoilers, as we are now in the end-game of this 12 book serial, in the penultimate episode.  B is horribly mutilated, even for an active zombie.  Tortured and twice badly disfigured, she must run from her ex-‘husband,’ the crazed clown Mr Dowling, keeping in existence (staying alive doesn’t seem appropriate) whilst uncovering the vast conspiracy that has wiped out most of the human race.  For someone now used to shocking betrayals, there are even worse on the way.
The writing is brisk and the action fast paced.  Teenagers will warm to B’s struggle with identity, whilst taking reassurance that appearance and body image are inferior to character, and what’s in the heart.  In our media’s ever worsening obsession with imposed desirable body images and ‘norms’ of physicality, Shan’s stories can act as a welcome antidote.  As such they join a rich horror tradition where the monsters are smarter and more noble than their human counterparts.  A cracking story in its own right, a brutal shock and cliff-hanger set the scene nicely for the final episode.
Search my blog for ‘Darren Shan’ to read reviews of the rest of the series.

 

A review of Rich Hawkins “The Last Plague”

A group of friends find more to trouble them than a hang-over when they wake from a Stag Party in a remote country cottage in Sussex.   The world has gone mad, infected by a disease that turns people into ravening, mutating, flesh eating monsters.  Who or what is the cause of the outbreak?  Will they survive and find their families and loved ones alive and un-turned?  Is there any hope for humanity?  How far has the plague spread?

What sets this very bleak but effective apocalyptic thriller apart from the groaning weight of it’s undead filled cousins are the monsters themselves, and their mysterious origin.  The origin is very sketchily explained and this is both strength and weakness.  I’ll come to that later.  But the monsters, what you become if you are unlikely enough to contract this plague, are basically every combination possible of the mutations in John Carpenter’s “The Thing” and then some.  The body horror also nods to David Cronenberg, but the main respectful nods must be to “The Thing.” Fanged mouths and eyes generate in very odd places indeed, as do slimy tentacles and spider legs and all kinds of weird animal shapes that really do reference that film.  As do the grotesque ways the monsters consume their prey, from just chowing down to absorption.

The horror is merciless and the tone relentlessly bleak, even for a genre not known for casual optimism.  The characters are well drawn and the writer knows how to develop them, their reactions are heartbreaking and believable.  The survivors find a small child, a girl, which ups the ante, as they fight to keep her alive.  The pace of the narrative is fast.  Short chapters will speed by in a blur.  That this is managed whilst maintaining the generations of suspense, mystery, and character development is testament to good writing.

What was more problematic for me was that a bit of ‘slow burn’ in a plague or zombie outbreak’s origins is something I usually enjoy, the gradual exponential dread,  the story of a patient zero and the ripples outwards.  We don’t have that here, there’s something like a spontaneous mass infection.  And what spares our protagonists, and the uninfected they meet?  Why some and not others?  Yes it’s spread by bites and scratches as usual, but the initial mass outbreak was caused by huge, mountainous organic alien ships in the sky (full marks for originality and creepiness).  But how exactly did they kick things off?  I’m hoping these things are unpacked in the next  few books in the trilogy.

It’s bleakness and gore is “Walking Dead” strength (the graphic novels) so be warned.  You may need to lie down and / or watch a Pixar movie on finishing this.  Definitely a strong brew, but a good one.

A review of Iain Rob Wright’s “The Gates: An Apocalyptic Horror Novel (Hell on Earth Book 1)”

All over the world mysterious black stones appear.  They begin to pulsate, shimmer and then project a shimmering arch, through which surge hordes of demons, intent on world conquest.

The story is told through multiple viewpoints:  Mina Magar, photojournalists in London, Rick Bastion, a faded alcoholic one hit wonder rock star in the UK South West, Tony Cross, a Staff Sergeant on the Iraq/Syria border, and Guy Granger, a US Coastguard off the coast of a besieged New York.  All of them are close to a stone when it becomes a Gate, and all of them are in the front-line in this new war against Hell.

The monsters break down into 4 main groups; giant fallen angels, complete with loincloths and frazzled wings; badly burnt humanoids, ape like creatures with razor sharp talons, and possessed humans.  The humanoids are talkative but their conversation is generally unpleasant, forever calling people “maggot” and “worm,” and threatening to variously disembowel people or defecate in their skull.  All have a beef with humanity and generally want it gone so they can take over the world and desecrate God’s creation and make Him appear so they can make Him vulnerable and attack Him.  Or something.

This book is stark, staring bonkers.  Even by the standards of apocalyptic horror, it’s out there.  It makes like your average zombie novel read like common sense.  It has an effective build up and when the demons first appear I was intrigued.  The multiple plot-lines / viewpoints were an interesting juxtaposition and you waited for some kind of narrative cohesion that would help you to buy into this world.  That does not appear.  There are a lot of set pieces, some effective shocks and Game of Thrones-esque offing of a major characters (although one is rescued by a pretty gob-smacking Deus ex machina) but there’s a lot of laboured exposition and info-dumping, as demons taunt their prey and explain the plot in a way the villains used to do on bad tv.

