Sunday 31 October 2010

Book Review: The Reapers Are The Angels by Alden Bell

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"God is a slick god. Temple knows. She knows because of all the crackerjack miracles still to be seen on this ruined globe...

"Older than her years and completely alone, Temple is just trying to live one day at a time in a post-apocalyptic world, where the undead roam endlessly, and the remnant of mankind who have survived, at times, seem to retain little humanity themselves.

"This is the world she was born into. Temple has known nothing else. Her journey takes her to far-flung places, to people struggling to maintain some semblance of civilization – and to those who have created a new world order for themselves.

"When she comes across the helpless Maury, she attempts to set one thing right, if she can just get him back to his family in Texas then maybe it will bring redemption for some of the terrible things she's done in her past. Because Temple has had to fight to survive, has done things that she's not proud of and, along the road, she’s made enemies.

"Now one vengeful man is determined that, in a world gone mad, killing her is the one thing that makes sense..."


With the scent of Halloween's spooky-sweet treats in the air and the end of the year fast approaching - already roving packs of advent calendars have been released into the wild, nesting in eerie supermarket alleys in plain sight of your children and mine - I've found myself wondering of late: whatever will we remember of 2010? What will those essential events and experiences which define the year be? I suppose it depends on your perspective, on your individual interests. Firstly for me, I think, I'll look back on 2010 as the year we completely failed to make contact. Turns out Arthur C. Clarke was just making stuff up all along! Scandalous.

Besides that... well. I'm a keen gamer, a devotee of speculative fiction, and plenty of other things besides - not necessarily in that order, either. From that point of view, 2010 has been, in many senses, the year of the zombie. More to the point, it's been the year zombies overstayed their welcome, and speaking frankly, their welcome was tenuous at best. I've become, I confess, rather disillusioned with the mindless hive of undead in varying states of decay, as seen in film, literature and, in particular, video games. There've been zombies of one variety or another in every other game I've played in 2010, and honestly, I'd rather have stuck with the Nazis we used to shoot in the face - back in the day, you know? Zombies... they're just not terribly interesting, are they? They don't think; they don't scheme; they don't even move very much unless somebody's sautéed up a serving of fresh brains.

And yet the dead live. Wherever you look, there they are: easy fodder for creative types stuck for a Big Bad in their books or movies or games or whatever. And wouldn't you know it, they're in The Reapers Are the Angels, too. Which, rather counter-intuitively, just so happens to be singularly the best thing with zombies in it in... oh, years.

I tend to think that's because it's not really about the zombies. The Reapers Are the Angels is Temple's story, and sure, there are zombies in it, but they're pretty much beside the point; better to consider them a part of the fabric of this fiction's setting rather than a driving force of its narrative. The real evils of the rotten world little Temple has been born into are the vicious survivors she encounters after fleeing the relative safe haven we find her in at the outset. In spite of which unfortunateness, Temple tries to keep her chin up: "You gotta look at the world what is," she remarks at one point, "and try not to get bogged down by what it ain't." But these desperate men and women are more of a threat to Temple than any old army of "meatskins," as Alden Bell - a pseudonym for Joshua Gaylord, author of Hummingbirds - has it over the course of his first genre work.

Moses Todd in particular. The brother of a monstrous oaf whose violent tendencies beget him an early grave courtesy of our nearly-teenaged protagonist, Moses sets off on Temple's trail - not because he feels she particular deserves the bloody retribution he aims to reign down on her, but because she killed Abraham Todd - whether or not he deserved it. Simple as that. As Temple reflects, "You can't put nothing past these southern boys. They just sit around waiting for somebody to kill their brother so they can get started on some vengeance. It's like a dang vocation with them."

Moses is a very real threat - threat being spelled here with a capital T, make no mistake - but he's far from a lumbering brute. He's smart, he's strong, and perhaps he's evil, at that. Nevertheless he and Temple encounter one another on a number of occasions, and the curious bond that develops between them, as between a hunter and his particular devious prey, is the singlemost strength of The Reapers Are the Angels. That said, Temple's relationship with Maury - a mute; a "dummy," as per Temple's straightfoward ways - is tremendously effective, too.

You've probably cottoned on to the biblical names, and you might well have recognised the title of Bell's book as verse the 39th of Matthew, chapter 13. Accordingly, Moses can be taken to represent Temple's transgression against God and the laws of the land, and in Maury perhaps she hopes to earn a sort of redemption - but was the sin even her own? There's a fair bit of religion and its associated imagery going on in The Reapers Are the Angels, all told, but it never once gets in the way of what amounts to a breathtakingly brave and profoundly bittersweet story.

The Reapers Are the Angels is a superb novel - transcendent, you might say. Surely it will stand in a few short months as amongst the year's very best, and not least because of Bell's delightful use of language: his register... his approach to character, setting and narrative... the wonderful Southerness of it all. From the miracle of the fish - I'll let you discover that one for yourself - through to the denouement atop Niagara Falls, Alden Bell's book is an unqualified masterclass. So often in criticism it proves difficult to decide which of a host of problems to foreground in a review, but there's simply nothing about The Reapers Are the Angels not to sing the praises of.

I'm telling you: not a single, solitary sausage. Absolutely bloody marvelous.


The Reapers Are The Angels
by Alden Bell

UK Publication: September 2010, Tor
US Publication: August 2010, Holt Paperbacks

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Saturday 30 October 2010

Woe Is Team Edward

This just in!

Team Edward, it seems, have lost.

Whilst idly browsing Baby Names World a little while ago - you must promise not to ask me why; it's altogether not what you think - I came across some rather surprising statistics. Apparently, the most popular girl's name for the year 2009, and thus the most popular name of the year?


