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
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.
(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
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
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
Mike Mignola, Chris Roberson, Stephen Green, Dave Stewart
It’s always a good thing when the New Comic Book Day releases include Mignola and his merry group of collaborators bringing us fresh Hellboy stories. Although the main Hellboy narrative arc has finally finished with the Hellboy in Hell series, over the last couple of years we’ve been treated to these “young Hellboy” stories, starting with Hellboy and the BPRD 1952, which filled in some back history and gave us a view of Big Red’s very first time out as a field agent (1952 reviewed here, and you can read the 1953 review here). This week the latest mini-series kicked off with the 1954 installment, and, rather appropriately given the era it is set in Mignola et al have happily – gleefully, I am sure – raided some of the science fiction of the period, notably the 1951 classic film The Thing From Another World, adapted from Campbell’s Who Goes There novella and decades later the inspiration for Carpenter’s iconic The Thing.
As you will have guess from that, this tale is set in the frozen wastes, a great frozen ice-island in the Arctic, with a small scientific base on it. When one of their number is attacked in the almost-perpetual night of the Arctic winter the BPRD sent out Hellboy and Woodrow Farrier, a doctor specialising in cryptozoology. The ingredients are all here – remote location, small group under stress and threat, the fear of whatever the unknown “it” is, the claustrophobia of the small Arctic base. The men argue – some insist it was just a very large polar bear which tore apart their missing colleague, others, experienced in this climate, say no, a polar bear doesn’t reach that size. And then there was the awful stench which came with the creature…
There’s only so much information Hellboy and Farrier can glean from the men’s descriptions though – it happened suddenly, in the dark and snow and of course they were also attempting to escape with their lives, so they’re not really going to give any conclusive eyewitness accounts of just what attacked them (and one in particular seems inclined to be uncooperative, mostly because he doesn’t like the fact Farrier is black. Even with death circling them some still cling to bigotry and racism, although he seems less concerned with the fact that Hellboy is red and non-human than he does with the dark tone of Farrier’s skin, which makes him seem even more ridiculous, which I imagine was the effect the creators intended). And so with only one volunteer willing to go back outside with them, Hellboy and Ferrier embark on a creature hunt…
There’s a good bit more going on here, including some revelations a good bit later into this first issue, but there’s no way to talk about those without also blowing some (very cool and fun) plot points to anyone who hasn’t had a chance to pick this up yet, so much as I enjoyed those elements I will restrain myself. The approach and setting here, homaging those older sci-fi/horror tales is a geek pleasure – I’d guess most of us who love Hellboy would also love those tales, so seeing something in that period vein but starring HB is going to make us smile. Farrier is all wonder and excitement – an academic, he doesn’t get out into the field too much and he is so excited at the thought of a possible unknown species that he’s almost like a kid, oblivious to the danger, while Hellboy, for all he’s only been a field agent for a couple of years by this point, is already experienced and a bit more jaded (probably just a mutation, he tells the over-excited Farrier). And there are later elements which nod both to more sci-fi of the era and also to some old Hellboy opponents too, but again I will keep my big mouth shut on those for fear of spoilers.
It’s never easy for any artist to approach Hellboy – Mignola’s visuals over the first couple of decades of the character’s life are pretty much iconic in style and palette, and it cannot be easy for any other artist to come in and draw the character in their own way but also maintain a visual cohesion to the years of previous art. Green, however, pulls it off nicely, right from the opening of the Dakota rumbling into a frozen airstrip and Hellboy jumping casually out and lighting up, to the bursts of action and then (well, then those other parts that I am not going to mention for fear of ruining the surprise).
This is an absolute pleasure, especially for those of us with a love for some of those old pulp sci-fi tales and films of that era, and it seems clear to me the creators are also having fun, and that always comes across to the reader.
This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog
Mike Mignola, Richard Corben, Mick McMahon, Fabio Moon, Gabriel Ba, Dave Stewart,
We’re still partway through the Hellboy in Hell story arc at the moment in the main, ongoing HB series, but Mike Mignola has been leavening those tales of poor old Red being dead and wandering the afterlife with some stories set in Hellboy’s early career with the likes of the Hellboy and the BPRD 1953 (see here for review) and now this enormously fun Hellboy in Mexico collection of short stories, which sees Mignola collaborating with some fantastic talent – Gabriel Ba, Fabio Moon, Richard Corben and Mick McMahon (with the redoubtable Dave Stewart on colouring duties once more). I think many of us would consider those names alone worthy of the price of admittance.
