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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

REVIEW - THE GREAT ZOO OF CHINA - HERE BE DRAGONS


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. 

                                           6.5/10




Saturday, 1 November 2014

Doctor Sleep; Does it shine...?

DOCTOR SLEEP

By Stephen King

[2013]

Does it shine...?

Although Stephen King will always be known as a horror author, and although The Shining is indeed a contemporary horror classic, this sequel doesn’t feel much like a horror novel. It has horror themes such as telekinetic powers, ghosts, child-murder, and psychic vampires, but there’s barely a hint of proper toe-curling horror here; in fact it’s very much by the numbers for King, and, I suspect, will disappoint his hard-core horror readership.


The ideas and plot are good, and about a third into the book, they’re looking great; Danny Torrance has grown up, and has managed to mostly escape the ghosts of his past. The spooky ghosts, that is. But it is the ghost of his father, of his genes, that haunts Dan in adulthood; like his father, he has turned to alcohol in a big way, has a temper, and is constantly on the move, never seeming to be able to settle, and avoiding the mountain areas which still hold terror for him. 


Eventually he rocks up in New Hampshire, where, again eventually, he finds himself working as an orderly in a hospice, using his psychic talents to comfort the residents in their passing. While here, he connects up psychically with a young girl, Abra Stone, a kid who, like Dan, has grown up with the shining talent, although hers is especially powerful. Over time, Abra becomes aware of a thread of missing children, each with some shining of their own, and is led to the reason why; The True Knot is a long-lived band of wrinklies who move around America in motorhomes and caravans, tracking and killing psychic kids, to inhale their ‘steam’. And now, Abra realises, as they slowly weaken due to disease, they have their sights set on her, the biggest steamhead they have ever known. Naturally, it’s up to her, Abra, and her new friend Dan Torrance, to deal with this band of psychic vampires...


Pretty good plot, and the characters of Dan and Abra are well drawn and interesting to read. However, most of the other characters didn’t seem as real to me, but just supporting characters. Especially disappointing here was the treatment of Rose the Hat, the leader of the True Knot and the main ‘Big Bad’ here; she came across as a bit comedic, a bit ridiculous, rather than scary. The other bad guys, the rest of the Knot, were mostly interchangeable, with little of King’s usually-excellent character work, instead just giving easy names like Crow Daddy, Barry the Chink, Grampa Flick etc... but it wasn’t just the bad guys; I had trouble with most of the supporting characters here.


The narrative itself was strange. Sometimes in a book, people talk about ‘the boring middle bit’, but with DOCTOR SLEEP, I found the middle bit to be about the best, with the plot strands growing together and Abra Stone’s character being revealed. The beginning [after a few good pages of wrap-up from The Shining] seemed to flounder and took a while to get going, and then the ending felt like a damb squib; I found the last 50 pages or so a bit of a [sometimes confusing] slog to a very weak climax, and found myself closing the book thinking ‘Meh!’


This is a bit of a negative review, but it’s negative, only because I was quite disappointed in the book. There are some good things in it, some good observations, and it’s interesting to know a bit more about others who shine. But whereas The Shining indeed shone, Doctor Sleep merely slumbers on, Stephen King on autopilot, in the long shadow of it’s parent classic.   6/10  





Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Review; The Giant Book Of Best New Horror


THE GIANT BOOK OF BEST NEW HORROR

Edited by Stephen Jones and Ramsey Campbell

1993, Magpie Books, 619pp


This giant horror collection has been on my shelf for 20 years. Over that time I’ve read bits and pieces from it, but this year thought it was time to give it a good cover-to-cover re-read.

The book collects Jones and Campbells’ selections of the ‘very best’ from the first three volumes of their BEST NEW HORROR series, published in the late 80’s and early 90’s. It is indeed a huge collection, containing 41 stories, ranging in length from about 2000 words [4 pages] to around 18,000 [32pp] words, and from an eclectic range of authors.

The collection gives a needle-sharp reflection of the state of horror at the time. Mostly supernatural horror, or dark fantasy, fills the pages, and there is a certain amount of gory, cinematic action-horror that often typified the era. There is a handful of stories set in more exotic locales [meaning neither the UK or USA], a number of stories using various literary techniques like intertextuality and unreliable narrators, and a set of tales still haunted by the shadow of Vietnam. Each reader will like or dislike different selections, but here are mine.

