June 23, 2016

THE FLIGHT TO MECHA

Milleniad Book #1
by Rod Kierkagaard, Jr. and Kris Carey
340 pages, Curiosity Quills Press, ARC

Review by J. S. Colley

As with previous Kierkegaard novels I’ve read, this book is replete with interesting characters, out-of-this-world imagination and subtle humor. Set in the far distant future, The Flight to Mecha begins on the planet Eden, where Adam Wetherall has taken his captives, Eve and Gracious. But Eden isn’t a paradise; it’s a mold-infested Yurth-like rock plagued by constant solar storms and radiation, where Adam fights imaginary demons and the very real Nephilim. After Adam’s death, Eden is left to his wives and children: Eve, Lilith, Cain, Abel, and their children. Soon, the Family escapes the fungus-infected planet and the sponge-like Nephilim. Cain laments, “Everything on this planet tries to kill you. […] You just have to stay a step ahead...”

The Family commandeers the deceased Adam’s starship, the SV Golddigger, and ventures into the Beyond, but soon discover they are radioactive and are “toxic to others and only safe around each other. […] Maybe they’d escaped Eden, but they could never escape each other.” (Rather like all families, don’t you think?) On their journey, the Family meets Yumans and Xterrans, and all manner of life. Everyone wears smartsuits that are capable of communicating with the wearer as well as other “comms.” The Family’s suits do double-duty and block their Eden-inflicted radiation (the stain of their “original sin”?) so they can safely interact with others. All smartsuits and machinery are named when they are “born,” mostly “chosen from random comms chatter” — which leads to some interesting nomenclature.

The Family eventually lands on Spartak. As the rest of the Family settles into their new home, Lilith and Cain become elite Starwolf agents. Meanwhile, Awan, Cain’s fragile sister-wife, survives by hooking herself into their starship and it becomes the SV Awan Golddigger. His now sister-wife-ship helps Cain on his missions. His newest assignment is to find a smalltime Xterran gangster and possible plague-carrier, while Lilith sets out on her own tasks.

Cain’s mission leads him and SV Awan Golddigger on a wild adventure to several exotic planets and into unimaginable dangers. After apprehending their target, the motley group that has accrued end up on Mecha, a dry, dusty planet used by gamers as a virtual reality playground. There they battle against the gamers in real-time, with the help of Mechs and human mercenaries. There are spectacular action-packed scenes that will appeal to sci-fi adventure enthusiasts.

While Cain is fighting for his and Awan’s survival on Mecha, Lilith confronts the Eden Plague — the embodiment of the vengeful Adam as a radioactive spore contagion, which threatens to take over the entire galaxy.

Kierkegaard is a seer — a prodigious evocator of future technology and social norms and mores. The reader can imagine the places, technologies, and complex societies he creates on the page are real, or will be one day. Many of the futuristic elements and social norms in his earlier novel, Obama Jones and the Logic Bomb, have already come true. The humor is smart and subtle. As with his other novels, I’m sure I missed many of the inferences, but the ones I did catch made me chuckle.

Beyond the more obvious, broader metaphors about religion, myths, and society in general, I sensed Kierkegaard might have been reflecting on his own life — his own mortality. How death slowly invades us like a tenacious fungus, with no chance of escape. Of course, this was co-written with Carey, with whom I have no previous experience as a reader, but Kierkegaard’s style shines through.

This is an exciting first book in the Milleniad series.

June 8, 2016

AUTHOR INTERVIEW

HarperCollins author, friend of Booksquawk and all-round top person Liz Tipping’s new novel, Don’t You Forget About Me, is a must-read for fans of John Hughes movies, the Brat Pack and eighties retro culture.

Here, she talks to Pat Black about her new novel and the strange artistic avenues coveting Molly Ringwald’s cardigan can lead you into…

Booksquawk: Tell us a bit about yourself and the books you write.

Liz Tipping: I live in Birmingham with my husband and our adopted beagle, Mary. I write romantic comedies. The books I write are influenced by where I live and working class culture so they’re more Gavin and Stacey/The Royle Family type scenarios than a Richard Curtis Notting Hill-style rom com.
 
B: What’s Don’t You Forget About Me about?

L: Don’t You Forget About Me is a movie themed romantic comedy which pays homage to all those great John Hughes 80s teen movies like The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink. Cara works in a video store and is invited to a school reunion. Remembering the terrible school discos she attended back in the day, she still yearns for her high school prom moment like the ones in the movies. She sees this as her chance to grab her magical movie moment.
  
B: It references an eighties song – if you were to pick five songs which define the book from that decade, what would they be, and why?

L: The Lotus Eaters - The First Picture of You
This song just screams 80s and fits nicely with how one character feels about another character but can’t quite express it. It’s also a great summer tune with only a slight hint of 80s misery.

Deacon Blue – Real Gone Kid
Cara in the book is desperately trying to be cool. There’s a scene where Cara’s friend, Stubbs “plays her old 45s” and it reminded me of this song. I think Deacon Blue as a band correlate nicely with the book too. Great music, great band but probably not “edgy” enough for the cool kids, which is kind of what the book is about- not being cool.

Taylor Dayne - Tell It To My Heart
This has 80s school disco written all over it. In the book Cara is haunted by an embarrassing incident at a school disco but actually the lyrics in the song fit the book pretty well. We’ve got these characters with stuff bubbling under the surface and what they need to do is let it all out, and scream it from the rooftops in a gigantic-haired Taylor Dayne kind of way.

Roam by the B52s is one of my favourite songs.  It’s a cracking pop song and it represents how Cara feels about stuck in her hometown.

Safety Dance - Men Without Hats– this is the silliest song and an eighties classic! And there’s a fella in the book who has a daft haircut a bit like the lad in the Safety Dance video. I’ll have this one for the end credits, I think.

B: Video shops are relics of the past. What video did you hire Too Many Times To Be Healthy from your video shop as a kid?

L: We do still have a couple in Birmingham but I’ve not used one in years! The Lost Boys – watched it over and over again. I reckon I still know all the words off by heart. I think I watched it daily. And I had the soundtrack too of course and know all the lyrics to all of that too.

B: The boxes on videos were scary, I found. Did you ever think that, or is it just me? Do you remember any in particular?