The theology is cartoonish in its depiction and understanding of Hell and it’s hierarchies.

And yet, I did enjoy the book, and it rattled along at a good old rate.  There is enough skill in evidence to keep you flipping teh pages and immersed in this utterly daft pulp horror.

The audio version is read by Nigel Patterson who does a good job of characterisation, clarity and pacing

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 Ezekiel Boone’s “The Hatching”

The Hatching is about two things; killer spiders, and Diet Coke.

So the spiders.  They are a vicious flesh eating horde that hunt in packs, swing through the air on silken threads, and incubate and hatch in live hosts (e.g. people).  They invade the world pretty much, and the invasion is told through differing perspectives; a troop of US Marines, an FBI agent struggling to protect his family, the US President and her staff, a family on a Scottish island, a group of survivalists in the US town of Desperation, and more.

Diet Coke meanwhile is a multi million dollar brand that has already taken over the world.  But you already knew that.  How do these themes come together?  Through product placement so obvious it’s offensive.  Diet Coke is mentioned roughly 10 times, usually with a complimentary description of its effects and taste and powers to revive.  If it was a film, the characters would be raising the tins to the camera and smiling.

If it was a film.  That’s another brazenly cynical thing about the book.  It is a project engineered to make moohlah through a concept sure to sell books and pack movie theatres.  It reads like it.  It’s a brisk, pacy read (352 pages, around 8 hours for the audio book), full of rapid cuts between scenes (especially  the final chapter) and spectacular set pieces (such as a freighter ship full of spiders running aground in LA).  The gore is pretty dialled down given the subject the matter, so it won’t scare away the studio bosses.  You could probably get away with rating it a 12, 15 at a push.

Characters and situations are left undeveloped and hanging for the next sequel instalment.

The audio book is a crisply read by George Newbern, who sounds like he is enjoying himself, and who probably consumed a crate of Diet Coke on the job.  He certainly sounds preppy.

Diet Coke is appropriate, this is horror lite, quickly consumed to give you a brief, forgettable buzz.

 

A review of Scott Smith’s “The Vine.”

‘The Ruins’ is a horror novel that proves that young, entitled twenty somethings remain the dish de jour as far as slaughter fodder in this genre.  There is a certain nihilistic pull in seeing such entitlement count for nothing in the face of some larger malignancy that eschews morality and the rules of civilisation.

This sees a group of back-packers holidaying in Mexico becoming embroiled in the hunt for the brother of a young German they meet, Matthias, last seen heading to an archaeological expedition in Mayan ruins in the jungle.

They consist of Jeff, practical problem solver and de facto leader of the group, Amy his partner, a practical young woman destined to be a high achiever, Eric the joker of the pack, a bit of a slacker and about to begin a career in teaching, and his girlfriend Stacey, promiscuous and as close to an air-head as the group have.  Later in the novel as the group discuss their predicament and joke about it being made into a film Stacey is described as the “slut” of the group destined to be killed first.  Bear with me and I’ll re-visit this point later.

So their predicament?  Well on reaching the ruins, after, of course, ignoring different warning signs from deliberately concealed paths, warnings from locals and an increasing sense of foreboding, they arrived at the titular Ruins.  Titular indeed, as we are told that it is shaped like a breast.  It’s covered in a profusion of coiling vines and star shaped red flowers.  They are suddenly confronted by armed, horse riding Mayans and a desperate local warning them away.  But Amy wants to take a photo of the scene, as you would, and in stepping back to get the whole scene in picture, steps into a mound of vines.  The Mayans become less Lassez faire in their outlook and immediately threaten the group to ascend the mountain, where they then maintain an armed guard around the perimeter, effectively quarantining the group.

The Vine turns out to be a cannibalistic, evolved intelligent  form of life that is capable of setting bait and traps, mimicking sounds including speech, and capable of lateral thinking and pro-active action.  You may not be startled to learn that the group have their numbers slowly reduced by said vine.

Firstly, what works?  Well it’s certainly an efficient page turner, and their is an amount of grisly inventiveness and some very nasty and prolonged suffering described shudderingly well in the pages.  There is a rank, fetid, oppressive atmosphere successively conjured by the writer.  You will want to take a shower yourself as you read of these poor trapped people, suffering from festering wounds and lack of bathing and sanitary facilities in stultifying heat.  The deprivations of hunger, thirst and terror are effectively portrayed, and there is a lot of description of the mental coping mechanisms the characters employ, reminiscing of better times, constructing hopeful scenarios, and so on.

