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Monday, 6 February 2017

Review - Secrets Of The Dead by Simon Clark

Secrets Of The Dead; A Novel Of Mummies And Ancient Curses 

by Simon Clark [Severn House HB, 1994, 217pp]

In 1997 I read my first and until-now only novel of Yorkshire-born author Simon Clark. It was his third novel, Darker, and was about an ancient invisible horror that squashed people flat. It was also very poorly written, poorly edited and proofread, and poorly everything. It was a pretty crap book [there was even a large error on the first page] and just gave every indication of being a rush-job, possibly of an earlier manuscript by Clark that had been quickly polished off and published to cash in on the success of his first two novels. Darker is among the worst horror novels I have ever read, and it single-handedly put me off Clark for over 20 years. Then, on a trip to my local library recently I noticed a book I’d never heard of before, Secrets Of The Dead by Simon Clarke. With some trepidation I borrowed it and over the next year constantly renewed it without reading it, perhaps sub-consciously putting it off. In all I’ve had the book kicking around for over a year, until, when an e-mail from the library tells me it absolutely definitely can’t be renewed again and please bring it back so we can confirm you haven’t eaten it or something, I put my current book down and started, finally, reading the thing, finishing it in less than a week. Darker was pretty terrible, but Secrets Of The Dead, to my utter surprise, was great fun.

 The story revolves around John Tolworth, who has made a reputation for himself as a technological archaeologist; he photographs and scans broken archaeological artefacts and puts together the pieces using a computer program. In the story he has been employed to help work on a collection of Egyptian mummies which have until-recently been in the possession of the Kemmis family of Baverstock Castle in Devon. The work will last over the summer and John has brought his family with him to stay in a nearby cottage. However, John briefly lived in this area as a child, and the looming castle, the neighbourhood populace, the wild forests and moorlands quickly begin to rekindle memories of a horrific event in John’s past, an event that is reaching dry, withered and bandaged fingers through the years to create danger for himself and his family. Is the local madman right about the mummies waking up at night? And are they somehow changing, as X-ray scans seem to reveal – and, more bizarrely still, what are they changing into?

Simon Clark

I really enjoyed Secrets Of The Dead. When it began, I wasn’t sure I liked the simple style and Young Adult-flavour but pretty quickly I found the pages rushing by as I was sucked into the story. It’s a reasonably quick and easy read, and reminded me a little of a sort of Hammer Horror style of story, with some creepy incidents and ideas but not extreme gory horror. The mood does darken towards the end, as a further danger – a real-world danger – threatens the family, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading the second half, where the climax only very slightly let me down, but nevertheless I was satisfied and happy at the time spent reading the book. Clark obviously has a skill at writing and creating his characters; I was ‘in the zone’ with this book much more than with many others by supposed better writers. He does have though a throwback from his earlier style in the amount of repetition in his work – while it does make the story very easy to understand, he often tells you again what you’ve just read a few pages ago, just in case you’ve forgotten, which of course, unless you’re a cabbage, you haven’t. There are also one or two small editing errors here, including an occasion of a character having the wrong name. I don’t know what’s up with Clark’s editor and proofreaders but this problem seems to have plagued his books throughout his career. Nevertheless, it is barely noticeable here, and my thought is that one last edit or read-through could have easily smartened out these occasional errors in the text.

This is all a slight shame, because I really did enjoy the book and would be willing now to try some of Clark’s other works. The subject matter is slightly different in that mummies haven’t yet been done to death and bastardized into caricatures of themselves [but give it time!] like zombies and vampires. It was a quick, enjoyable, and, dare I say it, even exciting read – a perfect antidote to those rambling epics that go on forever, and when I was stuck in a bit of a reading rut, this has brought me back to the fold. Now, it wasn’t really that scary, but I still want my mummy...   8/10

Monday, 29 August 2016

Review - The Hatching by Ezekiel Boone (2016)

THE HATCHING by Ezekiel Boone [2016]

