August 24, 2015

THE BLIND REVIEWER:

In Which We Look Back At Books We Loved But No Longer Have

Stinger! They Thirst and The Wolf’s Hour, by Robert R McCammon

Dancer in the dark: Pat Black

For this nineties teenager who grew up polluting his mind with everything the Horror Boom had to offer, one of the biggest names to be found on the shelves of John Menzies was Robert R McCammon.

McCammon, hailing from Birmingham, Alabama (try reading that without hearing Skynyrd), was popular right in the middle of the horror gold rush lasting from the late 1970s to early 1990s. This was Stephen King's imperial phase, and everyone in publishing wanted a slice of that nice, fat pie. 

Writers such as Dean R Koontz, James Herbert, Graham Masterton, Dan Simmons, Clive Barker and others found prominence on British shelves in a way that I suspect wouldn't happen today. One man who stood shoulder-to-shoulder with them, and was easily their equal at the pounds-per-book weigh-in, was McCammon. 

Out of all the writers from this period, McCammon's career was the one I most wanted to emulate. When I dreamed of being a novelist as a boy, I used to plan out my "big novels" - sub-genres, basically, which I then tried to flesh out with hackneyed storytelling and stock characters. There'd be my Big Vampire Novel (this would very much resemble Salem's Lot... which, to be fair, very much resembled Dracula). There'd be the Big Werewolf Novel. And there'd be the Big Alien Invasion novel. They Thirst, The Wolf's Hour and Stinger! embodied these three concepts perfectly. 

All three books are very long, 450-pages plus. They're cinematic in scope, packed with action, and I sliced through them in short order. Did I read The Wolf's Hour in a single day during Easter 1992, when I should have been studying for my Standard Grades? I think I did.  
While, thank god, I got the Standard Grades, I no longer have these books. I borrowed one of them, and gave the other two away to my niece. How does my memory treat them, nearly a quarter of a century later?

Stinger! – exclamation mark very much intended - was a terrific romp, set in a US-Mexico border town called Inferno. There are two teenage gangs, and - wouldn't you know it? - one of the gang leaders falls for the sister of the rival hoodlums’ leader. Caaaapulet!! Montaguuue!!

Oh yeah... and there's the little matter of the alien who crash-lands in Inferno, chased to Earth by Stinger, another, more fearsome extra-terrestrial. 

Stinger can change shape and turn out clones, like many of the monsters who lumbered through the sci-fi B-movie classics this novel mimics. Except it can't quite disguise itself properly, allowing needle teeth, blue blood and other odd characteristics to poke through. We get plenty of tension as some of the characters are assimilated and taken over, some of whom remain hidden until vital moments; shades of The Thing (or indeed “Who Goes There?”). 

On top of that, the town is completely covered by a force shield, meaning no-one can get in or out - Stephen King, take note? - while Stinger hunts down the goodie alien (who I think has taken over the body of a young girl). This leads to a showdown over the course of 24 hours of mayhem between the teenage delinquents, united alongside the goodie alien, versus Stinger!

Yes, Stinger! 

It's nigh-on impossible to judge Stinger! on any kind of literary merit, at such a distance; but I am prepared to make the tragic admission that if I had a great time with it at age 14 or 15, then I might still find pleasure in it nowadays, guilty or otherwise. 

Partial Recall: Just off the top of my head, I can recall a motorbike chase, which I think was revealed to us in the unusual "foreshadowing" prologue chapter. There's an eerie section when we discover how Stinger manages to make copies of the villagers - and also how hard he is, when one of the cloned monsters laughs off a shotgun blast to the face, albeit lop-sidedly. 

There's plenty of aggro porn early on when the gangs knock lumps out of each other; there's a whole alien backstory, charting the beef the goodie alien has with Stinger, involving genocide and mucking up an entire species' reproductive cycle. And there's the obligatory big showdown, about which I can recall next to nothing. 

I do remember a coda scene, where a geeky boy ends up falling asleep in a bathtub with an older, glamorous local girl, and gets a peek at her boobs. All's well that perves well. 

They Thirst is one of McCammon's earliest books, and sees an ancient vampire taking over modern day Los Angeles, using a mock Gothic castle in the Hollywood hills as his power base. Our hero is a well-meaning but violent parish priest, coming on like Batman in a dog collar as he visits righteous hidings upon the hoodlums in his neighbourhood prior to getting wise to the vampire threat. The King Vampire, whose name I think is Vulkan, is a 17-year-old boy in immortal form who creates an undead army that swarms over the city. 

As with Stinger!'s force-shield, an apocalyptic event visits LA in the form of... well, I'm not sure. Either it's a storm or a tidal wave; I can't remember precisely which. But the place gets levelled, evening up the odds between the goodies and the bities. I recall how the final showdown between the fighty priest and the head vampire goes down, but I can remember precious little else about this whacking great book. Ultimately I was a little bit bored by its size and scope – disaster movies tend to get on my nerves. 

Perhaps I was finally starting to grow out of my horror phase.

Partial Recall: Basically the final showdown, which I can't talk about because, you know, spoilers... although if you've ever seen Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, you might have a wee smile to yourself. Unlike Stephen King's undead in Salem's Lot, these vampires can change shape and become dogs and bats, like Dracula. There's some sort of Renfield-esque henchman looking out for King Vamp during business hours when the sun shines, who may have been a serial killer. I can't remember any other characters. I do recollect a totally unnecessary sex scene quite early on, which might have introduced the main female character, as she has fun with a boyfriend and his buzzy little friend before they are rudely interrupted by bloodsuckers. As I said, I was about 14 when I read this. 

Last, but certainly not least, comes The Wolf's Hour. In our review of The Last Werewolf a few years back, I lamented the fact that we haven't yet had the definitive lycanthropy novel. The Wolf's Hour is the only vaguely modern book I can think of that runs Glen Duncan's teeth, guts and sarcasm classic close for the title. Set during the first half of the 20th century, it follows the fortunes of Michael Gallatin, an Allied spy parachuted into occupied Europe to take on the Nazis in 1942. 

Gallatin has a talent that puts James Bond's flame-thrower shaving foam and Cuban heel switchblades to shame: he can turn into a big bad wolf. Not a bad skill to have if you like sneaking around at night, doing secret stuff... and killing Nazis. 

The narrative splits into two, the wartime action spliced with flashback sections following Michael's adolescence in Russia as he discovers his shape-shifting abilities, becomes an outcast from his family and joins a werewolf pack. 

The separate storylines and time-shifts integrate well (not unlike Connor MacLeod's New York/Scotland scenes in Highlander). When you get bored of the wartime espionage, here's some wolf carnage in Russia; when you get tired of that, here's some wolf carnage in occupied France... Yes, more wolf carnage, please, I'm a greedy boy.

This was a book I got through in a very short time, considering its length. Gads, to look back on those years when I had time to sit and read novels in just a couple of sittings... balmy days... in which I could have been spending my time much more profitably and sociably. Hey ho. That's who I was. In fairness, I packed in a good belt of under-age drinking, too. Back then I was only a closet square; now I'm out and proud.

Partial Recall: Again, the showdowns were perfectly set-up and executed and I remember how the main baddie and his fantastic henchman, Boots, get theirs. Apart from that, I can mostly recall the rural scenes as Gallatin hunts with the pack. It's a little bit like White Fang in this respect, as Gallatin the newcomer must fight for supremacy to become top dog among the shape-shifters - not to mention gaining the right to mate. 

I also remember that Gallatin's pack gets a nasty case of lungworm, which turned my 15-year-old stomach - so it must have been particularly grim reading. 

The rest of it's gone down the memory hole. But I do know I enjoyed it, and wanted to write a book just like it. 

I'm happy to tell you that McCammon's entire backlist is currently available to buy on your Kindles and Kobos. Now in his early sixties, McCammon seems to be publishing regularly again after an apparent hiatus from the late 1990s onwards. As I lurch closer to middle age, I'm tempted to go back and take a look at his work to see if it was actually any good. I have to fight a nostalgic hankering to revisit The Wolf's Hour in particular. 

But I've got too much stuff piled up to read as it is. Our time is precious, and if it must be spent reading books then there are better ones out there more worthy of our attention. 

I also no longer want to pen big Vampire, Werewolf or Alien Invasion novels at time of writing... but, never say never.

Next time, The Blind Reviewer will try to cast his mind back to the weird and bloody work of mysterious 90s schlockmeister, Michael Slade. 

August 5, 2015

WATERLOG:

A Swimmer’s Journey Through Britain
by Roger Deakin
340 pages, Vintage

Review by Pat Black

I started Roger Deakin’s Waterlog while I waited for a mechanic. It was a frigid January morning, but not a bad one; freezing but fresh, with lots of sunlight. I snapped on a pair of Speedos, tucked in the pants moustache and sideboards, and dived in.

Having a glorious, unbroken reading experience is a rare thing for me these days, and despite the wait I felt blessed to have that early morning all to myself, with no-one else near me in the car park, the mint green grasses glazed with frost and the low winter sun taking its own time to rise.

Drawing inspiration from John Cheever’s short story “The Swimmer”, Deakin decided to swim his way around the UK – taking in wild places, rivers and the seaside as well as municipal pools and Lidos. His thoughts and experiences were documented in Waterlog in 1999, an instant bestseller.

We must be wary of the term “British eccentric”, but we can happily apply it to Deakin. Aged in his fifties when he undertook his adventure in the 1990s, the writer, naturalist and film-maker enjoyed a life outside the rat race - and it looked f*cking great. As I sat there scrunched up in my treacherous car on the outskirts of industrial hell, I coveted his lifestyle and his freedom. I still do.

The opening swim begins in the moat he’s dredged around his country home in Suffolk, a morning routine of laps in an arboreal paradise. Deakin bought Walnut Tree Farm in the 1960s and renovated the property and grounds over many years, but he was content to allow nature to reclaim parts of it. Deakin is the sort of fellow who hears swallows nesting in the roof of his home in the springtime, and instead of phoning an exterminator, calls a friend to express his delight.

I can appreciate this. In one house I rented, I had a decent sized garden fringed with flower beds. Having grown up in an eight-in-a-block in Glasgow, I’m no gardener, but I decided to sow some seeds in the beds at the right time. I was delighted, then, to see bright flowers appearing the following spring, reds and oranges and yellows and blues. They grew thick and wild, and even though it wasn’t the tidiest display in the world I enjoyed considering that floral riot while I sipped my tea in the morning.

And then someone in the know came to stay with me. “Want me to do your garden, Pat?”
“What do you mean?”

“Look at that flower bed. It’s choked with weeds. They’ll all have to go.”

Deakin likens swimming to flying – or those sublime dreams of freedom you get on the first night of your holidays, or after you’ve had a particularly nice, satisfying cuddle. He breaststrokes through his own mind and memories as much as he does physical locations up and down the land. When Deakin island-hops in the Scillies and elsewhere, it’s like he’s going through an old toybox in his parents’ attic. He checks out ancient Pullman carriages he remembers as a boy, left to rust in the sea air – at one time the height of luxury, now subject to that inevitable reclamation by nature that everything must face.

The lost grandeur of seaside resorts fascinates the author. I’ve always loved visiting these towns off-season for the same reason. They’re at the cutting edge of time and inevitability, something under constant attack from entropy even on calm, warm days. You’re watching the destruction of the land, a demonstration of how time washes everything away eventually. Even if it’s a grim seafront, it’s still epic in scope and scale.

Riparian matters follow as Deakin dunks himself in Hampshire – getting into an argument in the process with a couple of Colonel Blinky types who wonder what the devil he thinks he’s doing in the water. This is an almost perfectly-crafted moment of English farce, but it brings the author to a serious point. Deakin’s English whimsy flows through his very blood, but he betrays a keen dislike of petty rules and lower-case conservativism. He fulminates against waterways being closed off to the public for no other reason than ownership (of a river?). He also cannot hide his distaste when beautiful rural parts of the country are exclusively linked to the enjoyment of people with plenty of money, who can afford exorbitant fees for fly-fishing or boating. His anger seeps out over faceless, monolithic big business, and you sense he held in reserve a scalding torrent for firms who skip off scot-free after having polluted waterways for decades to come - with the public picking up the cleaning bill.

Deakin describes himself as a competent swimmer, but no more than that. In these days when we seem to be bombarded with images of friends and relatives putting themselves through increasingly brutal athletic challenges, there’s something refreshing about dear old Roger pottering through streams, brooks and ponds at his leisure.

I’m sure he was better than he let on, but it is fun to imagine him pulling prim old-lady breaststrokes, totally unabashed while bullet-capped human torpedoes gnash their teeth in his wake, unable to buffet him aside.