My favourite story in the book, though difficult to choose, is from an author I had not encountered before; Ian Macleod’s ‘1/72nd Scale’ is an excellent story telling of a boy trying to heal the pain of his family after the death of his brother, by building his brother’s unmade Airfix model plane. He becomes close to his brother’s spirit and memory while building the model, and sets in motion a chain of supernatural and weird events. A delightful easy-to-read and compelling story, this is very evocative of childhood, and anyone who grew up in England in the 70’s or 80’s will find much to empathise on.

Around a quarter of the stories I would consider excellent or very good. Thomas Ligotti’s ‘The Last Feast Of Harlequin’ and Gene Wolfe’s ‘Lord Of The Land’ are great in different ways, both with a hint of Lovecraftiness. Wolfe’s story tells of a guy collecting mythic stories of the ‘soul-sucker’, while Ligotti’s scholarly story has a narrator investigating pierrot or sad-clown figures in a strange Winter festival in an unusual town. Both tales suggest that reality is just a thin veneer which hides something alien and horrific.

Ghosts and hauntings are frequent here; Thomas Tessier’s ‘Blanca’ tells, in measured and impeccable prose, about a bland holiday, night-time visions, and a missing friend. ‘Ma Qui’ by Alan Brennert, which won the Nebula Award, is an inventive and excellent story of ghosts, demons and of belief, and how American G.I.’s that die in the Vietnamese jungles face an afterlife of a different culture. ‘True Love’ by K.W. Jeter is both devastating and memorable with a woman abducting small boys and taking them home to her dying father. This simple plotline very effectively mixes true horror with the supernatural.

‘The Man Who Drew Cats’ was Michael Marshall Smith’s first published story and tells of a mysterious pavement artist. ‘Pelts’ by F. Paul Wilson was nominated for the Bram Stoker Award and is a straight 80’s style horror fest, concerned with the animal fur trade, but delivering delicious horror splat.

There were also good [but perhaps not outstanding] enjoyable stories here;

‘No Sharks In The Med’ by Brian Lumley is a well-written version of WOLF CREEK set in Greece, and is only slightly overlong.

‘The Horn’ by Stephen Gallagher tells of a supernatural menace in a snowstorm. There is good humour and good writing here, in this tale which I found very indicative of the 1980’s.

‘The Last Day Of Miss Dorinda Molyneux’ by Robert Westall is a good ghost story about a shambling corpse released into the vaults of an abandoned church. It has a slightly slow build-up, but builds to an atmospheric ending.

‘Snow Cancellations’ by Donald R. Burleson is an old favourite of mine. Again, set in a snowstorm, this has at its core an obvious yet genius idea.

‘Those Of Rhenea’ by David Sutton, and ‘The Same In Any Language’ by Ramsey Campbell are both enjoyable ghost-stories set in and around the Mediterranean. Campbell’s story particularly lingers in the memory.

‘The Braille Encyclopedia’ by Grant Morrison, ‘Where Flies Are Born’ by Douglas Clegg’, and ‘The Eye Of The Ayatollah’ by Ian Watson have original but macabre ideas behind them. All three are enjoyable and memorable tales.

I enjoyed ‘Impermanent Mercies’ by Kathe Koja, even though it is perhaps the most bizarre in the book. It is very well written and tells the strange story of a dog’s head in a box, ordering people to carry out its evil bidding.

Poppy Z. Brite’s ‘His Mouth Will Taste Of Wormwood’ is an elegant and decadant story of thrill-seeking grave-robbers. Occasionally unpleasant, there is flair and style in the prose.

Jonathan Carroll’s story ‘The Dead Love You’ is highly readable, about stalkers and being stalked, with some great lines. Carroll likes playing with the readers expectations; take this paragraph half way through;

“Are you confused? Good! Stick with me a while longer and you’ll know everything. I could have held all this till the end. But I want you frowning now, knowing something is very wrong with your parachute, even before actually pulling the cord and praying it opens.
P.S. It won’t.”


‘Chui Chai’ by S.P.Somtow tells of Frankenstein-like experiments on the streets of Bangkok, while ‘Inside The Walled City’ by Garry Kilworth describes an expedition in a vast soon-to-be-demolished collection of slums in Hong Kong.

There are other ok to average stories by Gahan Wilson, Harlan Ellison, Richard Laymon, Nicholas Royle, Karl Edward Wagner, J.L. Comeau, Steve Rasnic Tem, Chet Williamson and Robert R. McCammon.