22,067 times last year, a new baby girl came into the world and its originators, presumably Twilight-obsessed new parents, deemed it wise to name it after you-know-who.

Furthermore, the most popular boy's name in that same period... turns out to be Jacob. I kid you not. 20,858 kids born in 2009 alone are now crawling around the floor of the world, named, alas, after a sexy werewolf. Never mind that Jacob's quite a nice name - and perhaps Lost had something to do with this one, too. Or am I kidding myself?

Which leaves only Edward. Poor, misbegotten Edward. He comes in 248th overall, with only 2952 infants named in his dubious honour. Can't say I saw that coming. For goodness sake, more boys were named Maxwell!

Where did Team Edward go so wrong, I wonder? Honestly, I have no idea. Did Edward turn out to be a creepy old man wearing a teenager's face - the better to perv on Bella with - in the end? Was that it?

Friday 29 October 2010

A Rather Haunted Legend

Ladies, gentlemen: your attention, please.

It gives me no small amount of pleasure to be able to share with you today a short story, in delicious, dramatised audio form, from the Haunted Legends anthology co-edited by mater anthologists Ellen Datlow and Nick Mamatas.

I should have a full review of Haunted Legends up within the next wee while, but for the very moment, set aside 15 minutes or so, why don't you? Fix yourself a cup of your hot beverage of choice, put your feet up and relax to the tune of Bram Stoker award-winning author Gary A. Braunbeck and the members of Ohio State University's Writers Talk reading from "Return to Mariabronn," a strong short from a strong anthology. Doesn't that sound like a plan?

Well on you go, then:

So. Did that work?

I'll admit, it's been a bit of a nightmare trying to find an embeddable flash audio player as like as not to behave itself. Thus, if the worse has come to the worst, or else you'd like to listen to "Return to Mariabronn" - as well you should - on your own terms, on your mp3 player or suchlike, here's a direct link to the file.

Download away!

Thursday 28 October 2010

Book Review: Handling the Undead by John Ajvide Lindqvist

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Something very peculiar is happening in Stockholm. There's a heatwave on and people cannot turn their lights out or switch their appliances off. Then the terrible news breaks. In the city morgue, the dead are waking up...

What do they want? Why, what everybody wants: to come home.


Everyone is something to someone. Doesn't matter whether we're talking good people or bad, young or old, black or white, rich or poor: everyone is something to someone. A mother or a father or a friend. A brother or a sister or a son. A daughter. A lover.

As a species, we puny humans... we're a social animal. We're defined, when you get right down to it, by the perceptions and expectations of others - just as they are by ours - or perhaps we are who we are because of a lack in that regard, an unrequited desire. Seems such an obvious fact it hardly bears saying, but you know, come the zombie apocalypse, I bet we'll overlook a whole lot in the resulting fuss. Hands up who's going to brushing their teeth when the undead are knocking at the door?

John Ajvide Lindqvist's second novel is all about redressing that balance. Following a sort of reverse blackout which has television sets hissing and pacemakers slapping madly away, the "reliving" walk the earth. Or, rather, as the rising Swedish equivalent of vintage Stephen King has it, they walk the streets of Stockholm. And where do they walk? En masse to a shopping mall to terrorise a ragtag band of survivors?

Not so much. The reliving go home, of course. They go back to their loved ones, to the lives they had thought - inasmuch as any dead person can think - lost, where they are met not with shotguns, for these are not the undead as we have known them (they've really very little interest in eating your brains), but with hysteria, rejection, religious fervour and an array of other perfectly relatable reactions.

Handling the Undead follows four narrators thus confronted by their past in the form of the rotten reliving and/or the desiccated undead. Mahler is a former photo-journalist caught between the story of a lifetime and the recovery of his recently deceased son; an horrific run-in with an elk has left stand-up comic David momentarily bereft of his wife; old Elvy has finally buried her husband, a dead man walking for years, and finds herself not entirely pleased at his return; while Elvy's granddaughter Flora has a reaction all her own to her granddad's surprise ressurection.

So does Lindqvist's second novel do for zombies what Let the Right One In did for vampires? Well, it clearly means to. Herein Lindqvist posits a characteristically restrained interpretation of traditional zombie fiction - which is to say the gruesome horde Geroge A. Romero popularised - similar to that which worked so well in his game-changer of a debut. The left of field premise driving Handling the Undead is a fine one, resonant with potential, and the ciphers through which he spins his yarn are by and large up to the task. Lindqvist evokes an atmosphere near enough the equal of the chilly urban tower blocks in which Oskar and Eli fell for one another.

Handling the Undead is however a much less focused narrative than that which the author made his mark. Perhaps necessarily so: this is, after all, a chronicle of a city-wide uprising rather than the diary of an introvert. Yet because of that shift in scale, from the granular to the grand, Handling the Undead lacks the intimacy of Let the Right One In, lacks in certain respects the sense of humanity which helped to make Lindqvist's debut so much more than the sum of its parts. Nor is this a particularly long novel, and yet in its middle third it drags interminably, a fish out of water floudering for a purpose.

That said, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend this book to anyone with patience and a passing interest in genre fiction. For all its faults, Handling the Undead has a saving grace more pertinent in the overall than any of its minor missteps: channeled via the very capable hands of Henning Mankell translator Ebba Segerberg, Lindqvist's craftsmanship is a joy to behold. From the wood of his words he's carved a frivolous thing - sad but true - but he works with such care and precision, such finesse and attention to detail, that it's difficult not to stand in appreciation of Handling the Undead.