Here we have a young Hellboy in the year 1956, and a lost period in his life, which as Mignola notes in his introduction (as with most of the other Hellboy short story collections Mike does introductions to each of the stories which I’ve always found almost as much fun as the stories themselves), started almost by accident when a few years ago he drew a sketch of Hellboy with some masked wrestlers and the caption “Palenque, Mexico, June 2, 1956”. This left an enticing door open for Mignola to return at some point to his creation and a “forgotten” era in his history, when Hellboy and a couple of other BPRD operatives were sent to Mexico to investigate a rash of supernatural disturbances and monsters. In fact there’s such a mess of monstrous events that his companions can’t take it and leave, but Hellboy stays behind. But the events take a toll on this young, rasher, less experienced Hellboy and he essentially vanished from the BPRD’s radar for five months (slight shades of Ambrose Bierce). He himself claims not to recall much of what happened – traumatic events mixed with far too much drinking. Or perhaps he simply doesn’t want to remember it…
(Richard Corben’s excellent art illustrates Hellboy and his trio of masked wrestling monster hunters)
One event in particular is a painful memory for Hellboy, introduced by a later BPRD mission to Mexico in the 1980s with Abe Sapien. Awaiting pick up they find some shelter from the sun in a small, ruined, lonely church. On one wall, among the ruined religious artefacts Abe spots old photographs tacked to the wall – one curling picture is indeed that one of Hellboy with the masked wrestlers, and naturally he asks HB about it, and so we start on these five “lost” months of his younger life. The three masked wrestlers in the 1950s photograph were three brothers, travelling the small town wrestling circuit until they are granted a vision in a church, that they are to help fight this plague of supernatural monsters. Hellboy teams up with them, fighting monsters by day, drinking tequila, singing and dancing in tavernas by night, until inevitably this catches up with them. After one night’s post beast-hunting drinking session, their luck turns sour, and in this world of damned creatures spewed up by the Pit and ancient Mesoamerican mythological monsters there are worse things than being killed…
(The Coffin Man – complete with demonic donkey! – art by Fabio Moon)
As this is a collection of short stories (as many of the best Hellboy books have been over the years), I don’t want to get into the actual stories too much as it is way to easy to accidentally let slip a potential spoiler. But I will say this whole collection has a terrific atmosphere to it, partly reflective – a glimpse of a younger, less seasoned Hellboy learning both adventure but also consequences the hard way – partly though it is just a terrific excuse for a series of adventurous romps, filling in a part of Hellboy’s life we’ve not seen before. And of course there is a huge amount of fun in seeing Hellboy teamed up with masked Mexican wrestlers battling vampiric beings, old Aztec gods and others, with many nods to the local mythology and also to the rich pop-cultural seam of horror films from the region.
(“Hellboy Gets Married” – too much drink, some music, a pretty face and it’s easy for a young lad to go astray… Art by the brilliant Mick McMahon)
It’s an absolute delight, and with Richard Corben, Gabriel Ba, Fabio Moon and Mick McMahon as artistic collaborators it’s as great a visual as it is a narrative pleasure, while Mignola’s trademark introductions before each story add nicely to the appreciation of them.
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
With Mignola’s most recent mini-series seeing Hellboy not only dead but now in Hell (a new arc starts this very month), Hellboy and the BPRD 1952 is a welcome diversion, taking us right back to his earliest days and his first field mission for the BPRD. We open in a hospital in newly-liberated France in 1946, where Professor Bruttenholm is recovering from injuries. He is visited by a charming young girl who the nurse assumes is his niece, but it’s soon clear that she’s something rather more than the little girl she appears to be. She brings the hospital-bound Bruttenholm news he has been waiting on regarding some of the supernatural experiments the Nazis had embarked on in the dying days of the war, desperate for some magical weapon to turn the Allied advance back. More specifically he wants to know all he can about how Hellboy was brought into the world and why.
Of course some of this is professional and academic curiosity – he needs to know as part of his role in this new Bureau for Paranormal Defence and Research, set up to counter such threats. But much of his line of questioning stems from something far more basic and far more emotional and human – a paternal instinct. The girl tells him about Project Ragnarok, about how the mad monk Rasputin still lives decades after his supposed death and how he summoned Hellboy, destined to grow up to wear the flaming crown as destroyer of all things, the ending of worlds. But, she chides the injured professor, you know this already, and yet you’ve adopted the boy, while others see the danger he poses, they argue for killing him, you treat him like a son… And that fatherly theme is a strong element here. Yes, Bruttenholm is no fool, he knows what Hellboy could be, he has nightmares about it. But like any good father he sees good in his son as well, and believes firmly that if he nurtures the good, brings him up with love and respect, that he can make him something else, something better – not the doom of the world but its hope.
Cut to 1952, and Hellboy is now fully grown (his body matures quickly), and chafing at the restrictions of always living in the BPRD headquarters. The nascent BPRD is spreading its wings internationally, not just in the US, and a request for help investigating mystery deaths by a supernatural creatures in a village in Brazil elicits a response. As the professor briefs his team for their trip, he also adds that he wants them to take Hellboy. Some are unhappy – he isn’t qualified and the professor himself forbade untrained agents in the field after a previous tragedy. I know, he replies, but I made the rule so I can break it when I think it is right to do so. Some of the experienced agents worry about this, a couple, including Archie, the leader, think it a good idea for the boy to get experience in the field, one seems to object less about the lack of experience and more because Hellboy isn’t human.
Prejudice rears its ugly head (and there’s more to this than simple bias, as we will find out later). But the professor has decided, and that is that. But there’s more than just letting Hellboy get some experience and letting him out of his confinement in the base here. After the team leave he turns to his assistant, not the head of the BPRD but a father trying to guide a son, feeling, knowing that he needs this experience, that he will instinctively try to fight the monsters, protect the innocent, and that fighting the good fight is what will make him the good man he believes he can be:
“Out there, Margaret, only out there can he become a man.”