Alas, there are always stories that miss the mark, and everyone’s will be a different set. Personally, here, I wasn’t so keen on the work of Peter Straub [unusually], Cherry Wilder, D.F.Lewis, Elizabeth Hand, David J.Schow, Charles L. Grant, Joel Lane, Jean Daniel-Breque, or Dennis Etchison. Neither did I much like ‘The Original Dr.Shade’, a novella by Kim Newman; this won the 1991 Science Fiction Award for Best Short Story, so quite clearly, that shows how much I know.

In summation, this is a huge collection which explores many and most of the popular themes in the horror genre, and contains plenty of great reading and clever ideas. There is more than just splat and gore here; there is atmosphere, excellent prose, mystique and wonder, and above all, there is heart; there should always be heart in good horror. Quite simply, anyone with an interest in the genre will find much to like here. 8/10


   

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Brian Lumley:- Cthulhu Mythos Reviews


BRIAN LUMLEY - SOME CTHULHU MYTHOS TALES REVIEWS



I’ve had a Brian Lumley splurge on Amazon. I’ve bought RETURN OF THE DEEP ONES AND OTHER MYTHOS NOVELLAS, which I read from the library as a teenager. I also got two of his story collections, DAGON’S BELL AND OTHER DISCORDS and THE SECOND WISH AND OTHER EXHALATIONS. Lumley is a regular author of short stories, and I’ve enjoyed them in the past. But the main coursed of my Lumley feast was a copy of his [previously a bit impossible to find] MYTHOS OMNIBUS VOLUME ONE containing the first three novels in his six-book-long Titus Crow saga. I’ve had VOLUME TWO on my bookshelf for years but have never read it, not wanting to jump in at Book 4.
Anyway, over the last month or so I’ve read through all 655 pages of it, enjoying it very much. They are horror/fantasy/science-fiction novels, pitting occult investigator Titus Crow and his allies against the very real threat of the Cthulhu Cycle Deities. Anyway, here’s my reviews of the books, if you’re interested. If you’re not, then I’ve put some pretty pictures in to cheer up your day.

Oh, and the prolific Brian Lumley [around 60 novels or collections] was born in Horden, County Durham, England, which to those who are crap at geography is near Sunderland. There aren’t that many famous people from County Durham so you have to big-up every one of them.


THE BURROWERS BENEATH (1974)


I actually read some of Lumleys Cthulhu-mythos fiction [THE RETURN OF THE DEEP ONES, BENEATH THE MOORS] before I discovered and read Lovecrafts original stories. Of these teenage forays into Lumley, my notes record ‘don’t like style’; here lies irony! Anyway, I’ve read quite a few short stories since then, ranging from Ok to Very Good, but since ‘DEEP ONES’ this is my first [and Lumley’s first] novel.

Also it's a bit of a fix-up from previously published stories; “Cement Surroundings” and “The Night Sea-Maid Went Down” were short [good] early Cthulhu Mythos stories. In THE BURROWERS BENEATH, Lumley has linked the stories together and extended their scope, though the novel is largely an expansion of “Cement Surroundings”, concerning the exploits of Shudde-M’ell, a huge octopoid burrowing creature, a Great Old One, and his similar children. When these creatures move around under the surface of the Earth, they produce tremors and earthquakes, and can be tracked with siesomological devices. Lumley’s idea is that these creatures are responsible for many earthquakes and tremors throughout history; originally prisoned by the Elder Gods beneath Africa, they have now broken free and are reproducing and massing.
The main characters here are from some of Lumley’s earlier stories; Titus Crow is a psychic scholar of the Occult, and his friend and coleage, Henri de Marigny. Together, they become more convinced and involved in Shudde-M’ell’s exploits across England, and later are recruited by the Wilmarth Foundation, an organisation emanating from Miskatonic University to identify, track down and destroy [where possible] the wide plethora of Cthulhu Cycle Deities that are still extant and active on Earth. The idea is that these entities [Shudde-M’ell, Cthulhu, Hastur, Azathoth, Ithaqua, etc] and their minions [shoggoths, Deep Ones, Mi-Go, etc] once imprisoned by the Elder Gods, are now breaking free and causing havoc, while the Wilmarth Foundation attempt to hold them at bay and cover-up the whole thing.
Like many writers before him, Lumley has taken the concepts of Lovecrafts Cthulhu Mythos as a centrepiece for his Titus Crow stories, but has taken the ideas in his own, more modern, direction. Lovecrafts protagonists were usually weak, ineffectual, passive, and more likely to faint or ‘not find adequate words to describe the horror’. Lumley’s characters have more of the modern age about them, and fight back; Lovecrafts guys would never have created the Wilmarth Foundation. Lumley’s interpretation of the Mythos is more physical, more real; he has solidified Cthulhu, filled in the jigsaw that Lovecraft, and later Derleth began, and brought a bit of Order to Chaos. Lumley’s interpretation was original and modern but was disliked by many traditional Mythos fans. Personally, I find this new [in the 1970’s] approach to be refreshing; I enjoy very much traditional tales [as does Lumley], but I don’t believe that Lumley should be disparaged because of an innovative approach.