It’s not often that I manage to obtain, read and review a book within the same month as its release. Yet I was excited by the sound of THE HATCHING, and after seeing a full page advert for it in a magazine, I just had to get hold of it. I’m a huge fan of the horror sub-genre of Creature-Features, or Animal Horror, or Nature’s Revenge, or whatever you want to call it. I’m a collector of the pulpy books from the 70’s and 80’s, the ‘In the tradition of The Rats...’ books, with titles like SCORPION, DEVIL’S COACH HORSE, SLIME [jellyfish], BLIGHT [moths], LOCUSTS, WORMS, BATS OUT OF HELL and so on. Books where the titular animal emerges from somewhere in their thousands and goes on to eat, suck, dribble, flap or skitter about the country, causing havoc and death, before being neatly wrapped up in 160 pages. They’re formulaic, samey, and sometimes not very well-written, but there is lot of love out there in horror land for these garish old paperbacks. So, when I heard about THE HATCHING, a new heavily-promoted hardback from new writer Ezekiel Boone [a pseudonym for New York writer Alexi Zentner] which has got some great reviews, it was great to hear of a resurgence of interest in swarms of flesh-eating critters.
THE HATCHING has a simple plot. All over the world, at around the same time, an ancient and unknown species of spider is hatching from long-dormant eggs. The creatures are on an incredible speed of evolution, and very, very quickly they lay more eggs [in living hosts] and before you can roll up the newspaper, there are literally millions of the little buggers, fast emerging like flowing rivers in China and India, and eventually worldwide, and presented to the world as short video-clips taken by onlookers and on constant repeat on the news channels. Boone takes us through this experience by introducing a large cast of characters, including the first female president of the USA, military soldiers, doomsday survivalists, FBI agents, graduate students and a science professor who is an expert in all-things eight-legged. The action moves quickly, from viewpoint to viewpoint, and the action creeps up until the whole planet is being menaced by the flesh-eating things. I really don’t like spiders, and some parts of this book gave me the genuine shudders and made me look around the room and jump at bits of fluff and dust moving about the place. Also, because I’m an idiot, I read this book at the beginning of spider-season in the UK, when the female spiders, grown fat and juicy, venture out of their nests to find a mate. Splatter shoes and vacuum cleaner on standby!
THE HATCHING was a really fun book, an arachnaphobic horror thriller and a very quick read, and I finished it in a couple of days. It has a great idea and the writing is spare, lean and to the point, and in general, I just had a good time with this novel and heartily recommend it to others. It’s the sort of quick-paced thriller that will get snapped up by a film company and I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw a film in the next year or two.
This is an enjoyable book and I urge any fan of the sub-genre to read it but I want to highlight a few minor flaws that I felt let it down a little. Firstly, it is a little slow in getting going and Boone introduces a lot of characters, each with deep and complex backgrounds, within about 50 pages, so that sometimes characters don’t quite have enough space to develop and feel like truly real characters [and one character, unfortunately named Fanny, I just couldn’t take seriously at all]. All this is interesting, well-written exposition, but I just felt it was getting in the way of the spider carnage. And as for the spider-carnage, I felt that lots of the action sort of happened off-screen, a little like Gareth Edwards’ recent GODZILLA movie, building up to the action but then cutting away to something else. There’s still plenty of interest and action here, just some of it seems to be told instead of shown, and the book shies away from truly horrific description, making it more of a horror-themed thriller than an out-and-out horror novel. In fact in some places it feels like it’s trying to build a WORLD WAR Z sort of vibe, chronicling a worldwide disaster as it enfolds, but it’s not completely successful. The book’s major flaw was what I thought was an unsatisfying ending; the book comes to a climax of a sort, but it’s just really a lead-in to the forthcoming sequel SKITTER, and I left the book feeling slightly disappointed, while also eagerly waiting for the next book; there isn’t much closure in THE HATCHING.

But, seriously, these things are minor quibbles, and I think some of my disappointment at the ending was simply because I wanted more, which is not such a bad thing.  Some reviewers are calling this ‘the horror book of 2016’, and they may be right, but I personally haven’t read enough new books to bestow that accolade. What I will end with, is THE HATCHING is a fast, enjoyable and just plain fun book, and I’ll be watching Ezekiel Boone’s future career with one eye, while keeping the other firmly fixed on all the dusty places behind the couch and in the brickwork. 8/10  

NOTE - I have festooned this review with a selection of similar Nature's Revenge titles, simply because the paperback covers are so damn good. In the creepy-crawly stakes, I think Richard Lewis wins the web with SPIDERS, THE WEB, DEVIL'S COACH-HORSE, THE BLACK HORDE and probably some others I've forgotten. And I've popped THE RATS in, too, as that was the book that started the whole thing going. And Guy N.Smith's BATS OUT OF HELL. Just 'cos it's cool. 

Thursday, 30 June 2016

Book Review -- The Illustrated Man -- Ray Bradbury


Originally published 1952

I’ve always believed that Ray Bradbury’s lyrical prose is more suited to the short story than the novel and that the many collections of his prolific work available ably demonstrate this. Some collections, like The Golden Apples Of The Sun, are less brilliant, with more varied stories, and more than the average amount of misfires. The Illustrated Man, on the other hand, is the opposite, with more of a definite ‘hit’-rate than could be expected.

Most of the eighteen stories here were originally published from around 1947 – 1951 in popular magazines of the day, with several more original to this collection. Bradbury uses the framing device of a man who has been tattooed with illustrations all over his body by a witch from the future. The illustrations move every night and stories are told in them; these are those stories. This is interesting and creative, but also unnecessary – the stories are not linked, except in theme, and can be read individually or in any combination you could like, including one after the other, from front to back. But as with all short story collections, these tales are not a novel, and are not meant to be read as one, in several [or one] large chunks. Take the time to feel Bradbury’s deft prose, his thoughtfulness of word-choice on every page, the lyrics in the lines; Bradbury is a stylist, and although occasionally that style becomes too much and drowns out the story, the prose is rich and worth reading slowly. Take the tales one at a time, over many days; give them a chance to live.
Unlike some other collections, The Illustrated Man is a showcase of Bradbury’s science-fiction and fantasy pieces, and not horror. There is a hint of horror here, but only in a handful of stories. The theme is simple wonder, often a child’s wonder at the world and at the amazing and wonderful things in it. Bradbury has dreamed these stories, they are him, evocations of a childhood lost in fantasies of rockets, spacemen, the future. Many of the stories have prescient predictions on the future, some of which are of their time [like clockwork robots], but some, far-seeing insights have echoed and grown in accuracy down the years. Some of the ideas here are very familiar to science-fiction fans in the 21st century, but it must be remembered that Bradbury had these ideas and thoughts many, many years before Star Trek and The Terminator, Gravity and A.I.

Every reader will have their own personal favourite. Mine is The Rocket Man, which I absolutely loved, a brilliant five-star tale and certainly for me on the list of Bradbury’s best. It tells of a ‘rocket man’, an astronaut who lives in two worlds – his home and family life and his work, or rocket missions – but is completely content in neither. While on his rockets, flying about the galaxy, he misses the Earth and his wife and family; while on leave at home, he is dreaming of being back in space, itching to get back to it. His wife regards him as ‘dead’ to her, for she knows he will soon disappear again on dangerous missions, she cannot relax and enjoy his company. His son, too, cannot connect with him, as, even when he is there, he is never really there, but dreaming, pining for his next journey to the stars. I realise I’ve largely told the plot of this story, but it needs to be read to be fully appreciated, the emotions and thoughts of the characters as expressed by Bradbury are much more than a thin description here. It is simply a brilliant story, and lingers long in the mind, and is as relevant now as when it was written, dealing with the pull of ambition and danger, but the bittersweet mediocrity of what is left behind. This is just an excellent story, unreservedly recommended; if you have just half an hour before this book is wrenched forever from your hands, read The Rocket Man and be in awe. If the title is vaguely familiar to you, you might be thinking of the hit song of the same name by Elton John; the lyrics were inspired by this very story.

My next choice would be another very short but excellent story; The City. Unlike the above, the plots of some stories need to be discovered in the reading, for that was the point of their construction. Much like the point behind the construction of the ancient city in this story, on a distant star, and what happens when a ship from Earth sets down upon it, many thousands of years after last contact. An awesome idea, and another excellent story that will leave you with that genuine science-fiction sense of wonder.

                           Sticking with interstellar themes, The Long Rain is an adventure story set on Venus; can a space crew defy the constant hammering of the rain, and find the safety of a sheltered Sun Dome. Read this memorable story to find out. Kaleidoscope massively pre-dates the 2013 film Gravity, telling, in just a few short pages, of an accident during a spacewalk mission; Bradbury’s emotive words focus more on the fate of the crew, as they helplessly drift away from each other into the depths of space.

Marionettes Inc. is as great a masterclass in writing a short-story as I can think of. The theme is robots, robots that look, not like tin cans on wheels, but indistinguishable from human beings. The story is merely 6 pages long, yet Bradbury has foreseen most of the major plots of future blockbuster films and novels, and crammed the basics, along with constantly-changing twists, into this skilful and prescient story. You could study this story, and learn much about how to construct a short tale; equally, you could quickly read it and be amazed.

The Fox And The Forest is a peculiar title, utterly failing to foreshadow it’s hugely enjoyable story of time-travel. While on a holiday to the past, a man and his wife have done a runner from a war-torn future, and are persued by collection agents. The story slowly reveals itself, and at the end the reader is put in mind of a certain huge movie hit of the 1980’s. It is almost as if Bradbury had a time machine himself. Perhaps he did, in his imagination.
The above tales were my particular favourites, but a large part of what remains is also very enjoyable and entertaining. The Fire Balloons is a story of Mars, and the group of clerics who go there to be missionaries to the inhabitants of the planet, only to find that the Chinese-lantern-like entities that live there are beyond sin. The Visitor, also set on Mars, tells of a world filled with outcasts from Earth, people who are dying or suffering from incurable disease. Into their midst comes a visitor, who can comfort the stricken, with lifelike visions and illusions. But his benevolence is desirable, and even outcasts might be driven to violence...