The slow-burn of the opening takes its time establishing the mood and scene nicely, before the tempo moves up a notch as the team arrive in Brazil. It’s never an easy task to come to illustrating Hellboy after two decades of Mignola’s art, but here we have the excellent Alex Maleev, and he steps up to the plate – one of the first scenes in Brazil is a nice, simple but utterly lovely character piece, Maleev showing Hellboy smiling, happy simply to be out of his usual home in the base, he’s outside, in the world, smelling the trees as they drive down a road in Brazil and this simple pleasure has him grinning. It’s soon business though, as they learn of the deaths and disappearances around a small village, which in best Gothic tradition, is located near a semi-ruined old castle with an evil reputation. Once it has ceased being a fortress it became a prison, but after mass deaths there it was abandoned. Now a rather creepy film crew has set up there, and you just know there’s going to be a connection between them and the mystery creatures – the question is what is that connection, what are they really up to and will the team figure it out in time, especially when playing nursemaid to a rookie Hellboy?
I’m not going to spoil it too much for you by going into what they find, but suffice to say of course the locals are right, it’s not simple superstition, there is indeed a monster (perhaps more than one) and a young, inexperienced Hellboy will have to decide how he deals with them. Naturally there are dark goings-on in the semi-abandoned castle, and it will not surprise you – especially given the cover art clearly shows a nazi swastika flag – that it involves some of the “boys from Brazil”: escaped Nazi war criminals (and HB is always wonderful when it involves monsters and mad Nazis!).
The story manages the fine trick of being it’s own tale, a coming of age story in some ways, of a young Hellboy, but it also manages to combine that with multiple references to Hellboy history we’ve seen over the years, weaving them into this early story, some as nods to previous stories, some actually expanding a bit on elements of HB history we’ve seen hinted at before. It’s all very, very satisfying for the long-time reader (although a new reader can still enjoy this as an origin tale and they will pick up some elements of HB history along the way which will work nicely if they follow it up with reading previous volumes).
The nods to Hellboy history also includes his first encounter with a memorable villain we’ve seen several times now in Hellboy volumes – I won’t blow the surprise, but will say I was delighted when I saw who it was and I think many of you will be too. Maleev, as I noted earlier, does sterling duty, making the art his own while working within a style that doesn’t jar with Mignola’s oh-so-iconic art for HB, aided in no small manner by the excellent Dave Stewart and his atmospheric colour palette (an element always important in HB’s visuals) – a fight in a local church lit by candles is all washes of sickly orange and bright red, night scenes in blues and purples (including a memorable image of a priest by a standing cross, looking up to see one of the monsters perched on the cross-beam, silhouetted against the dusk sky).
It’s a terrific romp, it offers more connections to other parts of Hellboy’s established history and, frankly, it’s just huge fun to see such a young Hellboy on his first outing (and how the world reacts to him too – after all, unlike later volumes where HB is well-known, here most people will have no idea who he is and never have seen anything like him). But beneath the action-adventure romping fun there’s that father-son story, which lends it a deeper emotional core and also gives that Hellboy history a more personal note. This isn’t just the story of how Hellboy went from being Rasputin’s tool for the apocalypse to being the noble hero, it’s the personal, emotional, family level of it that really works so well here, an adopted father who knows the responsibility he bears to bring this boy up the right way. Any father worries about such matters, about making sure they instil in their child not just love but respect for others, the instinct to do the correct thing, and while most dads don’t have to worry about their child growing up to be the beast of the apocalypse, on an emotional level it’s the same struggle, the same hopes and fears of a father for his boy.
While I was off enjoying a week at the Edinburgh International Film Festival naturally I sought out some of the SF&F and horror flicks in my feast of festival screenings. I was a bit busy going from movie to movie to do full write-ups, so thought instead I’d do a brief round-up of a handful that really made an impression on me. They’re still doing the international film festival circuit, so I have no idea when (or indeed if) they may get a general release, but do keep an eye out of them if they get a screening near you, especially Therapy For a Vampire and Liza the Fox Fairy, which are films I think anyone who loves fantasy will enjoy and which I think deserve some support (distributors, if you’re reading, these films all got big rounds of applause with the festival audiences, always a good sign, and well worth considering picking up for distribution):
Director: Corin Hardy,
Starring: Joseph Mawle, Bojana Novakovic, Michael McElhatton, Michael Smiley
Corin Hardy’s debut Irish Indy horror arrived with impressive credentials – it did well at the Sundance Festival, and Edinburgh’s own hugely respected horror flick fest Dead By Dawn (the UK’s longest running horror film festival) had selected it for the Edinburgh Film Festival (London peeps, I hear it is also getting a screening at Fright Fest this August). The central notion of a young, successful couple moving into the middle or rural nowhere and finding the surly locals to be less than welcoming is not a new one in horror, of course – film academics have filled many essays on the urban-rural horror tropes. But Hardy delivers some menacing, creepy rural locals here largely as a bit of a red herring. As Adam Hitchens (Joseph Mawle) and his wife (Bojana Novakovic) and infant move into a creaky old dwelling in the middle of an ancient bit of Irish forest, it isn’t long before things start happening. Things go bump in the night, strange leaks appears, stones are thrown and the nearest neighbour has made his loathing for them quite clear. But quite why the locals wish them gone and Adam’s forestry job to be axed (pardon the pun) isn’t terribly clear. It feels a little Straw Dogs – the isolated rural home, the disgruntled, hostile locals surrounding the incomers. But this changes quite quickly…
(Corin Hardy in a post-film Q&A at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, pic from my Flickr) After several incidents the police make a half-hearted investigation, although it is clear they really care little. But the local sergeant does let slip that some of the locals do – silly superstition, you understand – believe that these very old woods are home to very old beings, a form of the fair folk, pushed back millennia ago by the spread of the towns and cities of man to these few isolated woodland refuges. And they do not care for anyone trespassing on what is left of their territory, and if you cross into their borders then they have carte blanche to cross into your own space too. Naturally the Hitchens don’t believe this talk of of fairy belief at all (despite learning their unfriendly neighbour lost his young girl in the woods decades before, he maintains spirited away by odd beings – perhaps he’s not just unfriendly but worried their presence will disturb the area once more). Hardy slowly ratchets up the sense of unease and we, along with the Hitchens, start to realise perhaps it’s not badly behaved locals reacting to incomers but that there may well be something else in those woods. A something that’s now targetting their home, and most especially their baby… Despite the low budget Hardy and his team use their scant resources well, making maximum use of the locations and a tight script to generate ever increasing levels of suspense and tension. What elevates it above that classic rural horror though is weaving in multiple elements from Celtic myth and folklore into the tapestry, which gives it a nice Hellboy-ish vibe in places, using some nice, creepy, disturbing effects. And in an era where so many horror films seem to rely far too much on jump-shocks, “torture-porn” or over-gore for the sake of it (I have no problem with a bit of gore, but some weak film-makers rely on it to overcome poor storytelling) it’s always good to see someone putting the effort in to build atmosphere and let it permeate out into the audience – and also to trust their audience to go along with that slow-burn, rewarding approach. I saw this at a late night screening, with a packed festival audience, which is probably the best way to enjoy a good horror movie.