A flawed and surprisingly overlong sophomore effort, then, a novel if not game-changing approach to the zombie sub-genre, easier to admire than it is to enjoy, still Handling the Undead is set apart from the pack. When Lindqvist gets around to doing for ghosts what he's done for vampires and tried to do for zombies, let's just hope he's learned not to bite off more than he can chew.


Handling the Undead
by John Ajvide Lindqvist

UK Publication: September 2009, Quercus Publishing
US Publication: September 2010, Thomas Dunne Books

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Wednesday 27 October 2010

Adam Nevill and the Case of the Happy Halloween

So one of the year's horror highlights - though I'd say the pickings have been somewhat slim so far - undoubtedly has to be former pornographer Adam Nevill's Apartment 16. You can read the review entire here.

Now it wasn't an entirely perfect novel, but suffice it to say Adam's time as a night watchman made this superbly creepy luxury London apartment-set narrative one to stick with you long after you've turned that last page.

Needless to say, I'm rather looking forward to the next novel from Mr. Nevill - and what do you know? I just came across an extract of it on the Pan Macmillan page. You should really go read it. It's short and sharp, an ideal bit of whetting. If my little birdies aren't misinforming me, The Ritual is due out in May 2011.

The gent's even composed a bit of flash fiction to help bring in Halloween, hasn't he? That's here. It'll take you all of a minute to get through and you'll be all the readier to poke evil midgets who come begging for candy in the eye - as well you should - once you're done.

What riches!

Tuesday 26 October 2010

Film Review: Resident Evil Afterlife

I've watched the Resident Evil films against my better judgment; the same sense of morbid curiosity with which I've followed the machinations of Jigsaw year on year compels me, the power of Christ or decent filmmaking be damned. Perhaps I had an excuse to show an interest in the first of Paul W. S. Anderson's quartet. I've long been a devotee of survival horror in video games: few such have had the effect on me Silent Hill 2 did, and for all that the franchises have since diverged, Resident Evil helped lay the groundwork Team Silent's masterwork built upon. Perhaps I had an excuse, that one time, to show an interest in the Resident Evil movies, but since?

Well, there's nothing quite like a train-wreck to help pass the time, is there? Twisted metal crumpled and cast about the landscape as if some sadistic giant had upended a tin of broken biscuits on the world. And there! Right there, do you see it? The hint of... could it be blood?

I should have known better than to start watching the Resident Evil movies. As one's followed the other and the other's followed another, it's proven hard to look away from them since Milla's first outing as Alice, and with each additional film, what little there was to redeem the original has been woefully diluted, watered down to the extent that we're basically drinking water now - let's all be honest about it.

Resident Evil: Afterlife is the fourth film in the series, and with every fiber of my being I knew going in what rubbish it would be. Imagine my surprise, then, when the opening titles showed a bit of style. Toyko - the first and best track off of Tomandandy's pulsating score - thumping on and fading away as Anderson, taking his place in the big chair for only the second time in Resident Evil terms, draws back the curtain on zombie numero uno, who manages to be hot as well as undead; of course she does!

Cue a lot of biting, followed shortly by shooting, exploding, dismembering and dying, all in glorious slow-motion. And three dimensions, too, if I'm to understand correctly. There's no substance at all to Afterlife: Alice breaks into what she presumes the last stronghold of Umbrella's mad scientists to kick T-Virus merchandiser Albert Wesker's ass. Instead, Wesker escapes - though for much of the movie I do believe we're supposed to think him dead - and manages to stick his de-gingered nemesis with an affable anti-viral which makes Milla mortal again.

Time passes. "Characters" happen. Alice, now on the trail of Arcadia thanks to a broadcast promising food and shelter in an environment without infection, gangs up with a choice couple of her comrades from Extinction: Claire Redfield, Jill Valentine, K-Mart and - well, it simply wouldn't do to forget Prison Break's Wentworth Miller, back in lock-up as Claire's to-date MIA brother Chris. The chums fight some zombies, including infected dogs and an approximation of Pyramid Head, land Alice's self-refueling plane in a variety of exponentially less likely locales, and finally discover, surely to no-one's surprise, that Wesker still lives. What a baddie!

Afterlife, all told, is as insubstantial as hot air. But I'll be damned, Anderson can do style. I'll give the man that. From what must have been a budget in microcosm, as far as action movies go - particularly those with a genre bent - he carves a handful of set-pieces the equal of anything Resident Evil has had to offer in the past. The shower scene with Pyramid Head's stand-in, the clone army assault on Umbrella HQ, a graveyard of airplanes, the rooftop breach. Whatever the semi-automatic nonsense which strings them together, these things are themselves astonishing in their way, if not at all original or plausible.

It grates at times, but Tomandandy's soundtrack too lends an exciting sense of urgency to the proceedings, and if watching explosions explode has done it for you in the past, the combination of slick visuals, competent design and a throbbing base beat makes it easy to recommend Resident Evil: Afterlife on those terms. But probably you should put that to the back of your mind. Go in with a complete lack of expectations and you never do know... you might be pleasantly surprised.

Monday 25 October 2010

Book Review: So Cold the River by Michael Kortya

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A haunted bottle of mineral water.

Seriously. That's the premise behind So Cold the River, the latest from American crime fiction sensation Michael Koryta and the first of his works to make it across the Atlantic. Not coincidentally, one can only assume, it's also the first of Koryta's books to feature a shot of the supernatural - in the form of the aforementioned haunted water. Scraping the bottom of the barrel much?

But don't let the supremely dodgy pitch put you off. So Cold the River is a cracking good story: if it's at all indicative of Koryta's talents, consider this reader sold on whatever the gent puts out next.