L: Like, the pictures on the boxes? Or the actual boxes? Because , yes, the actual boxes were pretty scary. You’d certainly know about it when you trapped your fingers in the case when closing it. Not sure about the pictures on the boxes. I used to hire the Nightmare on Elm St films a lot. They were scary. I even made a paper mache house like the one in Nightmare on Elm St 3. What a little weirdo I must have been!

B: A two-part question on the Brat Pack. Which Brat Pack member did you fancy the most, and which one did you most want to be? Choose any movie/star from the era, doesn’t have to be John Hughes.

L: I would probably say I fancied Rob Lowe the most, but his hair was really stupid then. He’s much better looking now and his hair is alright now. And the movie star I most wanted to be was Elisabeth Shue. Adventures in Babysitting was another much rented video as was Cocktail starring her and Tom Cruise. and I still fancy Tom Cruise as well, which I have decided it completely fine, thank you very much, before anyone starts!

B: Do you find it strange that radio stations are still playing so much eighties music? I don’t remember 1950s music being played quite so much back in the 1980s. Is it possible the eighties were underappreciated in terms of music, fashion, art and culture? (may be too big a question I guess).

L: I don’t know, maybe we just have more radio stations now and people have more choices? I do remember fifties music being played a lot in my house and that music was slightly before my parents era. It’s interesting how many younger people are into eighties culture. When Don’t You Forget About Me started life on wattpad, it had tons of teen readers and they all told me how much they loved John Hughes films and Molly Ringwald. It’ll be something to do with economics and post- modernism probably.

B: Do you know anyone who might be able to sing the chorus to St Elmo’s Fire, pitch-perfect?

L: Yeah, I reckon John Parr is your man. I just went and had a look at the video to see how I fared and I wasn’t great at it but it did make me think about how St. Elmo’s fire didn’t really click with me.  I reckon if it was released in 1985, then by the time it came onto video or on the telly, I would have been around thirteen maybe, but I never really liked it that much at the time. I think it’s because in the other eighties films, like The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, Adventures in Babysitting, the characters are at school,  any of us could relate to them because we’ve all been to school. With St Elmo’s fire, I could never really fathom out what was going on.

B: What’s your eighties style dream/disaster? So many girls had the Fergie Bow, but nobody talks about it… It’s like Phil Collins records and watching House Party!

L: I had a lemon Fergie bow on a clip which was pinned to the bottom of a French plait. I wore it with a lemon and white t-shirt and a white skirt. That was probably one of the better outfits to be honest! Also had some pink ski pants with black elastic stirrups on them with a white shirt and a pink paint splatter pattern on them. Matchy matchy!

B: Tell us a bit about your next project.

L: I’ve had so many ideas floating around for years, but nothing so far that’s grabbed me as much  as Don’t You Forget About Me did. But then, on Saturday I suddenly had a new idea and I sent it to my agent and she said it “sounds amazing” so I’m going to get cracking on that ASAP. 

May 29, 2016

BONDSQUAWK:

Moonraker
by Ian Fleming
190 pages, Coronet Books

Review by Pat Black

Moonraker is the loopiest Bond movie adaptation by a hundred thousand light years - but I’ll watch it before Skyfall or Spectre any day of the week.

The film is ridiculous, with a third act which is basically a sci-fi land-grab, released a few months before The Empire Strikes Back. It features a space battle with ray guns.

It also features Roger Moore’s stunt double skydiving in flared slacks. This movie perhaps predates Fonzie “jumping the shark”, by “Moonraking the Moore”. But I still think it’s great. If I discover it’s being screened on ITV4 on an idle Friday night, I’ll be watching.

I’ve read a fair bit of sneering about that movie, but it made a lot of money in its day, and Sir Roger Moore was, as ever, a complete charmer as 007. It’s the centrepiece of Moore’s Holy Trinity, flanked by The Spy Who Loved Me and For Your Eyes Only.

Those films were fun. The past few Bonds have not been fun.

Ian Fleming’s original cold war novel, written in 1955 (“Hello, McFly!”), has little in common with the movie adaptation. For one thing, Bond doesn’t leave the UK, with the main action taking place on the south-east coast of England. Domestic matters are not the remit of MI6, as the author acknowledges in the story, and Bond has to get a special dispensation from the Prime Minister in order to check things out. Get you, Mr Big Deal!

As in the movie, our villain is Hugo Drax. Supposedly the son of a Liverpool docker, Drax was badly injured in the war, but overcame his injuries and went into business. The tycoon made a fortune out of various commodities, including a rare metal with a very high melting point - an essential component for rockets.

A billionaire with a high public profile, Drax comes across as a prototypical Sir Richard Branson, but with a military edge. The great benefactor even provides, privately, a state-of-the-art nuclear defence system for Britain, with a greater range than any other warhead on the planet: the Moonraker.

This rocket grants Britain far greater clout in world affairs than it had in reality at that time, or at any point since. The Suez Crisis came only a year after the publication of Moonraker, after which no-one would view the United Kingdom as a key player in world affairs again.

The public loves Drax, enjoying his ostentatious wealth and outrageous publicity stunts at a time when the country had only just stopped being rationed. Bond freely admits to admiring the man.

But there’s a problem: Drax is a card cheat.

Bond accompanies his boss, M, to Blades, London’s most exclusive gambling house, to find out if there is any truth to the suspicion.

It’s so bloody British. Drax has Armageddon at his fingertips, on a private base staffed with his own private militia - but what makes people suspicious about his character and motive is that he rips off a few dissolute aristocrats and old military duffers at cards.

“Not cricket, old boy. Imagine the scandal if it got out!”

In the first half of Moonraker, there is not one single fight, car chase, shoot-out or bed-hop, but it’s a great piece of writing in so many ways. I’ve always said that Ian Fleming might have made one of the great travel or food critics. Arguably, his talent for crisp descriptive prose was wasted on espionage comedies.

We start off with a bored Bond, back at his desk and sporting a few new scars following his escapades in Live And Let Die. Here’s where we might glimpse the working day of the real Ian Fleming before Bond came into his life: stuck at a newsdesk, head angled towards the window, bored out of his skull.