THE BURROWERS BENEATH uses a traditional Lovecraftian device of letters and journals, and though this seems to increase the pace and veracity of the book, there is always a slight detachment to the action, especially in the final chapters which cover an extended period of time in a short space. As a novel, it wobbles a little, it doesn’t seem quite even somehow, but is packed with great ideas and observations on the Mythos [eg, Azathoth is The Big Bang, while Nyarlathotep is telepathy, a close anagram], and is infused with an obvious love for Lovecrafts original stories, many of which he weaves into the narrative.  On a more personal note, large parts of the book are set in the North of England, where both Lumley and myself were born, and it’s fun to see local [slightly changed] place names.

Really this novel is the first in a long sequence of six, telling the story of Titus Crow and the Wilmarth Foundation. In addition to that there are a number of short stories telling of more, earlier, exploits of the character. THE BURROWERS BENEATH is a fast, engaging read, ending on a cliffhanger; I look forward to reading more.

NOTE; Though THE BURROWERS BENEATH has never been filmed, I believe that it has been an uncredited inspiration on several films, most notably BEHEMOTH [2011] in which a vast tentacled underground ‘God’ is responsible for tremors and earthquakes, and at the end pops out of the top of a mountain. There are also similarities in the films MONGOLIAN DEATH WORM [2010], THE BURROWERS [2008], and in the popular TREMORS series.

Rating:- 7/10


THE TRANSITION OF TITUS CROW (1975)


I usually jump about a lot in my reading matter, flipping from author to author. It’s rare that I will read a series or even a sequel to a book straight after the first one, so it’s a testament to Brian Lumley, that I began THE TRANSITION OF TITUS CROW just days after reading the first in this Cthulhu Mythos series, THE BURROWERS BENEATH.

Where BURROWERS was a monstrous horror story, TRANSITION is very much science-fiction, or perhaps science fantasy. The end of BURROWERS left occult investigator Titus Crow and his companion De Marigny fleeing from monstrous worm creatures in an old grandfather clock that can traverse space and time, from Lovecraft’s story, ‘Through The Gates Of The Silver Key’. TRANSITION begins with de Marigny being found ten years later, but having no memory of the intervening time. During his convalescence, he is [and the reader is] filled in on the activities of the Wilmarth Foundation in keeping at bay the Cthulhu Cycle Deities. Some months later de Marigny is contacted psychically by Crow and is ‘moored in’ through time and space. The rest of the book [3/4 of it] is taken up with Crow’s story of where he has been for ten years; and what a story.

Using the time-space clock [that’s bigger on the inside than the outside!] Crow has hurtled through all time and space, persued by the dreadful Hounds Of Tindalos. He visits black-holes and other universes, strange suns and galaxies, and travels into the far future and the distant past. He finds himself stranded in Cretacious times, fending off hungry pteradons and trying to find his sunken vessel. Then he crashes into a planet at hideous speed where his body is smashed; a helpful robot from the future rebuilds him with artificial components. He races through Earth’s history, the Roman Empire, Atlantis, and the far future of the universe to meet with the Great Race who are chronicling everything in the cosmos. And finally he meets, in a different plane of existence, the Elder God Kthanid, and his future-love Tiania, on the planet of Elysia, to which he is called back at the end of the book, leaving de Marigny with the clock and the option of following him into the universe...

Parts of this book are staggering in scope and imagination; Lumley has taken a diverse pic’n’mix from the tales of Lovecraft and other weird writers and assembled a huge awesome whole. The descriptions of Crow undergoing his actual TRANSITION and popping all over the universe are very good fun, and high in imaginative talent; the pages fly by. If it has any flaws, it is simply its construction; it is more episodic rather than a solid novel, and ends on a quiet but portentous note, leading up to Book Three in the series, THE CLOCK OF DREAMS. Some traditional Lovecraftians may not care for the series because of all the defining of once-mysterious events and entities, and of the familiation of Cthulhu and his brethren; the monsters are real, and are related to each other in complicated ways. But I loved this book, enjoyed the awesomeness of it; much of it was like reading Golden Age Science-Fiction, and I would recommend it to any fan of the fantastic. I look forward eagerly to the next in the series. 8/10


 THE CLOCK OF DREAMS (1978)


This is the third volume in Lumley’s Titus Crow sequence, again using Lovecraft’s original stories and themes as a springboard for his own imagination. With THE BURROWERS BENEATH having a horror template, and TRANSITION being more science-fiction, this novel owes its ideas to Lovecrafts fantasy stories, his Dunsanian tales like “Celephais”, “The Doom That Came To Sarnath”, “The Cats Of Ulthar”, and the novel “The Dream-Quest Of Unknown Kadath”, set in the Dreamlands.

            At the end of the last book, Titus Crow was called back to Elysia, a far-distant planet; it seems that the entire cosmos is embedded in an aeons-long battle with the Cthulhu Cycle Deities, the Great Old Ones, and now it has become apparent that Cthulhu and his minions are still managing to send out messages in dream, and to exert their influence in the waking world through mesmerised dreamers. Titus, an occult-investigator with a mighty robotic body and a coffin-shaped grandfather clock that can traverse time and space, is sent on a mission to inlfiltrate mankinds Dreamland and to try and stop Cthulhu from completing his nefarious  plots. However, Titus, and his alien love, have gone missing in Dreamland, so it’s up to de Marigny, Titus’ friend and companion, to enter into Dreamland, find his allies, and stop Cthulhu.

            Thus, this is essentially a fantasy tale, full of grotesque monsters and villainous evil-doers, gugs, ghasts, night-gaunts, flying beaked worm horrors, horned and mysterious pirates, a Fly-The-Light creature and much more. Here are episodic adventures in Dreamland, watched over by a grotesque and thoroughly Lovecraftian eye. The book took me a short while to fully get into [Lovecrafts Dreamland tales are not my particular favourites], but once the pace caught and I got the gist, it was again a compelling, imaginative and exciting read, in the imaginative style of say Moorcock, Fritz Leiber or Robert E Howard; this is Wierd Tales-type fantasy with an action bent, not Lovecrafts often-impotent descriptive phantasies. THE CLOCK OF DREAMS finishes on a better conclusion than the preceding three volumes, even though there are still three to go. All in all, I found CLOCK perhaps the patchiest of the three books, but put together in a large omnibus, these three novels comprise [the first half of] a richly dark and imaginative sci-fi fantasy festival celebrating and updating Lovecraft’s monstrous pantheon of horrors. 7/10






                                        RETURN OF THE DEEP ONES

By Brian Lumley, 1984
[Included in ‘Return Of The Deep Ones And Other Mythos Tales”]

This is another short-ish Cthulhu Mythos novel by the prolific Lumley. Set on England’s North East coast [around Seaham], the story is told in classic Mythos style, as a first person narrative, as by John Vollister, a noted marine biologist. When he receives a strange seashell from America, he starts to investigate its origins and his life suddenly becomes complicated and seemingly threatened. He uncovers that the members of an isolated boat club are in fact denizens of the deep, members of Lovecraft’s submarine race The Deep Ones, and that they have some nefarious and very fishy plans. These amphibious creatures, servants and worsippers of Father Dagon and Great Cthulhu, are a mixture of fully developed Deep Ones, human half-breeds slowly becoming changelings, and many things inbetween. Here, too are the ultimate Lovecraftian horror, the shoggoths, the guardian and muscle of the Deep One race.

Although these days it is fairly standard stuff, RETURN OF THE DEEP ONES, is a well-told and enjoyable story, complete with all the usual oceanic flotsam as well as the well-trodden dreams of monolithic undersea cities, and dubious and mysterious ancestries. I personally liked the idea of a shoggoth, a kind of shapeless hulking mass of blubber and oil, keeping guard at a lonely spot on the North East coast, as well as the chapter dealing with another peripheral character “Haggopian”, who kindles an unhealthy obsession with ocean parasites [this chapter was released as a self-contained short story].    


DEEP ONES is an enjoyable yarn, although seasoned readers in the genre may find it occasionally trite. Nevertheless, Lumley has written a fair handful of Deep One stories, and this one, like most of his work, has some evocative moments and, pleasingly, characters who don’t always faint on seeing a cold fish. 6/10
  
  
BENEATH THE MOORS
By Brian Lumley
[Included in “Return Of The Deep Ones And Other Mythos Tales”
1974,

BENEATH THE MOORS is a short novel in the Cthulhu Mythos style but set, not in Arkham or the Miskatonic Valley of Massachusetts, but in Lumley’s homeground of the North East coast, and the North York Moors of England.

The story, in the first person, though by different narrators, tells of Professor Ewart Masters who, after a car accident, is convalescing by the North East coast [Harden, the fictional town here, is a thin veil for the real Horden, where Lumley was born] when he comes across a mysterious antiquity in a museum, a miniature sculpture of an ancient reptilian god. Masters becomes fascinated by this discovery and sets out on detailed his research into the thing, including a trip to the area of the North York Moors where the thing was found. Most of the rest of the narrative comprises what happens to Masters when he disappears on these moors; he describes, in what he believes to be an elaborate dream, how he finds himself underground in a vast cave system and, befriended by a reptilian creature similar to the sculpture, he discovers amazing evidence of a strange and ancient subterreanean city, having many imaginative adventures within.

There is much more flesh on the story than this bare-bones summary suggests, and the short [120pp] but compelling novel is highly visual and full of imaginative description. While not strictly a work of the Cthulhu Mythos, the story references many things within the mythos and from other wierd fictions, and in detail it has more to do with Lovecraft’s Dunsanian-type fantasies, particularly “The Doom That Came To Sarnath”. This was among Lumley’s first novels, and although the structure is occasionally a little jumpy, and the surprises a bit obvious for a seasoned weird-reader, there is much to like here, and, having been potholing in a few North Yorkshire caves myself, it is easy to imagine the wonderful fantasies that Lumley has created. The novel incorporates Lumley’s story ‘The Sister City’, which works well on its own, but better within the context of the novel.

As a final note, I first read this when I was about sixteen, before reading Lovecraft and lots of other weird writings. I enjoyed it then but missed most of it’s references and the huge history behind it, so while having some reading experience in the genre would undoubtedly add to the book, it would also work as a stand-alone with no previous knowledge of the strange stuff. 7/10 





    Final Note to self:- Seemingly, despite reading it, and attempting to write it, and typing it at least once a day, I clearly still can't spell wierd.


Saturday, 16 August 2014

Review:- Joyland by Stephen KIng

Joyland

By Stephen King

2013, Hard Case Crime Paperback, 285pp




This novel, which is somewhere around Stephen King’s fiftieth, rather than being released by his normal publishing house, has gone out as one of the Hard Case Crime series [No. 112] by [in the Uk] Titan Books. So it was with a little trepidation that I decided to read this; I expected something hard case, hard boiled, noir, but generally different to the usual King ride. I got no such thing.


JOYLAND could easily have been published as regular King. A quick plot; set in the early 1970’s,  Devin Jones, a 21 year old college boy, takes a summer out to work in Joyland, a North Carolina amusement park. There he makes new [lifelong] friends, learns the Talk and Ways of the carny-folk, becomes reknowned for his skills in performing as Howie the Hound Dog, the park’s mascot, and gets highly interested in a girl who was murdered inside the Horror House ride. As college beckons, and his friends head for school, Devin stays around, cultivating a relationship with local Annie Ross, and her young disabled kid, Mike, who is slowly dying of muscular dystrophy. All the strands of the plot come together towards the end; Devin has worked out that The Carny Killer murdered much more than just one girl, and also that they might be closer to him that he had ever realised.


JOYLAND is a good novel, enjoyable, with some well-drawn and interesting characters. I found it very much to be instantly recognisable as a Stephen King story; his trademarks of style are here, as well as trademarks of plot. In some ways, with a new carny setting, it seems like a distillation and continuation of some of King’s past themes, especially so with the disabled kid Mike [well realised, great character] who has some uncanny touches of intuition. In fact, far from being a hard crime novel, this is very much typical and highly enjoyable Stephen King, with a serial killer, some ghosts and some characters with psyhcic abilities [King never mentions the Sh- word, so neither will I]. I easily found myself believing in the main characters, enjoying the mystery, and being excited in finding out who the villain was. I was slightly disappointed with the resolution of the mystery, and with the ending to the plot, although the book itself ends on a thoughtful and slightly melancholic note.


In summary, this is good stuff; unusually, I found the middle third to be the strongest and most compelling, but the whole is an engaging crime and ghost story, and regular King readers who enjoy the horror should not be disinclined to read this because of the heavily indicated crime aspect. JOYLAND continues to demonstrate that each new Stephen King work that appears is certainly something to be enjoyed and celebrated. 8/10