Now the talking heads - at least the ones who've been talking about Koryta's genre-straddling UK debut - they've gone on and on about The Shining... drawing comparisons, making parallels. For at the heart of So Cold the River, as in Stephen King's magnum opus and indeed Stanley Kubrick's arguably superior film of the same name, is a hotel. In fact, Koryta has two - three if you count The Waddy, an all-black establishment long since gone to ground - but the most remarkable of them, the West Baden Springs Hotel, is the only of them to warrant the comparison, and I'm afraid even that stands as a far cry from the ominous corridors, locked rooms and blood-soaked elevators of The Overlook.

But no matter. Talking heads will say what talking heads will say, and the allusions they make of So Cold the River, the cumulative expectations they create, can be no fault of the author's. Let me be very clear, then, when I assert: this is not The Shining. Koryta's novel is supremely creepy, foreboding and effective. It has a hotel in it, a magnificent hotel which plays an important part in the narrative which unfurls as So Cold the River progresses, and it's peopled with affable, relatable characters the equal of those you tend to find in King's fiction. But this book is chilling in an altogether different way than The Shining. The mooted comparisons would be more apt if they were with Duma Key or The Dark Half.

Anyway. I really should introduce you properly. Eric Shaw is a shamed director of photography who had a chance to take Hollywood by storm but lost it. He's been reduced to making video eulogies of dead people for bereaved families, and at the funeral of one such subject, he meets a woman who sees something special in his work. She hires Eric to travel to the country, where he is to investigate the early life of Campbell Bradford that he might memorialise the man, a billionaire become notorious not for his ownership of the West Baden Springs Hotel nor his hugely successful brand of bottled water, but the criminal enterprise he is reputed to have founded his achievements on. When Eric arrives in the twin towns of West Baden and French Lick, however, he realises there's more to the story than his employer let on. He begins to have visions, horrifying visions... and then the body count starts to rise.

More so than Stephen King, there's a bit of the Joe Hill about So Cold the River. Hill and Koryta have a sense of forward motion King is often too distracted, too prone to digression to achieve. Of course there's digression in Koryta's latest: the third quarter, in truth, is an exercise in treading water, rather stifling the novel's otherwise full-steam-ahead narrative flow. But in every other respect So Cold the River thunders on, such that it's easy to forgive the unscheduled delay. Koryta ratchets up a perfect storm of mystery and tension as Eric learns more and more about the town and the man he's been charged to understand. The cast of characters are straightforward yet never cartoonish; the setting, which is to say West Baden Springs and the grand hotel erected in its honour, is superbly atmospheric, rife with intrigue and unease; and short that third quarter and a couple of credibility-stretching conveniences towards the eminently satisfying climax, the plot is perfectly paced, punctuated by impactful action and regular revelations.

So Cold the River mightn't be The Shining, nor, ultimately, its equal, but all told it's a hell of a book regardless. Brilliant light reading for an October evening. I would, however, advise you take it with a nice cup of tea of coffee; as Dan Simmons says, "For God's sake, don't drink the water!"


So Cold the River
by Michael Koryta

UK Publication: September 2010, Hodder & Stoughton
US Publication: June 2010, Little, Brown and Company

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Saturday 23 October 2010

"Ye Ate Ma Daddy!"

Well goddamn!

Rockstar sure know how to put a trailer together, don't they?

You know, I absolutely adored Dead Rising 2. I had more pure, unadulterated fun with it than I have with any other in 2010 to date... but if you're going to review with any hope of objectivity, any notion to speak of the larger thing over - or as well as - your own particular experience of it, there are other things to consider than enjoyment, I think - elsewise I'd be casting my vote in favour of Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2 or Pacman Championship Edition year in and out. There's storytelling, there's design, even presentation plays a part. And by that more cumulative measure, my favourite game of 2010 is Red Dead Redemption, hands down.

So it was with some trepidation that I met the news of the first single-player expansion for that old west work of art. Because --- well, I don't recall there being any zombies in the history books I was taught from, and one of Red Dead Redemption's greatest triumphs is its invocation of a remarkable period of time not yet run into the ground, which is to say the back end of the old west, when capitalism, industrialism and all the ways of life we know so well came a-knocking. It seemed to me that to throw a horde of the undead in there would be to rather reduce the currency of Red Dead Redemption's setting, and by extension narrative and character; the very things which made is such an incredible piece of work.

And then I saw that trailer. I heard John Marston (oh, John, how I've missed thee) saying "I've seen husbands eating wives, mothers eatin' sons, graves poppin' open and the undead risin' up," and call me a pushover - whatever - all my misgivings fell away. Take my spacebucks, Rockstar! I was never going to make into space anyway...

The Undead Nightmare expansion is going to be available to download the week of Halloween, y'all. That's just a couple days from now!

Come on, now... you know you want it. There are undead bears, didn't you see 'em? :P

Thursday 21 October 2010

Book Review: The Anatomy of Ghosts by Andrew Taylor

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"1786, Jerusalem College Cambridge. The ghost of Sylvia Whichcote is rumoured to be haunting Jerusalem since disturbed fellow-commoner, Frank Oldershaw, claims to have seen the dead woman prowling the grounds. Desperate to salvage her son’s reputation, Lady Anne Oldershaw employs John Holdsworth, author of The Anatomy of Ghosts – a stinging account of why ghosts are mere delusion – to investigate. But his arrival in Cambridge disrupts an uneasy status quo as he glimpses a world of privilege and abuse, where the sinister Holy Ghost Club governs life at Jerusalem more effectively than the Master, Dr Carbury, ever could. And when Holdsworth finds himself haunted – not only by the ghost of his dead wife, Maria, but also Elinor, the very-much-alive Master’s wife – his fate is sealed. He must find Sylvia’s murderer or the hauntings will continue. And not one of them will leave the claustrophobic confines of Jerusalem unchanged."