In the long stretches between assignments Bond does courses and reads “top secret” reports which have little bearing on his operations. This classic sexpanther’s head drifts out the window as he attempts to live the life of an umbrella-carrying British civil servant. Ten am starts, lunch at the canteen, idle lust tipping into overt flirtation with secretaries, a spot of banter with colleagues, and the odd roll about on the carpet with married women during downtime.

M snaps Bond out of his clerical fugue to check out Drax at Blades. We follow 007 as he dresses, drinks, orders a belt of Benzedrine from his private secretary (no questions asked, either!), then downs two bottles of very fine champagne as he figures out how Drax does the dirty – before snaring him with a con of his own.

The stakes are high - £15,000, equivalent to just under £400,000 in today’s sterling – and the gambling scenes are on a par with those in Casino Royale.

Bond loves it. It plugs 007 in at source, as you suspect it did with Ian Fleming. The cigarette smoke, the green baize, the sweat, the booze, the tension, and the unique charge that only gambling can give you; this is part of the very bedrock of Bond.

After Bond triumphs, Drax signs off with a sinister line: “Spend it quickly, Mr Bond.”

Amazingly, Bond does – he puts himself down for a brand new Bentley, a new set of golf clubs and some redecoration of his Mayfair flat (how much would that property be worth today compared to 1955, one wonders? Not easily calculable).

I thought, “Christ, 007, put it away in the bank! Get it invested in bricks and mortar… you could retire on that! Your fancy car will depreciate rapidly, you know, and think of the maintenance costs...”

Hard on the heels of this mental reflux, the bitter realisation: I’ve lost something. I’m not the same man who first read this book, when I was 24.

Bond is a guy in his mid-thirties who enjoys living life on the edge, and doesn’t expect to reach mandatory retirement age from front line duties (45), never mind pension age. It’s worth noting that Fleming, whose tastes in wild women, high living and general excess matched that of his literary creation, clocked out aged only 56, just as the Bond phenomenon was about to detonate worldwide with Goldfinger.

We are drawn into Drax’s world. Again, breaking with tradition, Bond is semi-out the closet as a security operative rather than strictly undercover with Universal Exports, looking into a strange murder-suicide which took place near Drax’s base a matter of days before the test-firing of the Moonraker. One of the base’s exclusively German operatives has shot a love rival in a pub, before turning the gun on himself.

Among the many things which don’t add up: the German chap seemed to say “Heil Hitler” before pulling the trigger. How curious, thinks Bond…

The girl involved in the supposed love triangle is an undercover Special Branch operative, an English girl named Gala Brand. How interesting, thinks Bond…

Before The Spy Who Loved Me came along, Moonraker was the odd man out in the series, and I didn’t enjoy it the first time I read it, 15 years ago. I much preferred it this time around – taking time to sip at Fleming’s pitch-perfect prose, and gazing around the post-war settings with a sense of appreciation and wonderment, rather than astonishment and sometimes outright hilarity.

Bond trope: A villain with some kind of deformity. Half Drax’s face has been burned off and re-grafted; it seems he is just as ugly on the inside. The Bond series is not particularly progressive in its view of disability and disfigurement.

Things that annoy me about Bond: When Bond is being briefed by M, Bond seems to know just as much about the topic as his boss, if not more. How is this possible? The guy can’t go from being bored with top-secret reports on Japanese poisons one minute to knowing everything under the sun the next!

Perhaps Bond has genius-level recall; perhaps this basic retention of facts and details is what sets him apart in the world of espionage. I can’t remember what I had for dinner two nights ago, and I might break into a sweat if you asked me to compute basic fractions. Maybe my irritation at Bond’s vast knowledge base says more about me than it does about Fleming’s storytelling.

Also: henchmen and soldiers in ridiculous attire. Drax’s all-German militia (there’s a wee clue for you) dress in the same zippy-up one-piece jumpsuits, and are all shaven-headed, with the added flourish of silly moustaches. Drax explains why this dodgy biker gang style is necessary near the end, but that doesn’t lessen its comedic effect to modern eyes. When these chaps were first described, I was thinking of the baddie in the video for the Communards’ Don’t Leave Me This Way.

Fleming wrote in a hardback style, and his prose was strictly business class, but his stories, scenarios, plots and characters were quite often the stuff of comic books getting soggy outside a bus station. In many ways, he was a lucky writer.

Also, as you might anticipate for a Bond novel written in the 1950s, the portrayal of women is outdated, at best. Bond’s appraisal of secretary Loelia Ponsonby as a woman married to the job, tottering into frigid, virginal middle age, was utterly brutal. That said, Fleming does go beyond Bond’s one-track assessment and reveals Ponsonby as an excellent operator, who worries herself to death about the men she helps send out on assignments. We’d call her a workaholic, these days. Fleming is saying a lot about women who embarked on careers back in the 1950s, not much of it flattering, but at least he appreciates them, however condescendingly.

There’s also that wince-inducing scenario which we see throughout the Bond milieu. Bond is clearly up to no good, in the eyes of the villain, from the moment he appears. He tries to ingratiate himself, despite humiliating his quarry in some way (usually through gambling). Instead of putting out a contract on him, the villain seems to decide, “You’re alright, Bond,” even as he wipes the spit off his face.

The villain doesn’t trust him, but still invites Bond into his inner circle. Then (as in this novel), there is an attempt made on Bond’s life, which he survives. Bond knows that they know that he knows that they know he’s up to no good, but the charade continues.

This has always irritated the life out of me in Bond movies. “Why not just shoot him?” You shouldn’t ask yourself this question. Surely it would be better to show Bond as having gained the villain’s trust, instead of everyone pretending they don’t know the truth? Licence To Kill, one of the most under-rated Bond films, is one of the few to get the idea of Bond as an undercover saboteur exactly right.

Bond trope breaker: Gala Brand – the Bond girl Bond couldn’t have.

Vesper Lynd and Solitaire were two very different characters to this professional, imperturbable girl – one a femme fatale, the other a beautiful ingénue. Brand is something else entirely. She’s the girl at the centre of the suspicious love triangle. It doesn’t take long for Bond to show an interest beyond the job at hand.

(“Distinguishing features: a mole on the upper curvature of the right breast. ‘Hmm!’ said Bond.”)

Brand still needs rescuing, of course, but she is more recognisably modern than her two predecessors, and certainly an absolute professional.

Also, Brand is unique in that she doesn’t go to bed with Bond, despite some heavy flirting on the beach and a couple of kisses. She even delivers something of a slap in the face, by only revealing at the end that she is engaged to someone else, dashing Bond’s plans for spending a month’s leave with her.

Well, thanks very much, Moley McMoletits, thinks Double-0-Blueballs. It just shows you, ladies – even James Bond appreciates an EBR (Early Boyfriend Reference). Probably wouldn’t put him off, mind, but it’s nice if everyone’s on the same page.

Bad Bond: When Bond first meets Brand over dinner at Drax’s house, he is annoyed that she doesn’t pay him much attention. In order to get it, he actually considers kicking her shins.

How many of you out there will recognise that scenario? How many times did it happen in pubs and clubs last night, alone? The crude inquiry, the sullen disappointment, and maybe the outright Cro-Magnon rage. “Alright darlin’, how you doing tonight? Hey… I’m talking to you. Look at me when I’m talking to you!”

For such a slow-burning start, Moonraker has plenty of peril in its second half, including a fine car chase and a thrilling race-against-time conclusion. Bond is made to suffer, as usual; my very buttocks cringe in recalling one scene where the baddies try to smoke Bond and Brand out of the ventilation system with a steam hose. Less baroque but no less painful is the absolute battering 007 takes near the end while he is tied to a chair.

It all leads to a satisfying climax when Bond and Brand save the day – if we’re sort-of ignoring, as Fleming does, the effects of nuclear fission. 

It’s hard to know what Fleming would have said in the 1950s had you told him that the movie version of Moonraker would finish on a space station with astronauts on jet packs lasering each other. He might well have approved – he was fond of ludicrous action and outlandish settings, contrary to what you may have heard about the supposedly “gritty” Bond novels. They weren’t all low-down and dirty, and certainly none of them were remotely realistic.

That’s one of the aspects of the series I hope to explore in more detail later on. The books are a real mixed bag, and the more outlandish aspects of the Roger Moore years fit some literary entries in the Bond canon quite well.

The great irony is that Moonraker, despite its notoriety as one of the most far-fetched Bond movies, actually qualifies for “gritty Bond” status on the page.

Bondsquawk will return, in… Diamonds Are Forever

May 20, 2016

SPAWN OF THE SLIME BEAST

by Guy N. Smith
112 pages, Black Hill Books

Review by Hereward L.M. Proops

Despite us seldom having a good word to say about his work, Guy N. Smith remains the most reviewed author on Booksquawk. So what is it about his books? Why do Pat Black and I keep going back to them time and time again? Are we gluttons for punishment or is there something else going on here?

The stories are not intelligent or particularly well-written. Characters tend to be one-dimensional and often act in such an illogical manner that you find yourself wondering whether you have accidentally skipped over a couple of pages. Sure, the vast amount of cheesy sex and graphic violence in the books might well be appealing to the adolescent reader, but as a grown man in my mid-thirties, I find Smith’s depictions of sex and death to be so toe-curlingly cringeworthy that I often promise myself I won’t go back to his books. A couple of months later, I always seem to find myself back on the Kindle store looking for my next fix of bad pulp fiction.

I suppose it is the same reason why I can quite happily watch my DVDs of “Zoltan Hound of Dracula” or “Killer Klowns from Outer Space” over and over again. Feet up, brain off, shovel handfuls of popcorn into my mouth and forget about the complexities of adult life for ninety minutes or so. It’s not about avoiding the responsibilities or challenges that come with being a thirty-something with a family and a professional life to juggle - it’s more like just putting these things to one side, just for a bit, whilst I goof off with an old friend from my youth. It is escapism, pure and simple.

Guy N. Smith’s third novel, “The Slime Beast”, was originally published back in 1975. Pat Black gave it a hilarious critical mauling in a review a few years ago and there is no denying that it is a truly dreadful book. It is also ridiculously good fun. Like an over-the-top B-movie, “The Slime Beast” is a short, focused blast of sex, suspense and gore. As it can be read in one sitting, it doesn’t overstay its welcome. One look at the garish cover of the paperback (with the Slime Beast looking like a low-rent Creature from the Black Lagoon) tells the potential reader exactly what to expect. Its purpose is not to inform or educate. It isn’t going to stretch the grey matter or win any literary prizes. Books like “The Slime Beast” have one purpose - to entertain our inner-adolescent.

Forty years after Smith’s intestine-munching monster shambled from the mud, the Slime Beast is back. Published by Smith’s own Black Hill Books, “Spawn of the Slime Beast” is a sequel that no-one asked to be written, but I’m strangely glad it was.

Gavin Royle is now married to Liz, the girl he so artfully seduced in the original novel. They have a daughter called Amy who, we are informed, was conceived during one of their romantic trysts in “The Slime Beast”. To celebrate Gavin’s retirement from the British Museum, the Royle family have gone on holiday to the place where Gavin and Liz fell in love (and watched helplessly as Liz’s uncle was disemboweled and devoured by a slavering creature that emerged from the wetlands). Of course, the Royle family holiday happens to occur at the same time as the offspring of the original monster begins a bloody killing spree around East Anglia.

When Gavin and the family pay a visit to the concrete blockhouse where Amy was conceived, they discover a terrible smell that makes them all vomit profusely. Gavin has encountered this noxious stench before and begins to worry that there might be another Slime Beast at large. This scene, awash in puke, manages to encapsulate the essence of reading a Guy N. Smith novel. “Gavin staggered out into the bright sunlight. Liz and Amy were bent double spewing up their breakfasts… Then Gavin threw up. Even in the midst of his vomiting he tried to find an explanation for it all.” 

Gavin knows that nobody will believe him if he tries to raise the alarm too soon. In spite of his old age, the inherent danger, and his wife and daughter begging him not to get involved, Gavin sets off to gather evidence of the existence of the new creature. He is assisted by local wildfowler Brian Bromley, a character so flimsily constructed that he goes from unwilling participant to active hero over a couple of paragraphs. There is no logic to Brian’s change of heart, it simply occurs because it is expedient for moving the plot along. Once the local police have found half a dozen disemboweled corpses floating in the Wash, Gavin and Brian are given the go-ahead to hunt the creature. Bizarrely, the police are willing to offer back-up when needed, but don’t seem willing to make use of their significant man-power and superior technology to help locate the beastie. And that’s how we end up following an old man armed with a makeshift flame-thrower and a middle-aged wildfowler with a shotgun and large bore ammunition as they spend a few chapters schlepping through the mud in pursuit of the seemingly invincible monster.

The creature itself is just as revolting as its relative in the original novel. Aside from its vomit-inducing aroma and the fact that it is dripping with mucus, the numerous depictions of the Slime Beast’s messy eating-habits are enough to put anyone off taking it out for dinner to a posh restaurant. “It rasped and grunted as it ripped its victim’s stomach open, began pulling bloodied intestines from within, rasping and grunting as it stuffed them into that vile mouth, slobbering as it fed.” Lovely, eh?

It wouldn’t be a Guy N. Smith novel without a bit of how’s-your-father but this is where “The Spawn of the Slime Beast” falls short of its predecessor. We are treated to just one solitary steamy scene in the course of the novel and it is cut short by the arrival of the titular beastie. This continues a theme that I identified in Smith’s “Crabs” novels where sexual activity is generally punished soon after with bodily dismemberment. Like the curiously prudish slasher movies of the 1980s, the moment a young couple get frisky, their odds of surviving the story plummet.

Just as in many other Guy N. Smith books, the victims of the monster are generally introduced and dispatched in the space of one chapter. They couldn’t be more obvious nosh for the Slime Beast if they were served up on a plate. The problem with this is that we don’t get a chance to know them or to empathise with them. Our response to their inevitable grisly demise is a nonchalant shrug of the shoulders. When we don’t care about the people in peril, the dramatic impact of the scene is non-existent. The gory description might make us wince, but we’re not actually bothered by the death of the character.

With this multitude of faults stacked against it, you would think that reading “The Spawn of the Slime Beast” was a dreadful ordeal for me. It really wasn’t. Despite it being utterly dreadful, I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s not enriched my life in any way, but I don’t feel the couple of hours I spent with it have been wasted. You know what you’re getting in for when you pick up a Guy N. Smith novel. The man has made a successful career churning out books like this and his continued popularity surely attests to him doing something right. So, if you’re looking for something cerebral, something with deep characterisation and a complicated plot - move along, there is nothing to see here. However, if you are looking for a goofy pulp horror with as much schlock as shock, “The Spawn of the Slime Beast” will entertain your inner-adolescent.

Hereward L.M. Proops


May 14, 2016

PERCHANCE TO DREAM:

Selected Stories by Charles Beaumont
304 pages, Penguin Classics

Review by Pat Black

Charles Beaumont is best known for writing at least 20 episodes of the original Twilight Zone TV series. Many of these stemmed from his short stories, which are collected here for the first time in more than a decade.

With the words Twilight Zone you know what you’re getting with Beaumont – pre-hippy era Americana, rock n’ roll (but only just), fast cars, outrageously big suits, a spot of jazz, Jimmy Dean haircuts and, most importantly, shocks.

The author was a contemporary of Ray Bradbury, Robert Bloch and Richard Matheson, and Bradbury penned the introduction to this volume not long before his own death in 2012. He paints a picture of an excitable young man, brimming with ideas and desperate to set them down. The teenage Beaumont followed the older writers around like a faithful puppy before his own career blossomed. While Bradbury hints that the younger man may not have been the most talented writer in the celebrated Los Angeles circle, he was certainly among the most warmly regarded.

He also had no problems selling his work. Beaumont’s “Black Country” was the very first short story ever published by Playboy, which must have been fantastic news for millions of men who said they only ever bought it for the writing. Later, his work in TV and films became familiar to millions (The Masque of the Red Death was among his writing credits for Roger Corman), before his potential was cruelly snuffed out.

Perchance To Dream is mainly weird fiction, with more than a few shock endings; you can count the band off for the Twilight Zone theme at any point.

The title story opens the book, and it sets the tone with a riff on the paradoxical superstition which holds that if we die in our dreams, we’ll die in real life. Except, how would anyone know? 

“The Jungle” takes place in Bradbury country, with the world struck down by a malaria-like virus which causes decomposition before people actually die. This story’s narrator watches his wife succumb from within the super-city he designed over the top of jungles and mountains. The indigenous people who had to make way for the steel, glass and chrome monstrosity have supposedly cursed the place; so the architect seeks the tribe out, following the beat of their drums one night. This one was actually turned into a Twilight Zone episode, but I thought its final pay-off was a cheap betrayal of an interesting idea.

“Sorcerer’s Moon” looks at the last two warlocks on Earth battling for supremacy, an intriguing contest with double-and-triple-crosses galore.

“You Can’t Have Them All” was a little Roald Dahl in form and execution, as a lothario computes exactly how he can go about sleeping with every example of the type of woman he is attracted to on the planet. The story is a bit of a relic, with a predatory view of women as conquests to be picked up and discarded summarily, but it’s an engaging tale nonetheless.

Along with the comedic “Blood Brother”, where a man who claims to be a vampire complains to a shrink about his plight, “You Can’t Have Them All” was another example of a two-hander set in a therapist’s office. It seems such a sign of the times, to me, with neurotic Americans lying back on a leather couch and watching the money roll out of their pockets. Do people still do this, or is it confined to stories like this and old Woody Allen movies?

“Fritzchen” was the weirdest story in the book, examining a child’s obsession with an odd creature they find on a beach one day. The inevitable twist wasn’t a big surprise, but the creature in the title invoked an oddly familiar sense of disgust, like when you consider where the fly circling your ceiling might have come from.

“Father, Dear Father” looks at another well-worn premise: what if you could travel back in time, and killed your own father? Arthur C Clarke once postulated that all of humanity is so closely linked genetically that, in terms of the progress of millennia, the risks associated with killing anyone at all in your time travels could be catastrophic for the whole of human progress - so it’s best to leave your shooter at home. But despite the hardback premise, this story signed off with a finale worthy of a dimestore paperback.