Therapy For a Vampire,
Director: David Ruehm,
Starring: Tobias Moretti, Jeanette Hain, Cornelia Ivancan, Dominic Oley, David Bennent, Lars Rudolph
This Austrian flick was one of the first films I saw at the festival this year, and it pretty much ties with Hungarian fantasy Liza the Fox Fairy as my favourite festival movie this year. It’s Vienna, in the early 1930s, and the Count Geza von Közsnöm is having the vampiric equivalent of a mid-life crisis. He’s lost all his lust for life, the long, endless nights of immortality weighing down upon him till little seems worth it anymore. In fact he doesn’t even bite his victims any longer, he gets his (increasingly bolshie) “Renfield” henchman to bludgeon them on the streets of nocturnal Vienna then use blood donation equipment to siphon off his “claret” into a bottle. His wife – a proper 20s/30s vamp, both in the vampire sense but also in the period use of the word to mean a dark femme fatale – is also adding to his world-weary feeling. She’s also finding their vampiric condition a little restrictive and is tired of not being able to see herself (we see her patting her face with a powder puff in a vain attempt to catch a glimpse of her face in the mirror), and her endless demands to him each night of how is my hair?, how do I look tonight? is driving him to fantasies of staking her in her coffin. In desperation who does the vampire count turn to? Why to Sigmund Freud, of course! And perhaps the famous father of psychoanalysis can also help him with his other problem – Freud is collaborating with an up and coming young Viennese artist who is illustrating his book, just the person to send the countess to for a portrait. Naturally Freud doesn’t know they are vampires, he’s too busy analysing all of their problems as a scientific challenge and assumes her inability to see herself is a mental problem, not that she literally has no reflection. The artist, meanwhile is having problems of his own – his girlfriend is a thoroughly modern Millie (she even wears – gasp! – trousers!), but he has a troubling penchant for always painting her not as she is but as he wants her to appear (rather more “girly”), which understandably is not helping their relationship. And into this come the count and countess, and oh, while the countess is distracted with the artist and her portrait, the count is drawn to his girlfriend who bears a striking resemblance to his long lost love (beheaded by dervishes many years ago, I’m sure we’ve all had relationships end like that). If Woody Allen did a 1930s tale of crossed-wire romantic misunderstandings in Vienna with vampires it may look a little like this…
(Director David Ruehm talking after the Edinburgh International Film Festival screening of Therapy For a Vampire, pic from my Flickr)
The comedy-horror flows brilliantly, the 30s setting used nicely, both for style and also for referencing films (there is some lovely cinematography here) and art of the period, while there’s a fine lacing of various vampire myths through the story (such as the compulsion for counting small objects) and relating that to the emerging field of psychoanalysis (two different ways of understanding the human brain, one ancient, one new), and there’s a nice bit of relationship and gender stuff going on there too. The film is replete with lovely little details and references – the count, lying on the psychiatrist’s couch, a picture of middle-aged-man-misery, until Freud asks him when he was last happy, and as he talks of his lost love he starts to float upwards off the couch (Freud is too busy taking notes to see this), but as soon as they return to the subject of his wife, bang, straight back down on the couch (no prizes for guessing that that symbolised!). For every reference I picked up on though, I am sure there were several I missed – this is one of those films that will happily bear repeat viewings and deserves a wider audience. It also makes for a fine European shelf-mate to the Kiwi genius of What We Do in the Shadows.
Liza, the Fox-Fairy,
Directed by Károly Ujj Mészáros,
Starring Mónika Balsai, Szabolcs Bede-Fazekas, David Sakurai, Piroska Molnár, Zoltán Schmied
It’s Hungary in the 1970s, but not quite – this is, as director Mészáros explained in a post-film Q&A, a slightly fantasy version – for starters the town looks like Budapest but isn’t (the name is slightly changed) and in his version of the 70s and all its tacky, beige style (or lack thereof) Hungary isn’t oppressed behind the Iron Curtain and a totalitarian Communist state but is enjoying the (sometimes dubious) pleasures of Capitalism. Which includes the Makky Burger chain of Japanese fast food diners, which is one of the few places Liza (Mónika Balsai) treats herself to with her swiftly diminishing pool of money. Liza is a nurse, engaged for several years now to look after the bed-bound wife of the late Japanese ambassador. From her elderly employer she’s picked up the Japanese language and a love for the literature and pop culture too – she endlessly, obsessively re-reads the same Japanese novel, especially a scene detailing a lonely woman who finds true love over the crab-burgers at Makky’s on her thirtieth birthday. And with Liza’s thirtieth imminent this isolated woman is convinced this is a Sign for her to follow for True Happiness. Leading her into a series of attempted liasons with mostly inappropriate suitors. And also to a series of bizarre accidental deaths which soon lead the police to suspect her…
Why the string of deaths? Ah, well, that, you see, will be Tomy Tani, the spectral form of a deceased 1950s/60s Japanese crooner. Her employer and Liza love his music, but only Liza actually sees him, and once her elderly employer is gone, leaving her the apartment as a thank you (cue jealousy from the family, who add their suspicions to the police’s), the ghostly Tomy is her only real companion. But is he just an invisible friend, a figment of her imagination conjured up by an unfilled woman to ease her isolation? Or is he a real supernatural entity? And if he is, is he really her smiling, singing friend? Or does he perhaps have his own motivations? What’s behind that smiley J-pop facade? Could it be he likes Liza to be so isolated, so he receives all her attention? Could it be that poor Liza is like the fox-fairy women of Japanese myth, lonely, craving love, but when they do sometimes find a man on their wanderings that man is usually doomed to die? Is she cursed?
(Károly Ujj Mészáros speaking after the screening of Liza, the Fox-Fairy, pic from my Flickr)
Imagine early-period Jean-Pierre Jeunet (around his Delicatessen era), but if he’d been Hungarian and with a penchant for (deliberately) bad 1970s style and with that delightful fusion of comedy and horror, the touching and the ludicrous, fantasy and real. The film glows with details – it’s clearly a labour of love, with much attention paid to making scenes appear just-so, using real locations, sets and some CG augmentation (which I have to say I didn’t really notice, it was blended in well, and being on a tiny budget took the film-makers months to complete in post-production), giving the film a particular, individual look, feel and even sense of light that’s jsut pitch-perfect. An absolute delight of a film, which deserves a cult following.
I should also give a quick shout out for Simon Pummell’s British-Irish-Dutch co-production Brand New-U, another film working with a small budget and overcoming it by the use of some clever science fiction elements, which despite the five minutes into the future type of setting does what most good SF does, and uses those tropes to address the concerns of today – relationships and identity becoming mere commodities and services we purchase like a new smartphone or holiday thinking they will solve everything. And Takashi Yamakazi’s first in a series adapting the popular Japanese manga horror Parasyte was another late night slice of fun, some bonkers J-Horror, riffing on post-Croneberg body horror (intelligent parasitical creatures taking over humans) and also, by dark reflection, on the nature of human relationships in busy, urban city settings, “pod-people” given a J-Horror twist.
This article was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog
Scott Snyder has really established himself as major comics writing talent in the last few years, not least with his highly regarded Batman run for DC’s New 52, but arguably it was his and Rafael Albuquerque’s American Vampire which first seriously established his credentials as a new writer to watch out for, and the fact that the first volume includes work from no less a literary luminary than Stephen King doesn’t exactly hurt. I’ve a long fascination for vampire and Gothic tales, but it’s not an easy genre to do something new with. Every now and then someone reworks the genre and shakes it up – Stoker took the earlier 19th century tales and crystalised them in Dracula, Anne Rice revamped (pardon the pun) the genre in the 70s with Interview With the Vampire, Twilight brought romantic vamps to a mass teen audience while Niles’ 30 Days of Night made them gut-wrenchingly monstrous and terrifying once more. It’s one of the reasons the genre refuses to lie quietly in its coffin, but always rises again in one form or another, to stalk our nightmares, the vampire mythos is, in the right hands, endlessly elastic and able to be refitted to suit so many cultures and times. And here, these are the right hands.
The first volume is split into two linked tales, switching back and forth between them, and it isn’t titled “American Vampire” for nothing – these two settings are ones which strongly evoke a sense of Americana from their respective eras, periods most of us would associate so strongly with the US, the final decades of the Old West in the 19th Century and the early days of the silent movies as they establish themselves in a booming LA in the Roaring Twenties. Cowboy gangs and vengeful lawmen on horseback (hell, there’s even a train heist thrown in!) on one side, the glitz and sleaze of early Hollywood and Flapper girls trying to make it in the big city on the other. They’re well chosen eras that ooze the sense of the period, even now, and Snyder, King and Albuquerque use them to give their vampires a uniquely American personality and setting. Yes, there are more traditional European vampires here, hiding in dark corners, away from the sun, greedy, decadent, self-satisfied Old World monsters, much like the east coast wealthy elite who, for all the republican nature of the US in the 1800 and 1900s, were Old World style aristocracy in all but name.
“Skinner Sweet, 1850 –1880, Outlaw, Killer, Defiler of Women, Born in Kansas, Burns in Hell,” inscription on Skinner Sweet’s grave in the local Boot Hill, in finest Western tradition.
But this is America, the land of opportunity, where you can arrive with only a dollar in your pocket but build yourself up, or at least so the myth that everyone can make it goes. And here that seems to apply to the undead as well. And when a hard-nosed lawman tracks down and captures the infamous Skinner Sweet (a gang leader with a real sweet tooth) at the behest of a wealthy banker (whose banks Skinner robbed), it sets up a chain of events none of them could have foreseen. The wealthy banker is in fact secretly an Old World vampire, here to mine the Western Frontier for new wealth, but when Skinner’s gang ambushes the train carrying him, in a rescue attempt, a fight ensues, and while the lawmen are distracted the vampiric banker attempts to deal with Sweet himself, but Sweet doesn’t die easily and wounds the vampire, his blood falling onto Sweet’s open wounds. Forced to flee he doesn’t realise at first that this has transformed Sweet, but when he does suspect he arranges for a dam to be built and buys up the local town before it is flooded – thus drowning the cemetery in which Sweet lies. Vampire or not, he can never rise now, or so they think…
But this is, as the title implies, a new type of vampire – somehow the alchemy of the change brought on by the vampiric blood causes something different in this New World, creating different vampires, with different powers and weaknesses, and Sweet does eventually rise, and soon discovers his new powers. He doesn’t need a gang anymore, not with his abilities, he can tear a place apart all on his own. And he does. But when he surfaces again in the 1920s, despite still being a killer, he seems to have his own agenda, and he actually warns two naïve young actresses, Pearl and Hattie, about attending a party thrown by one of the major studio heads, but they don’t listen to him, and at the party Pearl is taken to a private room, where it turns out more of those in power are also Old World vampires, eager to use and abuse her before dumping her body in the desert. But like Skinner, she doesn’t die and instead transforms, desperately trying to figure out what has happened to her, what these new impulses and abilities are, and as she comes to terms with them, determining to take vengeance on the powerful men – these smug, wealthy, Old World vampiric elite – who did this to her.
”You, Pearl Jones, are a different kind of vampire… Just picture it in automotive terms, Bloch and his kind, they’re like old, broken-down European clunkers, okay? But you and me, Dolly? We’re like shiny, new 1926 Fords, top of the line, just rolled out onto the showroom floor.” Skinner explains why he and Pearl have different abilities from the Old World vampires.
It’s a hugely compelling read, and a great twist on the old vampire mythos, and it really does give it a truly American identity. Both story arcs plunder their periods for detail and atmosphere, and Albuquerque does art duty on both, handling Old West and Roaring 20s Hollywood with equal dexterity, giving us cowboy raiders attacking a train, or riding into a sunset on one chapter, or a Flapper Girl making her way in this brave, new post-war boom world of the big city, the bright lights (and dangers), and the lure and magic (and hidden darkness and sleaze) of the emerging magic factory that was Hollywood in the 20s, going from a wonderfully demonic grin on Skinner’s face in his Boot Hill coffin to Model T cars chugging along 1920s LA’s boulevards. Both periods, which could so easily have clashed, dovetail nicely, and of course in the real world the tail end of the Old West did indeed overlap with the early years of the movies, with genuine Western characters moving to LA and taking part in Hollywood’s early “horse operas”, so they’re a good choice for linked tales, and they are eras we’re all used to from a thousand films and books (and as I said, also suitably, iconically American), so we instinctively recognise the styles and tropes of those historical periods.
And it mixes well with the great American myth of itself which grew up during that great Westward Expansion and carried into that new modern, 20th century era (building bigger, better, smarter, always upwards, onwards, boudless optimism), but here translated to brash but bright, eager, capable new energies of new kinds of vampires, evolved to suit this New World (and totally vulgar to the sensibilities of the Old World vamps). I’m always impressed when someone can do something fresh with the vampire myth, and here King, Snyder and Albuquerque have done just that, giving horror fiction terrific new characters in Skinner Sweet and Pearl, in a book dripping with period atmosphere and style.
I’ve admired Sarah Pinborough’s writing for several years – she’s consistently proven herself to be one of the more fascinating new talents in the UK fantastic genres, and I’ve been especially delighted with the ways in which she crafts stories which you often can’t simply label into one genre or another, as, like a number of other fast-rising (and fascinating) writers such as Lauren Beukes for example, she deftly manages to pull elements from various places, from horror tropes to science fiction or thriller or crime and re-weaves them into something far more compelling. Sarah has also enjoyed success as a Young Adult author, and with her new book, The Death House, she is again dancing around the edges of several genre ballrooms, picking her dancing partners from different rooms at different points; indeed, as well as a delightful weaving of elements from various genres into something new, here she also manages to craft a book which functions perfectly well as an engrossing tale for an adult or for a YA reader.
It’s sometime in the near future, but we don’t know exactly when. Or even where. In fact there’s a quite deliberate lack of solid information in The Death House. We know were are in a future Britain, but we don’t really see it, except in some memories of the children in the house, because our point of view is Toby, a teenage schoolboy, sent to the eponymous house along with other children, because they are “defective”. This future world has some sort of illness – a plague, virus, genetic disorder? We never really know and it doesn’t really matter, because what matters is anyone whose blood test comes up with the wrong result is taken away to one of these isolated homes – there is no appeal, the operation is carried out with clinical, almost Fascist like efficiency and lack of mercy, dark vans swooping on homes, children torn from the arms of their parents. And no-one comes back from a Death House. And no-one outside knows what happens, except it is where the ill kids are taken to await the signs of their symptoms beginning to surface. And even the kids in the house don’t know exactly what this illness is, or even what the symptoms are – different symptoms seem to manifest in different people at different times.
The nursing staff and the token teaching staff in the house (isolated on an island) don’t explain any further, and this just adds to the overbearing atmosphere of fear and despondency. These are youngsters, and they are marked to slowly die, cut off entirely from their previous life, even letters from parents forbidden. It’s just them and the very remote nursing staff who do their best to never treat their young charges as anything other than a job; no emotional bonding or caring here, it’s like an even more hellish version of a boarding school combined with that fear all humans carry of serious illness, the children isolated, physically and emotionally. Toby is the oldest in his dorm and has reluctantly taken on the role of leader for the younger boys in his room, but much of the time he avoids anything that smacks of entanglement, because what’s the point? Today, tomorrow, a month, a year, he is is here till he suddenly develops symptoms (and what symptoms? in the absence of facts, just like every media fulled panic of any new illness there is a Chinese Whispers effect as the kids tell each other about it, although none really know).
His only escape is at night – as the house sleeps Toby pads out quietly to explore, a tiny bit of rebellion and adventure which he has to himself. Until Clara arrives among the latest group, a girl around his age, straight away she attracts attention among the older boys, except for Toby (who had been daydreaming of a girl at school he hoped to get off with at a party just before the black vans came for him). And then he finds Clara too avoids the pills at night and explores the house, during what he considers his time. How dare she! And yes, you just know that his antipathy and his defensive recoiling from any deep attachment just isn’t going to survive against the energy of the life-loving Clara…
And there you go again, Pinborough delighting in mixing genres – we’ve already got a Dystopian science fiction future, a dark, old house right out of a Victorian horror tale, and now we have romance woven into the mix. And more than that, it’s that intense first romance, that type that flares among the confusions of adolescence and burns with an intensity unlike any other you ever experience. And Pinborough charts the development of their friendship then romance wonderfully, the shyness but eagerness, the mixture of fear and desperate hope. And over all this hangs their fate as Defectives, locked away in the house to await their seemingly inevitable fate. One day they will start to manifest symptoms and when they do the impassive nurses will take them away in the middle of the night, while the others sleep, to the upper floor. No-one knows what happens there and nobody returns from that floor. Do they die? Mutate? Are they the subject of experimentation into the Defective? Anyone who’s dealt with serious illness or watched a loved one suffering has felt that numbing horror of feeling totally helpless, and here these kids are living in that state every day.
Again, as I said earlier, Pinborough deliberately holds back on explanations: in some ways it is maddening and frustrating, but I suspect that’s part of the point here – we’re in the same position as Toby and the other kids here. It’s barely mentioned in the outside world and once they are labelled and caught up in the house programme they have no contact at all ever again with the outside world, so they have no access to any information, or any adult who will act as their champion. It’s like being a combination of a child with a terminal illness and being an illegal refugee at the same time, sealed away, forgotten, nobody knows, nobody cares about you or speaks for you or strives for you. Pinborough instead uses this lack of solid information to create Poe-like levels of creeping fear in this old house, and also as a good way of building up the relationships between the kids held inside it, from moments of fear and worry (and attempts by some of them to help and reassure the others) to moments of childlike joy (it suddenly snows, something none of them have ever seen before – it hasn’t snowed in this future UK for a long time, it seems). And as Toby and Clara start to bond on a deep level they start to question their assumed fate in that way only a teen can, that remarkable defiant stance, won’t happen to us, we will survive somehow, escape somehow, live together somehow… Somehow…
The Death House is a masterful piece of writing craft – I think most authors would have felt compelled to add much more exposition and much more explanation in here, more background to this future society, to how it evolved in a way that the state can just take your kids from you and seal them away to die, more details about the illness itself, what it is, what causes it, why does it require such drastically cruel, inhuman treatment to be visited on children? And yes, part of me really wanted to know more about those aspects of this world, but on reflection those are just details, and distracting ones at that. Pinborough, wisely, I think, eschews those partly because it enhances the sense of isolation and dread and fear in the house and among the young patients/prisoners, but also partly because she is more interested in the psychological and emotional effects this has on those kids, and that’s far more satisfying, especially as she is simply so damned good at writing adolescents, from the younger ones to those in that awkward, almost an adult but not there yet late teen period. Hugely compelling and emotional, dark, disturbing, yet also with lighter moments and that slowly emerging first love romance shining through it (as Jeff Goldblum put it in Jurassic Park, life keeps finding a way, even in a home seemingly only for the lost), with very believable young characters that works for adult and YA reader alike, and as with a lot of writing across the centuries to do with the inevitability of death, this isn’t really about death. It’s about living.
There’s a short version of this review which runs something along the lines of South African writer Lauren Beukes has been sent personally by the Dark Forces from the Infernal City to scar the mind’s inner eye with a scalpel of sharpened words. Although if Lauren is sent by demonic forces she’s very personable and has excellent taste in footwear. And besides, joking aside, from me saying a writer can scar your inner eye is a compliment. In Zoo City then more particularly with her last novel, the intensely brutal and powerful The Shining Girls (which made by 2013 best of the year list), she has displayed an uncanny knack for not just being able to conjure up images and scenes which stick in the reader’s mind long after finishing the book, they really get under your mental skin. In Broken Monsters she develops this skill to peel back the reader’s cognitive functions with a fine blade: the compelling main narrative flows over the cognitive components of the brain but the imagery leaks beneath the foundations of that logical faculty and seeps into the parts of our mind where imagination and it’s twin offspring Wonder and Terror live. This is a book which works as much on the logical strength of a powerful detective tale narrative but simultaneously works by engaging the darkest parts of our imagination; the combined effect is devastatingly powerful.
It seems pretty much everything in Broken Monsters is a struggle. The lead detective, Gabrielle Versado, has had to struggle against macho misconceptions about gender roles in the homicide department, as well as racial ones, while also struggling with a broken marriage and trying to be a single parent (her clever, determined but impulsive daughter Layla is also struggling, to come to terms with no longer being a happy family, with her mother often being dragged away by work pressures and the usual coming of age problems any teen in any city has). She and the entire department are in an eternal struggle, not just against crime in a city riddled with violent acts but with trying to bring order to a city that itself is struggling to hold together – Detroit. And then into this comes Clayton Broom, a man who has failed at relationships, at fatherhood, work and art, a man struggling to try and make sense of his life but lacking the ability to really understand and fit in. Until a car accident changes his perspective and he begins to start using his ‘art’ to reshape the world to how he thinks it should be. It’s not long after this that the first murder victim is found, his first attempt to bring his ‘message’ to the world and try and change it.
A body of a young boy.
Or, more accurately, half a body. The lower half is gone, replaced with those of a young deer, fused to the boy’s torso, then left posed to be found.
The scene is described in terms that really bring home the horror of this, not just of the deliberate, wanton taking of a life – a child’s life at that – but desecrating the corpse in this manner. Beukes captures the mindset of a group of big city detective battling to develop any possible clues into something they can work with, to take the monstrous but categorise it into areas of logical enquiry they can use, at emotional arms-length, to focus on the case and start working out why the killer did this, what it tells them, how they can use this to hunt him. Serial killer? Twisted trophy hunter fed up stalking animals, now turning to people? Is it race-driven? Sexual? Could it be some sort of ritualistic thing – a Satanic cult, Voodoo? You can almost hear the mental clicking of gears as the detectives take a situation that should never happen and try to apply their tried and tested methods on it to make sense of something that may be beyond sense, to categorise it, analyse it and follow those clues. But what if it is something else altogether?
What starts as a brutally compelling police-procedural story soon starts to morph – it will surprise no-one who has read Beuekes’ other books to learn that no single genre label can contain her work, and this is as much a horror story and a dark fantasy novel (reminding me sometimes of the dark horrors the likes of Tim Lebbon can conjure) as it is a detective story. When we see some of the events from Clayton’s increasingly disintegrating point of view we see that to him his horrific murders and bodily mutilations and alterations are not killing – they start as a sort of art, but not just art, this is primal art, art as a form of magic, as it was in the earliest days, when painting a deer on a cave wall was not just art but sympathetic magic, trying to capture something of the essence of that creature being depicted and to use it for understanding, shaping the world and power. The writing is deliciously dark – these are nightmares leaking out of the darkest places of a twisted, delusional mind of a man turned murderer, but as we are drawn deep into this heart of darkness it becomes increasingly difficult to tell nightmare fantasy from hard, cold reality in the semi ruined streets of Detroit. How much of this is the warped imagination of a sociopathic killer trying to somehow justify what he is doing to himself? And could it be real? What if others start to feel the awful, dark presence of what he is doing and how it can change the world around him and his ‘art’? It this shared delusions? Is there something else here? Psychotropics? Or something far worse, darker and unnatural…
(Lauren Beukes with artist Inaki Miranda at the 2013 Edinburgh International Book Festival, pic from my own Flickr)
I won’t delve any deeper into that, save to say Beukes manages to both have her cake and eat it in the very satisfying manner in which she explores the escalating situation and offers up different aspects for the readers to draw conclusions (and doubtless to argue with one another over aspects of what was what). Running through this main narrative thrust there are other elements – a sexual predator her daughter and friend bait with the aim of publicly shaming, her daughter’s friend in her seemingly perfect family but nursing her own dark secret, the burned out, failed journalist Jonno, come to the decaying city of Detroit and trying to reinvent himself as a new media guru, feeding off the increasingly bizarre murders. The scenes where Beuekes depicts various forms of new media and social media circling these events, exploiting them (and traditional media trying to feed off it like carrion) are bitingly realistic – the instant rush to judgement on comments online posted by people who don’t know what really happened but straight away have to shout loudly about their opinions (often in banal, badly spelled ways, frequently in vile, violent form) are sadly far too realistic. But those elements aren’t just added for a bit of detail or verisimilitude, oh no, Beukes is too good for that, she also starts weaving these new and social medias into the story in an unusual form that contributes to the main narrative, and how those changing media and technologies alter our view of the world around us, and our morality.
Even for an old hand at horror like me (happily raised in the pre-legislation era of the Video Nasties where you could watch anything) this is a deeply disturbing read. Somehow Beukes manages to craft not just the awful horrors of the brutal world big city detectives have to deal with on a daily basis (and she depicts the toll it takes on them) but then make this worse with an almost Lovecraftian atmosphere of some unspeakable, un-knowable, un-nameable horror that is leaking out from realms that should not exist except in our collective nightmares, bleeding into the real world on an artist’s palette that uses blood and body parts instead of oils and brushes. And it is utterly, utterly compelling while making parts of your brain twitch, you simply can’t pull away from it.
This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog