Since the new lockdown restrictions mean I am not allowed into the family home if I go through to see dad (but we can meet outside in a busy cafe or bar?? Doesn’t make a lot of sense to me…) we met partway and had a day out in South Queensferry, then I had a wee wander around Linlithgow on the way back to the train home. Naturally I was taking photos while I was there ambling through the town and along the mighty Firth of Forth, and of course, the bridges (especially the Rail Bridge, which I think is a wonderful landmark as well as a gem of Victorian engineering)
The Forth is, as you can see, not just a majestic piece of scenery on the Scottish coast, or home to much history, it’s still a working river, with gas and oil tankers in particular passing up and down it, or loading and unloading at these offshore terminals, helped by tug boats
Walking in the Hermitage of Braid today, near the foot of Morningside (Miss Jean Brodie country). The trees are still mostly resplendent in their verdant coat of summer greenery, but Autumn, Autumn is whispering in Summer’s ear “my turn is coming….”
Just outside the Hermitage, over a tall wall of an expensive house, the branches of its trees were laden with the autumn bounty of apples. And me there without my scrumping ladder to grab any…
Starring Jenny Agutter, Luc Roeg, David Gulpilil,
Directed by Nic Roeg
During the Lockdown, BBC4 in the UK broadcast David Stratton’s “Stories of Australian Cinema”, a three part documentary on the history and evolution of film-making in that vast, continent-sized country. Naturally one of the films covered was the legendary Nic Roeg’s 1971 movie, Walkabout and I’ve had a strong urge to revisit this film since watching the series. And then Second Sight announced a limited edition Blu-Ray of Walkabout (packed with extras, including interviews with Jenny Agutter and Luc Roeg, in a box set complete with James Vance Marshall’s original 1950s novel), and there I was losing myself in this classic again.
Both then and now there was some debate, not least in Australia itself, around whether Walkabout is really an Aussie film – a British director, US money, but shot in Australia. For my money it is very much an Australian film, not just because of the location, but the way Roeg makes that vast, ancient land an important part of the film. These are not just locations for a scene, the land itself often is the scene, or a strong part of it; the small-scale human interaction within it may drive the actual narrative, but the land itself surrounds everything they do and say, the two English children (Agutter and a very young Luc Roeg as her small brother) in their school uniforms and prim, plummy accents, outsiders in an environment they not only don’t understand but aren’t really equipped to even really try to comprehend, Gulpilil the Aboriginal boy on Walkabout, brought up to respect the land, the stories that go with it, that form his culture and his guide to survival.
The story is essentially pretty simple – the two children, Agutter and Roeg – are stranded in the Outback desert when their father, who has driven them there for a picnic, loses his mind, and attempts to kill them, before setting fire to the car and taking his own life. Agutter hides the suicide from her young brother, grabs some of the food and the two start walking. But they are from a city environment, and a strata of society that back then still had a middle-class that basically tried to recreate the middle-class English existence, there’s no attempt to adapt and assimilate into this other country, it is more an attempt to push a transplanted cultural imperialism onto it, and means they haven’t the faintest idea about the vastness of the Outback, much less how to survive (when they encounter Gulpilil Agutter asks him for water. He doesn’t speak English so she simply repeats herself as if speaking to an imbecile, before muttering that she can’t be any clearer. It’s a polite version of the modern, mono-lingual Brit abroad who thinks if they shout loudly in English the other person will understand them somehow).
The good-natured Gulpilil communicates with them through mime and gesture, mostly with Roeg’s younger brother, the two forming a bit of a bond together. Gulpilil generously helps the pair find water and shares his hunting kills with them, slowly guiding them back towards their own world after some shared travels. You could see it as strangers in a strange land fable, as a coming of age story (especially Agutter and Gulpilil, the two teens on the cusp of adulthood and all that brings with it), or as a survival story, or a mix of all three. And indeed yes, Walkabout is all of these things, but really, those are just the skeletons the film is draped over.
No, the real essence of Walkabout isn’t really those elements, it is a wonderfully-realised dream-like state, using clever imagery, symbolism and cross-cutting and editing, to create an atmosphere and imagery that is as rich as the Outback environment itself, a filmic version of the ancient Songlines and Dreamtime of Aboriginal culture, sometimes languid, like the dream of a half-waking doze on a warm day, sometimes sudden, even violent, mixing Aboriginal culture (Gulpilil, already an experienced dancer despite his young age here, crafts an intoxicating scene entirely through traditional dancing) and allusions to the Garden of Eden, innocence and its loss, nature and the urban.
This isn’t a film that is easy to review, because it’s more than a film, Walkabout is an experience, a waking dream on celluloid that can be shared, and how each of us reacts to those images and sounds will be different. It is a film to lose yourself in, to drink in those rich images, that landscape and nature. A commercial flop on its original release, it remains an important film, lauded by many critics and the BFI as a classic – it helped to kickstart the new wave of Aussie film-making which has gone on to enrich world cinema (something we here obviously care deeply about), and it launched the then-young Gulpilil onto a career which has seen him become an iconic figure in Australian cinema. If, like me, you haven’t seen this film in a long time, this is a very welcome chance to revisit this moving dream of a movie; if you haven’t seen it before then sit back and let this classic wash over you with its rich imagery.
Walkabout will receive a limited edition Blu-Ray release from Second Sight from 27th August
This review was originally penned for the Live For Films site.