At the heart of London lie the colleges: Oxford and Cambridge, the good old boys of education. At the heart of Cambridge, author Andrew Taylor has it, lies Jerusalem College, a wholly invented and alarmingly eccentric campus which nevertheless has the look and the smell and the feel - the feel most of all - of the real thing. "The eighteenth century was not a glorious period for English universities," Taylor observes. "Individual colleges followed their idiosyncratic paths which were to guide them apart from their own statutes, which were at least two centuries out of date, as were the syllabuses that the universities prescribed for their students to study." Idiosyncratic is something of an underestimation of the mysteries that lie at the heart of Jerusalem, however, foremost among them The Holy Ghost club, an exclusive organisation of masters and students who gather together every so often to indulge their darker impulses. You know: drinking, gambling, going toilet on the floor and deflowering virgins... the usual sort of thing.

It's not entirely surprising, then, when of a morning Tom Turdman, Jerusalem's night-soil man, comes across the bloated corpse of Sylvia Whichcote in the Long Pond. Her death drives fellow-commoner Frank Oldershaw to madness: he swears blind he's seen her ghost - before he's locked away in the campus asylum, that is. Perturbed, Frank's mother Lady Anne enlists one John Holdsworth, sometime author of a bitter rebuttal of hauntings, now bereaved of his late wife and child and fallen on hard times, to travel to Jerusalem and put an end to the ominous mystery of Sylvia Whichcote's ghost.

Holdsworth is the perfect protagonist: an outsider rather than an academic, he represents our way in to the stifling and seemingly proper environs of the college. As he comes to grasp Jerusalem's labyrinthine inner workings, the insidious shuffling and muttering of those with much to gain and everything to lose in this isolated exemplar of late 18th century English society, so too do we. Holdsworth is, too, a damaged man. He has been stricken of everything that was of worth to him: his lifelong love, his son, his bookselling enterprise. He comes to the college with baggage enough to rival any of those Holy Ghost club members presumably complicit in Sylvia Whichcote's death, and The Anatomy of Ghosts is as much about Holdsworth's grief as it is his exponential unraveling of the so-called haunting which plagues Jerusalem's reputation. Having "failed to save his son," he becomes obsessed with restoring young Frank Oldershaw to his senses; if he can only "save this living boy in front of him... would it be something to set against Georgie's death?" he wonders.

To call The Anatomy of Ghosts a ghost story is to miss the point, I'm afraid. It is a narrative haunted, certainly, but by loss rather than any paranormal entity. True to the juxtaposition of the scientific and the supernatural in its title, Holdsworth's singular interest in the spectral presence supposedly roaming the college campus is in the rational explanation he believes underlies it as opposed to the promise of life after death its actual fact would entail. The Anatomy of Ghosts would be as well entitled The Anatomy of Murders, for Taylor's text is a crime fiction above all else.

As a ghost story, then, it runs the risk of underwhelming - though not for any failing on the author's part; as it is, which is to say a period crime piece bearing the supernatural as a device rather a purpose unto itself, The Anatomy of Ghosts is a winning specimen. Near enough, come to that, the equal of The American Boy, shy only the devilishly satisfying reveal of Andrew Taylor's last great shakes. Authentic without being banal in the mode of so much historical fiction, tense and suspenseful from end to end, evocative of an atmosphere at once subdued and rife with bitter undercurrents to rival those Sarah Waters has made her bread and butter, assiduously intelligent without ever falling to the showy or the self-indulgent, The Anatomy of Ghosts is masterful - if not, perhaps, in the ways you might expect.


The Anatomy of Ghosts
by Andrew Taylor
September 2010, Michael Joseph

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Wednesday 20 October 2010

Talking The Walking Dead

My oh my, those zombies... they do get about!

Earlier this year, we started hearing that Robert Kirkman's acclaimed long-running comic book The Walking Dead would be coming to television in the form of a six (or is it eight?) episode miniseries from AMC and Frank Darabont, fan-favourite director of some of the greatest films of all time - no shit.

Well we don't have long to wait for it now, do we? Would that I were in the States on Halloween to catch the premiere episode of the show - what better way to spend the night, I wonder? Alas. I'll be watching on (remember, remember) the 5th of November instead.

Still and all, the show looks and sounds a treat; I've high hopes and a great deal of excitement for it. And now the cross-media machine has stepped up its game again: Tor UK just issued a press release announcing that they'll be bringing a trilogy of The Walking Dead novels to this side of the Atlantic in 2012. New stories, even, based on the comic book mythos, not just novelisations. I want!

Here's some of the spiel:

"Tor UK recently pre-empted a trilogy of zombie novels based on Robert Kirkman’s successful and critically acclaimed The Walking Dead comic book series. The books were acquired in a mid-Frankfurt deal by Julie Crisp, Editorial Director of Tor UK, from Thomas Dunne books in the US. A TV series based on the comics will be released in the US on the AMC network on 31st October 2010 and on the FX channel in the UK on 5th November 2010. The series... directed and produced by Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile), follows small town sheriff Rick Grimes as he travels across a post-apocalyptic US plagued by zombies in an attempt to find his wife and son.

"Based on entirely new stories, Robert Kirkman is co-writing the books with horror novelist Jay Bonansinga, author of Perfect Victim and Shattered. The first book, The Walking Dead, will be released in November 2012 alongside the second season of the TV series."

Which sounds fab, doesn't it? No idea who this Jay Bonansinga fellow is, nor whether Kirkman's undeniable prowess in one medium will necessarily translate to another (and another), but hell with it, I'm in.

November 2012, though... that's a ways away, isn't it? I wonder if Tor UK don't mean 2011 - if the stated date is correct, that'd translate to a two-year break between the first and second season of The Walking Dead TV series, and that's not exactly the norm.

I've got my fingers crossed there's been a boo-boo made somewhere, but one way or another, bring them zombies on!

Tuesday 19 October 2010

Book Review: Fevre Dream by George R. R. Martin

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"Abner Marsh has had his dearest wish come true - he has built the Fevre Dream, the finest steamship ever to sail the Mississippi. Abner hopes to race the boat some day, but his partner is making it hard for him to realise his ambition. Joshua York put up the money for the Fevre Dream, but now rumours have started about the company he keeps, his odd eating habits and strange hours. As the Dream sails the great river, it leaves in its wake one too many dark tales, until Abner is forced to face down the man who helped to make his dreams become reality."


Abner Marsh has lived his life on the river. "A big man, and not a patient one," he has worked his way up the chain of command, from hand to mate to captain. As of 1856, he was proprietor of the moderately successful Fevre River Packet Company, named after the river in his home town, and though grossly overweight and alone, Abner was as happy as such a man could hope to be. His dreams were of racing the fastest ship on the Mississippi, the glorious Eclipse, and beating her. But the year since has been hard. In July, the "Mary Clarke blew boiler and burned, up near to Dubuque, burned right to the water line with a hundred dead. And this winter - this was a terrible winter." An ice jam has destroyed four of the Company's steamboats; including the Elizabeth A., brand new at a cost of $200,000 and the apple of Abner's eye. It's been a run of bad luck rather than any fault of his command or management, but it's left the captain near to ruin. Near to ruin, and further than ever from the great liner Abner had hoped to challenge.

Enter Joshua York, an enigmatic benefactor who offers Abner a chance to turn things around. For part ownership of the Fevre River Packet Company and co-command of its most prestigious vessel, York is prepared to pay for the construction of a new ship - and the Fevre Dream, as the captain has a mind to call it, will be "the finest steamship ever to sail the Mississippi." All York asks is that neither Abner nor the crew challenge his behaviour, which, he explains, might seem "strange or arbitrary or capricious" at times. Curious conditions and no mistake, yet to Abner they seem a small price to pay for an opportunity long thought lost to outsteam the Eclipse.

A deal is struck. The Fevre Dream is built; Abner and York set a course for New Orleans and push off into the river, with high hopes and great expectations. Right about then, of course, everything goes wrong.

Fevre Dream is an early-80s vintage Masterwork, and it's a novel about a place and a time. A time "when the river swarmed and lived, when smoke and steam and whistles and fires were everywhere," a time George R. R. Martin evokes so masterfully you'd be forgiven for thinking he grew up on the banks of the muddy Mississippi a century and a half ago. Fevre Dream is also a novel about people; about hope, friendship, trust and betrayal. At the arterial pivot-point of this place and this time is the story of Abner and York, men whom could hardly be less alike, yet find themselves bound together, for good or ill, each with his own impossible dream to realise.

Fevre Dream is also a novel about vampires. A fact which, sadly, is as like in this day and age to throw its readers off as it is to draw them further in. York and the unusual company he keeps don't call themselves vampires, of course, and they're not your run-of-the-mill fang-bangers in any case: surround them with mirrors, as on the main deck of the steamship they commandeer, and you will see their reflections; they don't immediately turn to dust in sunlight (though the UV will eventually cost them a dear price); many of them find garlic to be a fine addition to a meal. Martin posits that they're a race entire in and of themselves, rather than one derived of our own. They feed from us simply because they believe themselves higher up the food chain than mere humans; as Damon Julian so memorably observes, we are as cattle to them.

Fevre Dream is a historical novel, by all accounts. Its period and setting positively sing, Martin brings each out so beautifully. We are with the hands as they venture out to sound the treacherous river's depths; we are in the pilot room as dawn breaks to see the silt-laden Mississippi stretch out, orange-brown, into the heat-hazed distance ahead. Some nights, a thick fog descends upon the river, reducing visibility so near to zero that the Fevre Dream must dock till it passes. And so we see New Orleans, gaudy yet magnificent, the den of sin that is Natchez Under-the-Hill; we hold over in Bayou Sara, St Louis and Memphis to take on freight. Fevre Dream is an exhilarating whistle-stop journey through a period of history alive with possibility, potent with the promise of technology, innovation, progression and revolution. It is a fascinating study of a time and a people and a way of life, all lost to us.

In short, Fevre Dream is a masterwork. It meets the very definition, in fact: it is an outstanding work or art, a spare and superlative piece of fiction amongst a horde of has-beens and hopefuls who can only aspire to its effectiveness. Its only failing a somewhat rudderless calm before the storm that heralds its chilling climax, George R. R. Martin's third novel, near enough thirty years old as of this writing, well and truly deserves its place in the canon of great fantasy. Plotted with such precision as to feel inevitable, parsed by the most spare and elegant prose, driven by a striking cast of flawed yet relatable individuals - some tragic, some comic, some outright horrific - and heady with such atmosphere you can just about smell the river stink and taste York's alcohol and laudanum blood substitute, Fevre Dream is testament to a place, a time, a people... and to the enduring power of fantastic literature.


Fevre Dream
by George R. R. Martin
August 2008, Gollancz

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Monday 18 October 2010

Trick or Treat

So October's eighteen days old - it's all legal now, you hear? - with only two weeks to go before it falls out of fashion entirely. And not one to miss out on a fine excuse to read some spooky books, I'm thinking... what better time to get our Trick or Treat on? Am I right?

