Monday 31 October 2011

Book Review | Little Star by John Ajvide Lindqvist

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Lennart Cederstrom was walking in the forest when he saw it. A baby girl lying in a plastic bag.

Horrified, he rushed to give her the kiss of life. But what happened next changed his life forever. Her first breath was something astounding: a perfect musical note. For an ageing singer, this incredible child was irresistible, and Lennart could only hurry her home and take her into his care.

Fearing the watchful eyes of the authorities, Lennart decided to hide his foundling daughter from view. So he and his wife kept her in the basement.

Was what she became Lennart's fault for choosing to hide her? Did the person who abandoned her in the woods know something terrible lay in her future? Or was it just a trick of fate to turn this little star into the most terrifying thing imaginable?


In one fell swoop Let the Right One In launched the career of Sweden's answer to Stephen King, and it is, needless to say, a terrific novel... if not the equal (though I'll make no friends for saying this) of the exquisite, almost art-house adaptation that filmmaker Tomas Alfredson directed from a script by the original author in 2008.

Next to the timeless tale of Oskar and Eli, the protagonists of Handling the Undead, wherein John Ajvide Lindqvist attempted to do for zombies what his sensitive debut had done for vampires, paled rather into insignificance, and while Harbour - Lindqvist's ghost story - was quite a bit better, even it could not emerge from the long shadow of Let the Right One In.

Little Star does. In fact Lindqvist's fourth novel, not including an as-yet untranslated collection of short stories - give it to me! - is hands down his best yet. It sees the herald of a whole new wave of horror once again determined to humanise the essentially inhuman, with his sympathetic sights set this time on the idea of doppelgangers, twinned in spirit if not in appearance.

We meet Theres first... though to begin with she has no name. She's just Little One: an abandoned infant former folk artist Lennart Cederstrom finds in the woods one day, buried in a plastic bag like an unloved litter of kittens. In a moment of madness - that is, madness or absolute clarity - he breathes a second chance at life into this baby girl's lungs and takes her home.

Stuck with one another till death do they part, Lennart and his wife Laila have been utterly miserable together, and they see Theres, who by some quirk of nature can produce perfect musical notes, as a last chance at happiness. Thus they take her in, hide her in the basement, and - fearful of the police, and discovery, and a return to the nightmare of their lives before Theres - tell their impossible daughter that she must remain always in the house, lest the Big People with hate in their heads (versus the love Lennart and Laila have for her in theirs) eat her up.

So it's hard to hold Theres' subsequent behaviour against her. After all, when she smashes open the skulls of her parents, one after the other, to pick apart their brains, she is only looking for love.

Then there's Teresa...

Little Star is not, needless to say, a particularly pretty novel. Granted, it is prettily written - and ably translated, too, by Marlaine Delargy, come up in the world since her work on Anne Holt's abysmal 1222 - but in a lot of ways Lindqvist's latest is a book about ugliness; ugliness of all shapes and sizes, whether inherited, adopted or instilled by the hand of man. Also figuring into the equation, besides the aforementioned parricide: harrowing domestic violence, suggestions of sexual abuse, exploitation for financial gain, and some truly cruel and unusual bulletin-board trolling. I could go on, but I'd really rather not.

That said, Little Star does not trade in the dollars and cents of dread and disgust common to most modern horror novels. Thankfully, it appears Lindqvist has moved on from the things that go bite in the night he found such success with early in his career. Little Star has its chills and it has its thrills, yes - a thousand times yes! - but its most potent currency is I think the creeping, crawling idea of unease that hangs ever in the air, like a wisp of smoke no amount of wind can shift... the sense that something if not inherently evil then utterly, awfully ignorant of the difference between right and wrong is ever in the offing. And usually, it is.

I found the first few chapters of Lindqvist's latest perfectly impressive, which is to say solid, but not exactly remarkable in and of themselves. By the culmination of Lennart and Laila's nightmarish narrative, however, Little Star had buried its hooks deep in me, and when at last Theres and Teresa's paths cross, as they must, I was positively beside myself, reeling from the raw power of this tale of two sisters of sorts, who finally find themselves in one another.

As beautiful as it is twisted, Little Star - as in twinkle, twinkle, and it does - is bleak and mysterious from first to last, and though it is brutal at times, Lindqvist only renders the violence rather than reveling in it, as many of his contemporaries tend to, to the detriment of their texts. Like Let The Right One In before it, then, Little Star is leagues apart from that: disturbing, understated and sweetly, sickly stunning... a must-read for anyone with a passing interest in modern horror.


Little Star
by John Ajvide Lindqvist

UK Publication: September 2011, Quercus

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Recommended and Related Reading

Sunday 30 October 2011

Books Received | The BoSS for 30/10/11

In this loosely themed Halloween (we shan't say spectacular) edition of The BoSS:

The good, the bad and the Weird... a picturesque love letter from a beast 20,000 leagues deep... stories from the city and stories from the sea, care of Alan Garner... a nocturnal circus... and one of the most monstrous characters in all of The Walking Dead, given his own goddamn novel.

Let the spooky books commence?


ed. by Anne & Jeff Vandermeer

Vital Statistics
Published in the UK
on 31/10/11
by Corvus

Review Priority
5 (A Sure Thing)

The Blurb: From Lovecraft to Borges to Gaiman, a century of intrepid literary experimentation has created a corpus of dark and strange stories that transcend all known genre boundaries. Together these stories form The Weird and amongst its practitioners number some of the greatest names in twentieth and twenty-first century literature. 

Weird features an all star cast of authors, from classics to international bestsellers to Booker prize winners. Here are Ben Okri, George R.R. Martin and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Angela Carter and Kelly Link, Franz Kafka and China Miéville, Clive Barker and Haruki Murakami, M.R. James and Neil Gaiman, Mervyn Peake and Michael Chabon. 

Exotic and esoteric, Weird plunges you into dark domains and brings you face to face with surreal monstrosities; you won’t find any elves or wizards here. These are the boldest and most downright peculiar stories from the last hundred years bound: the biggest collection of the weird ever assembled.

My Thoughts: I could hardly believe my eyes when I tore open the post the other afternoon to find this... this bible. I've been looking forward to it all year long, and though it's a little late, what with the sheer quantity and I don't doubt quality of work brought together in this beautiful 1200+ page assembly of all things weird, it's not like I was going to be able to read it in time for a review over Halloween week anyway; as if any length of review would be equipped to touch on what Weird is, which is to say my evening reading for the rest of the year, and very likely beyond. Can't. Bloody well. Wait.

I need not add that I have plans for this beauty... but they are especially grand plans, as this is an especially grand anthology, deserving of especially grand treatment. So it shall be.

The Walking Dead: Rise of the Governor
by Robert Kirkman & Jay Bonansinga

Vital Statistics
Published in the UK
on 21/10/11
by Tor

Review Priority
3 (We'll See)

The Blurb: Philip Blake's life has been turned upside down. In less than seventy-two hours an inexplicable event has resulted in people... turning. The world has gone to hell and the walking dead roam the streets massacring the living. it seems that nowhere is safe. Escaping their small town, Philip has just one focus in life - to protect his young daughter Penny. And he'll do whatever it takes to ensure she survives.
With his two old high-school friends and his brother Brian, Philip decides to aim for the city of Atlanta where it's said there are refugee centres being set up. But between them and safety lie hundreds of the walking dead - and the survivors' path to salvation lies straight through the middle of them.

My Thoughts: Talk about timely! Not only is Rise of the Governor coming out just in time for Halloween - though zombies are of course welcome all year round - its arrival also dovetails nicely with the premiere of the second season of The Walking Dead on AMC. Speaking of which, what have you all thought of it so far? I've been pretty effing impressed, I don't mind saying, and you might remember I had a real problem with where season one went.

Anyway, Rise of the Governor is the first of three prose novels ostensibly co-written by thriller man Jay Bonansinga and the creator of The Walking Dead himself, Robert Kirkman. Early reports are surprisingly positive - Graeme seemed to really dig it, but for the middle section - and that's really all the recommendation I need to check this slight specimen out.

The Night Circus
by Erin Morgenstern

Vital Statistics
Published in the UK
on 15/09/11
by Harvill Secker

Review Priority
5 (A Sure Thing)

The Blurb: In 1886, a mysterious traveling circus becomes an international sensation. Open only at night, constructed entirely in black and white, Le Cirque des Rêves delights all who wander its circular paths and warm themselves at its bonfire. 

Although there are acrobats, fortune-tellers and contortionists, the Circus of Dreams is no conventional spectacle. Some tents contain clouds, some ice. The circus seems almost to cast a spell over its aficionados, who call themselves the rêveurs - the dreamers. At the heart of the story is the tangled relationship between two young magicians, Celia, the enchanter's daughter, and Marco, the sorcerer's apprentice. At the behest of their shadowy masters, they find themselves locked in a deadly contest, forced to test the very limits of the imagination, and of their love...

A fabulous, fin-de-siècle feast for the senses and a life-affirming love story, The Night Circus is a captivating novel that will make the real world seem fantastical and a fantasy world real.

My Thoughts: September you say? Hoo boy am I late to the party with this one!

But better late than never, and I'd have hated - just hated - to miss The Night Circus. I mean, it's beautiful, and I've read enough of Erin Morgenstern's dreamy debut to be able to say with some certainty that it's a beautiful thing inside and out. As I recall even Larry of the OF Blog liked it... or am I making that up? I hope not.

In any case, this is as sure a thing as sure things go, but don't expect a review in the immediate future; since I've missed the release window, I'm going my sweet time with this one, and try to enjoy a book on its own terms for once. Maybe come Christmas I'll have something to show you folks.

Oh. My. God. Did I just mention Christmas? In October? Put me out of my misery now, world! :)

Dear Creature
by Jonathan Case

Vital Statistics
Published in the US
on 11/10/11
by Tor

Review Priority
3 (We'll See)

The Blurb: Deep beneath the waves, a creature named Grue broods. He no longer wants to eat lusty beachgoers, no matter how their hormones call to him. A chorus of crabs urges him to reconsider. After all, people are delicious! But this monster has changed. Grue found Shakespeare's plays in cola bottles and, through them, a new heart. Now he yearns to join the world above.

When his first attempt ends... poorly, Grue searches for the person who cast the plays into the sea. What he finds is love in the arms of Giulietta—a woman trapped in her own world. When she and Grue meet, Giulietta believes her prayers are answered. But people have gone missing and Giulietta's nephew is the prime suspect. With his past catching up to him, Grue must decide if becoming a new man means ignoring the monster he was.

Rising from a brine of drive-in pulp and gentle poetry, Jonathan Case's debut graphic novel Dear Creature is the love story you never imagined!

My Thoughts: Bit of a wildcard, is Dear Creature. I haven't ever gotten a whole lot of graphic novels for review, and the only review of this on is so positive it could be a plant. Or else... could it be brilliant?

Well of course it could be. In fact, odds on: for one thing, its central character is a sea monster, the two-tone art looks lovely and last but not least, Tor's publishing it. And they don't publish just any old graphic novel, do they?

Seriously, do they? I confess I do not know.

Collected Folk Tales
by Alan Garner

Vital Statistics
Published in the UK
on 27/10/11
by Harper Collins

Review Priority
4 (Pretty Bloody Likely)

The Blurb: The definitive collection of traditional British folk tales, selected and retold by the renowned Alan Garner.

Following on from the 50th anniversary of Alan Garner’s seminal fantasy classic, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, this beautifully produced hardback collects all of Alan’s folk tales, told with his unique storytelling skill and inimitably clear voice. Essential reading for young and old alike, and a book to be treasured.

My Thoughts: You can't tell how pretty this from the picture there. In person, the paper stock is lovely, and the cover is all gold leaf and purple cloth, to match the green and gold of the 50th anniversary edition of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen Harper Collins published late last year. Which I just so happened to very much approve of.

I don't know that I'm quite as excited about this as I was to revisit one of my childhood fantasy favourites, but don't mind me splitting hairs: I've never known Alan Garner to be anything less than a masterful storyteller, so I'll be intrigued at the very least to see what old folk tales he has in store for me this winter.

Yes, this winter. It's coming, don't you know!


So what will I be reading this week?

Well, I don't doubt I'll at least dip into Weird, but it's definitely a dipping book rather than one to immerse yourself in for extended periods of time - you'd die before you ever saw the light of day again! - so what beyond that? The Walking Dead: Rise of the Governor?

I wonder...

I've more than enough to keep me busy in any event. In fact, be warned: the reviews of spooky books and movies are going to keep right on coming for the rest of the week. Once I pop, it ain't so easy for me to stop!

Friday 28 October 2011

Film Review | Paranormal Activity 3, dir. Henry Joost & Ariel Schulman

I am, I confess, an absolute sucker for found footage films.

It's a gimmick, I know, and a lot of folks have had enough of it already... though clearly, what with all the whining you hear about Paranormal Activity and its creepy kin, these cool cats can't bring themselves to look away either. Why is that?

If you ask me, I think it's because, at best, the found footage form can cut right to the quick of what makes great horror great, which is not to say the elaborate dismemberments of the SAW series - may it burn in hell in perfect peace - nor indeed the in-your-face silliness of some CG monster, a la Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, but rather those things that you cannot see, or say you saw with any certainty; those things you can only imagine.

The proof of these things is only ever circumstantial. In your bones you know they are there, these unspeakable, unknowable awful horrors; they're just ever-so-slightly off camera, but you can hear them and feel them and ultimately fear them, because the imagination knows no bounds. And the best found footage films exist almost entirely in the imagination. Who can resist the allure of that?

For about an hour, Paranormal Activity 3 is one such film: among, I would say, the genre's very strongest. For about an hour, during which time we follow Julie and her live-in husband Dennis - mother and father figure to baby Katie and ickle Kristi, the protagonists of Paranormal Activity and Paranormal Activity 2 respectively - during the autumn of 1988, the third installment of this evidently annual franchise seems, surprisingly, at the peak of its powers. For about an hour.

The rationale for the footage itself feels a matter of happenstance taken too far, but this is to my mind the only inherent drawback of the found form - the narrative need for there to be some reason, any reason, why someone has committed all that follows to film - and I am thus inclined to let it slide.

So the story goes: back in the dark days of tape, Dennis and his friend Randy Rosen operate a small business shooting and producing wedding videos, so when things start to go bump in the night, and Kristi's relationship with her imaginary friend Toby takes a dark turn, Dennis persuades Julie to let him set up cameras around the house, the better to catch an impossible predator in the act.

And that's really all you need to know, because the allure of this narrative is not its intricacy, or its subtlety, but rather those gaps and absences you must fill in for yourself. This is never more evident than in the sitting room-come-kitchen, which is so wide that to capture it, Dennis has to mount a camera on an oscillating base - a repurposed fan that pans, often excruciatingly slowly, from one area to the other, making for any number of Paranormal Activity 3's most effective moments. One recalls the definitive moment of Paranormal Activity 2; another, involving that old reliable Halloween costume - the white sheet become a ghost - works as a fond callback to a scene from El Orfanto. In both, the tension, nay the terror thick in the theater wherein I saw this second sequel, never mind in me, was born of what was obscured, and what we could not see: the figure that appears at the door as the fan-camera tracks across to the kitchen is spooky, sure, but what set grown men and woman to tittering like children in the winter wind was the awful absence of that figure when, ten nerve-shredding seconds later, the camera returns to the scene of the scare, only to reveal that the glimpsed thing, whatever it was or was not, is gone.

Now I didn't much care for Christopher Nicholas Smith as Dennis, but as Julie, the lovely Lauren Bittner - channeling a certain Deschanel-esque quality - made me long for the 80s all over again, and I really try not to make a habit of that. The kids were cute too: Jessica Tyler Brown as little Kristi particularly. Meanwhile Dustin Ingram's Randy Rosen was fun, and there are of course cameos from the little-seen leading ladies of the first and second films in the series. Across the board, in fact, the performances this time out are strong; a pleasant change of pace given the outlandish amateurishness of the cast the October before last.

There is a moment in the early-going of Paranormal Activity 3 that makes the movie, and a moment in the daft last act that breaks it. I won't spoil either, except to say neither one is what you think it is: in fact each works in its way to poke fun at what you probably thought, and indeed this installment of the Halloween franchise is easily the most good-humoured of the three. Alas, unsurprisingly, in its final fifteen minutes, Paranormal Activity 3 turns into exactly the sort of drivel detractors of found footage films will delight in taking apart. Let them eat cake, I say!

Me? Well, I enjoyed my cake just fine, though the icing - let's face it - the icing could have been better.

Thursday 27 October 2011

Video Game Review | Dead Island, dev. Techland

No-one really gave a shank about Dead Island till that tremendous trailer.

The game, for all its immediate promise when Deep Silver announced it in 2006 - of a massive, first-person perspective open world a la The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, but with zombies, and the stink of survival horror - Dead Island had been long thought lost to that dead zone known as development hell when in 2011 a stunning CG short film reignited interest in the latest from the Call of Juarez developers.

I was, for my part, skeptical that we would ever see Dead Island on store shelves, and doubtful that if and when we did, it would in the least resemble the touching teaser. Half a year later, the impossible has happened. Dead Island, as it transpires, actually is a game - as opposed to the glorified tech demo I'd expected - and not only that; it's pretty terrific, too.

But that isn't to say it's anything like that trailer.

The zombocalypse begins on the island of Banoi, a fictional landmass supposedly off the coast of Papua New Guinea. Whichever of the four playable characters you pick at the start screen, after a night's irresponsible drinking you - yes, you - awaken in your room in the Palms Resort Hotel with one hangover to rule them all, to find zombies to the left of you, and undead to the right. But here you are. Stuck in the middle of a nightmare.

Thanks to a mysterious voice that guides you over the intercom, you escape the hotel by the skin of your teeth to find spread out before you Banoi, in all its broken, bloodied glory. The island may not be the sheer size of Cyrodil, say, or even the atomic wastelands of New Vegas... nonetheless it is truly a huge place, of incredible, eye-catching environs. First and foremost amongst them: the tropical resort village you find your feet in, with its shallow swimming pools and lavish outdoor bars, where Techland tutorialise the simple mechanics you could spend the next 30 hours getting to grips with.

Which is to say, see a zombie? Kill it dead.

Don't have a weapon? Well find one, why don't you! A lead pipe, for instance, or a machete... or my personal favourite, because I picked - entirely at random - the blunt weapons specialist: the level 7 Baseball Bat. Failing that, there's always your fists. Or a gun, though there are very few of those in the beginning; more's the pity for those players who pick the character with the affinity for arms.

Anyway, next on the agenda - that is presuming you don't have any more pressing business than surviving this beautiful living dead hell - find yourself a workbench and gussy that weapon up some, because the only thing better than a striking stick is a striking stick you've set fire to.

But wait, there's more! When you begin Dead Island, the combat controls default to digital, which equates to a button press that makes your undead slayer flail his or her weapon like a lunatic. Needless to say, this is not so awesome; it makes for flat, pointless combat, with no tactics to speak of, nor any species of player choice. And you're going to fight a lot of zombies over the course of Dead Island, so do yourself a favour: pop into the options, swap over to analogue controls, then let 'em have it.

The analogue controls will be familiar to anyone who's played the Skate series, which had you perform tricks with the right control stick, holding down to charge a jump, for instance, then flicking it straight up to pull off an ollie. In Dead Island, the only difference is you're charging your arms instead of your legs, so when you swipe the stick from left to right, your character does likewise with a weapon. In this way you can lop off individual arms or legs, rendering a zombie practically harmless, or if you're lucky, and you aim your strike just right, explode an undead head.

This mechanic - truth be told only this mechanic - serves to separate Dead Island from the pack. Curious, then, that by default it's inactive. If I hadn't turned the analogue combat controls on, I don't know that I'd have bothered exploring Banoi at all. As was, I completed the very lengthy campaign, as well as almost every one of the sidequests, and I spent an almighty amount of time just traipsing around, too, to see what I could see... looking for loot in all the wrong places.

30 hours of my life later - seriously - I don't regret a second of the time I spent with Dead Island, simply because the combat was so satisfying; so weighty, strategic and visceral. The missions, alas, aren't. Harvest five samples of meat from a certain sort of zombie. Find ten nails so some guy can set up a barricade. Kill all the zombies in a particular area. Well, whatever.

Nor is the world, beyond the small holiday resort you begin in, much to brag about. There's a jungle, a prison and a city, none of which have the strength of character or the freshness in terms of video game aesthetics of the starting area. Also: the voice acting is awful... the graphics get worse the further through the game you progress... and the less said about Dead Island's story - which after all was what that trailer purported to sell it on - the less said about Dead Island's story, never mind its characters, such as they are, the better.

But that combat! There's simply nothing quite like it, and though I expect The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim will be a trump to Dead Island's spade in every other sense, Bethesda Softworks, the undisputed masters of the open world, would be well to take this essential lesson to heart, because with such singularly solid combat, even a mediocre game - as Dead Island would otherwise be - can be great. One can only imagine how incredible a good game would be with Techland's pioneering mechanics to boot.

Tuesday 25 October 2011

Book Review | The Darkest Part of the Woods by Ramsey Campbell

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The fate of the Price family is inextricably entangled with the ancient forest of Goodmanswood.

Dr. Lennox Price discovered a hallucinogenic moss that became the focus of a cult. After Lennox’s death, his widow seems to see and hear him in the trees — or is it a dark version of the Green Man that caresses her with leafy hands? Lennox’s grandson Sam heeds a call to lie in his lover’s arms in the very heart of the forest — and cannot help but wonder what the fruit of that love will be.

And Heather, Lennox’s daughter, who turned her back on her father’s mysteries and sought sanctuary in the world of facts and history? Goodmanswood summons her as well...


If you go down to the woods today, be sure of a big surprise.

But be warned: you'll have to practice patience to see what lurks in The Darkest Part of the Woods. There's rather a labyrinth to puzzle your way through before you find yourself in the clearing where World Fantasy Award-winner Ramsey Campbell finally springs his trap, and even then... even then.

Decades ago, Dr. Lennox Price - an esteemed toxicologist - came to Goodmanswood to investigate a sharp rise in reports of strange sightings. There he found a rare hallucinogenic moss which became the subject of a small cult, before and after it was eradicated for the peace of mind of unsuspecting passers-by.

Alas, Lennox too fell afoul of the effects of the moss; he's been in an institution nearby ever since. His children have grown old around him, his wife - Margo, an artist fascinated by the forest - has had to learn to live alone, and now the woods too are changing: a road is to be run right through the dark heart of Goodmanswood, despite the efforts of a few protesters.

Amongst those who acted out against the plan: Lennox's grandson Sam, whose mother Heather seems to be the only family member unaffected by the forest. Sam isn't so lucky. Having fallen from the tree he was tasked to protect after sensing a terrible presence in the boughs and branches with him, he walks with a limp -- an ever-present reminder that there is something odd even now about Goodmanswood. Something... disturbed.

The Darkest Part of the Woods is not new Ramsey Campbell, strictly speaking, but I imagine it will be new to most of those who pick up this timely mass-market edition. Strictly limited upon its initial release by PS Publishing in 2002, The Darkest Part of the Woods marked Campbell's return to dark fantasy after a dalliance with the thriller; though as of now it's as if he never left the genre at all.

But is it a triumphant return? It pains me to say as much - after all, the author is among horror fiction's most composed proponents - but no... I really don't think it is. The Darkest Part of the Woods does a number of things very well indeed: when at last Campbell dispenses with the pleasantries that make up so much of this novel's belaboured narrative, it is excruciatingly tense, almost unbearably atmospheric, and so thick with foreboding that one finds it a relief to put down at the end of the day, the better to breathe.

The characters, too, are an interesting bunch. But for Heather, who is not coincidentally our primary narrator, the Lennox family are obsessed by the forest, or rather the darkness the dwells in the deepest reaches of Goodmanswood. Each in their own way they've longed to tap this source of primordial power, and as the intrigue builds - and builds and builds, creating expectations far greater than Campbell can ultimately satisfy - the reader cannot but share in their affected fascination with this "presence vaster than the woods [advancing] across the changed landscape - as if the night sky or the blackness of which it was the merest scrap was descending." (p.36)

The trouble is, Campbell takes far too long to get to clearing where the darkness is deepest. The Darkest Part of the Woods is fairly long for a horror novel, and it feels still longer than it is, because more than half of it has passed before anything of note actually happens, testing the tolerance of even the most determined readers, I don't doubt. Thereafter things pick up quickly: there are a few truly terrifying sequences, and finally some pay-off on the awful promises made early on, apparently abandoned. And then it's over.

As Heather's airy-fairy sister Sylvia says, "I just don't think you can ever grow out of hearing stories in the dark," (p.69) and no, indeed not. But though the critics call Ramsey Campbell a master of modern horror for good reason, sadly this isn't remotely representative of his best. The second half of The Darkest Part of the Woods is superb, assuredly, but it's just too little too late, and whatever the destination, the journey - the getting there - is simply too tedious for me to recommend this dark fantasy without the caveat I began with.

Which is to say: if you go down to the woods today, please... be patient.


The Darkest Part of the Woods
by Ramsey Campbell

UK Publication: April 2002, PS Publishing
US Publication: August 2011, Tor

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Recommended and Related Reading


Monday 24 October 2011

Coming Attractions | The Nightmare Before Halloween

Hard to believe it's almost the end of October already, isn't it?

Never mind that we're only ten weeks shy of 2012. Twenty twelve, by gum! Doesn't time fly when you've having fun?

Anyway, we all know what happens at the end of October... it's only Prescription Errors Education and Awareness week, folks! Have you checked your dosages?

Wait, no. That's not it. But of course, it's All Hallows... Samhain... Hallo-hella-ween!

Of course I talk about horror a whole lot on The Speculative Scotsman as is. More, I shouldn't wonder, than many of you might like. But this week, and this week only, I actually have a license to chill.

And I intend to use it. :D

Thus, between now and next Monday, when the Judderman comes, there will be blood. Blood - why there'll be gallons of the goop! - and other assorted spooky stuff, like hauntings, zombies, creepy little girls, forest spirits, and that's just for starters.

Beginning later today, or else early on tomorrow, I'll have reviews of some the wickedest books, movies and video games that have this way come in the last little while. There's the new John Ajvide Lindqvist, of course, and a timely reissue of The Darkest Part of the Woods by Ramsey Campbell. Them's you can count on.

Not guaranteed, but really quite likely, are my thoughts on Dead Island, which you'd be well within your rights to call Fallout: Zombie Apocalypse - and yes, it's exactly as awesome as it sounds - and The Woman, a truly madly deeply disturbing creepfest by Lucky McKee (of The Girl Next Door infamy) and Jack Ketchum.

Also other things. For instance the new Caitlin R. Kiernan collection, Two Worlds and In Between. There might be time for that too. And perhaps I'll give away a toffee apple or something!

But let's face facts... probably not.

Hang about anyhow?

Sunday 23 October 2011

Books Received | The BoSS for 23/10/11

In The BoSS this week: IQ84.

Oh yes. :)

Also other books. And I mean no slight to them - none at all - but seriously: IQ84.

That's my week's reading sorted, then!


by Haruki Murakami

Vital Statistics
Published in the UK
on 25/10/11
by Harvill Secker

Review Priority
5 (A Sure Thing)

The Blurb: The year is 1984. Aomame sits in a taxi on the expressway in Tokyo. 

Her work is not the kind which can be discussed in public but she is in a hurry to carry out an assignment and, with the traffic at a stand-still, the driver proposes a solution. She agrees, but as a result of her actions starts to feel increasingly detached from the real world. She has been on a top-secret mission, and her next job will lead her to encounter the apparently superhuman founder of a religious cult.

Meanwhile, Tengo is leading a nondescript life but wishes to become a writer. He inadvertently becomes involved in a strange affair surrounding a literary prize to which a mysterious seventeen-year-old girl has submitted her remarkable first novel. It seems to be based on her own experiences and moves readers in unusual ways. Can her story really be true?

Both Aomame and Tengo notice that the world has grown strange; both realise that they are indispensable to each other. While their stories influence one another, at times by accident and at times intentionally, the two come closer and closer to intertwining. 

My Thoughts: I've actually had this for a couple of weeks - long enough to have read books one and two in full - but an embargo meant we couldn't chat about it. Actually, we still can't, because oddly, the thing I signed is in effect through the 25th.

But IQ84! It could be Haruki Murakami's seminal work. It's certainly been a long time coming; after all, After Dark was hardly longer than a novella, and Kafka on the Shore (my first and as yet my favourite Murakami) was nearly ten years ago. Not since I got my grubby paws on The Islanders by Christopher Priest have I been half so excited about a book that's arrived for review.

Stay tuned for more on IQ84, folks. Much more.

The Vampire Shrink
by Lynda Hilburn

Vital Statistics
Published in the UK
on 01/08/11
by Jo Fletcher Books

Review Priority
2 (It Could Happen)

The Blurb: Kismet Knight is a young psychologist with a growing clinical practice, and she's always looking for something to give her the edge in her chosen career. When her new client turns out to be a Goth teenager who desperately wants to become a vampire, Kismet is inspired to become the vampire shrink, offering her services to people who believe they are undead. Kismet herself, as a scientist, knows it's hokum, but she's looking at it in a purely psychoanalytic light, already imagining the papers she's going to write on this strange subculture. That's until she meets the leader of a vampire coven, a sexy, mysterious man who claims to be a powerful 800-year-old vampire, and she is pulled into a whirlwind of inexplicable events that start her questioning everything she once believed about the paranormal.

My Thoughts: Hmmm.

Never mind that I'm all in a tizzy about IQ84 this week, I've been keen to see what's to come from Jo Fletcher Books for quite a while... Jo Fletcher Books being a new genre fiction imprint under the Quercus Books umbrella, headed up by Gollancz's former associate publisher, moved on to pastures new.0

Alas, The Vampire Shrink is resolutely not the introduction to the imprint I'd have liked. I've read a little and, I'm sorry... it's just not for me. I'm sure it'll sell, but no.

So what I'm going to do - because there are actually a whole load of lovely-looking books to come from JFB further down the line - what I'm going to do is pretend that last week's John Ajvide Lindquist (which you'll be hearing more about this week) was actually the launch title of this exciting new imprint, and not this bottom-of-the-barrel paranormal romance.

Given which, long live Jo Fletcher Books!

by Scott Westerfeld

Vital Statistics
Published in the UK
on 21/09/11
by Simon & Schuster

Review Priority
3 (We'll See)

The Blurb: Alek and Dylan are back onboard the Leviathan!

The ship is ordered to pick up Tesla, a Russian inventor who has created a machine he claims can destroy half of the world, which he is using as a threat to impose peace. Alek wants to the end the war, so decides to back Tesla politically, as do the Darwinists. Meanwhile Dylan is still pretending to be a boy, though Alek has figured out her true identity, and promises to keep her secret.

With stops in New York, California and Mexico, Dylan and Alek encounter adventure and intrigue at every turn, but when a secret German plan to sabotage Tesla's machine leads to a heart-stopping stand-off, as Tesla threatens to fire his weapon, it's up to the two of them to stop him - or face the end of the world for real...

My Thoughts: After Leviathan came Behemoth. Now, on the tail of Behemoth, comes Goliath.

It sure looks pretty. But steampunk and me, we don't exactly get on; Cherie Priest seems to have single-handedly seen to that. Nevertheless, the allure of a complete trilogy - particularly one so profusely and beautifully illustrated as these three pretties, stood together on my shelf - is no little thing, and I've heard so many people say such nice things about Westerfeld's work that I admit, the idea of reading Leviathan through Goliath is an appealing prospect.

So do you think I should? After Halloween and Murakami and The Inheritance Trilogy by N. K. Jemisin, that is.

Gosh, I've got my work cut out for me, haven't I? :)

Bronze Summer
by Stephen Baxter 

Vital Statistics
Published in the UK
on 15/09/11
by Gollancz

Review Priority
3 (We'll See)

The Blurb: Centuries have passed. The wall that Ana's people built has long outlasted her and history has been changed. The British Isles are still one with the European mainland and Doggerland has become a vibrant and rich land. So rich that it has drawn the attention of the Greeks. An invasion is mounted and soon Greek Biremes are grinding ashore on a coastline we never knew... the world will be changed forever.

Stephen Baxter's new series catapults forward from pre-history into the ancient world and charts a new and wonderful story for our world. This is a superb example of Baxter's belief that anything is possible for mankind - even making a new world.

My Thoughts: Though I've found a lot to like about Stephen Baxter's science fiction in the past, I'm sorry to say I never did get around to reading last year's Stone Spring. But the trilogy marches on! 

From the sidelines, still, Bronze Summer seems as vast in scope as its predecessor, and thought that expansiveness appeals, to a certain extent, I wonder, does this trilogy have any time for its characters, such as they are? 

I really would love to hear from someone who's read Stone Spring. Should I take the time to get caught up on this series, do you think, or would I be better off with one or another of the classic Stephen Baxter novels I haven't had the pleasure of?