“The Howling Man” is one of Beaumont’s best-known tales, and looks at a young American travelling through a gothic-themed pre-war Germany. He discovers some monks have imprisoned a man who they claim is the devil. Reason and logic tells the American that he is dealing with the case of a man being locked up without proper due process, for no good reason. Is it right to keep another human being caged like that?

“A Classic Affair” was breezy fun, looking at a man who has fallen in love with an automobile in a used car lot. Perhaps imagining the same things as the reader, his best friend is incredulous, but eventually sees an opportunity – as he, in turn, has fallen in love with his friend’s wife. Hey – why doesn’t he buy the car, and they can arrange a trade..?

“Place of Meeting” was another end-of-the-world story which I didn’t really care for, a Bradbury-style parable which wasn’t worth consideration here. “Song For A Lady” was much better, following a pair of newlyweds as they take a berth on a boat from the States to the UK. All the other passengers are elderly, and there’s a sense that the couple have crashed a party they weren’t invited to…

“In His Image” was a curious tale looking at a man who returns to his hometown with his wife-to-be, only to find that no-one he meets can remember him. There is a sci-fi reason behind the loss of identity, but the story splits off into a weird split-personality tale with a good sharp jab right at the end.

“The Monster Show” took a cynical look at television advertising and the box in the corner’s habit of turning people into simple drones. We can never know what Beaumont would have made of the internet, but thanks to this story we can make an educated guess.

“The Beautiful People” is an idea familiar to me from the comic strips of my youth – and for all I know, their creators got it from Beaumont. In the future, a girl is preparing for some brutal cosmetic surgery which will eradicate all her bodily imperfections, seemingly a rite of passage for any teenager in this particular era. Something in her rebels against this sense of aesthetic conformity, though, no matter what the mean girls say. For “TV advertising” in the story above, read “selfie generation” here.

“Free Dirt” was the story of a cheapskate, a person who will not pay for anything if he can help it. He’s a freeloader, a scavenger, and sometimes a downright fraud. When he sees the substance in the title advertised, he can’t contain himself. I wondered where this one was heading, but its shock ending felt well-earned as a result.

And so to the best tale in the book, the haunting “The Magic Man”, where a travelling conjuror in the Old West decides one night to reveal to his paying customers exactly how he performs his on-stage miracles. There’s no magic whatsoever in this story, of course, except that which kindled within our breast when we were excited, wild-eyed youngsters. Recalling that feeling enhances this story’s rich, but melancholic flavour.

“Last Rites” was another story which owed a lot to Uncle Ray, where a priest is called to give unction to a dying friend. Now suppose, just suppose, that there were such things as androids…

“The Music of the Yellow Brass” sees a down-at-heel matador given the opportunity of a lifetime in the bullring. The deal seems too good to be true, but at the party the night before the fight there is wine, music… and a woman, of course. I got the impression Beaumont was playing around with his Ernest Hemingway dolls here, but the ending strikes exactly the note the author was striving for.

Perchance To Dream now heads for a very strong climax, starting with “The New People”. An unsettling examination of modern masculinity, it sees a young couple and their incongruously odd child moving into a new house, and making friends with their well-to-do neighbours. Nothing’s what it seems, of course.

Beaumont was nearly 30 years ahead of David Lynch when it came to examining the pure wickedness which might lie behind whitewashed picket fences, but this tale also foreshadowed Ira Levin’s butterscotch and black magic diaboliques from Rosemary’s Baby. Aside from that, there’s a curious sense of emasculation and (literally) impotence. This story reminded me of those unpleasant moments in life when you it turns out you have invited a total, unapologetic boor into your house, and whatever manners you were raised with gradually give way to something else.

“A Death In The Country” concerns the world of motor racing, but the very fact of its existence was reminiscent of my childhood notion of what a writer’s job entailed. Beaumont must have thought: “Right. Let’s do a story about a hot-rod racer.”

He might have written it to order, for Practical RoadHog or Automotive Assh*le Monthly or whatever, but it’s engaging enough. For me, the story was less intoxicating than the now-fanciful idea that people could write about anything, in any genre, and sell it someplace where it’s welcome.

“Traumerei” sees a slight return to the world of dreams and their possible effect on the physical world, and riffs on the notion that our entire universe might be contained within a single atom in a hyper-universe. What if your whole existence was simply someone else’s dream?

“Night Ride” was another pitch black tale with no supernatural or fantastic element to it, as a bunch of unpleasant men with dark secrets get together to form a jazz supergroup. They’ve been looking for a piano player, and they find him, in a young, naïve lad with incredible talent. The manipulative manager who puts the band together is thrilled when they uncover this genius, someone so deeply entrenched in the blues that he could make a holy picture weep. So when there’s a Yoko Ono-style intrusion, the manager decides to take action. This one looked at the dark ingredients which can go into the act of creating art, and the destruction others can cause in the service of a muse.

We close with the deliciously nasty “The New Sound”, where a man starts to collect the sounds of nature after his vinyl music hoard starts to bore him. Once these recordings start to include the sounds of death, a new addiction begins.

This one was far more horrifying than most of the other stories in the book, and hinted at what Beaumont might have created had the fates been kind to him.

There’s a ghastly irony in the manner of Beaumont’s death, at the age of just 38, from the then seldom-seen and barely-understood early-onset Alzheimer’s. For a man who made a career out of plotting mysterious scenarios and uncanny endings, his weird decline seems like an extremely unpleasant joke. What a shame.

An afterword is provided by William Shatner, who starred in Roger Corman’s subversive anti-racism movie The Intruder, which was scripted by Beaumont from his own novel. Feted in its day, the film is now regarded as a cult classic, and you can tell Shatner is proud to have been a part of it.

Like Bradbury, the Shat laments what might have been for Beaumont, a strange, doomed young man who’s now sadly linked to a single time and place.

Art is as close as we get to immortality, and the fact that Penguin has put this collection together for new generations to enjoy is worth celebrating. But aside from all that, if you simply want to read some good old-fashioned late night shockers, Charlie is your darling. 

May 7, 2016

THE BAZAAR OF BAD DREAMS

by Stephen King
496 pages, Hodder and Stoughton

Review by Pat Black

I’ve got a joke, but it doesn’t work in written form. You have to say it aloud. Preferably in the presence of another person. Like people used to do, in schools, pubs and offices, before the internet.

Excuse me? I’m not your “grandad”.

Anyway, here goes:

Two guys go into a shop. Every available space is taken up with desserts – and it seems to be the same dish. On every shelf, there are hundreds upon hundreds of glass bowls filled with a layer of red jelly, a layer of custard, and a layer of cream on top. 

Guy one: “This is a bit strange, don’t you think?”

Guy two: “It is a trifle bizarre.”

The Bazaar of Bad Dreams is not trifle, but it is jam. If the first cut is the deepest then for Stephen King that opening slice was a short story. He keeps going back to them, and we keep going back with him. He is quite up-front about how much he loves them, and he is very good at them.

He is very good at many things on the page, though. Critical opinion of King has gotten a lot sweeter in recent years, as people begin to appreciate the breadth of his talent, and not just his sales figures. Sober comparisons with Dickens are apt.

He’s also shown his versatility in recent years. As he insists in this book, he’s not just a horror writer, and the stories in The Bazaar of Bad Dreams are not simply horror stories – even the ones in the business of scaring you.

Being a new collection of King short stories, it keeps some heavy company. It’s difficult to think of any anthologies that deliver as consistently and as memorably as Night Shift and Skeleton Crew. This book is no match those efforts, and its best shots can’t hope to equal “The Mangler” or “One For The Road” or “The Raft”. However, throughout The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, there is that almost unique King telepathy at play. No matter if the story’s premise isn’t great, the execution almost always is; the characters are involving, and the simple act of unwinding the yarn is deceptively well handled. It’s the singer, not the song.

In this book you’ll read a story about a mysterious Kindle, which was written to order for Amazon. Any idea you might have about scoffing at this – and I did have an idea – simply vanishes within a couple of pages. He is that good at what he does.  

Reading Stephen King reminds me of one of the best pieces of flattery I’ve ever heard. It’s like getting into a big, well-made, brand new car. It looks good, sounds great, and you know it isn’t going to give you a moment of trouble for a long time, so long as you keep feeding the beast.

Anyway, enough of me blowing smoke up his arse. To the stories:

“Mile 81”, the opener, is the closest the book comes to classic King. It sees him stretching his pulp wings to the fullest and, like any other creature on Earth, he’s thoroughly enjoying that feeling. The tale almost has the feel of pastiche, and it indulges his car-loving tendencies to the full.

It concerns a vehicle parked in a lay-by which eats people. Seth McFarlane’s mockery of King’s habit of turning ordinary objects into scary things comes to mind here, but, again, when the innocents approach his monster, the tension is irresistible.

Unfortunately, like many of the tales in this book, the conclusion isn’t the best. There’s a kid in the story who figures everything out in the contrived style of the hammiest 1950s B-movie. This story feels like an indulgence, but, like so many journeys, to travel is better than to arrive.

“Premium Harmony” was a bit of a clunker and a strange choice for track 2. It’s a tale of domestic horror, and seems to have been an experiment with a more stripped-down, hard-boiled style, as King freely admits in the short preface (every story has these; I think I preferred the “constant reader” chapters he included at the end of his previous collections).

“Batman and Robin Have An Altercation” was more the real deal. It sees a man heading out for dinner with his father, who has dementia. This is a weekly liberation from a nursing home for the old boy. Part of this routine involves the son charting how far the man who taught him how to tie his shoes is degenerating, almost by the minute.

Like much of King’s recent work, this tale is focused on mortality, sickness, vulnerability and a general dying of the light. One would expect a horror writer to be morbid, and King has always had a fascination with ageing, degeneration and disease (perhaps we can trace that all the way back to “The Woman In The Room”). But he seems particularly preoccupied these days with the Great Big Full Stop.

He is in his late sixties, I suppose, but hey, Steve – you could have another 30 years of this game left. Some glasses are emptier than others.

That isn’t the real punch of this story, so to speak. What I found most scrotum-crawlingly unnerving was the altercation in the title. That moment – thankfully there’s fewer of them, the older one gets – when you realise you have Messed With The Wrong Person and will actually have to Put Your Dukes Up.

“The Dune” sees an old judge finding the names of people who are soon to die written on the sands near his beach house. It had a delicious Rod Serling feel to it, and a doubly delicious Rod Serling ending.

Out of all the stories in this book, “Bad Little Kid” is the one that could easily prowl the same feral playground as King’s classic short stories. There’s a yellowy-black aura of malice about it, as it details that one child we all remember: the horrible little bastard who knew exactly which buttons to press on people, and precisely when to press them.

The main character is haunted by a demonic presence in the shape of a little boy with a propeller on his cap, and hair “that colour of ginger no-one loves”. This kid causes disaster whenever he appears, utterly unchanged, at various points in the man’s life. Is the child simply the narrator’s guilt personified, or even worse – a delusion masking some seriously aberrant behaviour? There is an answer…

“A Death” was set in the old west, with a man accused of murder about to face the long drop at the end of a rope. The campfire-tale style suits King very well, and it’s a pleasant ride – but this disguises the story’s jarring conclusion: a bleak, cynical and all-too-true interpretation of human nature.

“The Bone Church” was a poem. I’m not sure I can face addressing the reasons why poetry of any shape or form leaves me cold; it’s definitely not Stephen King’s fault, though, so we shall nod graciously and pass through.

“Morality” fizzes and pops away in your head like a two-day hangover. It sees a woman offered a Mephistophelean deal by a seemingly angelic old pastor who is at death’s door: to do something truly wicked for a life-changing amount of money.

This one was quite interesting, as King appeared to get cold feet. It shied away from the obvious sexual connotations of the transaction… before veering right back onto the path. A brutal read, and one that could have taken its place in Full Dark, No Stars.

“Afterlife” looks at What Might Happen When We Go. A man who dies arrives in the hereafter, only to meet a guy stationed at a desk. This secretary seems to have been placed there as a punishment of some kind. He offers the Newly Dead character a choice…

There was a tiny bit of detail that flicked my switches, as the dead guy recalls one truly, appallingly bad thing he did in his life. It’s not central to the story or how it pans out, but I was intrigued by this idea. Does everyone have that One Really Bad Thing in their life? Have you already done it… or is it in the post?