Honestly, I'd hoped to tweak the blog template a bit in honour of all the Halloween fun, but after a few experiments behind the scenes, that notion's proven rather more problematic than I'd hoped. So what I want you all to do is imagine bats with bloody fangs and a pumpkin or two on the borders of TSS. Can you picture them? Good.

Timely design considerations aside, I keep hearing "content is king" anyway, and let's hope there's a touch more truth in that statement than the enduring success of the likes of the dreaded Hotlist suggests. Because content? That, I've got covered.

For the next fortnight, everything here on The Speculative Scotsman is going to have an edge of the horrific, a sliver of the spooky about it. Every bit of news I ramble on about, every book I read and review I write is going to be about something you could feasibly dress up as come All Hallows... so ghosts, vampires, maybe a zombie here or there - you name it. The BoSS - as well as any other semi-regular features which don't immediately pertain to the creeping creeps - is on hereby on hiatus, to return just as soon as November's upon us.

Take this a warning, all ye who hate fun. We're going to have some; you might want to duck out.

With that, then, let the good times roll!

Note to Certain Lucky Sods

Just a quick note to all the lucky prize-winners from The Hunger Games giveaway late last month: your goodies will be on the way later this week. I'm only sorry to have taken so long getting them out to you! What with the holiday I've still yet to talk about, some work-related shenanigans and a bit of exciting news I hope to be able to share with you all, finding the time to properly package and dispatch mugs, T-shirts, tattoos and the rest of the booty Scholastic sent along has proven... challenging - not to mention pricier than I'd imagined.

But to whom it may concern, your prize packs will be on their way within the week. My word is my bond.

Thanks everyone for your patience.

Now... it's about time to get this show on the road, don't you think? :)

Sunday 17 October 2010

The BoSS for 17/10/10

It's all about the horror in The BoSS this week - and what perfect timing, too. It's almost like somebody, somewhere... planned it or something!

For the moment, click through to Meet the BoSS for an introduction and an explanation as to why you should care about the Bag o' Speculative Swag, or read on for a sneak peek at some of the books - past, present and future - you can expect to see coverage of here on The Speculative Scotsman in the coming weeks and months.


Full Dark, No Stars
by Stephen King

Release Details:
Published in the UK on
09/11/10 by Hodder

Review Priority:
5 (Immediate)

Plot Synopsis: "'I believe there is another man inside every man, a stranger...' writes Wilfred Leland James in the early pages of the riveting confession that makes up '1922', the first in this pitch-black quartet of mesmerising tales from Stephen King, linked by the theme of retribution. For James, that stranger is awakened when his wife Arlette proposes selling off the family homestead and moving to Omaha, setting in motion a gruesome train of murder and madness.

"In 'Big Driver', a cozy-mystery writer named Tess encounters the stranger is along a back road in Massachusetts when she takes a shortcut home after a book-club engagement. Violated and left for dead, Tess plots a revenge that will bring her face to face with another stranger: the one inside herself.

"'Fair Extension', the shortest of these tales, is perhaps the nastiest and certainly the funniest. Making a deal with the devil not only saves Harry Streeter from a fatal cancer but provides rich recompense for a lifetime of resentment.

"When her husband of more than twenty years is away on one of his business trips, Darcy Anderson looks for batteries in the garage. Her toe knocks up against a box under a worktable and she discovers the stranger inside her husband. It’s a horrifying discovery, rendered with bristling intensity, and it definitively ends 'A Good Marriage'.

"Like Different Seasons and Four Past Midnight, which generated such enduring hit films as The Shawshank Redemption and Stand by Me, Full Dark, No Stars proves Stephen King a master of the long story form."

Commentary: As if it needed proving again...

I was left a little cold by this year's Blockade Billy - see the TSS review for more here - but Full Dark, No Stars easily hopscotches any notion of disappointment with four novella-length beezers from the undisputed master of horror in literature. I won't be publishing my review till release, and I wouldn't want to spoil it here, so let me just say that I haven't been so entertained by anything Stephen King has released since Duma Key. This is a goodie, guys and gals.

by Shawn Hutson

Release Details:
Published in the UK on
07/10/10 by Orbit

Review Priority:
3 (Moderate)

Plot Synopsis: "He sucked in a deep breath full of that strange smell he couldn't identify. He trailed his hands across the satin beneath him and to both sides of him and, when he raised his hands, above him too. He knew why it was so dark. He understood why he could see nothing. He realized why he was lying down. He was in a coffin. A distraught couple thinks you've killed their daughter and they want a confession. If you say you did it, they'll kill you. If you say you didn't, they'll leave you to die. It seems hopeless but there is one way out...

"What would you do?"

Commentary: Hmm. From the undisputed master of horror to a guy who evidently wishes he were. I had an ex who read very little except Shaun Hutson, oddly, and I'll be frank: what little I read of the man, in the interests of shared enthusiasm, I found to be shlocky, low-brow Saw-esque nonsense. The high concept behind Epitaph at least sounds interesting. And it's nearly Halloween, the perfect time for this sort of fiction... so we'll see. Maybe I'll give Hutson another shot. Maybe he'll surprise me.

The Pan Book of Horror Stories
edited by Herbert Van Thal 

Release Details:
Published in the UK on
01/10/10 by Pan

Review Priority:
3 (Moderate)

Plot Synopsis: "Fifty years ago Pan launched a series of books that were to delight and disgust - sometimes even on the same page – readers for thirty years. From classics in the genre to scraping-the-barrel nastiness, the Pan Books of Horror had them all and they continue to be a major influence in published anthologies to the present day.

