The Boy on the Bridge

The Boy on the Bridge,

Mike Carey,

Orbit Books

I’ve long enjoyed Mike Carey’s writing, both his comics work and his prose, and his Girl With All the Gifts (also published by Orbit), was one of my Best of the Year selection when it came out (review here by Mal), and likewise the more recent film adaptation (scripted by Mike himself) also made my Best of the Year list. The Boy on the Bridge returns us to that post-apocalyptic Britain, but this is no straight sequel; if anything it is more of a parallel tale set in that ruined world where a fungal infection (like the one in the Amazon which infects insects and hijacks their nervous system) has brought down human civilisation, the infected – “the hungries” – a zombie-like shell of their former human selves, moving only when stimulated to feed. I think you could read this quiet easily on its own merits, without having read Girl, but really I’d advise reading Girl first if you haven’t already, because it will enrich your experience of Boy (and yes, there are some nods to the earlier story, which are very satisfying, but which I won’t blow here).

Where Girl started in the enclosed base and labs, encircled by hordes of Hungries (a deliberate nod to Romero’s Day of the Living Dead and the military-scientific besieged base), Boy is even more claustrophobic, mostly taking place in the Rosalind Franklin (Rosie, as she is known), sister research vehicle to the lost Charles Darwin expedition, a heavily-armed mobile fortress complete with onboard lab facilities, slowly traversing what’s left of Britain, picking up safely stored samples cached by the Darwin expedition and picking  up their own specimens, all in a desperate attempt to find out a way to stop or cure the infection. A dozen odd scientists and soldiers sealed in an armoured vehicle on a quest they all feel increasingly is hopeless. Even an upbeat crew would be stressed out under such prolonged close quarters, in this broken world though it is even worse, and the differences between them are becoming more and more obvious.

It’s probably not going to be a surprise that those stresses and differences are going to reach a boiling point sooner or later, you can almost cut the increasing tension with a knife. It’s a scenario rich with dramatic possibilities, and the real meat here is in how the writer takes those paths, twists those knives, turns that screw. And here, with a writer like Carey we are in exceptionally fine hands; Mike doesn’t just deliver an ever-increasing ratchetting up of dramatic tension, he weaves us into the confined, strained lives of Dr Khan and all of the Rosie’s crew. Within a few dozen pages you can practically smell the sweat of sharing a small, restricted space with others, the increasing sense of urgency mixed with desperation. Add in a new development found out in the field – after they had all but given up on finding anything new that might help them – and back at base, where the last remnants of humanity are packed in as badly as the crew of the Rosie, struggling among themselves almost as much as against the infected, and you have the Rosalind Franklin (good name) effectively turned into a pressure cooker.

Edinburgh International Book Festival 2014 - Mike Carey
(Mike signing Girl With All the Gifts at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, pic from my Flickr)

The Boy on the Bridge oozes atmosphere – within a couple of dozen pages I found myself right back in that world Mike first conjured up in The Girl With All the Gifts, so richly described, the characters’ emotive responses to this world gone to hell echoing with the reader so well that you can imagine it, feel it, smell it. The differences, from small-scale bickering to an ever-escalating level feels all to plausible, people under severe stress, in a crisis, with no seeming end in sight (save for a hideous one), the cracks appearing like emotive metal fatigue and just as deadly in the long run. The internal politics of individuals and groups fighting among themselves as the world falls seems all to possible, the descriptions of what some have had to do – awful, unspeakable acts – also far too real.

And yet this is not entirely a book of doom and despair, there is a light there, a tiny, flickering candle of a light, and that makes the despair and death perhaps even harder to bear – if it is truly hopeless then the characters are better off facing the end, shortening the misery…. But when they may be a tiny sliver of hope then they have to struggle for it. It’s a deliciously baited hook for the readers, drawing us deeply into both hope and despair. I really don’t want to go to deeply into some of those elements for fear of spoilers, but, oh boy, are they effective in totally miring the reader into this world until they feel they are right there among the Rosie’s crew. A simply superb, chillingly plausible post-apocalyptic tale.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Film: psychological horror in The Resident

The Resident,

Directed by John Ainslie

Starring Tianna Nori, Mark Matechuk, Krista Madison

You could be forgiven for thinking the story concept for The Resident (also known as The Sublet in the US) sounds not unfamiliar – a mother and young child mostly alone in a new apartment with odd noises and things happening, it does stir memories of Dark Water and other such offerings. But Canadian film-makers Black Fawn are getting themselves a bit of a rep in horror circles (they also did The Bite which Garth reviewed on here last year), and there was something about this that sparked my Spidey-sense and told me this was going to be worth checking out, and so it proved, for while the main idea of mother and child in possibly haunted new home is far from new, The Resident plows a different furrow from others in that field, offering up a genuinely creepy, psychological approach.

Joanna (Tianna Nori), her husband and her new baby have to move into temporary lodgings for his new job, and right from the start this is an apartment block that just screams out that there’s something wrong. It takes several attempts buzzing the intercom just to get into the block, then on schlepping up the stairs (just what you want with a baby stroller) to the apartment for rent they find no-one there, no sign of the landlord. But the door opens and there’s a not telling them to look around but if they don’t like it then pretty much leave and don’t let the door hit you on the butt on the way out. Not exactly a warm welcome. Oh, and there is a locked room in the apartment. Which hubby surmises must be where the landlord stores his personal items, but which you just know is going to be something else…

There’s a palpable sense of unease right from the start, just viewing the apartment, but once they move in the sense of disturbance grows. Much of the increasing sense that things just aren’t right comes from Joanna basically being at home by herself with the baby, day after day, in a strange city while her husband is out at his new job. She doesn’t know anyone here and, mysteriously, she never seems to bump into anyone from the neighbouring apartments coming or going. But she does hear them. Sometimes. A banging, banging, banging on the walls and other sounds.

And this is where The Resident takes a different tack from some haunted apartment tales – director Ainslie wisely uses the more mundane, everyday elements of Joanna’s life as a new mother in a strange city to both heighten her feelings of isolation and dislocation and yet at the same time also make you second guess her state of mind. Like many new mothers she’s already dealing with major life changes – the physical and emotional sides of pregnancy and giving birth, then finding yourself now mostly at home on your own during the work day, totally cut out of your previous routines. That is a difficult thing for most first-time mothers to adjust to, and here in a new city she doesn’t even have friends or relatives to come round, take them out, babysit or help out, increasing her isolation, and it doesn’t help that her husband is busy with his new job and his stress there means he is less than supportive even when he is at home…

And I found this was the element that really made The Resident work for me – that real-world side of things, of Joanna trying to cope with her new life and baby and new home is something that is very easy to empathise with, and grounds the spookier aspects. In fact, it not only grounds them it also offers the viewer a dilemma – how much of the increasingly strange things that seem to be happening are real? And how many are the products of a woman in a heightened emotional state? And that really helps drive The Resident into a much more psychological level as the viewer is left wondering what is real and what is not – and realising that even if it isn’t real, the effect is the same on poor Joanna. And what if it is real, what are those noises from neighbouring apartments where nobody every seems to be home, what’s in that locked room, what happened here before… With a lean running time The Resident builds atmosphere right from the start and increases the psychological pressure throughout, not outstaying its welcome, so keeping the tensions nice and taught.

The Resident is released on DVD, on-demand and download by Second Sight from May 22nd; this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Books: Disturbing, personal horror on the Downs – Chalk

Chalk,

Paul Cornell,

Tor Books

(cover design by Peter Lutjen)

The great publisher of SF&F, Tor, has been doing a cracking run of shorter books recently, some by new talent, some by existing, some very short (like 90 page novellas), some a bit longer (as is the case here, although still a bit shorter than many modern novels – which is a good thing, actually, it’s just the length it need to be, nothing unnecessary). When this one arrived on my desk it went straight into my eternal tottering pile of must-reads because – well, it’s Paul Cornell. And I also had that mysterious vibe, the bookseller’s Spidey sense, that just whispers to me sometimes that this is a book I need to read. And yes, I did need to read it (bless you, Spidey-sense, you never lead to anything less than a great read).

Andrew Waggonner is a schoolboy in the early 1980s, at a private school that’s seen better days,  in rural Wiltshire, and like any school anywhere there are all the usual things any kid has to try to juggle – the expectations of parents, indifferent teachers “preparing you” for life, the different social castes of your fellow schoolkids, avoiding the bullies, wondering about the opposite sex with a mixture of eager desperation and terror, about trying to figure out who you are, or who you want to be, and, this being school, how not to have any of that stand out too much in case you get picked out as different, listening to music and trying to make sure it’s the “right” music – music that the other kids will approve of and not make fun of you for listening to.

Like pretty much every school ever there is, of course, a bully – Drake – and his clique all desperately trying to make themselves look hard in front of their leader. But when Waggonner becomes the target for their violent urges, they overstep the mark, going far beyond the normal name-calling or hitting to something much worse, far more damaging, both physically and emotionally, something that scars both victim and perpetrators. And it will have repercussions. Nobody here is entirely good or bad, entirely villain or victim; as Chalk unfolds, rather satisfyingly they become elements of each.

At only 265 pages I don’t want to go into too many plot details, because this is a beautifully compact, self-contained work and to describe too much of the events, especially that key moment of bullying abuse, would be to spoil too much. Suffice to say that it is extremely disturbing, even to a seasoned horror fan, and the chain of events it sets in motion, rippling forward is equally disturbing and unsettling. The story oozes a creeping sense of horror, and a sense of an inevitable dread, like something from Poe, that feeling of the world moving off-kilter with a slow but unstoppable, irresistible force, of darkness becoming visible.

Set in the West Country, Cornell makes great use of the location – this is ancient landscape, both natural chalk downs and the landmarks made by the hand of man, ancient man, like the eerie, haunting chalk figures, the great stone circles like Avebury, or West Kennet Long Barrow. This is a region steeped in the arcane, the ritual, myth and magic since the neolithic days of our distant ancestors and anyone who has walked there will be well aware that those long-distant times can still raise a tingle on the back of your neck, a feeling of … something… The people here were an old people long before Rome’s Legions marched across the land. There’s still a sniff of magic in the air now that even a modern world of motorways and television doesn’t erase, and what happens if that ancient magic starts pushing into the modern world, reshaping it?

Chalk bleeds atmosphere, a slow-burn build towards a satisfying, well-paced, faster and faster urgent climax that could go one way or the other, the sense of place and history and myth almost palpable. The atmosphere of 80s school life is just as well articulated by Cornell – Doctor Who on a Saturday night, the hidden world of classroom cliques and groups that no adult (parent or teacher) can protect you from (or often even wants to know about), and, this being the 80s, listening religiously to the Top 40 each week, because this is an era where the radio and singles are how you get your music (no multi-channel digital streams here, this is an era where the school is just getting its first Dragon 32 computers) and it is vital to know what the latest number one is in case another kid asks you. It doesn’t wallow in nostalgia, but it does evoke the era extremely well, and I found myself having more than a few flashbacks; Cornell invests the settings, character and tales with a personal touch that makes the reader empathise all the more (even the bullies are fully-realised, not cardboard cut-outs but complex, contradictory human beings).

There are moments of sharp horror, of violence, blood, fire, some from the now, some echoes from the distant past, but still recorded into the very landscape, almost like Kneale’s Stone Tapes (I found it also, for me, evoking something of another creepy tale of that era, the Children of the Stones). But mostly Chalk, like much of the best horror stories, thrives on atmosphere, the type that gets under your skin, of a growing disturbance, both personal and more widespread across the land, slowly but inevitably building; a creeping horror, the ancient meshing with the modern, a sickening sense of dread cresting like a dark wave that, sooner or later, must hit the shore….

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Reviews: Cthulhu horror meets racial bigotry in the Ballad of Black Tom

The Ballad of Black Tom,

Victor Lavalle,

Tor

victor_lavalle_ballad_black_tom_tor_books_cover

In recent months top SF&F publishers Tor have bee putting out a series of rather tasty wee novellas covering fantasy, science fiction and, here, straying into Lovecraftian horror, and indeed urban horror, the sort that is generated as much by the more vicious, ignorant elements of humanity as it is by supernatural and magical threat. Charles Thomas Tester – Tommy Tester, the eponymous “Black Tom”, is a black man in early 20th century America; it may have been decades since Lincoln’s Emancipation Declaration, but even in urban New York (let alone the Deep South), discrimination and intolerance is rampant, the Civil Rights movement and hard-won battles of the 60s are a long, long way away.

This is an era of know your place, and if you are a young man of colour then that’s even more important – keep to your “own areas” (such as Harlem), don’t get in the way of the white folks (especially the rich ones), and avoid the attention of the police. And given Tommy grafts a living from a mixture of playing a simple repertoire for busking in the street and from running slightly dodgy errands, which can take him outside his comfort zone of Harlem. And we see him early on running one of those errands, delivering a strange manuscript to a mysterious woman in a richer (and whiter) part of town, a book which may have esoteric learning in it, possibly dangerous knowledge. Despite keeping his head down and often adopting the servile and simple stance expected of him though, Tommy’s no idiot, he’s sharp, sharp enough to deliver the book and take his payment, but to ensure an important page is held back so that its knowledge can’t be fully used.

There’s a little hint of the John Constantine around Tommy, not so much a streetwise magus like Constantine, but a man who knows there is more about the world than just what most people see, and this knowledge and his esoteric errand-running bring him to the attention of a very wealthy man who asks him to play his music at a private party at his large house. And it is there that Tommy Tester learns that there is even more behind the everyday scenery of the stage we call the world than he suspected, and he thought he knew a bit. That there are other realms, and dark, ancient beings to whom human civilisation is but an ant hill. But living as a black man in that era of US history, being seen as unimportant, beneath notice almost, is something Tommy knows all too well, and his perspective on the ancient, dark beings is coloured (no pun intended) by how the simple fact of his own skin tone has seen him treated in his own society.

This is a superb read – Lavalle, even in the brief length of a novella, conjures up a superbly atmospheric story, both in terms of the atmosphere of dark, Lovecraftian dread and unease building throughout and also in the way he so wonderfully brings out a real feeling of New York in that period, the different areas with different ethnic cultures overlapping, each with their own ways and districts, and the realism of those streets – all now so changed, entire subcultures and communities moved and changed in the intervening decades – works perfectly as a contrast against the darker fantasy elements. And the aspects dealing with they way race, class and wealth  dictate how someone is treated – does the policeman respectfully raise his cap to you or does he wallop you over the head with impunity – and viewed have many parallels to modern society.

In a mere 149 pages Lavalle crafts an increasing air of menace an unreality lying just beyond the seemingly solid walls of our reality, just waiting to break in, and at the same time does what the best writers do, uses the fantasy to draw parallels to social problems of the present day. This is the first time I’ve read Lavalle, but I’ll be happy to pick up anything else by him after this.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Red Kingdom Rising

Red Kingdom Rising is a very intriguing new British Indy horror from Navin Dev, and one which, I am delighted to say, avoids the far too easy route some less skilled new film-makers take in creating a horror flick and thinking sudden jumps or needless splatter or sadistic torture equals genuine horror (not that I mind a bit of splatter but too many use it or torture in horror in place of creating story or atmosphere rather than to serve it). No, what Dev has done is crafted a delightfully dark dream world of a film, inspired by Lewis Carroll (which appeals to me as Carroll is one of my favourite writers of all time).

Mary Ann (played by Emily Stride) is a troubled young woman, haunted by dreams that seem to leak out into her waking life, creating real problems for her everyday life and work, dreams that seem to be wrapped around tales of Alice in Wonderland and more specifically the figure of the Red King that her father used to read to her against her mother’s wishes. But what parts are dreams of the book, which are perhaps dreams of her father who has just passed away, and do they mean something? We begin with a quite dark, disturbing nightmare – is it childhood memories mixed up with guilt over her father’s recent death surfacing in her mind, or do these dark, blood-red dreams signify something else, some aspect of her family life of childhood that she has repressed or ignored.

Reluctantly Mary Ann decides to return to her family home and her distant mother; it’s clear she didn’t grow up in the most conventional, loving family environment. As she settles back into her old room the dream become more vivid – the sleeping (now awakening) Red King, a small girl in period costume called Alice, who, disturbingly has no real face, just a face shaped blank visage which reminded me of some of the wonderfully creepy moments from the old Sapphire and Steel show (which is a compliment). The waking world and the dark fantasy of the dream state become increasingly tangled like the roots of an old, gnarled tree, and it becomes increasingly difficult to tell one from the other – a moment with her rather odd mother in the kitchen seems like it may be the real world, albeit it very strange but then the mother’s behaviour is strange, but then it suddenly feels more like the dreams/nightmares are crowding into the scene – portents and symbols litter the film, both in the waking scenes and the dreamstate, and really you cannot separate either strand of the film, both are a part of Mary Ann’s damaged psyche, held together (barely) for years into early adulthood but now bleeding out into the open and forcing her to find the source and confront it.

I won’t spoil it for you by delving any further into the plot, but I will say Dev creates a very assured slice of fantasy-horror on a small budget, deftly weaving symbols and literary references into the story and treating his audience as intelligent enough to understand the symbology and the dream-state scenes without spoon-feeding them. The waking world and the dark dreamstate become increasingly hard to tell apart and in truth you shouldn’t even try, they are all part of Mary Ann’s attempt to understand the roots of the nightmare figure of the Red King that has haunted her since childhood – who is he, what does he represent? Who is the small, faceless child Alice? A guide, an ally or a mischievous spirit?  Red Kingdom Rising is a beautifully-made horror-fantasy moving through dark, dream waters that run deep, crafting genuine, disturbing horror not from shocks or OTT effects but by constantly layering up an in increasing sensation of claustophobia and building sensation of dread, of there maybe being now way out – is there a genuine source to these troubling nightmares or is Mary Ann simply mentally ill? Is there any rational way to approach dream logic to unravel the meaning? Dev has produced a confident, elegant dark fantasy of a film that engages you into a brooding atmosphere that will appeal to anyone who enjoys intelligent, elegant horror such as the early works of Del Toro.

Sadly at the moment, as is often the case for independent film-makers, getting the resources together to make a film is a real battle, but having managed to achieve that and make the film there is a whole second battle to be fought to try and get the attention of distributors to get the film widely shown. I know I often see very fine Indy films of all genres at the Edinburgh Film Festival and it can be months, sometimes years or even never before I see them get a distibution deal to be shown to the general public in cinemas. At the moment Dev is doing special screenings and the film festival circuit to try and build word of mouth and create awareness of Red Kingdom Rising, so sadly you won’t be able to see it easily right now in your local cinema, but do check the official site for news of special screenings (I’m told the excellent Kim Newman was at one recently and liked what he saw, which is a good indicator to those of us who enjoy good horror) and festival showings, because when someone makes an intelligent, atmospheric Brit horror movie like this they deserve some support. And distributors, you should be looking at this film and getting it out to audiences.

 

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Easter zombies

The Easter holiday weekend, when we remember Jesus Christ who died then rose from the grave, walked out of the tomb as an Undead, munched on some passing disciple’s brains and so gave birth to the zombie genre and set the scene for the horror messiah Saint George of Romero. And praise also to the Catholic Church who took time out from buggering young children to create the myth of Transubstantiation where they held that the wine and the Host wafer literally became the body and blood of Christ when taken at services, giving life eternal, thus also promoting both the cannibal horror sub genre and of course the vampire. Where would modern horror be without Jesus and the Catholic Church, eh?

Mega Shark Versus Giant Octopus

Giant monster movies are generally pretty damned dumb, but often good ‘leave brain at the door’ fun movies (best viewed after a minimum of two pints), but the trailer to Mega Shark Versus Giant Octopus looks even sillier than most – giant shark biting battleship? Huge octopus arm twatting planes out of mid air? Crazier than a midget on spring loaded burning stilts firing custard pies from a flan bazooka. And yet I think I might have to go and see this…

Vamping it up in Toronto – Forever Knight

Sooo busy lately, working with my colleagues on the latest version of the web site for FPI. It’s a much more flexible site bringing everything under one virtual roof. It’s a lot of work to get the thousands of graphic novels ready and moved over of course. Still running the existing site but I’ve got a good chunk of stuff up on the new site now and I’m pretty pleased with the way it is shaping up, I think its well worth all our efforts.Still, I’ve been spending so much time relentlessly entering graphic novels onto it that I started hallucinating a couple of dwarves on my screen, one dressed as Adolf Hitler and one a miniature Winston Churchill. Both were juggling kiwi fruit for some reason, while behind them a chorus of penguins in blond wigs sang Lily Marlene… At least I think it was a hallucination, perhaps my colleague buried a bizarre screensaver into his code for the site.

So I was pretty pleased when a DVD box set arrived from America for me to relax with a bit. The whole first series of Forever Knight on 5 discs. Anyone else remember Forever Knight? Used to be hidden away on the midnight showing (appropriately enough) on Sky back in the 90s. It was about an 800 year old former Crusader knight called Nicholas who was trying to make amends for his evil vampiric life by serving humanity – in this century he had become a homicide detective (working the night shift, naturally) in downtown Toronto.

forever knight

It ran for three seasons and stories varied from some which were very much cop-crime tales to some which drew more on the vampire mythos (which I enjoyed more). Like the rather good Highlander TV series which was running at a similar time (FK’s leading man Geraint Wynne Davies was a guest star in one episode) many of the events in each week’s story would trigger memories from the lifetime of past centuries. FK was also one of the first shows I can recall being the subject of an internet campaign to keep it going – the Kick-start the Knight campaign and had quite a number of websites back in the Olde Days of the Web (the 90s, when we had to wind up the telephone crank similar to those seen in U-Boat movies to make astonishingly fast connections of 28.8KBS, less broadband more rubber band).

Despite that I’ve hardly ever met anyone who knows of the show – a chum at my old work watched it and a couple of friends in the States and that was it. Never saw it mentioned in any of the UK SF magazines either, which is why I had no idea it had ever been released on DVD, even if only in the US. Since I picked up a nifty multi-region player recently I thought I’d treat myself to it and it arrived for a decent price reasonably quickly.

forever knight season 1 cast

The only sting was that HM Customs and Excise stung me for import tax – fair enough, it was over their £18 threshold for personal imports, but if the government is serious about pushing internet commerce in the UK they need to look at this – but this tax was doubled by the bloody post office who charged me a handling charge even higher than the import tax. Handling charge??? They’re the sodding post office!! Handling goods is their business!!! They’ve been paid postage then charge you even more to finish delivering it? Is this some scam between Customs and the GPO? What a rip. Certainly something I’ll have to consider before ordering the second volume.

Well, that’s given me something to relax with after a hard day of adding new graphic novels to the site and I’m really enjoying it, especially as I haven’t seen Forever Knight in years. I also got out for a few hours at the weekend to go the RoyalMuseum with Mel, who wanted to see an exhibition on Scottish textiles and design. Not bad, but not really my cup of tea, but it did afford me the spectacle of a pair of Harris Tweed Nike trainers and pink cashmere hot pants! Now there’s something you don’t see everyday…