“Ur” should have been all wrong. King wrote this to help push Kindles, and it centres on one of these devices. This story could have ventured into queasy waters, but it ends up being one of the strongest in the book. Ever wondered what that “experimental” option on your Kindle menu was? So did Stephen King. He reckons tapping it gives you access to parallel worlds…

Anyone with a low Dark Tower threshold should beware this story, but again, it’s so brilliantly executed even the biggest Crimson King detractor shouldn’t care a whit.

“Herman Wouk Is Still Alive” was straight-up social commentary, similar to the opening of Mr Mercedes. It stems from one of those depressingly prosaic news reports you might read – no more than a few paragraphs, sticking closely to a tired old formula – which detail the final moments of someone’s life, experienced from behind the wheel of a car. Even in seemingly open-and-shut cases like these, King reminds us, there’s always a background story, and perhaps even some sympathy.

“Under The Weather” sees the Reaper taking our hand for another wee dance, as an advertising executive builds a wall around himself, ignoring what is plainly obvious from the first few sentences. Perhaps all life lived in the moment is an act of delusion – a rebellion, perhaps, against the one inalienable fact of life. Sadly, there can only ever be one winner in that dance-off.

“Blockade Billy” was a baseball story written by a baseball fan. For “American sports”, see “poetry”. I did stick with this one right to the end, though, and was surprised by how nasty – one might say, how cut-throat – it turned out to be.

“Mister Yummy” leads us back into that old last waltz thing again. Our stage is another nursing home, and our partners are yet more coffin dodgers. Here, we look at an interesting phenomenon which many people – including me – have experienced: seeing people actually die, and hearing them speak about the strange special effects their vainly firing neurons have in store as a last call for boarders.

The foreword to this one also caught my eye, as it seems King felt he had to justify writing a story about a gay man, and invoking the spectre of Aids haunting the gay clubs of the 1980s. I’m puzzled; I truly didn’t see anything contentious or controversial about anything King writes, here.

“Tommy” – more poetry, still elegiac, a lament for the fallen soldiers of the counterculture movement. I got more out of this than “The Bone Church”, but not much more.

“The Little Green God of Agony” had a brilliant set-up, but was wasted by a throwaway ending. It sees a billionaire wracked with constant pain after surviving an air crash. He’ll try anything to get rid of the agony – including snake oil peddled by witch doctors and cranks. The nurse looking after him bites her tongue when the next great healer is revealed… but not for long. The preacherman reckons chronic pain is a symptom of demonic possession, you see…

“That Bus Is Another World” wasn’t so much cut short as abandoned, but I think it’s a fascinating premise, one that I’ve long pondered. I remember being in a funeral car, behind a hearse, and looking out the window at people going about their daily business, head down, heedless of the personal disaster taking place inside the car. It’s just another day for them.

“Obits” – now this one got me going. It’s about an almost entirely unwholesome facet of journalism which has now come to dominate our online reading experience: trashy celebrity gossip, pervy paparazzo shots and general snark. All of these things have been present throughout the history of print journalism, granted. But it’s no longer relegated to the funny pages or crammed into a grubby wee corner. It’s starting to lead the way, and out-muscle what we imagine to be good journalism: sober, rational, courageous and morally rigorous inquiry, completely driven by facts, not conjecture.

King depicts the travails of a twenty-something wannabe journalist in the 2010s with pinpoint accuracy. The low pay; the demeaning work; the horrible bastards in charge; and the common knowledge that they are flopping around in a rapidly shrinking pond.

And there’s also the knowledge that part of this is illusion; that there’s still plenty of money about, just not for you. Some news portals are doing very well, thanks. The people churning the copy out and attaching photos and inserting hyperlinks and thinking up the appropriate you’ll never guess! headlines aren’t seeing it, though. The inevitable passage to an all-digital future needn’t be all bad, and certainly not impoverished. You just have to somehow make morality and truth sexy in order to compete. Persuading people holding the purse-strings to hire more staff and pay a bit more would also help.

Yeah, I am whistling Dixie. God gave me this big gap in my teeth for a reason.

That’s the bodywork of the story, but not its engine, which is pure King. The journalist finds he is able to kill people he hates by writing their obituaries while they are still breathing. This seems like a handy skill to have when it comes to some irredeemable scumbags. Until the inevitable twist arrives.

One thing you did get wrong in this story, Steve (and prepare yourself for some heavy irony): journalists can and do write obituaries about the living, often years in advance. How else would we have these detailed pieces up and running within moments of the confirmation of a famous person’s passing? All you have to fill in is the age, cause of death, and maybe update the vanilla headline and the odd couple of pars if there was something particularly interesting about their manner of leaving the stage.

Here’s the kicker, Steve: I think I’ve worked on yours.

“Drunken Fireworks” was a bit like the barfing contest in Stand By Me – a barstool/campfire tale, told with great glee and in fine style. It sees a drunken mother-and-son team take on an Italian-American family every Fourth of July in an arms race of sorts as they strive to outdo each other’s incrementally bigger and better fireworks. The consequences might, or might not, be tragic. I shan’t spoil it.

The consequences of the final story, “Summer Thunder” are almost certainly tragic, and it returns to the themes of The Stand as well as Night Shift’s “Night Surf” – the end of the world as we know it, and how one might prepare for the curtain coming down. Beautifully, as this story turns out.

I’ve got nothing to add, save that I hope Stephen King keeps pumping this stuff out, keeps the fires well stoked and burning hot… and that when he goes to his next birthday party or barbecue, or even if he just stops out for some burger and fries, he remembers that while all of these experiences are strictly limited edition, this is true of everyone from the moment they’re born.

None of us knows the day. Even guys on death row who actually do have something pencilled in the diary sometimes delay it, or dodge it altogether.

Dodge the bullet they were meant to take, that is. Not the one they’ll catch eventually.

We can’t help thinking of the Great Big Full Stop, but it’s best not to do so too much. We’ve all gotta go, but not right away, hopefully.

Despite… oh, everything, it can be a great life. One of the enduring pleasures of mine since I was 11 years old has been to kick back and enjoy Stephen King stories – and to look forward to new ones.