But there are problems.  Firstly the premise.  The malignant plant is shown to have a number of abilities including problem solving, mimicry and indeed speech.  We can accept that plans already have evolved to create baited traps to hook prey such as the Venus fly trap being an obvious one.  And at one stage it’s hinted that it may only look like a plant, it could be something wholly other.  But that’s left ambiguous.  There’s not enough world building to give us a credible origin of this monster.  And as to why the Mayans are able to quarantine it in a ring of salt is another ill explained mystery.

Also I did not find it believable as to why the captive group do not audibly curse and rail against their Mayan captors.

And personally I did not find it a suspenseful read.  I turned the pages out of mild and morbid curiosity as to what the next horrible death would be, and if there would be any survivors.  But the outcome is pretty clearly telegraphed along the way.  It’s the lack of a credible premise and a lack of warmth towards to the characters that are principle causes of this, I think.  Also, as above mentioned, there’s a clumsy attempt at ‘Scream’ type irony as the characters describe who would play them if their predicament was turned into a film, and what type of characters they would be, i.e. the boy -scout, the joker, the slut, and so on.  Given that this was rapidly translated into a film betrays the point.  And Stacey’s character does nothing to subvert the role assigned to her.

So it’s worth a beach read, pages to whistle by quickly.  It’s just, in the end, unpleasant and unsatisfying

A review of the Audio-Drama Podcast “We’re Alive”

We’re Alive is a zombie apocalypse audio drama that ran for 4 seasons that ran between 2009 – 2014. A side story continuation ‘Lockdown’ finished has just completed as a podcast mini-series (April 2016).

And what a piece of work it is.  Starting life in season 1 it immediately established its credentials as a high quality audio drama with laudable production values.  An army sergeant Michael Cross (Jim Gleason) is pulled away from his studies on a college campus when he’s called up to deal with apparent violent riots.  Said riots turn out to be the rise of the undead.  Michael is reunited with his army buddies Angel (Shane Salk) and Saul (Nate Geez) and they realise that the established order is crumbling rapidly and they need to find a safe haven.  Banding together with fellow survivors Pegs (Elisa Eliot) and Riley (Claire Dodin), and eventually stumbling across gravelly voiced veteran Burt (Scott Marvin), they hole up in a tower block which they turn into a fortress.  This is the location of the first 2 seasons, which are centred on the defence of the tower block from monsters.  These monsters are the infected, but also humanity at its most monstrous in the form of “The Mallers,” ex-convicts who occupied a Mall and represent human survival at its most vicious and violent.  One of the Mallers leaders, ‘Scratch (Jenna McCombie),’ is a human nemesis whose battle with the tower dwellers becomes intensely personal when her brother is killed in an invasion of the tower.  Scratch will take her battle to the very end of the finale of season 4.

So season 1 starts feeling pretty generic, survival horror with a military bent, a template that has been well established.  As the story deepens over the next few seasons, however, we find that have bonded with main characters, and are engrossed with the developing lore and story arc of the series.  The creatures mutate into a range of monsters, from lumbering behemoths to smaller faster creatures.  They seem to be guided by a hive mind intelligence, and who is the tattooed figure who seems to appear as a watcher and leader of the undead army at key moments in the story?

The origin story of the creatures is hinted at in the early seasons and developed more fully in the later ones.  Whilst I’m not convinced that all the strands of this hang together, it makes for an intriguing and suspenseful listen.

The series has some stand out set pieces that live in the memory; the initial outbreak; the discovery of a grisly arena where survivors are brought to die apparently for the creatures’ amusement; battles at the tower; encounters with the behemoths; a chase through a prison with hideously mutated creatures, and more.  The story keeps its locations pretty tight and does not become too sprawling and fragmented.  We move from the tower to a colony, a series of safe houses, and war-torn streets and locations in between.

The cast are uniformly brilliant.  Michael is a solid lead, a sympathetic and very human leader who clings to his identity as a soldier.  Burt is a memorable fan favourite.  Gravelly voiced doesn’t begin to describe his tones.  It sounds like he’s gargling with gravel.  He’s an old school gun fetishist and veteran.  There’s a scene where Scratch almost breaks Burt by torturing his gun (named Sheila after his dead wife) which is probably one of the series most suspect scenes.  The female characters are varied and interesting and fight on an equal footing with their male counterparts (the apocalypse is an equal opportunities employer).  Pegs is maybe overtly cookie at times but still someone you are always glad to get back to.

Scratch is a stand out performance, Hell-bent fury and icy cruelty.

What I love about this whole series is that it is an amazing achievement that is testament to the democratic creative power crowd funding today.  Production values are cinematic in scope, and the intention to be a “theatre of the mind,” wholly immersive audio, is a successful one.  The sound effects and musical score are solid and laudable and together with the top notch voice acting, pull you in.  The snarls and roars of the creatures, especially the behemoths, are particularly memorable, and not what you want to hear in the dead of night.  It’s great that we can enjoy the whole series free (get it here) and the whole enterprise deserves your support, if you care about stories and particularly love this genre.  You can pledge support here.