That's all for this week, everyone. To no-one's surprise, I imagine, I'll have my nose buried in book three of IQ84 for the foreseeable, but what about the rest of you? Anything good I've overlooked?

Friday 21 October 2011

Book Review | The Magic of Reality by Richard Dawkins and Dave McKean

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What are things made of? What is the sun? Why is there night and day, winter and summer? Why do bad things happen? Are we alone? Throughout history people all over the world have invented stories to answer profound questions such as these. Have you heard the tale of how the sun hatched out of an emu's egg? Or what about the great catfish that carries the world on its back? Has anyone ever told you that earthquakes are caused by a sneezing giant?

These fantastical myths are fun - but what is the real answer to such questions? The Magic of Reality, with its explanations of space, time, evolution and more, will inspire and amaze readers of all ages - young adults, adults, children, octogenarians. Teaming up with the renowned illustrator Dave McKean, Richard Dawkins answers all these questions and many more.

In stunning words and pictures this book presents the real story of the world around us, taking us on an enthralling journey through scientific reality, and showing that it has an awe-inspiring beauty and thrilling magic which far exceed those of the ancient myths. We encounter rainbows, our genetic ancestors, tsunamis, shooting stars, plants, animals, and an intriguing cast of characters in this extraordinary scientific voyage of discovery. Richard Dawkins and Dave McKean have created a dazzling celebration of our planet that will entertain and inform for years to come. 


I never read The God Delusion. I might well be the only one. But though I agree with the thesis biologist Richard Dawkins sets out therein - that a widely-held belief in some supernatural creator deity does not constitute proof of such an unlikely thing - I didn't feel the need to read a textbook to reinforce my position as regards religion.

Nor, for similar reasons, did I attend The Greatest Show on Earth, Dawkin's sequel of sorts to The God Delusion, in which the professor addressed the question of evolution; again I gather in terms I largely agree with. In truth, I only rarely come to non-fiction, and only then when there's some overriding reason for me to, above and beyond an interesting subject, or a shared opinion; some passion, say, that the work taps into. In the case of The Magic of Reality, Dave McKean was that reason.

There are few better reasons.

You may be familiar with Dave McKean because of his run of covers on Neil Gaiman's seminal Sandman, or else the estimable British illustrator's various other collaborations with Mr. Amanda Palmer: namely The Day I Swapped My Dad For Two Goldfish, The Wolves in the Walls and Crazy Hair. If not these, then perhaps his vast graphic novel Cages, which gained some notice - if not half so much as it deserved - or the film MirrorMask, maybe?

The man is in any event an artistic marvel, and it has been my pleasure to pursue him from comics to books to movies, and back again. Thus The Magic of Reality: a beautiful coffee-table volume of popular science from the pen of the emeritus professor, profusely illustrated and exquisitely designed by Mr. McKean.

Each of The Magic of Reality's twelve chapters begins with a question, from "Who was the first person?" to "Why do bad things happen?" by way of "What is a rainbow?" and "Are we alone?"

My purpose is to answer the question, or at least give the best possible answer, which is the answer of science. But I shall usually begin with some mythical answers because they are colourful and interesting, and real people have believed them. Some people still do. (p.32) 

Invariably Dawkins indulges these feeble but well-meaning answers, allowing that the attempt to explain, even incorrectly, is no ill thing. Then, before the science begins in earnest, the author tends to establish, in terms of certain evidence, how inadequate - dare I say dangerous - these explanations are, in this enlightened day and age.

Dawkins however keeps his skeptical professor in check. What science there is in The Magic of Reality is well pitched, very accessible - even to younger readers, whom I gather this volume is aimed at - and not typically dismissive... though there are a few cheeky implications, such as talk about "the Jewish preacher called Jesus" (p.261) and the lumping-in of Christianity and other major modern belief systems with some shall we say far-fetched legends. As discussed, I don't disagree, but it's all in good fun anyway, and it goes no further than this.

Speaking of fun, The Magic of Reality is absolutely that: between Dawkins' conversational, easy-does-it explanations and the dazzling diversity of the art present on each and every page of this gorgeous (not to mention giftable) short volume, The Magic of Reality is a bona fide delight to peruse, worthy of pride of place on any coffee table. Simply flicking through it, as I assure you all and sundry comers to your sitting room will, more than justifies the price of admission to this exhilarating trip through time and space and faith.

Without Dave McKean's invaluable contributions, I don't know that I'd have looked twice at The Magic of Reality, in truth... but I'm glad I did. Though many of the subjects discussed herein were subjects I needed no new introduction to, many readers will, and they stand to benefit massively from The Magic of Reality, both intellectually and artistically. The value of such a pursuit can hardly be understated.


The Magic of Reality
by Richard Dawkins and Dave McKean

UK Publication: September 2011, Bantam Press
US Publication: October 2011, Free Press

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