Creepy tales for the dark nights: Ghost Stories of an Antiquary Volume 2

Ghost Stories of an Antiquary Volume 2,
M.R. James, adapted by Leah Moore, John Reppion, Al Davison, George Kambadais, Abigail Larson, Meghan Hetrick
SelfMadeHero

Autumn winds blow, shaking the remaining leaves off the trees, the temperature drops, and the nights stretch out towards the direction of winter, darkness falling earlier every night – the ideal time to curl up indoors, preferably by the fireside, and read a damned good ghost story. And few ghost stories are more classic than those of Montague Rhodes James a medievalist scholar of some academic renown, but best remembered today as one of the all-time great tellers of ghostly tales, many originally designed for him to read to friends and students by candlelight on Christmas Eve. They’ve been enormously influential, and adapted to other media across the last century, including two rather fine volumes adapted by Leah Moore and John Reppion, the second of which has just arrived from SelfMadeHero.

There are four tales here, each illustrated by a different artist. Number 13 by George Kambadais, Count Magnus by Abigail Larson, Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come To You, My Lad, by Al Davison and The Treasure of Abbot Thomas by Meghan Hetrick. M R James was a master of crafting short, unsettling stories, and these are just the right length to establish the story and, just as important for a James tale, the atmosphere. Because James, as with Poe, it’s as much about that atmosphere, from the seemingly mundane to the first inkling that something isn’t quite right, then that slow building sense of unease that grows into dread then fear as those hints of movement in the shadows manifest.

The Number 13 plays on the Western tradition of that number being considered unlucky – many hotels, for example, will avoid naming a room or floor with it and go from 12 to 14, and that’s the case here, where our visitor, exploring some local Scandinavian history returns to his hotel room one evening, and find it odd that he hadn’t noticed room 13 just next to his own when he had passed it during the day. Gazing idly out of the room window as he smokes, he notices the room light casting the shadow of himself and his window on the nearby building – and that of his neighbour, in room 13, also standing at his window. Except next morning, there is no room 13… Kambadais’ art does a terrific job of slowly stretching the everyday normality of a regular hotel into something…other…wrong… threatening, nice and subtle to begin with (astonishing how uneasy just a door can make you…) and then changes in shadows and colour and… Well, read it to find out, I’m not going to blow it here!

And that is the down side of short horror tales – personally I think the shortform story particularly suits horror, but in a review it does present certain problems, most pointedly that you can’t say too much without risking a spoiler. So I’m trying to be very careful here, and talk more about the art and the atmosphere than the narrative of the four tales here. Larson’s Count Magnus (one of James’ more famous creations) has a more stylised art, the depiction of the eponymous count glimpsed in an oil painting long, angular, distinctive, the panels set in an ancient Swedish churchyard and crypts conjures up a feeling of confinement and claustraphobia, while the colouring by Al Davison is simply gorgeous, adding much to Larson’s art on the Count (a scene with the multiple colours from the sunlight streaming through a stained glass window into the church is beautifully done, or a single beam of light into an old tomb).

Davison takes on the main art duties in the next story, an old, old favourite of mine, Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come To You, My Lad, which I’m sure is a favourite with many others too, not least for the classic 1960s TV adaptation of this superbly creepy story. Again we go from the mundane, almost boringly normal – starting with a bunch of middle-aged Oxbridge dons chatting over dinner about their holiday plans – to the slowly building sense of unease, the art style and the colour palette shifting from a well-lit, realistic depiction to a cold, icy blue, night-time view of shifting shadows and strange, distorted figures and that horrible feeling that there is something there, right there, in your room close to you, something that should not be there.

Red Thorn artist Meghan Hetrick completes this volume with The Treasure of Abbot Thomas. This starts out like a conventional adventure story, our protagonist following a well-worn path of those before him who have tried to find the secret key that reveals where a fabled treasure has been hidden, a treasure most now consider to be just an old folk tale. And like any great adventure hero our clever chap stumbles across a clue no-one else has, that puts them on the trail. And that’s where this starts to diverge from an Indiana Jones or National Treasure type adventure of clues and hidden doorways and secrets concealed and uncovered, because, after all, this is an M R James story, and this rapidly goes from high adventure to something far more disturbing, almost Lovecraftian-level disturbing. The scenes of preparation and discovery take in bright, sunlit villages, grand houses with beautiful stained-glass windows, in stark contrast to the scenes where they start to uncover secret areas, panels depicting them descending spiral stones of an old well, lit only by the flickering lamp, linger in the mind after the story is finished.

In fact all of these stories linger in the mind, especially if, as I did, you read them as they – and the originals – should best be read: on a dark, autumn night, by the fireside, happily lost in the slowly-building atmosphere of fear and dread each tale crafts so perfectly, until you suddenly start back to yourself when the wind howls down your chimney and for just a moment you feel a stab of fear, the creeping fingers of the stories still stirring your perceptions, until you realise that sound in the chimney was just the wind, that the blinds only rattled because you forgot to close the window and the breeze is shaking them. Or wait, you did close that window earlier, didn’t you, and it was just a sudden breeze that blew out the candle, wasn’t it?….

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

After Dark

As we move deep into autumn and winter knocks at the door, that means it is getting darker earlier and earlier each evening. This isn’t all bad, of course, because that means I get to take night shots just by walking home from work of an evening. This was the world’s largest memorial to a writer, the great Gothic rocket of the Scott Monument, last night, at “Blue Hour”, that brief, magical twilight moment when the sun has set, the eastern sky is dark but the western sky still has a pale, blue light to it from the vanished sun below the horizon, one of my favourite times of day during autumn and winter, especially as that light quality in the sky silhouettes Edinburgh’s old buildings:

Scott Monument at dusk 02

This is looking west from Waverley Bridge, across the now-dark Princes Street Gardens towards the Mound, where the National Gallery of Scotland (on the left) and the Royal Scottish Academy (on the right) can be seen, with the western sky just fading into darkness, the last burst of colours before full nightfall:

The Mound - Blue Hour

Zooming in a bit more from the previous picture, the large, plate-glass, brightly-lit windows you can see below the Royal Academy are part of the Playfair extension which lies under the plaza on the Mound between the two galleries. It was completed a few years ago and connects both structures underground with more exhibition and work spaces, plus a cafe and restaurant by these windows, looking out into Princes Street Gardens:

darkening skies, bright windows

Last night on my way home from work, the iconic old Bank of Scotland building which stands at the top of the Mound by the road which curves up from the Georgian-era New Town to the medieval Old Town above on its volcanic ridge. There was a large crescent Moon rising in the early evening sky, and from this perspective it looked as it it were right above the dome on the bank building, so I had to get a shot of it. These are the sorts of things you just get to see walking home from work when you live in Edinburgh. Not a bad commute, is it?

Edinburgh Moonrise

Provenance: Ann Leckie returns to her Ancillary universe

Provenance,

Ann Leckie,

Orbit Books

Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice seemed to come out of nowhere and conquered all before it, scooping the Arthur C Clarke, the Hugo and the Nebula awards among others, and for my own part it (and the following two books in her Radch trilogy) made my annual Best of the Year lists (in fact I recall Justice also made a few of our guest Best of the Year selections too, it impressed a lot of people). Her new novel, Provenance, is set in the same universe, but isn’t directly connected – it’s a different world and society (outside the imperialist Radch space), and different characters, and I think that was a wise move by the author, giving fans something fresh but at the same time also expanding the universe she has built previously.

Much of the events in Provenance rotate around or involve Ingray Aughskold, a young woman from a highly privileged, important and influential family on the world of Hwae. These kinds of mover and shaker families don’t operate just like a classic dynastic model though, they also frequently foster and adopt other children, raised to be part of the family and with them competing to be the one who will be named as the heir. In her case she suspects her brother is their mother’s favourite to inherit her name and title, he simply seems more devious and determined and scheming. Not terribly pleasant characteristics, but for the sort of political wheeling and dealing class, quite useful. And so at the opening we find Ingray, somewhat out of her depth, on a station in another system, where she has used all of her remaining resources to have someone secretly rescued from what is euphemistically called “compassionate removal” (essentially a prison planet where undesirables are dumped and have to fend for themselves).

Ingray’s world is obsessed with “vestiges”, historical artifacts and documents which are used to prove worthiness and rights, both on the personal level to the family history to the entire planetary society itself (not unknown in our own history, think of the supposed Wallace Sword in the Stirling monument, or Henry VIII’s Arthurian round table). The person she has had broken out of imprisonment, Pahlad Budrakim, also comes from a powerful family like her own (actually one her mother, the current Netano, has contested against for political office). And he was put away for stealing the family vestiges and replacing them with clever forgeries. Ingray’s plan to get Pahlad free, return to Hwae and find the never-recovered vestiges and present them to her mother as proof of her abilities is a bit desperate, even to herself, a last-ditch, all-or-nothing approach. So she is already filled with self-doubt as she embarks on this mission… And then when she finally gets Pahlad Budrakim delivered, removed from stasis, the person who emerges, despite looking like Pahlad Budrakim, claims not to be that person or even to know them. It seems her plan has fallen apart right at the first hurdle and all that remains to do is go home, broke and resigned to failure and the inevitable gloating of her brother.

Needless to say, this is not exactly how Provenance plays out, or it would be a very shot read. Instead Ingray finds that her travels and her scheme have brought her into wider plots, involving some of those she meets in her journey, her family, her planet and other powers. She will find herself again worrying about being out of her depth, of attempting to form plans in response to strange new turns of events, then finding her plans don’t always work and she’s going to have to have a wee panic but then settle down and think again. There’s actually something very pleasing about this – Ingray isn’t some superbly-gifted character, highly-trained and with capabilities normal people can only envy (the sort of character we see all too often), she’s a regular person, and a young one, inexperienced and learning as she goes. It’s as much a coming of age story as it is a mystery and conspiracy tale, and Ingray feels quite natural and believable, and increasingly likable as the story progresses.

In the Ancillary series the imperial Radch normally use the pronoun “she” for any citizen, they don’t differentiate in language between genders. Here in the Hwaen and other cultures which come into play here, Leckie expands that, with Hwaens using three gender pronouns, he, she and e, and eir instead of their, while different cultures also follow different naming conventions (much as some Earth cultures do – for example, not every culture follows the Western model of forename and surname in that order). My only problem with “e” is as a British person when I see “e opened the airlock” I can’t help but imagine it in a Cockeny or Yorkshire accent, or another which drops the “h”, which I imagine isn’t a problem American readers have. And this and with exposure to these other cultures, including the alien Geck and people from various walks of life, Provenance feels more rounded socially than the Ancillary trilogy – a part of that universe, of course, but showing us whole different parts of that universe, and hinting at more to explore. And that’s something we SF geeks do love, for sure, a good bit of world – or universe – building, and it expands that setting from the original trilogy nicely, widening that set for more future tales (I sincerely hope) set in that universe. An extremely satisfying and enjoyable read.

Doo’cot

This charming old doo’cot is part of the estate around Elcho Castle in Fife, just a few miles from the River Tay:

Elcho Castle Doo'cot 02

The inside is slowly being colonised by nature, ferns and creeping plants growing out of the stone nest ledges of this hive-shaped old dovecot, which gave it a particular beauty, I think:

Elcho Castle Doo'cot 07

And looking up through the open roof to the sky beyond I liked the effect it made, and it just seemed like a scene that would work better in monochrome, so I switched to B&W mode on the camera and positioned myself looking straight up to get this:

Elcho Castle Doo'cot 06

Graphic Science

Graphic Science: Seven Journeys of Discovery,

Darryl Cunningham,

Myriad Editions

Now here is one of 2017’s UK graphic novel releases that I’ve been eagerly awaiting. Quite a few years ago Darryl Cunningham was our cartoonist in virtual residence on the blog, before going on to be one of the first wave of creators from then-new Blank Slate Press, with the deeply moving, well thought-out Psychiatric Tales. Since then he has, with an industrial level of research to accompany his cartooning, carved out a fine reputation on both sides of the Atlantic for some fascinating factual comics works, such as Science Tales and Supercrash (both also published by Myriad Editions), frequently sharing glimpses of works in progress on his blog.

With Graphic Science Darryl brings us a book that isn’t just about scientific development and breakthroughs, this is as much about history and the society these seven subjects lived in, and the influence of the prevailing societal and academic norms of their time, the challenges of race, of gender. Giving us a book which explored important breakthroughs which, outside of academic science circles, are not as well known to the general public and putting them into some context, giving the discoveries and the discoverers their due respect for adding to the sum of knowledge, for helping shape the world we live in now, that would be an achievement in itself. But Darryl doesn’t just craft an accessible view into research which changed our understanding of our world, in Graphic Science Darryl gives us seven tales that are remarkably, warmly human experiences. This is as much about the people as the science, and that makes Graphic Science not just intellectually fascinating, but emotionally compelling and rewarding.

He was all too human, with flaws and idiosyncrasies. We should appreciate the man, not the myth.” Darryl on Nikola Tesla

The book takes in seven different scientists from across the last couple of centuries: Antoine Lavoisier, Mary Anning, George Washington Carver, Alfred Wegener, Nikola Tesla, Jocelyn Bell-Burnell and Fred Hoyle. Some of those names may be familiar to you already, others not so much, perhaps. Darryl has, from a wide possible array of influential scientists selected this group of seven as much for the personal interest in their lives and times, which proves as fascinating as their scientific discoveries. Born into the last generation to be enslaved before the end of the US Civil War, George Washington Carver overcomes racial prejudice (indeed, sometimes outright hatred), Mary Anning fights sexism and poverty in 19th century Britain, while even in the middle of the 20th century that gender gap still has to be faced by a new generation of scientists like Jocelyn Bell-Burnell. For German scientist Wegener the dogmatic, entrenched position of the established view stands in the path of his theory.

Darryl looks at the science, such as Lavoisier experimenting with chemicals, unlocking the secrets of the air we breathe, but he also pays attention to the world around Lavoisier. We see pre and post-revolutionary France, we we the interaction with the findings and debates with other scientists, the politics of the time (which would have a terrible price for Lavoisier), but also the domestic – home life, marriage. And rather nicely he pays attention to Marie-Anne, who not only becomes Lavoisier’s wife, she becomes an important part of his work. Intelligent, witty and social, she holds salons where scientific and artistic guests meet regularly, feeding each other’s thoughts and ideas (she even charmed Benjamin Franklin, painting his portrait). And she uses her intelligence and her skill with languages to help her husband, translating scientific papers from other countries for him, recording his own work with the meticulous detail that is the bedrock of scientific research, her contribution to helping her husband’s work given its due respect. In the chapter on Carver there’s a lovely moment, in stark contrast to the hideous racism of 19th century America, when his fellow students, impressed by his intellect and gentleness, get together to buy furniture for this young student’s rooms, or leave small gifts of money.

There isn’t room here to go into all seven chapters, but each shares this rather lovely approach – putting the human face on these events, people and discoveries. These aren’t cold facts, or distant historical figures, these are real people, people we can relate to. And while that makes the book more engaging emotionally, it also, for me, enhances the thrill of the discovery, of invention – these are not works by some remote, isolated genius, they are by genuine people, a reminder of our shared human connections, and by extension a reminder that scientific discovery is not just the domain of well-heeled, upper class white males, that all sorts of people from all sorts of origins have – and still do – contribute massively to our shared pool of human knowledge.

The art retains that nice, cartoony feel of previous works by Darryl, a style which I’ve become very fond of over the years, and which he uses well to denote emotional moments, or to illustrate and explain a complicated point. Each chapter has a limited but different colour palette for the most part, giving each its own look. There are some nice little moments of humour sneaked in their too ( for example, an explorer falls down a crevasse in a glacier, the image shows the hole and a “help!” speech bubble, which made me giggle). While many pages stock to a six-panel layout, some, for good effect, change this, such as a facing pair of two small and one large panel pages as Fred Hoyle’s mind considers the birth and death of stars, or showing the ancient land-mass of Pangea from Wegener’s thoughts on continental drift, one large panel of that long-gone supercontinent, two smaller panels showing the movement towards today, a span of billions of years covered in three panels, a pillar of modern scientific understanding, one we have all grown up with and taken for granted, illustrated as the powerful, divisive, controversial idea it once was (a reminder that our knowledge is not always fixed, that some people can give us an entire new perspective on the world, also that it is no bad thing to ask questions and explore ideas).

I’ve always had a deep interest in science, a side-effect of a lifetime of reading science fiction, no doubt, and I did actually know each of the people highlighted in Graphic Science, some only a little, others, like Bell-Burnell I knew much more about. But even with the scientists I was familiar with I learned new aspects to their work, to the person themselves, and, crucially, the social, historical and personal context, giving me a much rounder view of them, and a deeper appreciation the discoveries they made. Graphic Science is a rich, rewarding, fascinating and warmly personable view into some of those who, often against the odds, have added fuel to the shining beacon of learning and knowledge which has helped defined our species, our place in the world, our understanding of that world and the vast cosmos around us. A wonderful read.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog. You can read a guest Director’s Commentary by Darryl talking about Graphic Science here on the FP blog

The Corporation Wars come to a cracking conclusion with Emergence

The Corporation Wars Book 3: Emergence,

Ken MacLeod,

Orbit Books

(cover design by Bekki Guyatt)

I’m always a happy reader when I have a new Ken MacLeod book waiting for my attentions, he has, consistently, been one of the most interesting and thoughtful science fiction writers in these islands for the last couple of decades. As well as intriguing thoughts and gripping stories, Ken is also adept at doing what the best science fiction does – using SF to address the problems of human nature. And in the Corporation Wars trilogy that’s no mean feat, considering, for the most part, the various characters in this series aren’t actually human. We have robots who have achieved sentience, we have computer AIs which oversee much of the Earth policy in this distant proto-colony system, and we have the emulation of human minds running in digital simulations or, to interact with the real universe outside the computer reality, downloaded to mechanoid “frames”.

The first two volumes have seen these deceased humans – fighters and terrorists from two rival factions, the Axel (accelerationists) and the Rax (reactionaries, basically racist, Nazi, power-hungry types), their memories and minds digitally resurrected to man combat machines for Earth, as compensation for what they put the world through during their millennia-gone battles. But twenty light years from home and thousands of years into the future, not even in flesh bodies, these groups can’t help but revert to their previous behaviour… And yet some are starting to learn, starting to look back on what they did before their (usually violent) deaths, on how Earth society has evolved since then, and, importantly, to think about the now sentient robots they have been tasked with dealing with.

After much evolution and interaction – not to mention some spectacular action – in Dissidence and Insurgence, Emergence continues seamlessly (the overall effect, I found, is less that of reading a trilogy but one long tale with small restful pauses), all of the characters now very firmly established, developed. There are no ciphers or stock characters here, even the robots, the newest intelligent beings in the story, are evolving rapidly, showing individuality, wit, even friendship and care for others. And then there is the massive “super habital” world the colonising corporations have been orbiting for so long, finally brought fully on stage, and opening up yet another avenue for exploring how diverse and rich, and astonishing, life, in any form, can be.

There’s plenty to chew over here, from the rights of any sentient being (human, posthuman, robotic or otherwise) and how we deal with them (our behaviour to them saying much about our own moral faculties – or lack of them) to the use of economic and military power. In the Rax I thought I detected more anger than in the preceding volumes; here they are not just the far-right, but quite clearly Nazis, right down to the arm salutes as one group makes a grab for power, and I thought perhaps this was a quite understandable reaction to the hideous growth of such hate groups in the real world. But as well as the thought-provoking elements and the cracking sense of pace and action which pushes events along at a gratifying clip, there is also some humour here – the nasty space-Nazi trying to justify racial superiority when he is nothing but a digital emulation of his old mind in a robotic frame (ah, but an emulation based on a white brain! Yes, that’s how stupid and bigoted these people are). It’s a superb casserole of ingredients, building to the boil at just the right moment.

Emergence is out now from Orbit Books, you can read about the first volume here, and volume two here, while we have a recent report on some of the science fiction events Ken had as a guest selector at the Edinburgh International Book Festival here.