September 26, 2016

THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN

by Paula Hawkins
416 pages, Black Swan

This review is of the audio version, read by Claire Corbett, India Fisher and Louise Brealey

Review by Pat Black

This year’s mega-seller, The Girl on the Train is a British companion piece to Gone Girl, forming a transatlantic sisterhood of damaged women.

Like Gone Girl, Paula Hawkins’ novel has more than one narrator – three, in fact – but none you can trust. It also follows a similar split time-scale as Gillian Flynn’s book, starting with the girl in the title, Rachel.  

She is a complete mess. She’s divorced, and her former husband and his new wife have a baby, living in what used to be her marital home. It’s fair to say this bothers her.

Rachel wanted a child in her marriage, but could not conceive. The fact of her ex-husband’s new baby is a particularly vicious slap in the face for someone who’s suffered more than a few of those. Traumatised and shattered, with her life in ruins, Rachel is a full-bore alcoholic. She has lost her job after she turned up to work drunk. In many cases, drunkenness at work is The Final Straw alcoholics need to push them towards seeking help… but not in Rachel’s case.

Afraid to tell her landlady that she’s been sacked for fear of ending up on the streets, Rachel continues to travel into the centre of London every day on the train, pretending to be at work. She intends to use this time to apply for jobs in libraries, but sometimes she ends up in the pub instead. She often has a drink on the train during her phantom commute, to take the edge off; usually those pre-mixed gin and tonics.

Rachel’s daily journey takes her past the street she used to live on. Although seeing the old house with its new family unit is painful for her, she becomes interested in another couple she spies a few doors down. Rachel admits she’s a fanciful lass, and she constructs identities and lifestyles for this couple which don’t match the reality. She’s not only nosey, but a fantasist, too. We can’t trust a word Rachel says.

One day, Rachel is shocked to notice the girl in the house kissing a man who isn’t her husband.

Then the girl disappears.

This girl is called Megan, and her strand of the story takes place earlier, leading up to the crisis point which Rachel is trying to resolve. Megan has a troubled past, stemming from the death of her brother in a motorcycle accident when she was just a girl. She has a history of running away and getting involved with inappropriate men; there’s even a soliciting charge on her record. Megan seems on-track now, has plenty of cash and, until the smug-sounding patrons put her off, used to run an art gallery. But she cannot settle.

More than once she refers to the wanderlust in her, a desire to run away. She is a risk-taker and a cheat, embarking on a relationship with a therapist after her husband urges her to seek professional help for mental health issues.

Megan blithely causes chaos to serve whims which most people keep hidden, if they have them at all. Her relationship with the therapist soon becomes obsessive. But there is a suggestion that, in turn, her husband Scott is a controller, constantly checking up on Megan’s emails, keeping a tight rein on the type of friends she sees in her spare time, organising, scrutinising and criticising. Megan doesn’t think he’s doing anything wrong.

Rachel and Megan are so chaotic that parts of their stories were difficult to listen to. Megan speeds towards trouble at 100mph, utterly oblivious, while Rachel makes some godawful decisions and then tells a pack of lies about them.

But Hawkins has a trick up her sleeve. Soon, we meet Anna. She’s the new wife of Rachel’s ex-husband, Tom. In contrast to the other two, Anna seems composed, fulfilled and happy. As a result, she is almost unbearable. She’s a yummy mummy, going to spin classes and engaging in competitive parenting with her NCT group; someone who enjoys baking and crafts and yoga. Anna’s not disturbed or unreasonable. But we don’t quite trust her, either. She somehow makes Rachel and Megan seem more human, more appealing, in spite of their colossal flaws.

Anna feels no sense of shame or guilt over wrecking Rachel and Tom’s relationship. Rachel was an obstacle, something to be clambered over and forgotten about. And Rachel knows this, even as she engages in some bad behaviour over the new family which crosses the line into stalking.

Rachel’s behaviour stretched credibility, at times. We’re not talking let’s-investigate-that-funny-noise-in-the-basement silliness, but not far off it. She produces a steady stream of pish for the police investigating Megan’s disappearance, and I couldn’t help but think: why? Why on earth did you say that? Why are you even getting involved in this?

Rachel makes unbearably stupid decisions, so much so that I grew exasperated with the character. She’s a meddler, at times almost completely estranged from common sense. But at least this holds true to her character - and her affliction. She’s out of control, but she thinks she’s trying to help, even if she is a bit nosey and interfering; even if her view of events doesn’t tally with reality.

I know a few people like that. And if you’ve never been that sort of hapless drunk at some point in your life, however briefly, you’ll know someone who has.

Rachel holds the key to the whole affair - but it’s locked up in her head. On the night Megan disappeared, Rachel was blind drunk and loitering in her street, harassing her own ex and his wife. Through the mists of Rachel’s blackout, there’s something violent lurking, a horrible thing she did, or had done to her. There is the terrifying suspicion that she might have something to do with Megan’s disappearance.

Paula Hawkins expertly places her pieces on the board – absolutely anyone could be involved in the disappearance. No-one is exempt from suspicion. There’s even a mysterious man with red hair involved in the story. Maybe he should have been called Mr Herring? All said and done, The Girl on the Train passes the mystery test – it keeps you guessing, right to the end.

Like Gone Girl, this is a story completely without heroes. I didn’t like any of the main characters. Even the detectives leading the case are grim, sardonic snipes. The canny DS Riley is all over Rachel’s fairy stories, picking over the parts where she doesn’t make sense.  But you always see her as an antagonist - even when Rachel gets herself in deeper trouble with every lie she tells.

And, as with Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train makes no apologies about painting women in an unflattering light, with terrible, often unforgivable flaws. There is no Madonna/whore complex here, no Mary Sues. Rachel and Megan are uncontrollable – what a filthy word to spring to mind, a heartless word, a man’s word – but they’ve been scarred and let down by life, and their world is a frightening, brutal place. To Hawkins’ great credit, you cannot entirely abandon sympathy for them. 

September 19, 2016

RISE OF THE SUPER FURRY ANIMALS

by Ric Rawlins
216 pages, The Friday Project

Review by Pat Black

In an alternate universe, the Super Furry Animals are the biggest band in the world, and they’ve changed it for the better. I’d like to pay a visit to that universe. I’d probably stretch it to a long weekend. But as it stands, we’re stuck in this existence, and we’ll have to make do.

A lot of great bands emerged from the UK in the 1990s, in what turned out to be the final rich belch of recording acts just before the internet shattered the music business into a million pieces, like those records in the intro to Top of the Pops. This era didn’t begin or end with glowering northern hominids and camp Thames estuary jackanapes; a lot of different acts emerged, playing a range of music. I spent too much money on them, but I regret nothing.

I feel blessed to have been a drunken teenager swaying in front of bass bins in this era. Although I’m sure there are cracking scenes and bands on the go today which my increasingly hairy ears will never unfurl for, and grooves my old bones will never creak to, I do pity today’s international bright young things. It could be my age. But nothing on offer today appeals to me.

My favourite band from the 90s will forever be The Wildhearts (you’ll hear more about them in a Squawk yet to be), but the Super Furries run them a close second. For sheer creativity, they are second to none; there’s no-one like them, and despite the many opportunities the internet provides for multi-platform formats and experimentation, there’s no-one around with as many mental ideas.

Think Kanye’s punched things up a bit with pop-up stores and the like for The Life of Pablo? Try a disco tank, or an album released as a series of films on DVD, or lyrics hidden inside packaging, or secret 7in vinyl records sewn into the inside sleeve of gatefold albums. Has your favourite band ever appeared in a cheat mode in a football video game, as a playable team alongside some of the world’s worst dictators? Only if that band is the Super Furries.

Ric Rawlins’ Rise of the Super Furry Animals charts the band’s career, from its earliest iteration with Ankst records through to signing with Sony. In easily digestible bites, the author reveals the history of five lads from Wales as they go from demo tapes and pub gigs through to shows featuring moon landing sets complete with lunar buggies, 50ft inflatable bears, police-proof battle tanks pumping out techno at festivals and full choirs dressed as psychedelic gods. It’s as strange as it sounds. There are no stories of fights, divorces, overdoses or Rolling Stones-style black magic to be found here, but their tale is so tightly woven with weirdness that it doesn’t need any of that stuff. In fact, it’d be a disappointment if Gruff, Huw, Guto, Cian and Daffyd had done typical rock star things. It’s not them.

If I could turn the Furries story into bullet-points, one of the top ones would be that they have turned down seven-figure offers to attach their songs to global advertising campaigns.

You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned what sort of stuff the Furries play. There’s no point. Ostensibly a singer, two guitars, bass, drums and keys, they can and do play absolutely everything in any style you like. Punky two-minute numbers can turn into evil techno tracks running to 10 minutes and longer on stage; a song about the Northern Lights can be illuminated with the Caribbean sound of steel drums, like a skoosh of raspberry sauce on your ice cream.

It defies description. I can’t say, “They sound like…” because no-one really sounds like the Super Furry Animals. A pre-breakdown Brian Wilson might have imagined that this was how the Beach Boys would sound in 1984. But this book is a fine evocation of the madness – planned, structured and otherwise - that surrounded the band in its 1996-2009 salad days with Creation and Sony.

A frustrated rock star myself – isn’t everyone? – I once gazed into the woodchip wallpaper of my family home in Glasgow’s wild west and connected the flakes to plan a novel about a band’s rise from their first pub show to stadium concerts. It took me a while to realise that, even if this was the best story in the world, it would be missing something very important.

Any book about music similarly features the omission of that one crucial element: sound. Rawlins understands this, and puts together a cracking Furries playlist at the end. I guess you could listen along as you read.

If you’re a fan of the Furries, you’ll probably have this book already. If you’re not, then it won’t do you any harm; it doesn’t outstay its welcome, in and out in about 200 pages, including full-page illustrations at the chapter heads. If it, or this review, piques your curiosity, then we have done our jobs as Super Furry Apostles.

What you really should do, though, is check out the music. Grab Songbook: The Singles Vol 1, if you must (I can’t decide if this or Primal Scream’s Dirty Hits is the greatest greatest hits album ever released). If you need to start at the beginning – and not all great stories do – then have a pop at Fuzzy Logic. If you want to be a Contrary Mary and impress the impressionable, buy Mwng, their Welsh language album (their most straightforward, stripped-down record). But however you choose to make your first step into a furrier world, please don’t let this lovely band pass you by.

Comparing any act with the Beatles is a glib exercise, but I find it difficult to think of a band who can better recapture the Fab Four’s Ready Brek glow of benevolence than the Furries. Even when singing about horrible exes blighting their lives, the Furries exude an aura of everything being… just right. Everything’s perfectly welcome. Everything understands you, loud and clear.

The Super Furries still play live, and there’s a tour on the way this winter. But they’ve been ominously, disappointingly quiet when it comes to new records; just the one single since Dark Days/Light Years, the sublime silliness of this summer’s best Welsh football anthem, Bing Bong.

This decade is entering its closing stages. Certainly it should be thinking about a substitution. There have been collaborations and solo material, even a book by Gruff - but still no new Super Furry Animals album.

Was Bing Bong a one-off? Or will they swoop back in to save us? And more importantly, will they be wearing the yeti suits for the whole encore? How does one wash those things anyway? Do they wash those things?

September 11, 2016

AUTHOR INTERVIEW

Booksquawk interviews The Wolves of Langabhat author D.A. Watson.
Interview by Hereward L.M. Proops

Booksquawk: Tell us a little bit about yourself.

D.A. Watson: Well I’m pushing forty, I live in the Inverclyde area with my family, and I’ve been doing this writing thing seriously for about four years now. I was doing a music and digital media degree at Glasgow Uni, and showed an early unfinished draft of my first novel to Louise Welsh, who was writer in residence at the time. She thought I had something, and told me I had to finish it. So it was self-published on Amazon after being knocked back by just about every publisher and agent in the UK. It still seemed to go down well with folks though, so I wrote the The Wolves of Langabhat, landed a literary agent and got it published. When I’m not scribbling, I work in an office, play guitar with my band Remembering Joone, and enjoy reading, Mexican food, Candy Crush, and Nerf battles with my five-year-old son.

B: Viking werewolves is a great concept. Where did the idea behind “The Wolves of Langabhat” originate?

D.A.: I like to base my stories on existing folklore, and I found the story about the wolf men of Loch Langabhat on a paranormal database of the UK. As I’ve never actually been to Lewis, I figured I should find out about the place, and it turned out there’d been a lot of Viking activity back in the day on the island, which is always a good jumping off point for violence. I wanted to do something different with the whole werewolf mythology, and when I was researching Vikings and berserkers, I found all the stuff about King Harald’s Ulfhednar and the wolf god Fenrir, and it all just fell into place.

Booksquawk: Werewolves don’t get as much attention as zombies or vampires. Are there any werewolf movies or books that influenced you?

D.A.: Hell yeah. I grew up watching An American Werewolf in London and The Howling, which are still brilliant films. Dog Soldiers is also a firm favourite. Book-wise, The Howling III : Echoes was the first horror novel I ever bought with my own money when I was about ten. I also love Glen Duncan’s The Last Werewolf trilogy, and there’s some tremendous David Gemmell fantasy novels featuring weaponised lycanthropes and ultra-violent battle scenes. They were definitely an influence.

Booksquawk: “The Wolves of Langabhat” is quite a lengthy novel, particularly for a horror story. How long did it take to write?

D.A.: I think it was a little over a year to get the first draft done, then about another two in re-writes and edits. 

Booksquawk: Writing convincing action is a real challenge for many authors. The novel is chock-full of great action sequences - do you have any tips for writers who struggle with this?

D.A.: Learn from the masters. I’m a fan of good up-close and detailed action scenes, and guys like Joe Abercrombie, Richard Laymon, David Gemmell and Dean Koontz should all be studied. Simon Scarrow’s Roman novels are also required reading for anyone who wants to know how to write a really good and brutal battle scene. You could also actually act out some of the movements to get the mechanics right. I found myself jumping about the room, locked in mortal combat with imaginary enemies quite a few times while writing this story. Anyone passing by the window must have thought I was mental.

Booksquawk: Was it a challenge to write a book with a real location that you haven’t visited?

D.A.: Well, that’s where Google Earth came in handy. I spent a lot of time virtually flying around the Isle of Lewis, watching videos and looking at pictures of the place. From the feedback I’ve had, it seems like I did a decent job. Go, technology!

Booksquawk: The book’s ending leaves plenty of scope for a sequel. Have you considered writing another werewolf book?

D.A.: Maybe a short story, but I’ve no plans at the moment to write another werewolf novel. Got other fish to fry.

Booksquawk: Do you have a particular routine for writing?

D.A.: Having a full time job and a family makes it tricky to get any real writing time in, so my creative process really just involves waiting until everyone in the house goes to bed and staying up way too late, hoping to get a thousand words down.

Booksquawk: What other writers inspire you?

D.A.: Other than the guys namedropped above, The King, of course, who’s just the man, and his boy Joe Hill’s not too shabby either. Some of my other favourites are Irvine Welsh, Christopher Brookmyre, Wilbur Smith, Dan Simmons, Robert McCammon and Adam Nevill. Joe Donnelly, a little known Scottish writer who wrote some brilliant horror novels, is probably the one who inspired me to try my hand at writing, as his stories are set in the area where I grew up.

Booksquawk: Have you got any other books in the pipeline?

D.A.: My first novel In the Devil’s Name, has finally found a publisher and the new edition’s just gone live on Amazon. The launch night’s at Waxy O’Connors in Glasgow on the 25th August if anyone’s around! I also just started writing the epilogue of my third novel Cuttin Heads, a supernatural rock n roll story. After that, I’ve got a few short story ideas I want to get down, and the next big project with be either a post-apocalyptic screenplay called The Shift, that’s been started, or a horror/fantasy/western revenge novel, which in my head is currently titled Adonias Low and features a badass bounty hunter out to violently right some wrongs.

Read the review of The Wolves of Langabhat here.


THE WOLVES OF LANGABHAT

by D.A. Watson
378 pages, Wild Wolf Publishing

Review by Hereward L.M. Proops

Although zombies and vampires continue to get more page and screen time in the horror genre, the myth of the werewolf remains undeniably popular. Booksquawk favourite Guy N. Smith’s werewolf trilogy (“Werewolf by Moonlight”, “Return of the Werewolf”, and “Son of the Werewolf”) is utterly dreadful but also bloody good fun. Many moons ago, I looked at Glen Duncan’s fantastic “The Last Werewolf” and the anthology of werewolf stories “The Werewolf Pack”, but it has been while since I dipped into some werewolf fiction. A recent return to Neil Marshall’s wonderful “Dog Soldiers” on DVD reminded me how much I enjoyed stories about furry flesh-eating beasties, so I fired up my Kindle and downloaded this little beauty.

D.A. Watson’s “The Wolves of Langabhat” can best be summarised in two words: Viking werewolves. If you’re like me, your inner-geek is probably punching the air and wondering why nobody hit upon this concept sooner. Werewolves are awesome. Vikings are awesome. The synergy of werewolves and Vikings still sends me a little bit giddy with excitement. If, however, you rolled your eyes at the concept of werewolves wearing armour and wielding swords and battle-axes, it’s probably best you go right now. This book is not for you.

Still with us? Good. Because D.A. Watson isn’t content to thrill us with Viking werewolves alone. This novel features immortal monster-slayers fighting Viking werewolves. Not quite bombastic enough? What about if one of the immortal monster slayers is also a rock star with a death wish? The words “high concept” don’t even come close to doing it justice.

What first drew me to “The Wolves of Langabhat” was its setting, the Isle of Lewis in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides. I’ve a real soft spot for the location because a) I’ve lived there for seven years and b) I’ve also written a novel set on the island. Those who have ever visited Lewis will know that it is quite a unique place. It is rich in culture and history but also lashed by Atlantic storms and full of wide-open spaces that can feel peculiarly desolate. There aren’t many trees and those that do grow here are relatively young. Local legend tells that the Vikings torched the woodlands on the island and the glow from the fires could be seen at night from the mainland.

Watson’s novel is apparently based on another local legend - the wolf-men of loch Langabhat. I say “apparently” because I had never heard of this legend before reading this book and, being an enormous sponge for local folklore, I was surprised not to have encountered this story before. The veracity of the legend doesn’t really matter, it’s a cool concept that is skillfully brought to life in the novel. The book is split into two main narrative threads. The first is set in the early eleventh century and tells the story of an attack on the island by the marauding Viking werewolves and the efforts of the local people to fight back against the beasts. The other half of the novel details the return of the wolf-men to modern day Lewis and the carnage that ensues. Watson does a good job of juggling the two narratives, hopping back and forth in time but never allowing the transition to be jarring or unwelcome. Both stories are equally enjoyable and Watson brings the two narratives together at the close of the novel in a predictable but ultimately satisfying ending.

The titular wolves of the novel are formidable beasts. Towering over their human prey, the wolf-men are vicious, smart and well-organised. Unlike the uncontrolled slavering wolf-beast seen in “An American Werewolf in London” or “The Beast Must Die”, Watson’s wolf-men are tactical hunters and there are a couple of tense moments in the book where the humans realise they have stumbled unwittingly into a trap. As in other werewolf fiction, lycanthropy is a communicable affliction. When a victim is bitten or scratched by one of the werewolves, they are infected with a pseudo-virus which transforms them into a vargulf, a savage dire-wolf the size of a calf. This is a canny move on Watson’s part. There will always be people who favour the all-fours werewolf to the bipedal man-wolf; Watson seems keen to accommodate both.

One of the strengths of the novel is the author’s ability to write convincing, enjoyable action sequences. A few of these are particularly memorable and are worth a mention. In the eleventh-century part of the story, there is a desperate last stand of men versus Viking werewolves as they scramble for control of the higher ground in a bloody pitched battle. The melee combat is extremely well-realised and reminded me of the visceral, brutal action seen in the works of the late David Gemmell. However, it isn’t all swinging swords and axes. Watson seems equally comfortable describing action involving high-calibre automatic weapons. Another sequence sees the modern-day heroes sprinting through a forest, harried by a horde of vargulf wolves that spring from the darkness. Watson paces these sequences perfectly. There aren’t too many that the reader grows numb from the relentless action, nor do they overstay their welcome.

Another strength of “The Wolves of Langabhat” is the snappy, punchy dialogue. Watson’s got a keen ear for the Scots dialect and isn’t afraid to scatter f-bombs aplenty. The banter between the main characters is both endearing and amusing, and helps to anchor the often-fantastical story in the real world. Watson’s own narrative voice is equally full of character and shows a sly awareness of the pulpy ridiculousness of the whole situation. It never descends into broad comedy, but Watson is a smart enough writer not to take the more outlandish aspects of the narrative too seriously.

My one criticism of “The Wolves of Langabhat” is that Watson’s Isle of Lewis seldom feels like the real place. This is a difficulty when using real locations in books, the locals will always pick up on the details you get wrong. Small, but important cultural details are missing, such as the strong influence of Gaelic language or the fact that most locals’ surnames are Macleod or Morrison. Likewise, locations appear in the novel that don’t bear any resemblance to the real place. My enjoyment of Watson’s novel was not drastically affected by the differences between his fictional Lewis and the real place. This is, after all, a work of fiction about Viking werewolves, not a detailed cultural appraisal of the Outer Hebrides. However, there were a few moments where my inner pedant made it hard to maintain my suspension of disbelief. Given that most readers will not have visited the Isle of Lewis (or if they have, they won’t be such sticklers for detail) this is a problem that will be unlikely to affect many readers’ enjoyment of the book.

This quibble aside, I had a blast reading “The Wolves of Langabhat”. It’s an exhilarating, wild, violent read and one that will undoubtedly thrill anyone looking for some pulpy lycanthropic action.

Hereward L.M. Proops

Read the author interview here.

September 2, 2016

WHERE EAGLES DARE

by Alistair MacLean
352 pages, HarperCollins

Review by Pat Black

It’s often forgotten what a publishing colossus Alistair MacLean was. I’d bet there are some younger readers out there who have never heard of him.

The Scot wrote action and adventure stories, many of them set during the Second World War. Some of these were adapted into movies, the most famous of which is Where Eagles Dare. You’ve surely seen it - it’s the one where Clint Eastwood shoots the entire Third Reich.

Iron Maiden even wrote a song about this movie – an honour which should have gone on MacLean’s tombstone.

The novel was more or less written to order after Richard Burton said he wanted to star in an action and adventure picture “where I don’t get killed at the end”. MacLean was hired, and in a very smart move, novelised his own screenplay in time for the film hitting cinemas. Where Eagles Dare was the result.

It sees British man of action Major John Smith leading a squad of daredevil paratroopers behind enemy lines to penetrate a seemingly impregnable mountain castle, the Schloss Adler. This is where the Gestapo high command is based. The keep is teeming with specialist alpenkorps soldiers and guarded by slavering Dobermans; somewhere inside is an American general, awaiting questioning after being captured by the Nazis. Anyone fancy having a go at breaking him out?

Piece of cake, says Smith. Aided by the American Lieutenant Schaffer and two undercover agents, his team is dropped in, ostensibly to rescue the general. But Smith has a secret mission of his own, as he seeks to unmask a traitor hiding within his own party.

One thing that surprised me about the novel is that it’s less violent than the big screen version. Hardly anyone is killed. In comparison, the movie is notable for boasting the highest single kill count of Clint Eastwood’s career. We’re talking “Arnie in Total Recall” levels of squibbage, here.

Smith and Shaffer’s characters are notably lighter in tone than the cynical, cold-blooded assassins you see on screen. Shaffer has a goofy, corn-fed, aw-shucks persona, prone to one-liners and tics like talking about himself in the third person. He’s a little more world-weary, but more agreeable than Eastwood’s laconic, less-talkin’-more-shootin’ interpretation.

The story goes that the script was reworked so that Burton got most of the lines, while Eastwood did most of the shooting – which, you have to admit, plays to both men’s strengths and worked really well. You can’t help but hear Burton’s superb vocals whenever Smith has any dialogue on the page. This is particularly true in the big set-piece in the bowels of the castle where the Major outfoxes his Nazi opponents in order to ferret out the name of the German mole. And Burton’s voice practically haunts you as you read that most famous line: “Broadsword calling Danny Boy.”

There’s a Boy’s Own Adventure feel to Where Eagles Dare, particularly when it comes to the moral imperative of the heroes. They will not kill unless it’s absolutely necessary. At one point, Smith even risks his life and the fate of the entire operation to rescue a German they left unconscious in a store room as Shaffer sets off some bombs nearby. These guys are do-gooders. They will not compromise their moral code.

The big action set-pieces work really well, particularly Smith’s grim fight with the traitors on the roof of a swaying cable car and a breathless escape aboard a bus as the survivors seek to rendezvous with their flight home.

Major Smith is a character type which I gather appears repeatedly in MacLean’s work – the hero who holds all the aces. Smith is never outfoxed, always having some fall-back plan or an angle he can work to outwit his enemies. Regardless of the setback, he’s got a ploy in place to get around it.

It seemed too convenient to me, and sometimes Smith’s reasoning didn’t make much sense. In an early part where the undercover party goes to a bar stuffed with German soldiers, Smith draws attention to himself by pretending to have a row with their insider barmaid, getting his face slapped for his trouble. His thinking is that the Gestapo are always watching, and so a drunken soldier causing a ruckus wouldn’t make too much of an impression - as opposed to a quiet bunch, who could be up to no good, and would inevitably arouse suspicion. This seemed to be stretching counter-intuition too far. Rule number one of espionage: don’t draw any bloody attention to yourself, full stop!

The plot is laced with delicious twists and turns. It becomes apparent that there is at least one rat in the house, who manages to kill someone in Smith’s party before their boots have even hit the ground. The treachery keeps coming, too, with crosses, double-crosses, agents and double-agents galore, as Major Smith’s ultimate aim in invading the Schloss Adler is revealed. At one point you are led to believe that Smith has actually gone double-double, in cahoots with the Germans.

It’s a gripping, exciting novel – something of a contrast to the only other MacLean book I’ve read, his debut, HMS Ulysses. That was a grim but still compelling story of a wartime battleship as it engages the Tirpitz in the freezing North Atlantic. Where Eagles Dare is pure Hollywood in comparison, but I enjoyed it better for that.

Alistair MacLean was a complex man. His death in 1987 at the age of 64 is widely rumoured to have been brought about by his alcoholism, and I recall Scottish newspaper articles not long afterwards accusing him of violent behaviour. 

Following active service at sea in the war, MacLean had a fortunate career, winning a short story competition with his first effort, having a novel commissioned on the strength of that, and then enjoying staggering success with HMS Ulysses a year later. From there he averaged one book a year until the end of his life, and made an absolute fortune.

It seems that while MacLean’s literary career brought him great wealth and worldwide fame, he struggled to deal with it. First of all, he was very harsh on his skills as a writer, never thinking he was good enough despite a readership of millions; secondly, the wealth that came with success troubled him. Glasgow-born, but brought up in the Highlands, with Scots Gaelic as his mother tongue, MacLean’s father was a Church of Scotland minister. This type of cleric is not known for feasting, merriment or light-heartedness. A strong work ethic and a lack of adornment in life is the order of the day for these guys - Calvinist to the core.

Having known austerity, and taught that virtue can only be found in honest toil, it seemed MacLean was haunted by success. He even gave writing up for a couple of years in order to run a hotel in Cornwall, before coming to his senses. According to the film critic Barry Norman, MacLean could not accept that he had made so much money simply by writing stories - a very Calvinist stance indeed.

Whether this informed his alcoholism, who can say? But MacLean was fearfully fond of the bottle. As is often the way with drunks of a certain vintage, his mood could turn dark on the flip of a coin - even violent.

His story is both strange and sad; and it’s amazing how quickly his work seemed to fall out of favour, from being one of the best-selling writers of his generation. MacLean’s books are not even in print any more in the United States, where they had regularly topped bestseller lists.

Equally interesting is what has happened to the action-adventure genre. Lee Child and Wilbur Smith still write stories of that stripe, and as far as I’m aware Clive Cussler and his collaborators are still rattling books out. But the genre isn’t what it was. The Da Vinci Code had an exciting plot and great action scenes, but Dan Brown’s books couldn’t really be counted as action-adventure. You’re more likely to see them in “crime/mystery” sections.

Lots of similar books tend to get plonked onto the sci-fi, horror or thriller shelves – you rarely see an out and out action novel in the top 10. It may be that they have become – shudder – “the kind of thing your dad reads”. Like all those large-print westerns by people you’ve never heard of in the library.

You wonder where and how we lost our taste for action. But for all that, MacLean’s books are still out there on Kindle, and well worth dipping into. I found it refreshing to read something with morally upright, dependable heroes.

I might read The Guns of Navarone next, and hopefully reclaim it in my mind from being a metaphor for erect nipples. 

August 26, 2016

WOLFCURSE

by Guy N Smith
176 pages, Black Hill Books

Review by Pat Black

“I’m not reviewing this one. It was too much. People will think I’m some sort of nut.”

But here I am. Maybe my compulsion to review the trash fiction of Guy N Smith is linked to the atavistic impulse to read it in the first place.

In saying I won’t read any more of Smith’s work, I feel like Renton in Trainspotting. That part where he whips off the tourniquet, springs up from the floorboards and declares that he’s done with the gear. And Mother Superior smiles and nods. Sure you are, mate.

Smith has written a few werewolf novels, though not quite as many as he has about giant crustaceans re-organising the food chain. There is something compelling about the ancient folklore involved in lycanthropy. Somewhere out there in the mist and the darkness is a monster which was a person at one point, surrendered to terrible rages and lusts: the beast within. But, semi-detached from killing and blood, these stories often betray a yearning to return to a more feral life lived in the open. For Guy N Smith - a keen outdoorsman and certainly someone who has killed to eat - you suspect this is a theme close to his heart.

I expected Wolfcurse to be something along the same lines as his other wolfy novels, a bit of pulp fun. But it is different to the usual Guy N Smith fare. There is an unconfirmed rumour he wrote this book in response to criticism that he couldn’t be a “serious author” in his chosen genre. Smith sets about proving his doubters wrong, aiming for psychological realism in the tale of a suburban British man’s mental collapse.

Wolfcurse has got nothing to do with ripped Victorian ruff shirts, misty moors or silver bullets. There isn’t even a curse as such. Certainly the snarling wolfman on the front cover with the 1970s lambchops and dicey teeth doesn’t appear in this story.

Here’s the thing which really shook me up, though. For its first third, Wolfcurse is… quite good. It’s both a compelling story and a fascinating human study. In parts, it’s easily the best stuff Smith has ever created.

But then… oh, Guy! Why did you have to go all rapey on us?

The cursed man is Ray Tyler. He’s middle-aged, he works in a bank, his boss is an *rsehole, and his wife is a b*tch. There is a tragedy lurking in the background, the death of a child. This may be a factor in what happens, but maybe not.

For reasons that are never fully explained, Tyler detonates into unstoppable rages, lashing out at everything that’s wrong with his life. He’s less of a werewolf than he is the Incredible Hulk. This is apparent in the opening scene, when he gives three teenage thugs the bleaching of their lives. I feel no shame in saying I loved the parts where violence is dished out to unpleasant people. It slakes our own bloodlust, the thirst for nasty folk to be punished, and severely.

After this, Ray’s anger seeps into his working life. I know the young Guy N Smith was encouraged to follow in his father’s footsteps into a career in banking. I would imagine the lad was bored rigid in a collar and tie. That ennui and frustration surely informs his lead character’s working life in Wolfcurse, particularly his sour assessment of the climbers, bullies and treacherous creeps infesting every office in the world.

A particular target for Tyler’s anger is his short-fused bank manager, who pulls Tyler into his office to monster him for a perceived mistake. Things get physical; Tyler has the immense satisfaction of spreading his boss’s nose across his face. Who, in all honesty, can say they have never wanted to do that at some point in life?

Then his nosey, obnoxious neighbours get involved. Tyler is a self-sufficiency buff with a dream of providing for himself from the land and livestock. This extends to keeping a chicken coop in his garden. Tyler’s neighbour, a smirking wet blanket, doesn’t like that. Cue yet more overwhelming, intoxicating rage after Tyler’s territory is p*ssed upon.

This is when Wolfcurse is at its best. Like Falling Down, it’s not just the story of a personal breakdown, but also an examination of how society sometimes fails us. It indulges our fantasies of what we’d love to say and do to the irritants we all have to put up with for the sake of a quiet life.

Tyler doesn’t really become a werewolf. We can be sure it’s all in his head. The doubt belongs to him alone. At first, he thinks he’s affected by the moon; then he suspects he’s been infected in some way by a second-hand book on folklore, a carrier for the curse.

Slyly, the author undermines these conceits throughout the novel. There might be a scientific explanation for Tyler’s blood-soaked breakdown. Perhaps it’s lycanthropy, an actual mental disease where people believe they are wolves and start biting folk. Tyler recalls loping around on all fours in the moonlight, but we can never be sure if he’s imagined this or not.

Whatever the cause, Tyler begins to black out when he heads outdoors after dark. He wakes up with clotted blood under his fingernails; he fears that the wolf within has completely taken over.

The werewolf myth taps into feral instincts - killing rage; possessing great strength and power; becoming something lethal, something to be feared. It could be a metaphor for suppressed, perhaps transgressive lust. It could also stand for homosexuality, with the transformation reflecting a hidden compulsion which can cause terrible psychological difficulties for conflicted people. There’s also the Jekyll-and-Hyde scenario, whereby a mild-mannered person might be turned into someone awful after taking a drink.

Another angle was brilliantly examined in I Was A Teenage Werewolf: lycanthropy as a metaphor for emerging sexuality in adolescence. Similarly, the two lupine sisters in Ginger Snaps are starting to come to terms with their own nascent sexual power, manifest as wolfishness. That movie surely began life as a joke about “the curse”.

Wolfcurse had some interesting things to say about how we live our lives versus how we’d like to… until Smith examines Tyler’s sexual appetites. This amounts to rape. First, he assaults his unpleasant wife; then, a frisky, free-spirited neighbour. The sex and violence continues to mingle, to ultimately murderous effect.

Tyler is a maniac. The novel becomes plain nasty, and nigh-on unreadable. “Trigger warning” doesn’t quite cover it.

What particularly galls about these parts is that, the next morning, Tyler semi-rationalises what he’s done. Perhaps an unpleasant sign of the times Smith was writing in (Wolfcurse was first published in 1981), Tyler doesn’t process sexual assault as a serious crime. “She doesn’t seem the type to call the police,” he muses, in consideration of one victim, thinking that he might just get away with it. There’s a similar suggestion that the police will turn a blind eye to complaints of domestic abuse – phew, another problem averted! At the expense of virtue-signalling, this is some very problematic material indeed.

You could argue that without a sexual element, Smith’s tale of a man’s total moral disintegration would be incomplete. Perhaps this ultimate act of taking what we wish, when we wish, represents the final dissolution of civility in a person, the utter disregard of another person’s thoughts and feelings. Even worse, we know that this happens to someone, somewhere, in the real world, every day. It’s harder to handle than the more straightforward violent encounters – but why is it that we should we be less shocked by some teenagers being beaten into a pulp than we are about sexual violence?

None of these angles are explored by Smith, as Tyler blunders through increasingly horrifying acts before finally doing a bunk.

A perfect finale would have seen Tyler running loose in the forest, his dreadful shadow side in its element at last. Instead, he ends up at the seaside, hooks up with a sleazy woman, smokes some wacky baccy and carries out more awful crimes before he meets his fate.

It’s never quite clear what Tyler’s problem is. Perhaps he simply lost his mind. In his subtle suggestions that there’s no supernatural element at all, Smith displays more subtlety than I would have credited him with previously. In the case of one girl found slaughtered in a public park which Tyler has taken to prowling after sunset, it seems that the killer used a knife. “That can’t be me!” Tyler shrieks, upon reading the headlines. “I don’t use knives!”

But it was Tyler, Smith gently insists. It was him all along. Maybe he used a knife, too. There’s neither rhyme nor reason to such brutal, sordid madness.

August 19, 2016

THE DROWNED WORLD

by JG Ballard
176 pages, Fourth Estate
Audio version read by Julian Elfer

Review by Pat Black

Sometimes the imaginings of the child give themselves away in the work of the adult novelist. This is particularly true of JG Ballard’s The Drowned World.

It reminded me of Arthur C Clarke’s The City and the Stars, and the main characters’ journey into the cosmos in the unearthed spaceship. The science behind it all is scrupulously detailed, but the story retains the essence of a 12-year-old’s fantasy; a depiction of what weird life might lurk on distant planets, and what adventures you might have there.

The Drowned World must surely have flowed from a childhood fancy of Ballard’s that the streets of Shanghai were completely underwater, with monstrous creatures gliding along the surface among the bobbing humans. The city was flooded while Ballard was a youngster, and it’s easy to imagine the effect this sight would have had on his imagination, with the water levels high enough to lap the windows, or to drown a man. The incongruity and splendour of the Bund’s skyline must have cast strange, grand shapes onto the waters beneath.

I used to have a similar fantasy, imagining my toy spaceship was a submarine and my house was an ocean abyss. Water pressure, and how flimsy machinery might withstand it at such incredible depths, was not my concern back then; nor did I have any plausible explanation of how the rubber dinosaurs which snapped at the sub’s stern might have survived into the modern era. The Drowned World is Ballard’s way of putting such irksome physical forces back into the child’s daydream.

Predicting the future is a mug’s game, even for an SF writer, but Ballard did it a little better than most. The Drowned World comes very close to the ecological catastrophes scientists tell us we’re facing now, although the climate change which bloats the seas to such preposterous levels in the book is not man-made. It’s down to solar flares, raising the temperature to unbearable highs and melting the ice caps. The seas then drink most of the land in one draught, leaving only tropical jungle above steaming swamps and lagoons.

The novel is set in a London sank into a tropical sea, and the characters struggle to remember what the drenched Babylon beneath them was called. While high rises and office blocks still jut out of the water here and there, the surviving land is choked with vegetation and haunted by immense iguanas and man-eating alligators. As the novel opens, there are even reports of a huge swimming reptile with a sail on its back, like an ancient dimetrodon – the dinosaurs returned, in other words.

Our main character is Robert Kerans, a biologist taking part in a survey of the tropical lagoon. Leading this party is Colonel Riggs, a soldier who is also looking for survivors clinging to what’s left of the land. Fellow scientist Dr Alan Bodkin has a curious theory about what might be happening to the human mind as the outer world regresses to a prehistoric state. Kerans and others in the party are plagued by dreams of giant Triassic lizards basking in a fierce sun, while their crested descendants do the same on the shoreline. Bodkin theorises that the mind is drawing in on itself as the land returns to its ancient state, with the limbic system providing a trace memory of what life used to be like millions of years previously; the ultimate atavism.

The only woman in the story, in a delicious coincidence, is called Beatrice Dahl, very close to the name of the actress who played Betty Blue decades later. Dahl is fascinating, a languid bikini-clad lush lolling in the sunshine and taking up residence in mossy penthouse suites. She chooses to remain in the drowned world.

You can take your pick of the watery metaphors employed. Is she a mermaid, or a siren? Maybe there’s a little of the marooned Circe in there, as she clings to ancient ideals of glamour and high living even as thick green vines curl their way into her illusory world of gilt-edged mirrors and crystal decanters, accepting and discarding suitors.

Certainly she is fully aware that her boyfriend Kerans and Riggs are rivals for her favour, and she enjoys playing with that. But in keeping with the regressive tone of the novel, Kerans and Dahl’s relationship devolves into a more cold-blooded state before the end. I imagined that Dahl might end up floating like Ophelia at the end of this book, but her fate is carried on stranger tides.

Unwilling to leave their new Eden, Kerans, Bodkin and Dahl remain behind while the pragmatic Riggs returns his military party to the solid ground and security of Greenland. Soon afterwards, the novel abruptly changes tone when the pirate, Strangman, arrives in the lagoon, unleashing a ferocious tide of giant alligators to act as watchdogs.

Strangman’s aim is not just to scavenge for artefacts and useful machinery among the soggy ruins, but also to reclaim the land by draining it – dovetailing with the aims of what government remains in the world, and thus granting him a certain legal immunity. A strange, sardonic man, Strangman is initially cordial towards his fellow lagoon-dwellers – understandably so in Dahl’s case – but it’s clear that his mostly black crew are not to be trifled with, and that danger follows in their wake. I have to confess to some sympathy for the narrator on the audio version I listened to, forced to appropriate stage West Indian accents for some of the crew, particularly Strangman’s ferocious henchman.

Kerans dons an ancient diving helmet and plunges into the drowned city to help out Strangman, in the oddest part of a delightfully odd novel. He plods into a planetarium, entranced by the ersatz starlight still twinkling underwater. Kerans has a trippy experience before almost coming to grief when his air line gets snagged. He initially suspects Strangman has tried to do away with him, but it seems that Kerans himself might have tried to end it all in the midst of his oxygen-starved rapture, a sort of sublimated auto-erotic asphyxiation. Ballard was a kinky bugger, so you can’t quite rule that out as inspiration.

Strangman’s aim to halt the advance of ancient, seething nature and reclaim the streets from their drenched oblivion horrifies Kerans and Bodkin. When civilisation shows its face, the innocence of the new world is tarnished. As if in response, the minute the buccaneer drains the city, something fundamentally changes in the characters, and an immense paradox comes into play. With London dredged out of the deep, the characters return to a state of savagery, as if the grimy, mud-clotted streets had awoken everyone’s darker natures, rather than the pristine jungle. The book’s debt to Conrad, in Outcast of the Islands as well as Heart of Darkness, is obvious from this point on.

This novel might have been mistakenly bought by people looking for simple pulp thrills, and as such it has an action-adventure section after Bodkin goes mental and tries to blow up the dam. This finally breaks down Strangman’s precarious barriers of civility, and Kerans and Dahl are captured. As they indulge in looting, partying and brute savagery, the pirate crew act out a bizarre ritual which sees Kerans tied up and left for dead.

He escapes, finds his Colt 45, rescues his girl from Strangman, and gets some payback.

Not unlike Lord of the Flies, the escalating violence is halted by a convenient intervention, but Kerans’ mind has gone. Emulating Hardman, a colleague who went bonkers and ran into the jungle early on in the book, Kerans finishes what Bodkin started by reflooding the lagoon. He then gives his mania full rein by disappearing into the jungle.

It’s difficult to know whether there’s something in Bodkin’s theory of psychological regression, or whether Kerans is just drunk on sunshine and blue water.

Ballard’s prose is always a delight, and it’s especially gratifying to hear it spoken aloud by Julian Elfer. The author bathes in that sublime, distinctly non-British vista of tropical blues and greens and the hissing reptilian life which splashes through it. One line in particular about “dragon-haunted emerald depths” sent a shiver up my spine. No wonder people like Martin Amis are in raptures over Ballard to this day.

Ballard examines that familiar feeling triggered in us by the clean blue hues of the tropics. Perhaps there is something in the core of our brain which responds to such scenes, something that we understand even if we’ve never been there, with no memory to draw upon. This is an image Kerans happily stumbles after in the blazing sun even as the swamps seek to gulp him down.

I am in the happy position of having so much more Ballard still to read. High Rise next methinks. 

August 13, 2016

TERROR TALES OF THE OCEAN

edited by Paul Finch
252 pages, Grayfriar Press

Review by Pat Black

The sun hasn’t shown its face so much this summer, but when it does, you can always count on people to head for the seaside. Ice cream cones, sandcastles, maybe even a wee paddle. The ocean has an eternal pull on us all.

And you can always count on people like me to imagine all sorts of nasties swimming around out there.

Terror Tales of the Ocean was an easy purchase for me. It’s part of Paul Finch’s Terror Tales series, an affectionate nod towards the Fontana Tales of Terror books of the 1970s and 80s. The format is similar, short stories interspersed with “factual” pieces detailing various true life salty horrors, such as the Bermuda Triangle, the Indianapolis sinking, and the Flannan Isles lighthouse mystery. On top of that, we bait our hooks for some big ‘uns, such as the megalodon, sea serpents, giant jellyfish and loads of other real, extinct or imaginary underwater nasties.

The stories are the real draw, though, and we kick off with Terry Grimwood’s “Stuka Juice”, an underwater salvage story set near the end of the Second World War which ties in with the Nazis’ occult leanings. Despite the supernatural framing, this had tones of Alistair MacLean; no bad thing.

Next, Stephen Laws’ “The End of the Pier”. This is one of those stories that could easily have gotten by without any Weird intrusion, but it takes a shrieking turn hard to port. A young man seeks to avenge an attack on his girlfriend by the wandering tentacles of an end-of-the-pier comedian at a seaside town. Top revenge tips: don’t get beaten up in the process. So, with his face looking like a Hallowe’en cake, he embarks on revenge plot number two with a big bag of rotten fruit and veg, a special reception for his nemesis’ latest performance.

At this point, the sea monster appears.

“Lie Still, Sleep Becalmed” by Steve Duffy sees some young people take a fishing boat out in the darkness. Something strange shows up on their fish finder… a man, floating out in the water, groggy but alive. Only problem being, he was believed drowned a week ago…

Lynda E Rucker’s “The Seventh Wave” was a piece of psychological horror as a cheating wife flees her vengeful husband with their three children. She washes up at a seaside town; not much fun is to be had.

Horror star Adam Nevill’s “Hippocampus” sees an investigation on board a ghost ship where something has taken place just south of the Extremely F*cked-Up Zone.

“The Offing” by Conrad Williams mingles a family holiday by the seaside as observed by a young girl with creeping ecological terror.

Peter James’ “Sun Over the Yard Arm” was probably the best story in the book, by the best-known author. A retired husband and wife going around the world on their yacht run into a storm slap bang in the middle of the Indian Ocean. In order to fix a problem with their antenna, the husband climbs to the top of the mast, and there, rather inconveniently for all concerned, he dies.  

There’s some grim horror to follow as some sea birds make a meal of the dead man lashed to the mast, while the wife looks on helplessly. On top of that, she has to engage her basic sailing skills in order to make it back to shore. But there’s a great Roald Dahl-style twist to come…

Simon Stranzas’ “First Miranda” sees a cheating husband running afoul of the water spirit sisters of his wife – I bet Christmas is awkward in that house.  

Simon Clark and John B Ford’s “The Derelict of Death” gets weird on us, with an 18th-century crew coming across a strange ship which seems to be covered in some sort of black moss, and has a powerful need to make sailors disappear.

“The Decks Below” by Jan Edwards was part action-adventure, part Cthulhu Mythos story, as a hunter of the Elder Gods’ evil servants comes across lethal mer-people on board a wartime submarine. This felt like it was part of a bigger story, with comic book tones as its heroine puts her Elder God-given super powers to good use.

The editor himself brews up a cracker in “Hell in the Cathedral”, where some luckless holidaymakers are taken to a subterranean sea cave off Sicily. Lunchtime comes around, but not for them – the pleasure seekers are intended by the part-zookeeper, part-worshipper piloting the boat as a meal for the giant octopus who lives there. Lots of munching and crunching and no small amount of suspense in this one – it’s the best “monster” story in the book.

“Hushed Will Be All the Murmurs” by Adam Golaski was wilfully opaque, more of a mood piece than a story, but the imagery was unsettling.  

Robert Shearman is positioned astern for the closer, “And This Is Where We Falter”, a long Gothic-themed story where a vicar reads a tale scratched into the coffin lid of one of his relatives  after it is dislodged during a storm. This unholy message in a bottle details a strange voyage out at sea plagued by a fleet of coffins. Compelled to find out what happens in the rest of the story, the vicar undertakes an odd journey of his own beneath the surface of the church’s cemetery.

Terror Tales of the Ocean is a classy affair with some big names and no filler. If I had one complaint to make, it’s that there are not enough stories about giant sea beasts, such as the one on the extraordinary front cover. Plus - not one shark horror story?  Really? Though admittedly, if I was in charge of this anthology it would probably be called Big F*ck-Off Monsters of the Deep. There’s a bit more variety than ocean nasties chomping on swimmers, and the book deserves great credit for that.  A fun summer anthology; preferably read after you’ve gone swimming.