The Doors of Eden,
Hardback, 608 pages,
Published August 2020
After the recent Children of Time and Children of Ruin, as well as Firewalkers, it is fair to say I was very eagerly anticipating Tchaikovsky’s new stand-alone novel. As with the Children series, this is a huge tome of a book, but don’t let the size daunt you – like Peter F Hamilton’s books, when you start reading them they are so engrossing and so well-paced it doesn’t feel like you are working through a massive page count, you will be quite happily enraptured with both the story and the myriad of ideas it sparks inside your head.
Two young girlfriends, Mal and Lee, take a short holiday of sorts – they love exploring reports of cryptids together, and even write them up for publications like the Fortean Times. Naturally both like the idea of mysterious creatures, unknown to science, but they are also intelligent enough to know that most reports are mistaken identities (it turns out the giant panther was a domestic cat and someone couldn’t judge distance and size in the dark) or out and out fabrications. What happens, though, when it starts to seem like there may be more to a sighting on the lonely moors than they suspected? What happens when a set of three ancient standing stones, known as the six sisters, despite only numbering three, becomes, right in front of their eyes, a circle of six? And when snow blows across the midsummer moors in an instant, with strange beings glimpsed in the storm? What happens when Mal vanishes?
Four years on and Lee, still wondering what happened, if she imagined things, if she went mad, is still missing her friend and lover, when Lee returns, looking different, but definitely her. Where has she been? Why so long before returning to London? Lee’s return is linked to a number of other events though – other strange disappearances, a remarkable breakthrough in computational maths and physics that could bypass all the top-secret encryption used by security services the world over, a manipulative billionaire with connections to both political heavyweights and low-life Neo-Nazi boot boys… And, perhaps something even larger, something which has a bearing on the very nature of existence itself.
Within the first hundred and fifty pages or so Tchaikovsky gives us a story of intrepid cryptid explorers then adds in scientific breakthroughs and elements of a spy thriller. This is more than most novels do in their entire page count! And then there is the fascinating and compelling element of multiple realities. The multiverse is no stranger to SF readers, of course, from Moorcock to the Adventures of Luther Arkwright and many more, and indeed it is a concept taken seriously by many in the scientific community nowadays. Here, in addition to the idea of multiple Earths in parallel realities, Tchaikovsky also deftly indulges in a lot of evolutionary what-ifs.
This isn’t just the old, here is the Earth where the Allies lost WWII, or Rome never fell approach (not that I have anything against those, tales, when done well), here, as with the Children books, he takes the very long-term view, exploring multiple evolutionary approaches on Earth. There are some where dinosaurs never became extinct and evolved into intelligent lifeforms (yes, I know, technically not all dinosaurs died out, some evolved into the bird family, and indeed that idea is also nicely explored), others where the huge sea scorpion type creatures became the dominant life millions of years before even reptiles or dinosaurs, let alone mammals or humans. But in each, while all the various possible lines of evolution play out, each Earth still suffers the same massive traumas, the same mass extinction events caused by ice or fire or meteor. Some vanish into these cataclysms, others adapt only to be lost later in the vastness of geological epochs passing (we are talking millions and billions of years, after all). We even get to ponder that remarkable evolutionary accident that had more than one type of intelligent human life existing at the same time on the same world (our own) and how that played out in other Earths closer to our timeline.
The main arcs of the story have some fascinating excerpts from a book on these parallel evolutions on other Earths, which explores so many possibilities (and yes, it does also allow Adrian to indulge in having some multi-legged creatures in the book, of course!), and I found these as intriguing as the main story. We have an engrossing story, some terrific characters (and also, I should add, a nice bit of diversity there, including gay and trans characters, and that’s just among the humans, which was very welcome), and a gradual layering of all the various strands which take the story off into a different direction than you may at first suspect, upping the stakes for the characters, indeed for all of the various worlds, each time we learn something new, and at points even incorporating the multiverse story into the actual structure of the writing to give multiple perspectives and possibilities.
This is simply superb science fiction, a gripping, high-stakes quest, and some staggering concepts that will leave you thinking about all those many possibilities, all those what-ifs that made our world – and the many other Earths – what they became.
This review was originally penned for the Shoreline of Infinity, Scotland’s leading journal of Science Fiction
During the seemingly endless, long, slow days of the main part of Lockdown, Avery Hill released a trailer for Owen D Pomery’s upcoming Victory Point, and sent me a link to view it, along with a few preview pages. It’s fair to say I was smitten right away, and it brightened a Lockdown day; I’ve been waiting since then to get a proper read at the full graphic novel. I was not disappointed. I’ve long had what I refer to as my “bookseller’s Spidey-sense” (caused by a paper cut from a mildly radioactive book) that gives me a vibe on certain new books, before I have even read them, and I know I am going to like them a lot. I don’t know how that vibe works, but it’s never steered me to a bad read yet, and I got it in spades looking a the previews and trailer for Victory Point.
Owen’s educational and professional background is in architecture and illustration, and that shows very much in Victory Point. A small coastal village, it is unusual – not to mention extremely pretty – for having been designed entirely by one architect as part of a socio-architectural experiment in the inter-war years, to create a small town that would not only be a home to families but be a base for artistic and scientific colonies (perhaps inspired by some of the artist colonies that for many years drew creators to places like Saint Ives). In true British tradition, this vision was never fully realised, with only part of the town constructed, and it soon turned into a regular, quiet little seaside town, save for the unusual architecture that visually unites the area.