Much-reprinted story The Veldt pre-invents the Holodeck from Star Trek; in a futuristic nursery, virtual African plains come to life...

The Last Night Of The World and The Highway both concern the end of the world. Bradbury focuses on looking at human reactions to the end, and finds them quiet and civilized. In Zero Hour, all the children of the world appear to be playing a game which will help robotic aliens insidiously invade the planet. A man takes his family for the trip of a lifetime in The Rocket using just his contagious imagination.

The majority of the stories here are okay, still enjoyable, and add to the general flavour of the book. There were only two stories out of the eighteen that I didn’t much care for. Perhaps you will like them better.

I’ve read a number of Bradbury’s story collections over the years, and in the science-fiction field, I think this one is among his finest. The tales continually showcase Bradbury’s bright optimism in people, and their hopes and fears and loves, and how people will prevail; emotions and relationships mean more than the technological progress of the future. More important than scientific progress, mankind’s thoughts and feelings and tenderness will temper any possible dark capitalism of future generations. Bradbury, throughout his long life, and never more so than in the stories here, was always a dreamer, a literary dreamer, dreaming dreams of a hopeful and excited ten-year-old boy. To read these stories is to partake, for a while, in these vivid and inventive dreams.  10/10

Some of the stories were adapted into a 1969 portmanteau film.


Thursday, 19 May 2016

I'm gonna need a bigger blog...!!

Shark Spot - #1 – Why I love shark movies! – Shark Attack [1999]

When I was a kid, probably somewhere between the age of 5 and 10, I stayed up late with my parents to watch JAWS. I was lying on the couch, under my mam’s furry multi-colored coat, my feet nestled in behind my dad at the other end of the couch. This was the mid 80’s and this was an EVENT!!! Nowadays, movies are on demand, streaming, on DVD or even just on the television a year or two after release. In the 80’s, it took years for a film to come out on video, and longer still for it to show up on telly. And crucially for young people of today to understand, if you missed a program, that was it, you’d missed it. There was no +1s, no endless repeats over the next week, or download services. You just missed it. If you were lucky, you had a VHS and could record it, but these were the relatively early days even of home video, at least for the not very well off.

Anyway, a big movie on TV was a huge event; you talked about it the next day at school, at work, in the streets. If you hadn’t seen it, in the street lingo of the day, you were a craphead, so, parents hopefully obliging, you did your best to watch it. And JAWS was amazing; JAWS scared me, right from the beginning, with its sploshing waves, buoys clanging at sea, the dangerous rising music score signposting the entrance of the huge shark. The shots of feet dangling and splashing in the water as an underwater camera circled in, closer, closer. A lone night-swimmer is dragged under the water, reappears, panics, screams, goes under; the shark has got her, and it got me too. It got me big time.

JAWS remains one of my favorite films; I have it on DVD. I have a T-shirt, a mug, a coaster, all bearing the brilliantly iconic image of the shark ready to strike on a helpless swimmer. Loads of scenes electrified me as a kid, and continue to do so to this day. When police chief Martin Brody is chumming the water and the shark looms hugely out of the water behind him; when scores of beachgoers run and swim for shore when the shark alarm goes up; when a severed head drifts by underwater in the sunken boat; when the shark is attacking Hooper in his inadequate-looking shark-cage; when Quint tells his story about the USS Indianapolis, and later when they are harpooning barrels of air into the shark to tire it out, and later still when Quint is crunched in two inside the creature’s giant jaws. The film is excellent, iconic, and my admiration of the film only grows every time I see it.

A couple of years later, a little bigger, I saw JAWS 2; again an event movie, a big deal, and I loved it. A bunch of kids, trapped at sea, by a huge and menacing shark. Great stuff. Every time that Jaws or Jaws 2 was on TV when I was a kid, I tried to watch it – in reality they were probably only on a couple of times each over a number of years, but it seemed to me that it was always an event, always a big thing. I lapped it up; I loved it.

Now, somewhere along the way, as I grew up and got into all kinds of horror movies and creature-features, monsters have always been one of my great loves, particularly, giant animal monsters, particularly, water-going creatures, like fish, snakes, octopi, crocodiles and most definitely sharks. In 1975 Jaws was about alone in the sub-genre; 40 years later, you can’t turn on the horror or syfy channels without coming across some kind of shark be it a Mega, a 3-Headed, a snow, zombie, ghost or avalanche variety, super, swampy, raging, in a tornado, attacking, or versus giant octopi or robotic predators. Sharks are everywhere, and I love ‘em. But, of course, some of the films are actually not really that good. So I’m gonna attempt to look at lots of sharky films and give my own completely-biased opinion on them. This project may take me a few months, or it may take forever. I’m betting on the latter. But one thing is probably certain; I’m gonna need a bigger blog....

Jawsome Shark Movie #1 --- SHARK ATTACK (1999)

Mostly, apart from the wave of JAWS imitators in the late 70’s and 80’s, the killer shark genre has been reasonably quiet until the 21st century. Just before then, and making a decent claim to be the beginning of low-budget shark-attack films is the Nu-Image TV movie SHARK ATTACK of 1999. The most notable thing about the film now, looking back, is that there is nothing particularly unnatural about the sharks; they are not mega or robotic or half-something-else. They are just normal-sized, albeit more aggressive creatures.  It stars Casper Van Dien, fresh from his star role in STARSHIP TROOPERS as a marine biologist who goes to an African coastal town to investigate the mysterious death of his friend and former colleague. There he meets Jennifer McShane, his friend’s sister and they team up with a local taxi/boat guy to investigate why this little town is having more than its share of ferocious shark kills. Smooth-talking Ernie Hudson [most famously from GHOSTBUSTERS] is on hand as a local authority of some kind and businessman, and Bentley Mitchum is a scientist using the sharks in experiments to find a cure for cancer. The film is decent, although clearly is an evening TV Movie thriller and not at all a horror or monster film. It’s reasonably well-made and has a good story to it, though the script is sometimes a bit fishy, and van Dien’s acting is variable. The sharks themselves pop up quite a bit, there’s a variety of species, and the majority of them are real sharks, although largely made of stock footage or shots filmed somewhere completely different from where the actors were. Early on there’s an obvious studio tank shot where you can just about see the back of the set above the ‘ocean’. In general SHARK ATTACK isn’t bad, fairly tense at a couple of points, with a fair bit of normal-sized shark action. Sadly, it overstays it welcome by about ten minutes, and you’re ready for the cheesy ending and the credits when they come. If you can stand it, watch it on a double feature with its sequel and some beer.

Movie Rating:- 6/10
Shark Score:- 4

[Shark Score is based on several factors and is entirely unscientific and awarded by me. I base it on the amount of screen time the shark(s) has; its jawsomeness and originality; special-effects, and just generally how cool it is for shark-movie freaks like myself. 10 is the highest, 1 the lowest, but any film that gets a 1 cant really qualify as a shark film at all really.]  


Monday, 7 March 2016

Midwinter Of The Spirit by Phil Rickman --- Book Review

Midwinter Of The Spirit

By Phil Rickman, 1999

Lancashire-born Phil Rickman began his writing career producing thick books, deep with character and intertwined events, revolving around ancient religion and practices, mysticism, New Age matters and old British customs and traditions. An open-minded and dark streak, offered up with titles like Crybbe [later renamed Curfew], December, The Man In The Moss and Candlenight soon placed him within the wide expanses of the horror genre, a label that Rickman was never keen on. I see his point; these books are near to horror, but much quieter, any horrors are much more insidious and slow-burning, or often the horror of what happens when two opposing faiths find themselves against each other. For a publisher they are indeed hard to classify; they have some horror and fantasy themes, but sometimes are nearer to crime fiction, a sort of supernatural thriller, steeped in the old ways of simpler times, and usually set in out-of-the-way corners of central Britain.  

Midwinter Of The Spirit is the second book in Rickman’s Merrily Watkins series, concerning the exploits of a small-town female reverend who gets mixed up in all kinds of old-religion themed trouble. The first book, The Wine Of Angels concerns big families who hide big secrets that span centuries and a religion-based murderer. Rickman must have attached to the character of Merrily Watkins and in Midwinter, Merrily has had an upgrade, so much so, that the first book is almost just a prequel to the fourteen or so that followed. In Midwinter, Merrily has been picked out by the clergy to be a ‘Deliverance minister’, basically a modern euphemism for an appointed and official Exorcist. Any problems of an occult or supernatural nature that arise within her diocese are pointed towards her, and it is her that the Church rely on to do her job, sort things out, but keep them reasonably quiet and out-of-the-way. The trouble is, in Midwinter, Merrily has just finished her brief training, isn’t really sure she wants to take the job, and isn’t entirely sure what she’s doing when she is thrown in at the deep end and asked to look into some difficult and personally-painful events. First there is the case of Denzil Joy, a man who has led an evil life full of unpleasant things. Denzil is on his death-bed in the hospital, but his nurses and carers are scared of him and even near death, he seems to have some kind of supernatural unclean aura around him. The man soon dies, but something of his spirit is passed on to Merrily; his subsequent haunting of the Reverend causes great friction and stress in her life, and she finds it increasingly difficult to deal with the further problems that are thrown her way. Churches are desecrated, a young woman trying to attune with her long-dead ancestors is found dead, and another body is pulled out of the river Wye. All these events have sinister connotations in themselves – on top of this Merrily’s teenage daughter Jane is getting friendly with a clique of people with darker intent than their New Age group would seem to suggest. All of this is cleverly twisted and twined together, while haunted Merrily tries to take it all in and piece it together, often making it up as she goes along. And sometimes it seems that even the Church is not always on her side.

Midwinter Of The Spirit, like all of Rickman’s books is around 500 pages long, thick, and creates a deep sense of character and events. Yet the pages do go by very fast; it doesn’t seem as long as it is. Some people, however, dislike Rickman’s writing style – it is very familiar, chatty, sometimes almost like a stream of consciousness from whichever character he’s writing about at the time. He also jumps around a lot with the events – often within one chapter, two or three plot lines are on the go together. This definitely accelerates the reading – you’ll quickly read bits in order to get back to the character you’ve just left – but is occasionally confusing and a little jarring. Often in a long book, a large cast of characters can also make for confusing reading - with constant flickbacks to find out who Sophie is again, for example, - but here Rickman does a pretty good job of giving characters their own identity, and I felt mostly at ease with around 10 -15 central characters.

There are some ghosts here – and a novel and fun way of categorising them – but this is far from a horror novel; like I said above, I would call it a Supernatural Thriller, although I’d be tempted to say Drama instead of Thriller, because that is more the case here. It’s all very interesting and keeps you reading, but for my taste, it never quite built up the thrills enough to qualify as a thriller; the climax particularly seemed a little low-key to tie up all the 500 pages before it. But before you get the idea that this is a negative review, it is far from it. Rickman has created a deep and rich world with his Merrily Watkins character, a world where the old beliefs still linger, and where ghosts and occult events are commonplace but swept under the carpet by the authorities. I enjoyed the book; it is a rich and deep novel with many subplots skilfully weaved together. The world Rickman has created is no doubt filled in even further with the long list of sequels – and Midwinter has recently been adapted as a three-part ITV series [enjoyable stuff, slightly altered and necessarily condensed from the book, and only slightly confusing if you haven’t read the source material] and hopefully more will follow.

I liked Midwinter Of The Spirit, although I enjoyed The Man In The Moss slightly more because it was nearer to a straight horror story.  Phil Rickman is an interesting writer and I’ll be reading more of his engaging books in the future.  7/10    


Monday, 2 November 2015

11 Great Horror Stories [1969]; Anthology Review...

11 Great Horror Stories

1969, Edited by Betty M. Owen

This thin unassuming paperback was among my first introductions into horror – in the realm of short stories, at least. My copy still has a pencilled ‘30p’ in the inside cover, and it has scaffolding of sellotape down its spine where my wife has bandaged the book back together for me several times. The cover is freaky, out of focus, weird – two swirling faces that on closer study seem to resemble Edgar Allan Poe and perhaps H.P.Lovecraft in nebulous hall-of-mirror caricature. It is an American book, and I’m guessing that I found it on one of my regular trawls through a jumble sale or a charity shop or a market stall, sometime in the early 1990’s.  I read it not long after.

I am very fond of this little book anyway; I love old anthologies like this. This particular one though had the distinctive pleasure of introducing me to that master of the weird, Howard Phillips Lovecraft, for the first time, or more or less the first time. I think I had read the odd story by Lovecraft before this, but they were more his minor, shorter, stories, and apart from perhaps The Festival, didn’t really have that much of an impact on the teenage me. All that changed with 11 Great Horror Stories, and it’s opening tale, Lovecraft’s "The Dunwich Horror". I had already seen the slow-going film with Dean Stockwell and I imagine I wasn’t expecting much of the story. What a surprise I was in for. I read it in one long sitting [as one should always try to do with Lovecraft] and just got lost in the story, in the atmosphere, an .d the great build-up of growing horror. It tells the story of Lavinia Whately, who gives birth to Wilbur, who grows up prematurely and precociously, having early interests in strange occult matters and interests. And something else – something that is growing in his attic. Wilbur is trying to summon things on the nearby hills, things he has read about in old, forgotten books, and when these attempts go wrong, the thing in his attic – without Wilbur to care for and maintain it – grows and grows until it bursts out of the attic room, escapes its confines, and begins to ravage around the nearby countryside. The thing is invisible, or almost so, and causes chaos shambling around the country lanes and hills, while the simple local folk go half mad with horror.

This is a great story, a cornerstone of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, and a great place to start with Lovecraft, but equally is perfectly readable on its own. Lovecraft’s style is at its easiest-to-read here, and the power of the atmosphere builds to a fine ending, with very visual descriptions throughout the piece as well as a sense of looming menace. The Dunwich Horror is among my very favourite Lovecraft stories; on the strength of this story I immediately made more investigations into Lovecraft’s world, and within a week or two had read most of his more important stories and had become a lifelong Lovecraftian. Certainly a Great Horror Story!!!

Read it here: The Dunwich Horror

Listen to it here: The Dunwich Horror Audio  

[or you could always buy one of the many great books it's available in!]

  My next favourite story in this little book is not the Poe [which we’ll come back to later], but "The Judge’s House", a terror tale by Bram Stoker. I have since discovered that Stoker had a bit of a one-hit-wonder with Dracula; his other novels, such as The Lady Of The Shroud and The Lair Of The White Worm are nowhere near as good [White Worm is a bit of a mess!], but Stoker did write a handful of quality short horror stories, and The Judge’s House is among the best. Very readable and fast-moving, it tells of a young student who isolates himself in a decrepit legend-haunted old house where a strict judge once lived. Every night, when the student sets to his books, a huge rat comes to sit beside him and stare – a rat that could be ‘the old devil’ himself. Towards the end, the story segues from weird into a more pedestrian ghost story, but it maintains some surprises by having an ambiguous ending and two possible interpretations. The second half is slightly less than the brilliant first half, but this still qualifies as another Great Horror Story.

My next choice of the 11 [and I’m doing these roughly in the order of which I enjoyed most] is called "W.S." by the English novelist L.P. Hartley. The story has a hint of the Stephen King’s about it, but was written well before King ever got published. A writer receives strange postcards through the mail, culminating in a visit from the sender themselves. But is the visitor an unconscious part of the writers mind, a harmless but fruitcake fan, or perhaps a character somehow made flesh, seeking answers about his life.  This builds well into a compelling mystery, and put me in mind of such King tales as "The Dark Half" and "Secret Window, Secret Garden". Another enjoyable read.

Jack Finney’s story "The Love Letter" comes next, and while I enjoyed this, it is more a lightly sentimental science fiction tale, rather than horror, and tells about a series of impossible letters sent and recieved through time and space.

"The Return Of The Griffins" by A.E.Sandeling is a fun but odd story about a European politician who suddenly begins to see griffins all over the place, and yet no one else can see them. Is something weird going on, or is he just crazy? And in "Thus I Refute Beelzy" by John Collier, a child’s imaginary friend may be not that imaginary after all. I personally found this story to be just ok, but it is well-regarded; you can listen to Vincent Price reading the story here

Poe next, and his appearance here is with one of his less-famous stories, "The Oblong Box", which isn’t so much a horror story as a light mystery yarn. On a long sea voyage the nmarrator ponders over the problem of why a family have booked an unrequired cabin, and wonders what is inside their precious oblong box. The story is ok,. Memorable in its own way, but lacking the atmospheric claustrophobic horror of some of Poe’s best tales. Despite Poe being reprinted in a myriad of publications, I still think The Oblong Box a bit of an odd choice for 11 Great Horror Stories. For the record, I think my favourite Poe tale is "The Facts In The Case Of M. Valdemar" or "The Tell-Tale Heart".

The remainder of the stories here were less well received by myself. The Mistake by Fielden Hughes [?}, concerning a medical miracle who needs no sleep, is reminiscent of Poe’s best tales, but not in the same league. “The Ape And The Mystery”, by Gerald Kersh,  is an ok story about the painting of the Mona Lisa, but hardly qualifies as horror. “Flies” by Anthony Vercoe is a very standard sort of ghost story, concerning a dying tramp and his strange hallucinations. And “The Shed”, by E. Everett Evans is the weakest story of all; poorly written and containing a weak plot about a shadowy presence in an old railway shed. These four stories I could happily have done without; there is a wealth of excellent horror stories pre-1969 which could have been included in their place.

Nevertheless, this is a charming little paperback, precious to me because it introduced me properly to Lovecraft, but also was a small window into the absolutely huge list of short classic horror stories. These old vintage paperbacks like this, I snap up whenever I see them, because you never know what little gems they will contain. “The Dunwich Horror” is a 10/10 story, absolutely classic Lovecraft, but this collection as a whole can only score... 7/10

[Michael Carter 1999/2015]

Thursday, 30 April 2015


The Great Zoo Of China

By Matthew Reilly

2015, Orion hb, 529pp

Some books are on my shelves for years before I get round to reading them, while some that I particularly want to read soon might still take six months or a year to actually get to. I saw a full page advert in a magazine for newly-released THE GREAT ZOO OF CHINA, did a little online poking around, and ordered it from my local library, along with Stephen King’s MR. MERCEDES, and after a couple of weeks, they both arrived on the same day. I read the King book first, but a day after finishing got note from the library that THE GREAT ZOO OF CHINA had to go back [as with most new books, there’s a waiting list; usually, you can keep books, with nine renewals, for twenty-seven weeks, enough for even the slowest reader]. So, I was faced with a pretty huge doorstop of a book, and the problem of could I get it read in little over a week. Well, clearly I could, because with big-ish print, lots of white space in chapter breakups and a handful of maps and diagrams, this huge book only runs to [I estimate] around 100,000 words. Also, it reads like gangbusters.

The plot; well, essentially, and in a movie-pitch sort of style, it’s Jurassic Park with dragons instead of dinosaurs, set in the jungles of China. Or, if you’d care for another handle, it’s a Jane MaClaine Die Hard With Dragons. Forty years ago the Chinese government discovered that dragons were real and were nested beneath the surface of the earth. Keeping this massive secret from the world, they have carried out a research program into the creatures, placing them in captivity and bringing in some of the worlds experts to oversee their project. Eventually, in a bid to own the most awesome visitor-attraction in the world, they have spent trillions of moolah to build a massive and ultra high-tech safari-type zoo environment in a jungled valley of Southern China. Herpetologist CJ Campbell, and her brother Hamish, are two of the experts helicoptered in to be given a pre-opening tour of the place, boat-rides, cable-cars, maglev trains, revolving mountaintop restaurants, the works. But captive dragons aren’t keen on remaining captive, so before long [about 20% in] everything goes belly-up, the dragons go nuts, and a long, long, 400 page action sequence begins.

This is a strange novel. It’s a pretty good concept, and author Reilly has a fair-enough kind of explanation for the dragons and their long history, and he adequately describes the enormous environment in which they are held. Also, his action sequences are truly massive, truly vast in scope, and, most of the latter 400 pages has truly enormous dragons going completely batshit, destroying everything around them, picking up petrol tankers and launching them from the air like bombs, or snatching helicopters from the skies, to smashing up buildings of reinforced concrete. There’s non-stop carnage and death and destruction here; head-biting, neck-snapping, gut-flying, car-boat-dragon chases, explosions, fire, machine guns, last-second escapes, completely awesome but all completely over-the-top  action; Peter Jackson would get tired, Michael Bay would have a migraine!! CJ Cameron, the female herpetologist somehow becomes Lara Croft or Jane Bond, surging from one reptilian assault to another, surviving by the skin of her teeth to the point of complete and total unbelievability. I think this book is the most action-heavy book I’ve ever read in my life. Sometimes it gets too much, too repetitive, and too samey-samey that, despite drawings of maps and detailed explanations, I still wasn’t always exactly sure where our heroes were running to or which part of the Dragon Zoo was exploding. You just sort of get the gist, the important action, while the pertinent details often happen as a fuzzy bang. There were times when I was bored of dragons throwing helicopters about the place, and times when I was considering leaving the rest of it unread and going for a lie down. But, to be fair, there were also action sequences that were engaging and reasonably exciting and kept the pages flying by; sometimes, when you get the point that it’s completely over-the-top and pretty paper-thin, you can’t help getting carried away with it, and I was laughing out loud at the ridiculousness of the next giant action extravaganza. Phew!

But, to be equally fair, the action, is pretty much all there is. The rest of the book is as empty as Jurassic Park’s gift-shop. There is very little depth to anything, the characters are largely stereotypes with cardboard-cutout development, and the writing style leaves little for contemplation; it’s a fast and lean, James Patterson kind of style, all fire and fists, but no space for much flair in the writing. The book screams Movie Deal! and the action is all very visual, but to be honest, if this was made into a Hollywood blockbuster it would cost as much to make as building an actual dragon zoo yourself, and more-to-the-point, any successful script would need extra work to muscle in a bit of character development, unless it were to become a                                                                           Transformers-like mess.

I kind of enjoyed THE GREAT ZOO OF CHINA to some extent. There were some visuals I’ll remember for a while, and I’ll recall the whole awesome ridiculousness of it, and it was very fast-paced and easy read. But if, as a reader, you enjoy a bit more originality, and a bit more depth or substance to your books, it’s probably not for you. Tonnes of dragons, though.