"We're delighted, therefore, to announce the reissue of the very first Pan Book of Horror. Specially selected for Pan, here are 22 terrifying tales of horror by such famous authors as Peter Fleming, C. S. Forester, Bram Stoker, Angus Wilson, Noel Langley, Jack Finney and L. P. Hartley. Stories of the uncanny jostle with tales of the macabre. Stories of subtle beastliness - like Rasberry Jam; of sickening horror - like The Fly or His Beautiful Hands; and of utter chilling terror - like The Horror of the Museum!

"The perfect bedside book - for those with nerves of steel!"

Commentary: That sounds like a challenge to me. Well, I accept! Stay tuned for more on this lovingly retro reissue of the first Pan Book of Horror Stories a little closer to All Hallow's.

by Paul Kearney

Release Details:
Published in the UK on
28/10/10 by Solaris

Review Priority:
3 (Moderate)

Plot Synopsis: "It is twenty-three years since a Macht army fought its way home from the heart of the Asurian Empire. The man who came to lead that army, Rictus, is now a hard-bitten mercenary captain, middle-aged and tired. He wants nothing more than to lay down his spear and become the farmer that his father was. But fate has different ideas. A young war-leader has risen to challenge the order of things in the very heartlands of the Macht. A solider of genius, he takes city after city, and reigns over them as king. What is more, he has heard of the legendary leader of The Ten Thousand. His name is Corvus, and the rumours say that he is not even fully human. He means to make himself absolute ruler of all the Macht. And he wants Rictus to help him."

Commentary: Damn it. That's me two for two on the Paul Kearney books I've been sent for review this past month. First the second Monarchies of God omnibus arrived, and now Corvus, the sequel to Kearney's last original novel, The Ten Thousand, has shown up.

Ah well... I don't suppose I'm short reading material to tide me over till I get my grubby Scottish paws on copies of the first volumes of each of these series - which I will. If it's the last thing I do! I've heard such good things, on both counts.

Dead Rising 2
dev. Blue Castle Games

Release Details:
Published in the UK on
24/09/09 by Capcom

Review Priority:
4 (Very High)

Plot Synopsis: "Several years have passed since the Wilamette incident, and while Frank West was able to save America from a zombie apocalypse, the cause of zombification was not completely contained. This led to continued zombie outbreaks throughout the United States.

"Dead Rising 2 shifts the action from the everyday world of mid-West America to the glitz and glamour of Fortune City, America's latest and greatest entertainment playground. People flock to Fortune City from around the globe to escape from reality and the chance to win big.

"Enter former national Motocross champion, Chuck Greene. Before he hit the big time with a team and sponsorship behind him Chuck was forced to repair his own bikes, leaving him incredibly resourceful; a real handyman. A single father, Chuck dotes on his daughter Katey who, since the loss of her mother, he will do anything for.

"With hundreds of zombies on screen at any one time, the original Dead Rising forced gamers to turn the everyday objects they found in the Mall into improvised weapons capable of fending off attacks. Dead Rising 2 promises to increase the carnage with even more zombies intent on feasting on human flesh and countless new objects with which Chuck can make the undead dead."

Commentary: Oh yeah! :D

Couldn't have been happier than when I received, much to my surprise, review code for Dead Rising 2, marking something of a first for TSS - and my Xbox 360 copy arrived with a vial of Zombrex, too, so I'm good for at least 24 hours after the inevitable outbreak.

I'd have reviewed this already - certainly I've beaten story mode a couple of times through, played some co-op and checked out the minigame-focused multiplayer - but I'm determined to save every survivor and see the 'A' ending before I write this baby up. But be sure, in advance of the eventual article: I love me my Dead Rising 2. What's better than a bingo ball cage and a battery? Why, a Duck-taped together electric Tesla ball to toss into the horde! Funs, funs, funs, oh the funs.

The Spirit Thief
by Rachel Aaron

Release Details:
Published in the UK on
07/10/10 by Orbit

Review Priority:
2 (Fair)

Plot Synopsis: "Eli Monpress is talented. He's charming. And he's a thief. But not just any thief. He's the greatest thief of the age - and he's also a wizard. And with the help of his partners - a swordsman with the most powerful magic sword in the world but no magical ability of his own, and a demonseed who can step through shadows and punch through walls - he's going to put his plan into effect. The first step is to increase the size of the bounty on his head, so he'll need to steal some big things. But he'll start small for now. He'll just steal something that no one will miss - at least for a while...

"Like a king!"

Commentary: Sounds a bit Locke Lamora - and I dug me my Lock Lamora (at least in The Lies of) - but I can't say The Spirit Thief has me similarly excited. There's something about the blurb... the blurb and the insipid tagline ("What he gets away with is criminal"), that puts me right off. Is this, by any chance, covert paranormal romance?

I'll give it a chapter one way or another; wouldn't want my utterly unfounded preconceptions making my decisions for me, now would we?

Classic Collection
by H. G. Wells

Release Details:
Published in the UK on
21/10/10 by Gollancz

Review Priority:
3 (Moderate)

Plot Synopsis: "This collection includes The Time Machine, The Island of Doctor Moreau, The War of the Worlds, The First Men in the Moon and The Invisible Man, all collected in a stunning leather-bound omnibus. Five of the best science fiction novels by the Grandfather of Science Fiction: unsurpassed in their timeless capacity to thrill and transfix, these are tales that reach to the heart of human ambition, fear, intelligence and hope."

Commentary: And what a pleasant surprise this came as! I didn't, I'll confess, even realise Gollancz were putting an as-good-as complete H. G. Wells bible out, but here it is in spite of my ignorance, and it is a pretty thing. All those scrappy old editions of The Time Machine and The Island of Doctor Moreau I have? Away with you all --- off to the charity shop!