And what a style it is, all beautiful, clean lines of 30s Modernist architecture, elegant without being fussy, the buildings and streets carefully situated into the descending slope of the coastal landscape as it reaches down from cliffs above to the beaches and sea below, all drawn in Owen’s handsome, clear-line style. We first see Victory Point on a bright, summer’s day, as Ellen, a bookseller in the (unnamed) big city is returning by train; this is her home-town, and she is coming back to visit her dad.
The fact that it is a summer’s day makes it ideal for luxuriating in the views of these gorgeous Modernist buildings that festoon the slopes of the hills, the elegant curves, the whitewashed walls catching the light beautifully. I’ve always loved the architecture of this period, and there is something particularly nice about this style when on the coast. I still have childhood holiday memories of Morecambe in the summer, and the beautiful Midland Hotel (fortunately now refurbished and restored), with its Modernist and Art Deco grace right by the sea, catching the light and making me think of the great ocean liners from the golden age of travel – long before I was old enough to understand what those art and architectural styles were, I knew they were beautiful.
The pace of the story is leisurely, and this allows Owen to indulge himself and the reader in the luxury of just wallowing in a pool of beautiful illustrations, as the returning Ellen walks through her old home-town to her parent’s house, and we are treated to so many simply wonderful, beautiful panels, with many of the panels being large, or even entire pages, the better to drink in the art. The pictures also do a magnificent job of conveying something of that glorious light quality of a clear, summer day by the coast, especially on that handsome, whitewashed architecture.
Not that this is a book just about a beautiful architectural experiment turned delightful anomaly – students come out from the city to behold “what might have been” if the experiment had been completed and expanded to others, but they see only the myth of the genius of the designer, not the fact that it is a real place, with real people living real lives (I must confess, despite vastly different architecture – though just as striking – I experience the same often in Edinburgh where I live, where it feels many visitors see it almost as a set and forget it is a living, working place and home). No, there is a story here, about belonging, about home and leaving, about growing up, about being part of your family but also needing to be yourself, and that bittersweet mixture of hope and joy and regret and sadness that entails.
Victory Point perfectly captures that slightly surreal feeling of coming home when it isn’t really your home anymore, something most of us will have experienced. Going back to the home town, to the parental mansion, still home and yet, not really home, because now we are grown up and moved away somewhere else that is now home. But this is still somehow home too, but we feel a weird mix of being a visitor as well as belonging now. Likewise Ellen’s reunion with her dad expresses those feelings many of us will have had on going back home to a beloved parent, of realising they are getting older, that while you are all now adults and living your own lives, they are still forever interlinked, and that no matter how old you are, that feeling that in your parent’s heart of hearts, you are still their little child and they worry about you, want to help you, see you be happy, are planning, even now, to try and make sure you will be okay when they are no longer there (and how our minds rebel against the thought when they bring such plans up).
The artwork for the characters is reminiscent of the Herge style – no bad thing, of course – with the little dots for eyes and simple yet effectively expressive faces that still convey so much emotion despite their economy (a single panel of her dad hugging her when she arrives home is just beautifully done and radiates emotion), and characters, architecture and landscape are all integrated so well in Victory Point, not just from the visual, aesthetic point of view, but also in terms of the story and the competing emotions underlying it.
It felt to me that this elegant, beautiful, quirky failed socio-architectural experiment was in many ways a metaphor not only for Ellen’s life, but for any of our lives, how something can seem, from the outside, to look perfect, enviable even, be it another’s home or their life, compared to our own, but of course beneath those facades are the same complex problems everyone has. The use of matching architecture to make an almost uniform town, except real towns don’t exist that way, they’re a mixture of styles and periods, a melange, much like the lives of those who live in them. Or Ellen visiting the secretive little cove where she first learned to swim as a child, floating naked in the clear water, the perspective from above, showing the geology of the coastal hills meeting the sea, Ellen, wondering where her life will go next, floating, suspended between the sea and sky and land.
Yes, this is a visually stunning, beautiful piece of comics work, filled with elegant artwork and vistas designed to show those structures off, but it is also a quiet, gentle tale of life and growing up and our competing goals and emotional attachments to people and places that all go to make us who we are and form what we do, all the hopes and desire, all the fears and regrets. This is a book I will come back to again and again to just drink in.
This review was originally penned for Down The Tubes.
A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians,
Paperback, 534 pages
Kiwi author H.G Parry was new to me when I read her utterly delightful The Unlikely Escape of Uriah Heep at the start of this year, in which a young literary academic prodigy has the unusual gift of bringing characters forth from what he is reading, if he gets too lost in the book (seriously, it was a book-lover’s delight, chock full of references to other works and with a wonderful sense of fun, it went down well with my SF Book Group). Orbit planned to release a second book by Parry within just a few months, so I was now primed and looking forward to this one, and while I loved her first novel, I was also pleased to see this next one was taking a very different subject matter and approach, being ostensibly Alternative History.
I must confess I have a real soft-spot for alt-history tales, doubtless driven by my interest in history; anyone who has read a lot of history books is almost certainly aware how many world-changing events could easily have happened differently, and this offers fertile ground for storytellers, from Ward Moore’s classic Bring the Jubilee to the massive and engrossing works of Neal Stephenson. In this instance Parry is focused on the Age of Enlightenment, with the main action taking place in three locations: France as the Revolution approaches and then happens, the Haitian slave rebellion in the Caribbean, and in Britain, the work of Wilberforce and Pitt to create an Abolition bill to outlaw the slave trade.
The book is littered with many actual historical events and figures, from the aforementioned Pitt and Wilberforce to Robespierre in France and Toussaint Louverture in what would become Haiti, but while it follows much of our world’s established history, this is a version of our world in which magic is real. Real, but restrained, however, especially for the Commoners, who are forbidden to use any inherited powers, while the aristocracy has much more leeway in using their gifts to enhance their already privileged lifestyle and opportunities. The threat and promise of power through magical ability – or the restraint of that power – links the events in all three settings, as does the issue of immorality of slavery.
As the monarchy of France falls to Revolution – with a call for “free magic and liberty” replacing the more familiar “liberty, fraternity and equality” – and the Haitian slave rebellion blooms, the Revolutionaries are torn, as the slaves are demanding the same rights and freedoms as they do – but the French coffers need the money coming from that lucrative sugar trade which relied on back-breaking slave labour (the clash between morality and money, a sadly eternal quandary throughout our history, imagined or actual). Magic is also used to bind the slaves in this world – while the brutal treatment of our own shameful slave-owning history is present here, a magical elixir is also used, which effectively imprisons slaves with their own body and will compliant to their masters, while leaving their mind perfectly aware of what is being done to them but unable to react, to even cry out if they want to, another horror on top of horror.
Morality and the struggle to maintain one’s principles is very much at the core of this story – as well as struggling with the notions of equal freedom for the Caribbean slave, the French Revolutionaries, notably Robespierre (whose magical power is Mesmerism, very useful in the debating chamber) who has strong principles, which he increasingly bends then breaks, in the name of securing Liberty (the ends justify the means, even if it means The Terror). In Britain too the fight to end the slave trade is riven by those who insist it is fine in principle but in practice will bankrupt the nation, just as it needs every resource to combat the French in warfare, while in Haiti the slave rebellion leaders debate the merits of trying to be merciful if they do secure a free society on the island, rather than giving in to the (no doubt justified) revenge on those who inflicted years of cruelty upon them.
Into this already engrossing stew of events and philosophical musings there are hints of a wider magical history underpinning this era, including a centuries-ago war against vampire lords, which lead to a bloody campaign to free Europe of dark magics, a pact still enforced by the Knights Templar, even in Protestant countries like Britain. And behind all these world-wide events is a shadow-figure, glimpsed mostly in dreams by Robespierre, Toussaint Louverture and Pitt, who seems to often be offering help and advice, but you just know that any bargain made with this mysterious figure will be a Faustian pact.
This is a richly-detailed alt-history, and arriving with wonderful coincidence as the Black Lives Matter movement has triggered far more serious reconsideration of the slave-owning era in the history of many countries, and its legacy (indeed one of Pitt’s fellow politicians here is Dundas, who delays the attempts to end the slave trade – as I was reading this we are debating in my home-town of Edinburgh how to mark his statue, atop a huge column, to address his shameful legacy, just as memorials to others from that era are also being re-evaluated). You can imagine how this coincidental timing of events and publication added to reading of this book, and acted as a reminder, if any were needed, that history is never just the study of the past (even in imaginary, alt-history), because the present is shaped by that history; it isn’t really past, it’s still with us, affecting all aspects of our civilisation in ways we need to study and comprehend if we are to learn from those events and grow beyond them to a better future.
A beautifully-written tale, which takes in the personal – the close friendship of Pitt and Wilberforce for instance – as much as it does the large-scale, global picture of events, with a strong examination of morality and how power corrupts it, be it money, legislative power or magical abilities, with some lovely turns of phrase (Parry’s descriptions of the walls of the House of Commons reacting musically to a well-written speech is quite wonderful and evocative of the power of well-chosen words, delivered with conviction). I look forward to the next volume.
On a side note: if you enjoy history and are interested in this period, Mike Duncan’s excellent Revolutions podcast series has covered both the French and the Haitian revolutions used in this book in great (but very accessible) details
This review was originally penned for Shoreline of Infinity, Scotland’s leading journal of Science Fiction.
There’s an old saying that you will never understand another person, unless you walk some miles in their shoes. I’ve often thought that books, especially autobiographical works, are one of the best ways we have to learn at least some understanding of another person’s life, their culture, their perspectives, and Mongrel reinforces that belief. We may never truly be able to walk in another’s shoes, not completely – how could we, every life is a unique set of very personal circumstances, even the life experiences of twins will differ – but we can obtain a look into those other lives, other interests, worries, cultural drives and norms, and by doing so we expand our own world a little more (and hopefully make ourselves a bit more aware, a bit more open to the differing lives of others).
Drawn in a rather beautiful pencil work, Mongrel offers some beautiful visuals, lovely to look at but carefully done so they never overwhelm the subject matter. The style is quit distinctive too, especially the faces of Sayra and her family and friends, the large eyes and often profile perspective putting me in mind of the way humans are depicted in ancient Assyrian or Egyptian art. It’s an unusual style, at least in Western comics, but it works beautifully, as well as adding another layer of difference, reminding us that we’re looking into what, for many of us, will be a different culture, a different set of societal and familial norms. There are some lovely little visual techniques too – Shuna lost in thought of how her life has lead to this moment, her memories shown literally fragmented, like jigsaw pieces of her life, a thought bubble floating above her which she then reaches up and pops.
“Walking through the door of my family home was like walking through a gateway to Bangladesh.”
Shuna’s story will, no doubt, be familiar to more than a few readers, those who have had to make that difficult journey that spans different, often competing, or even opposing cultural drives. Her religious upbringing and the societal expectations her parents – especially her mother – have are formed from Bangladeshi society, but Shuna and her siblings are being brought up in the UK. Try as they might to limit their children’s external activities – which friends they can see, when they can go out and when they cannot – they are, of course, exposed to other experiences and possibilities, and some of those seem alluring, exciting even, compared to home.
But home, as they say, is where the heart is, and for all the urge to rebel there is also an urge to conform, to please the parents and others in your community, to be an accepted, welcome part of it. While the experiences may differ, in many ways this is no different really from what most of us go through growing up, especially in our teens. We long to belong, for the warmth, love and safety and acceptance of family, but we’re also driven by the often contradictory impulse to stand out, to explore our own path. We want to belong and to be individual at the same time, one of the great contradictions of human nature, yes, but it is also part of what drives us to grow. It’s often a rocky road for most of us, but for those with strictly interpreted cultural beliefs and standards, it can be so much the harder, the possible penalties for transgression far higher.
It is to her great credit that Sayra explores all sides of this generational, cultural and societal problem. It would be all too easy to take a simplistic approach – make the parents out to be villains, inflexible, unwilling to bend to accommodate the fact they are raising their children in a different land with different standards and opportunities. Yet Sayra never falls into this trap. Which is not to say there isn’t conflict here, there is in fact a lot of that, and a lot of butting of heads, of inflexible approaches and failure to compromise, to try and adapt to each other’s competing drives and needs.
But Sayra makes it clear that her mother’s strict stance, no matter how harsh it may seem to us, is driven from love for her children – her religious beliefs make her fear that their failure to comply with how she thinks they are to behave imperils them, that it could take them from the path of righteousness and into temptation. In short that her children could damn themselves and on their day of judgement they would not ascend to Paradise and so she would lose them for all eternity.
Although Sayra is drawing on her own mixed heritage, being British Bangladeshi, there is much here that any of us will recognise from the awkward moments of our own youth, of striking out on our own, sometimes against what was expected of us, against a parent’s wishes or expectations. Family and people are family and people, no matter where we come from or travel to, after all. For those who have had an even harder journey trying to claim their own individual experience in the face of family, community and societal norms – cross-cultural children, gay or trans youth for instance – it will most certainly seem all the more familiar. The cultural imperatives and strifes may be different but the song remains the same. A beautiful and emotionally honest work
This review was originally penned for Down the Tubes
Echoes of Fear,
Starring Trista Robinson, Hannah Race, Paul Chirico, Marshal Hilton, Norman Zeller
Directed by Brian Avenet-Bradley, Laurence Avenet-Bradley
Arriving after generating a lot of good word of mouth on the festival circuit, Brian and Laurence Avenet-Bradley’s Indy US horror offers the discerning horror hound an intriguing, well-made, gloriously slow-burn take on the age-old haunted house genre, not using the (to me anyway) increasingly annoying jump-cuts to generate fright (I don’t think they do, startling is not the same as creating terror or fright), but by doing it the correct way, taking time to build atmosphere, slowly building up events and adding in some red herrings, to draw the viewer deeply into the film.
As you may guess from that statement, I am a sucker for a good haunted house story, but all too often come away disappointed by directors who opt for predictable cliché and quick jumps in lieu of the effort of deeper storytelling and atmosphere-building, the sorts of things that really make a good ghost story work. Here the Avenet-Bradley’s do take that time, allowing their camera to explore the huge, unusually laid out old house from intriguing, often unsettling angles, and their minimal cast (Trista Robinson as Alisa carries much of the film herself, her boyfriend, Paul Chirico as Brandon, often absent – also fairly useless in helping her – her only main help her best friend, Steph, played by Hannah Race) to lay down those foundations that let the story grow at its own pace.
Alisa has inherited this huge, rambling, hillside house from her doting, loving grandfather, who supposedly had a heart attack in the shower… Except a brief prologue hints to us that perhaps this wasn’t quite natural causes and there is someone, something in the house. Alisa moves in with the intent of sorting through her grandfather’s belongings, fixing up anything needing repaired and selling the house on. Her boyfriend can only stay briefly, leaving her mostly on her own, apart from visits from her friend Steph, even when Alisa starts to worry that there is something not right in the house.
The house itself is almost another character in this minimal cast ensemble. Built on a rocky hillside it has multiple levels sloping down, and many rooms, an awful lot of storage spaces (more than you’d expect), crawl spaces behind walls and under the lower parts of the rambling structure, concealed elements above in the high ceiling upper parts. The camera glides around all of these by day and night, and soon generates a feeling of unease even before anything much has happened – there is something just wrong about this house, the size, the layout, the multiple rooms and closets, the hidden little nooks. Despite her growing unease – at first she fears a squatter has been using the weird design of the house to sneak in and camp out somewhere, and she may be right – Brandon shrugs everything off and leaves Alisa to sort the place out.
But she is right, there is something wrong with this place, and not just a potential squatter. It starts slowly, finding something in a different place from where she left it, wondering if she just imagined it, noises that may just be the sounds of an old house or may be something more. Finding items from a squatter in a concealed area should solve that mystery, but no, that’s not the main cause of the noises and unease. The camera follows Alisa through both big, open spaces, like the high-ceilinged, broad living room to the tight confines of the crawlspace under the house.
While you’d expect the latter to create a nice, claustrophobic fear, which it does, the Avenet-Bradleys also manage to craft that fear even in the more open, well-lit spaces, making Alisa seem vulnerable to something that could come from anywhere around her. Even minimalist moves like the camera looking out of a brightly lit bedroom into a dark hallway beyond the open door contrive to create a creeping unease – such a simple move but so effective (it reminded me of Dyson and Nyman’s Ghost Stories, which took a dark staircase in an ordinary suburban home and also made it creepingly terrifying through little more than slow camera moves and darkness and tension).
As Alisa realises there is more going on than a squatter, she attempts, despite her fear, to deal with it in a fairly practical fashion, she’s quite resourceful and determined (I would have been running out of there!). Since most ghost lore hints that a spectre remains because it has some unfinished business in the mortal realm, that it needs help to complete before it can move on, she starts to investigate the house, and her grandfather’s death. Was it really a heart attack? Was this presence there when he lived here? What does it want? Is it connected to her family in some way she doesn’t know, or just a random manifestation?
I’m not going to go any further on those latter points as it would risk us crossing over the border into that unattractive land of Spoiler Country. Suffice to say Alisa is going to investigate, and there may be more going on here than at first we may think. In many ways Echoes of Fear plays the many classic tropes of the Old Haunted House genre, but in many other ways it takes its own path and its own style to generate a genuinely dread-inducing ghost tale, wonderfully slow-burn, building, building, building, to a satisfying crescendo. This is one to watch good and late at night, with most of the lights out, for maximum effect!
Echoes of Fear is released on demand and download by Second Sight from July 20th, and on DVD (Certificate 15) from August 3rd.
This review was originally penned for Live For Films
We were allowed one single, solitary exercise walk during the height of Lockdown. For those living alone this was especially hard, essentially meaning being isolated at home for the bulk of the day and evening, so those walks were important to my mental health as well as physical. Of course where I go the camera goes, and that was another way for me to cope with the months of stress and depression during Lockdown, documenting my city during these strangest of times
Coming home from the last visit to a friend before Lockdown – even though the official announcement was still a day or two away at this point, the cinemas and bars and restaurants had already closed. Saturday night on Lothian Road, lined with bars, restaurants, two cinemas, two theatres and a concert hall all nearby, a place I would avoid late on a weekend evening because it is so busy with drunks, and here it was, the only other people I saw a couple waiting on their own for a bus home. It was eerie and unsettling to see this normally busy, lively area so quiet – I have seen more life there at 3am walking home from a late night Film Festival show… This was a harbinger of how my city, and countless others around the world, would soon become.
Back in late March, early days of Lockdown, little traffic, the normal noises of the city mostly absent, and a haar had descended on the city, as it often does here, the mist rolling in from the mighty Firth of Forth, adding to the sense of quiet and fear. On this day as I walked Princes Street I saw the digital advertising billboards on the bus shelters had all been changed to “Thank you to our amazing NHS staff”, one after the other after the other progressing down this normally bustling street.
The famous Oxford Bar, where Ian Rankin’s fictional Edinburgh detective from his Rebus novels likes to drink, as does the author himself. Closed like the other bars. His birthday fell during Lockdown, so Ian took a bottle of beer and a glass, walked to the Ox, poured his pint and had it standing outside the closed pub.
Rainbows in windows and on the streets, and support for our NHS workers were everywhere. As with other nations the health professionals were overwhelmed, and in addition they were in the front line so even more vulnerable to infection, and the risk of bringing that home to family (some simply didn’t see their families for ages to minimise travel and risk). And still they looked after us as best they could.
Bright sunny spring day – the Blue Blazer bar in the foreground, the western flank of Edinburgh Castle atop its great volcanic rock in the background, Both closed.
Normally bustling George Street in April sunshine, all the fancy, expensive shops closed, no shoppers, no tourists, barely any traffic.
The top of the Royal Mile on a bright spring day. This should be heaving with tourists, instead barely a soul to be seen. As I walked the eerily deserted streets that would normally be so busy I kept hearing the music from the film 28 Days Later in my head. Much as we moan about legions of tourists it was, frankly, scary and unsettling and disturbing to see my city like this, still a glorious, grand old dame on a day like this, but with nobody there to admire her save me and my lens. An uncanny feeling to be able to stand in the middle of the road in this UNESCO world heritage site and be able to do a 360 degree pan with the camera safely because there was no traffic…
Ladies having a socially-distanced safe chat early in Lockdown, in the grounds of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. I should have been enjoying the Ray Harryhausen at 100 exhibition there of this wizard of cinema, a movie maker who filled my early cinema going with sheer wonder. But the galleries were closed – the grounds remained openk so I walked to them often, enjoying the sculpture gardens.
The Grassmarket, right below the Castle, normally packed with locals coming and going and many tourists, stag and hen parties and students enjoying the many bars and restaurants. Some of the inns here were centuries old when Robert Burns came to stay in them. Now empty, just me and my camera, some of the old pubs boarded up as they were worried about vandals or looters early on, which added to the strange empty feeling of the city.
Cockburn Street in the Old Town. Just a few years ago Hollywood was in town shooting scenes for the Avengers at the top of this street. Look at it here…
Quick, street shot from the hip, lady early on in Lockdown carrying her groceries home during the period when a lot of shelves were empty and some items hard to get, adding to the overall feeling of worry, stress, fear. Not a technically good shot, being hurriedly shot from the hip, but it captured that oh so bloody tired of it and wondering how long the road would be feeling, I thought.
Hardware store on Morningside Road, one of the few businesses still open. Nobody allowed in during Lockdown, so they had a screen at the door, people socially distanced in queues outside, waiting their turn, then asking for what they needed, it would be brought to them at the door and they would pay by contactless card. This would become a model later on as Lockdown eased a little more, my own bookshop did this sort of “click and collect” until we were allowed people back inside in the last couple of weeks (with many safety rules implemented).
Cycle shops stayed open too, peforming much needed maintenance – many took to bikes to avoid what was still running of public transport (to avoid more possible infection vectors). Bus drivers and trams kept going on reduced service here, props to those who kept them running for those who had to keep working and needed the transport, while the bike shops made socially distanced queues and saw people at the doors for repairs and advice to keep them going too. I noticed most bike shops also had air pumps and water outside so cyclists could use them if needed without coming in, just a nice little extra but of help being offered to the community.
Not all doom and gloom though, nature kept ticking away regardless of the worries oppressing the human world. The cherry blossoms performed their annual magic, something always lovely to see, but this year oh so much more special and wonderful and needed. As I was lining up this shot of the “tree tunnel” in the Meadows I hadn’t noticed these young, masked women had spotted me and posed for the shot!
Saint Giles Cathedral and Parliament Square, with not another soul to be seen. Normally so many tourists here, some sitting on the steps in the sun, resting their feet, lawyers coming and going from the nearby High Court and the Advocate’s Faculty. Not now. I’m not used to seeing it like this, it was upsetting and worrying, but again mediating it through my camera lens helped a bit, and I was determined to document my city during this time.
Safe, social distanced chatting in Princes Street Gardens. My walks brought me here often as a place to rest mid-walk before going home. With almost no traffic the sounds of the birds in the Gardens was so much more obvious and wonderful, while the spring weather meant they were perfumed with the scent of blooming flowers, all of which helped me cope with the endless days of isolation and worry.
As the months passed a few places re-opened doing takeaway only coffee, like this one in the Meadows. My god the luxury of being able to buy a coffee again, even if you had to take it outside, the first brew I hadn’t made for myself in weeks and weeks. The simple pleasure of being able to buy a cup of java then sit in the park with it…
Socially distanced walking, jogging and cycling on the Union Canal at Fountainbridge. I avoided the narrower parts of the canal walkway – not enough space for social distancing, and if people left space between walkers then joggers and cyclists would go right through the safe gap, huffing and puffing as they did, which was alarming under the pandemic conditions, so I stopped walking those areas and only using the segments like this where there was more room for everyone to be safer.
Single, solitary passenger waiting for a tram at what should be rush hour, in the Haymarket area, next to bus and train interchanges, should have been packed with commuters, but this time just one chap.
Cinemas closed even before the official Lockdown. Normally see several films a month and it was very strange to go so long without being able to see the silver screen (yes, I can watch at home, it isn’t the same experience), and this incuded my annual sojourn at the world oldest continually running film fest, the Edinburgh International Film Festival, which didn’t happen this year, of course. The closed and shuttered cinemas were stuck in time, their posters advertising current and coming attractions from just before everything stopped, like a time capsule. This is the family-owned Indy cinema The Dominion in Morningside.
Some made use of local green spaces – while I walked with the camera or sat on a bench in the parks to read for a while, others were performing their yoga exercises on Bruntsfield Links, or learning to juggle.
God, how important nature was to many of us in lifting our spirits – the return of life and colour and light in the spring is always welcome after winter here, but this year it was so badly needed to help us remember there was still magic and beauty to be found.
So few people in the earlier parts of Lockdown even in the heart of the city in Princes Street Gardens, just below the now closed Castle.
Masked and hooded in the Gardens during Lockdown.
Some were fortunate enough to have someone to hold their hand during this long, dark, isolating time.
Mask or turban, which to wear today….
We had to look for any small win, any little thing to cheer ourselves. One bright day, walking alone in the Meadows, I heard a beautiful voice singing arias, and found this young woman. I hadn’t heard anyone busking in weeks, let alone singing like this. The birds chirped in the trees above as she sang, voice clear, soaring out and up into the branches above to join those birds. I sat under a tree and listened, it was so sublime and wonderful and magical I cried at the beauty I had so unexpectedly found. It reminded me of the moment from The Shawshank Redemption where Tim Robbins’ character breaks the rules to play an opera piece over the prison tannoy, and everyone stops, all those locked within the walls lifted by the beauty of the song and the music. Oh god, it was just beautiful for a few, precious moments.
Masked trio strolling the Union Canal during Lockdown.
The haar returned as spring became summer and Lockdown rolled on. Despite the weather I went walking – I had to get out even for a while, and besides, it is more like walking through a light cloud than rain. Naturally I took photos and video clips as I walked. Edinburgh looks wonderful, draped in this soft, silken blanket…
As the weather rurned to warmth and sun, more were out walking, some found good spots, like this chap sitting by the old Leamington Lift Bridge to play his guitar in the sunlight.
With little road traffic much of what was on the road was cycle couriers, working round the clock delivering meals – with restaurants closed only home delivery was available, and these guys were criss-crossing the city all the time. I would see them in the same few spots on my walks, where they had found areas to grab a quick, much-needed rest. Many were clearly exhausted.
Sring had turned to summer as Lockdown went on. I went out for a stroll on Midsummer Night and took a few photos. This was after eleven at night, an hour after the summer sun had finally set, but in Scotland at Midsummer the skies just don’t really get dark. Even after the sun goes down there is a long, faerie light of twilight, the sky remains aglow and by 3am the sun is already rising again. We are not in the land of the mmidnight sun, but we do overlook their front lawn.
Even during Lockdown the city had to be kept clean. While many of us were furloughed the bin lorries still came round, the street cleaners still picked up the litter and made our city look nicer.
The concrete monstrosity of the multi-storey car park which previous generations of town planners allowed to be constructed right next to the Castle (what where they thinking??). Horrid, brutal structure and jarringly out of place where it is, but during Lockdown, totally empty of cars, and shot in black and white, it looked photogenic. I nipped in during a walk to snap this thinking I may never see it empty like this again…
The pubs re-open with strict distancing and safety rules next week, but the beer gardens and pavement cafes re-opened just a few days ago in Scotland (where Lockdown rules have been more cautious – as they should be – than those rules enacted by Westmonster down south). It was odd to see the Grassmarket like this, still quiet by what normal standards would have, but at least some life, compared to the deserted, boarded up scenes I shot a few weeks ago in this spot.
I shoot so many photos each year, and took even more during Lockdown, partly to document the times in my city, partly as one of my coping methods. I was also live tweeting video and photos as I walked, as a sort of “virtual walk” for those who couldn’t get out at all to enjoy, and several people got in touch to say they appreciated that and that those pics and videos helped them when they were confined, shielding, which made me feel a bit better, at least something postive had come out of it, however little. My photos went past the 21,000 uploads mark on my Flickr during Lockdown, and my daily views shot up as people were stuck inside, often looking online for diversion, so I hope those too helped some people pass the long, Lockdown days.
We’re still in the early easing of restrictions here, on guard, they could change if more infections appear, but let us hope not. I am back to work, we can let people in – carefully – to our bookstore once more, which is wonderful. Two of our very young readers even dressed up in costumes for their first visit in months, which made us happy. Things are still so uncertain, many places will simply not re-open, those that have will have to struggle and adapt to new ways of doing things, but at least we are back.
I normally keep an eye out for the regular breeding pair of swans we have on the nearby Union Canal, especially in spring when they have their cygnets. This year being furloughed for so long during Lockdown, with a single permitted daily exercise walk the only thing I could do outside the house, I had more of an opportunity to walk that way with the camera, and capture photos of them, from the small, fluffball stage of a couple of weeks old, to now, where they are rapidly growing to a similar size to their mother (Papa Swan is rather larger!), so I thought I would post a sequence of pics of this year’s cygnets to show how they have grown in the last few months.
This is our 2020 cygnets when very small – and supercute! I always love seeing them every year, but this year with the grim reality of Lockdown, the isolation and every threatening stress and depression, the magic and beauty of nature became all the more important, a wonderful escape as I took my once a day allowed exercise walk during the Lockdown (and of course where I go walking, the camera goes too).
My friend who runs the Union Canal Swans Twitter and Instagram is so known to the parent swans they let her feed their babies each year, the short video above is her feeding them some porridge (being Scottish swans they love a bit of porridge!)
Sleeping on the grass by the side of the canal
You can see how much larger they are by this point.
Papa Swan shaking it all out.
Quick close up portrait before they slipped back into the water after resting on the banking.
I love that slap-slap-slap of those big, webbed feet on the wet towpath!!!
The first weekend in June should have seen the second Cymera festival of science fiction, fantasy and horror literature taking place in the Pleasance in Edinburgh. We had the first one last year and as well as attending many events all weekend (and taking lots of photos, as usual), I also participated, chairing a multi-author discussion on stage.
Of course, like pretty much all festivals we had to cancel due to the pandemic. A little while into the Lockdown I was asked by organiser Ann if I would still be up for chairing if some online events could be organised, and of course I said yes. And so did pretty much all the authors, so the virtual version of Cymera that took place over the weekend just gone wasn’t just a few online chats, it was an entire programme running the three days of the original festival plan with author events (live and some pre-recorded), writing workshops and more, quite an amazing feat to pull off, effectively an entire festival online and at such short notice.
Cymera has been busy adding some of the live and pre-recorded events onto its YouTube channel now, which you can enjoy for free (although if you enjoy them and you can afford it, even a small donation would be helpful, the festival, despite not having the physical ticket sales, is still paying authors a fee for their time, so help is appreciated – you can donate here).
The two events I had the pleasure of chairing are online now: my talk with Arthur C Clarke Award winners Anne Charnock about Bridge 108 and Adrian Tchaikovsky about Firewalkers, both books doing what the best SF always does, using the future as a filter to examine the concerns of our own troubled times, such as environmental issues, global inequality and more. You can see it here:
And on the Sunday I was delighted to talk on a 2000 AD panel with Maura McHugh, Michael Carroll and Joseph Elliott-Coleman, discussing their novellas in the Judges series for 2000 AD (reviewed here), dealing with the pre-history of the iconic Judge Dredd series in the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic. Set decades before Dredd, much closer to our own time, it effectively brings the world of the Judges – special lawkeepers with the power of instant justice on the streets, trained to be incorruptible, impartial – almost into our own world.
This isn’t the great Mega City of the far future but still America, an America crumbling socially, politically and economically, hence the Judges experiment. The three stories have a fascinating mix of murky morality, with those on each side all having both merits and flaws, and the tales, especially Elliott-Coleman’s “Patriots” had some terrifying resonances to recent events in the US, which we also discussed in relation to the books: