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, na├»ve 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. 

April 29, 2016

THE ILLUSTRATED MAN

by Ray Bradbury
294 pages, Harper Voyager

Review by Pat Black

I feel like a spoiled child. Ray Bradbury has disappointed me.

He’s my favourite uncle; so imagine the growing horror on his big, friendly face when he visits at Christmas, and I tear open the wrapping paper, and… what’s this? I don’t want this! Where’s the good stuff?

This is horribly ungrateful, and I do feel ashamed, because The Illustrated Man is stuffed with classic tales. Part of my disappointment comes through having read a few of them before, either alongside other authors or as part of the mega-compilation put together by Everyman a couple of years ago. But the main factor was the format and the framing device for the stories; it’s such a let-down.

The Illustrated Man has been a looming presence in my reading life. Not to have read it seemed as silly as not having seen Citizen Kane or Gone With The Wind (I’m guilty on both counts… yes, I know). I knew about the concept – that a man has tattoos all over his body, and that the ink comes to life after dark, to reveal the stories behind each piece of art. How brilliant. How very Ray Bradbury.

But the actual story, “The Illustrated Man”, does not appear in The Illustrated Man. I’m presuming Bradbury wrote the longer piece after the publication of the book of the same name – after all, it is a very good idea - but surely they should have added it in later editions? It seems as daft as having Meat Loaf release Bat out of Hell without “Bat Out of Hell” in the track listings. Or “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” appearing on The White Album. You get the idea.  

So we start off with a prologue where a narrator meets the illustrated man himself on a hillside in the night. I want to make a wee joke here about young men curling up for a sleep beside half-naked body builders they meet in a park, but such things can happen in Ray Bradbury’s world without the inner spoiled child turning into a sniggering schoolboy.

We see the ink on the man’s body morph and change into images which introduce the stories in the book. It’s a cracking frame for what is to follow, but it is quickly dropped after story number two, with the illustrated man only returning for a brief coda. This seemed a bit of a waste. The framing device should have been a story in itself, unfolding as we go along, with the illustrated man trying to find the witch who cursed him. It seems a waste, otherwise.

The stories themselves don’t seem to fit in with the concept of the illustrated man, either. Cursed by a witch to have living, changing stories inked on his skin, this man belongs in the realm of the fantastical Ray Bradbury – the man who wrote “Homecoming” or “Uncle Einar” or “The Fog Horn”. But the stories in The Illustrated Man are mostly science fiction, a continuation of the themes and concerns of The Martian Chronicles. The gears grind a little. The working parts could have been put together a bit better.

Look… I know uncle Ray brought it all the way through from Los Angeles! I can’t help being disappointed! His stuff is usually so brilliant!

We begin with one of Bradbury’s very best, “The Veld”, where a futuristic mum and dad build a nursery for their two children which prefigures the holodeck on Star Trek. It creates vivid, 3D representations of places and things, down to the wind in your hair and the scent in your nostrils. The idea is that it’ll show the children Narnia or Oz or some other kind of fairy tale kingdom. But, little buggers being little buggers, the mother and father are disturbed to see that their children have recreated an African savannah, where lions prowl in the long grass. What is it that the big cats are eating?

The central is shock is pure Twilight Zone, but the story’s main concern touches on Ray Bradbury’s lifelong dislike of gadgetry, new technology and its dehumanising effect. You can only hope he lived out his final years without having truly engaged with social media and marketing-led journalism. “That’s so horrible even I couldn’t have imagined it!”

“Mars and rocket ships” sci-fi of the 1950s turns some modern readers off. Bradbury himself dismissed such criticism, saying his stories were fantasies, and don’t belong in the same geometrically precise brainbox as Isaac Asimov or Arthur C Clarke. “Kaleidoscope” is a fine example of this – a sublime piece where several astronauts are unceremoniously torn out of their rocket ship, spilling out into certain death in space. In their dwindling radio contact through their helmets, the spacemen journey from bickering and acting out their grievances to a sense of acceptance, and even epiphany.

“The Other Foot” is a Martian Chronicles-style effort, which sees Mars as an interplanetary ghetto. Black people have gotten fed up with their treatment back on Earth, and have found peace and community on the red planet. But Earth, torn apart by nuclear war, soon casts its envious eyes towards Mars’ green fields and blue skies, and a delegation of white men arrives to seek asylum for the motherworld’s survivors. This story has a resonance far beyond the contemporaneous civil rights struggle, with its notion of rich white men as refugees, relying on the charity of people they abused. It firmly plants Bradbury on the side of the angels.

“The Man” saw a surprisingly Christian Ray Bradbury, playing with New Testament imagery and mythology. A space captain is looking to arrest a mysterious man with a message who is travelling across colonised worlds in the cosmos, changing the way people think. The Man is infuriatingly out of reach on every planet the vindictive captain lands on – he’s always just missed him. It’s strange that Bradbury, who had what I would recognise as humanist impulses, reveals such overt Christian leanings. In other editions of this book, I understand “The Fire Balloons” is included, which seeks to look at how divinity can survive in a universe with life forms completely different to humans, and not, it would seem, created in the image of a creator. Again, it’s curiously sympathetic to the business of men in dog collars, but this one was cut out of the UK version I bought.

Hard sci-fi fans’ toes would curl at “The Long Rain”, which sees a set of explorers travelling through a bedraggled Venus, where it rains hard, all the time. They’re searching for the sun domes, dry, warm refuges where people can shelter out of the rain. But the rain messes not only with their equipment, but also their heads. The tap-tap-tap of the deluge destroys everything, eventually, and some of the explorers simply give up.

The setting doesn’t even remotely resemble the real Venus, so I can imagine it might have irritated some readers, but its concept was intriguing. We’ve all been caught out in the rain before.

“The Rocket” was superb whimsy, where a family man has just enough money saved for a single ticket for a trip into space – but who should go? Should it be him? Should it be mama? Which of the children shall take the trip of a lifetime?

The solution to the problem soon arrives, but it doesn’t require any rocket fuel or oxygen supplies. This one made me smile. Global travel has become a signifier of status more than ever before. And with the advent of social media, something that was once considered mind-crushingly dull – being subjected to a slideshow of other people’s holiday photos – is now something most of us either endure or participate in, in HD quality detail, every single day. But for many, the economic reality of backpacking in Vietnam, going off-piste in the French Alps or even that old shrieking buzzard, “taking a gap year”, is an impossible widescreen dream. Uncle Ray – a man who never had a driving licence and travelled everywhere by bus or bicycle – would have sympathised with people whose passport pages are somewhat unillustrated.

“The Fox and the Forest” was the book’s pulpiest story, but it’s also one of the most accomplished. A married couple are enjoying a Mexican fiesta in the 1930s, until they notice a strange man following them. They have come on holiday, but not in any conventional means. They’re time travellers, having escaped into the past to escape their jobs while the people of the future destroy themselves with warfare. The strange man has come to bring them back home; but they don’t much fancy the return trip. This one was tightly plotted, but also curiously evocative of Hemingway.

“No Particular Night Or Morning” sees Bradbury re-examine another fascinating theme; how humanity will operate out among the stars, where age-old mental anchors such as dawn, dusk and even up and down have no meaning. A crewman aboard a spacecraft begins to crack up as it journeys through the stars. There’s nothing to keep him fixed; so his mind begins to drift, and dwindle. The notion of a future played out among the stars inflamed Bradbury’s imagination, but it also brought out the melancholic side of his storytelling. He saw space travel as, pardon the pun, alienating.

“Marionettes Inc.” was another Twilight Zone-style shocker, where a man finds out his neighbour has bought a robotic doppelganger, so that he can step out every now and again for a drink without his wife giving him heat. Where the story is headed was fairly obvious, but I was most struck by Bradbury’s concept of an automaton – a brain made of platinum, copper wiring, all pistons and clanking joints under the skin. This was before the age of the microchip, I realised, but Bradbury’s fears over automation and artificial intelligence would have been exactly the same had he been writing in the present day.

“The City” and “Zero Hour” have apocalyptic things on their mind. In “The City”, the deserted metropolis the human crew discover has been the victim of age-old human dabblings – and it has revenge on its mind.

“Zero Hour” takes a quick snapshot of how you might react if you were told that the end of the world was imminent. Funnily enough, we were told this just last night, with a lump of rock which would have been a potential extinction event had it made planetfall whizzing just past Earth, according to some reports – a hair’s breadth in cosmic terms. Bradbury was writing in the shadow of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with the Cold War cooling nicely in the background, so nuclear annihilation was an understandable preoccupation. This fear, which I remember being ever-present as I grew up in the 1980s, is something we’ve allowed ourselves to forget, even though all those missiles are still there, pointed straight at you and me.

We finish up with another outright horror story, “The Playground”, where we rediscover that the happiest days of your life are nothing of the sort.

There are other tales included, not all of which are as striking or effective as the ones I’ve described, but all of which have Bradbury’s unique poetry and purpleness. “Usher II” looks at someone trying to recreate the world of Edgar Allan Poe in a theme park during a time when fiction and fantasy are completely banned. A bit much, you might think, until you remember North Korea. “The Visitor” sees a man with unique psychic abilities arriving on Mars, where men are subject to a strange disease, with their minds crying out for intellectual sustenance. And then there’s “The Highway”, where a farmer sees a stream of people pouring out of the United States, with the apocalypse following behind.

These are lonely stories, in a lot of ways, featuring people outcast or at odds with their times. Lots of these tales are shaded a very particular kind of blue. You wonder if Bradbury was a lonely man.

So, I didn’t like the way it was packaged, but for The Illustrated Man the sum of its parts is far greater than the whole. As a short story collection it’s just about on par with The Martian Chronicles, but some way behind The Golden Apples of the Sun. However, the framing device was a waste – it seemed sort of tacked-on, and had it been fleshed out it could have been brilliant.

That said, I can’t knock the individual stories. They were penned by one of the best storytellers of all time, after all. Ungrateful wretch I am, I might have thrown a tantrum at Uncle Ray when I unwrapped his toys, but I still played with them and loved them anyway.  

April 19, 2016

THE DARKEST OF SUNS WILL RISE

by Brian Sfinas
174 pages, Heartless Press

Review by Bill Kirton

This is a teasing, tantalizing book. Part of that may be because I’m not familiar with the conventions of the genre, but I know enough about it to sense that in this instance, the writer may actually be testing and stretching those conventions. The sci-fi essentials are there – space travel, extra-terrestrial entities, a close dependence of humans on machines and a  society which has clearly evolved from some of the processes and preoccupations that prevail today. But there’s also a deliberate confusion, passages which challenge accepted social and moral behaviours, a reluctance to ascribe qualities such as heroism and treachery to exclusive sources. Motives and reciprocations overlap, acts of simple human jealousy sit among and are mixed with threats of potentially cataclysmic conflicts which may only be resolved by the premeditated creation of black holes. As Mr Spock might say, ‘It’s sci-fi, Jim, but not as we know it’. In fact, the impression I’ve retained from my reading of it is that it is so layered with events whose significance operates simultaneously at many separate levels that it might need several readings to understand all the author’s intended themes.

It’s certainly unconventional in its form and narrative techniques.  Others have compared The Darkest  Of Suns will Rise with the epistolary novel, but examples of that genre seldom offered as many distinct viewpoints as this author exploits to convey the different layers and elements of his story. His principals share their interior and exterior monologues with us and are, in turn, probed and ‘explained’ by the advanced alien civilisation which has access to their rational and irrational thought processes. Between their diary entries and written interpersonal communications are extracts from databases of the type into which Wikipedia will evolve, written reports of serving officers, records of thought processes infiltrated and interpreted by the alien consciousness, items of correspondence. In other words, there are many voices, many opinions, many narrators. And this, too, must be a deliberate choice of the author. We’re told so often that a writer must show and not tell and, in my opinion bizarrely, there’s a reluctance to grant authors omniscience. The creation is theirs, everything in it is a product of their own thinking so of course they’re omniscient. The trick, the skill, is to parcel up that omniscience in such a way that it doesn’t intrude. The technique adopted here is to assign different aspects of the narrative – the internal fears and feelings of characters, the precise nature of the prevailing social conditions and structures, the policies driving the various factions, the actual events which occur and provoke reactions and plot developments – to appropriate sources: diaries, reports, conversations, internal monologues. Yes, it means the point of view changes repeatedly, but the change is signaled in a clear, bold headline immediately before the relevant passage so there should be no confusion in the reader’s mind about where the information’s coming from. The overall impression is of a carefully designed mosaic representing the preoccupations, sensations and perceptions of the story’s principals.

I know I’m focusing on the formal aspects of the book, but that’s because I found them intriguing. I’m also reluctant to summarise the plot because I don’t want to risk any spoilers and I think in any case that just ‘telling the story’ would do the novel an injustice. There aren’t any goodies and baddies in the conventional sense. The aliens, The Prognosticate, have infiltrated humanity and helped it to what, on the surface at least, seems to be a utopian peace. Illness has been banished, our despoliation of the earth has been reversed and there are logical futuristic developments of familiar everyday processes. The internet has become internets, nanotechnology has solved most of the problems which prevail today, religions have been superseded. But, perhaps as a result of all this, life seems dull, too easy, featureless. One of the elements which may disturb some readers is one character’s need for pain, an extreme masochism which makes excruciating demands. Objectively, in this monotonously perfect existence, it is perhaps a signal of the forces that have been suppressed but not extinguished. And, indeed, there are those who don’t accept the pacifying intrusions of the aliens. They are the Orphanage, led by a Mother, and they have not rejected the old Gods, so conflict is still a factor in this utopia – at private and public levels.

And, in the end, perhaps that is the book’s main message. The couple at its centre enjoy a relationship of domination and submission, the themes of subjugation and control are constantly restated. Maybe we’re not made for peaceful, unthreatened existence. We need to fight, to feel, to be challenged. But that ‘perhaps’ and that ‘maybe’ are important. The book’s teasing complexities may have other significations, different interpretations. What does seem clear is that the author has not taken an easy route here, but he has created a totally absorbing, well-constructed, poetic examination of the interplay of very mysterious forces.

April 11, 2016

THE LONG WAY TO A SMALL, ANGRY PLANET

by Becky Chambers
400 pages, Hodder

Review by Pat Black

If I achieve nothing else today, hopefully I will have made you want to listen to Deep Purple’s “Space Truckin’”. Alternatively, you could check out a strange and wonderful book, which shares the same themes, though not the same Jon Lord organ riff.

Becky Chambers’ debut, The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet, is described as a space opera, and I guess it carries those notes. Far into the future, humans have moved out into that great big galaxy out there. We’re calling ourselves Exodans, having left our home and spread out into space, meeting the vast array of intelligent alien life forms out there. The Exodans trade, they mingle, they prosper, and yes, they make love with their new neighbours. In this book.

Alien sex. Yep. That got your attention.

“Space opera” might make you think of ray guns and battleships, quests and conquests, goodies and baddies, heroism, villainy, square-jawed heroes and babes, all that stuff. You can take this as either a warning or a hearty recommendation: there isn’t much of that in this book. It has iMAX-ready epic scope, but this is a funny, intimate piece of work about a space crew, and their big and small dramas out in the cosmos. It might be a sitcom without the outright comedy; it might also be a soap opera, without the kitchen sinks. 

Our story centres on one ship, The Wayfarer, whose purpose is to “punch” through space and time to create tunnels. This allows for long-distance interstellar travel through the territory of the Galactic Commons, a sort of outer space European Union. The ship, under the command of Ashby Santoso, is hired for a job to open up a channel on the far side of the galaxy to an uptight, fighty race no-one much likes, in a bid to foster better links and communications.

I want to describe Ashby as a sort of square-jawed space captain type, Captain Kirk mingled with Mal from Firefly, and maybe a little bit of the late Han Solo. I imagine him as looking like these guys, but… he’s not, really. We learn quite quickly that the human diaspora has long tired of warfare, having ruined their own place with it in the species’ infancy. Humans are peaceniks now – not quite space hippies, but certainly not cowards, either. They just don’t care much for warfare; they have a horror of it. Although Ashby has to make decisions and keep his crew in line, he’s not one for firing his ray gun or losing his temper. This makes him a great rarity in space opera: the ideal boss.

Our “in” when it comes to life on board The Wayfarer is Rosemary, who has been hired to do accounts and admin. Through her, we are introduced to the human/alien menagerie on board; Kizzy and Jenks, the two human techs; Sissix, the pilot, a feathered reptile from Andaria; Dr Chef, a giant caterpillar-looking thingy who is, as his title implies, part-chef, part-medic; Corbin, who looks after the algae which keeps the ship working, and also the office *rsehole; and Ohan, a dual personality locked in the body of a weird four-legged creature, the navigator who handles the awesome task of pushing the ship through the fabric of space and time. And the whole is kept running by Lovey, the ship’s AI.

It turns out that Jenks the tech is in love with Lovey; he sleeps next to her generator, and talks to her all the time, synching his mind with hers. Lovey, who has a distinct personality, reciprocates. He secretly hopes to create a synthetic body to download Lovey’s personality into, and from there, one reasonably supposes, to help himself to some robot lovin’.

Sissix’s species are a sensual lot, big into touching, petting and ultimately coupling with anyone who’s up for it. Corbin, in contrast, is an uptight pain in the backside, but he also has a deadly secret which causes some big trouble for the crew later on.

Dr Chef is a kindly big soul, and it was here that Chambers really stretched out, describing how simple gestures or a change in colouring can denote mood, expression, psychological states; utterly alien, yet still familiar and easily interpreted. And then there’s Ashby, who is having a fling with a strange, bad-ass alien mercenary type, who has to sneak into and out of the ship on some pretence or other in order for them to be together.

It isn’t all canteen gossip and email flirting. There are bursts of danger and violence. When the ship is boarded by horrible space pirates, this is the point that millions of writers would have pushed the story in one direction, probably involving a bit of shouting and shooting. Chambers, to her great credit, instead nudges it to places you wouldn’t expect.

Later on, the ship must weather heavy fire from other alien nasties. But if you’re coming to this book expecting some peeeowww peeeoowww – and we all like a bit of peeeowww peeeooowww now and again – then you may end up disappointed. It’s not overly fussed with fighting and shooting. There’s plenty of drama, loads of future tech, and a fair bit of intergalactic political intrigue, but if you’re expecting some Peter F Hamilton or even Iain M Banks stuff, forget it.

What I liked best about this book was the sense of family it engendered among the crew. There sometimes comes a moment if you’ve been working at the same place for a long time when you realise – not without horror – that you have come to know your colleagues as well as family members or close friends. Indeed, you might have spent more time in their company than you have with your loved ones. While you wouldn’t place them on the same shelf, exactly, there are bound to be strange fraternal ties with long-term work-mates, and maybe even a little bit of love, too – even though you could walk away from them tomorrow if the right offer comes in. You know just about everything there is to know about them, and vice versa. In their own way, and though it might pain you to admit it, they are family. So it proves aboard The Wayfarer.

Plus, I was tickled by how normal scenarios were given extraordinary framings. Ashby’s love affair with the alien is meant to be a secret, but the whole crew knows about it, and in great detail. They love it when she arrives on board; love the gossip; love speculating about what’s going to happen next for the star-entwined lovers. Much as you would if one of your mates started going out with someone, and they started to appear on the social scene.

So, too, for Jenks and Lovey. This isn’t a deep dark secret. It’s something shared between peers in the same social group, as it would be back home. During one violent incident, when a little blood is spilled, it reminded me of the horror and sympathy that might be elicited when one of your mates gets punched on a night out. I want to say it’s a feminine reaction to an explosion of nastiness, but that’s reductive and also sexist. It’s a sensitive handling of an unpleasant event. The whole book is very sensitive. It cares about its characters, even the irksome, rule-book junkie Corbin.

In the same vein, when a boarding party touches down on an alien planet beset with shrieking giant insects, I expected an action scene with ray guns and peril. Instead, the party meets new mates, makes friends, and settles down to a barbecue underneath a protective shield dome. I would bet anything that Chambers thought of this scene while she was at a barbecue, swatting away bugs and wishing she had some sort of heat shield to keep them off. I imagine this was in Scotland, and the bugs were midges.

Then, another landing party lands on Sissix’s homeworld, where we are introduced to part of her complex family unit as well as some adorable alien babies. This leads to a truly outstanding gag when the young Andarians are allowed to approach the humans, breaching their strange sense of tactile propriety.  

Sissix is a wonderful creation – just odd enough to be fascinating, but with what we might recognise as humanity, too. The Andarians enjoy sex with multiple partners of any gender, in any old way. The elegant, feathery reptiles often have to be reminded that humans are a bit funny about intimacy and touching, and they scoff at the monkeys’ odd hang-ups, such as hiding their genitals. Despite humans’ innate shyness in these matters, it seems that anything goes in the future, and humans and aliens can, and do, get it on out in space.

The book openly questions why so many creatures in the universe might have similar characteristics between so many disparate worlds, despite being separated by great gulfs of time and space – feathers and scales, for example, or eyeballs and limbs – and also dares to provide an answer. Chambers speculates that this phenomenon might also extend to feelings, which are, literally, universal.

The crew’s journey does take them to the place that’s mentioned in the title, but this is only a matter of connecting A to B, and giving our characters something to do. LWTASAP is a quirky number, and possibly not what you were expecting when you signed up. But you’ll be so glad you made the trip.