He’s as happy in a private pool owned by millionaires as he is swimming through greenish soup in remote places which barely merit a blue blob on the map, a drifting human thicket of algae and fronds buzzed by dragonflies. He’s also a lover of the small creatures you might encounter in English waterways, particularly newts.

He seems perfectly comfortable in his own company, but that’s not to say he is a loner. Deakin seeks communion with fellow swimmers, getting to know people who enjoy recreational dunks in Britain’s great, and sometimes neglected public pools. It’s nice to imagine him bobbing at the side of a Lido, having a chat with some elderly ladies who’ve come to the same place for 40 and 50 years for their daily exercise.

There’s one part that really resonated with me, where Deakin and a friend head up the hills in the Lake District in order to find remote, icy tarns to splash in. After a brilliant day with a mate, rounded off with a few pints and a nice dinner, he describes his child-like sorrow that his companion has to leave and go back to work; that the fun time is over.

Another part which will strike home is when Deakin describes that paranoia we all have when swimming across gloomy water, where we can’t see the bottom. He has some big fish stories, particularly regarding pike, which can occasionally grow large. There’s one chilly moment in a dark run where monsters are reputed to lurk. Deakin grows paranoid, wondering if he’s been nudged by something large under the water. That fear of a big fish is imprinted on our DNA.

I’m not sure I get what Deakin describes as the erotic import of public bathing. I’d blame the swimming pools and beaches of my youth for this, places where you were less likely to obtain sensual experience than you were to be dragged to your doom by swarms of detached sticking plasters, cotton buds and used tampons. I remember the swimming pool at my old school (subsequently shut down over asbestos, health fans) with our PE teacher encouraging us all to wash our feet in the little bath prior to jumping in. The surface of this greenish swamp – supposedly to help with hygiene - was carpeted with dead silverfish.

Anyway, back to eroticism. A couple of times, Deakin bobs past nudist beaches, describing oases of flesh pocketed in the sand. He never says as much, but you suspect he half-fancies joining them. Certainly there’s a sense of liberation in taking one’s clothes off prior to bathing, linked to the trans-dimensional freedom of cheating gravity in the water itself – your body hidden, your weight neutralised, your mind free. Deakin himself never gets wet, so to speak, but he is keen to recount other people’s stories, and is curious about the link.

Deakin delves into the history of local bathing spots, too. Many of them are closed off or barely used bar the odd faithful patrons. He uncovers the champion swimmers and record breakers, the high-board divers thrilling pre-wartime crowds with their acrobatics; the local heroes.

There’s also some derring-do as Deakin tests himself in remote or dangerous places. He gives Hell Gill in Yorkshire a go, marvelling at the bampots throwing themselves into the water from a great height. These include spelunkers and bikers either on a dare, taking part in initiations, or simply having no regard for their own safety.

The books leads up to a final big effort in Corryvreckan off the Isle of Jura in Scotland, a wild stretch of water with a whirlpool like a monster out of antiquity. It’s the place where George Orwell nearly killed himself and his family after getting his tidal timetable mixed up. Deakin is keen to swim this raging torrent… but decides not to at the last minute. This didn’t seem anti-climactic to me, more an affirmation of Deakin’s sweet, easy-going nature. There’s no need to go crazy. Some waters are fine to just look at.

This is a strange book – gentle and bucolic, but also thoroughly engaging. Deakin was a man after my own heart. So I was saddened to discover that Roger died in 2006 after the sudden onset of cancer – just four months in between diagnosis and death. He was 63. I was sadder still to discover that the house with the moat now belongs to someone else, and was (perhaps understandably) changed from the semi-feral state its famous incumbent preferred.

Walnut Tree Farm as it was - like the author - has gone beyond the physical realm. But with this book and two others he left us, we can dip into that wet, green paradise whenever we like.

As he swims in the Cam, Deakin imagines nymphs and dryads sharing the lonely places with him. He reflects on how many of the great poets were swimmers, and enjoys following in the wake of Frost, Byron and others. If their shades do haunt these drenched spots, then Deakin has surely joined them.

Roger Deakin enjoys cult appeal and famous admirers – to mark his 70th birthday two years ago, many of them gathered to celebrate in several public events. Many of his adepts, such as Robert Macfarlane (his literary executor) are working in letters today, contributing to what I feel sure is a golden age of British nature writing. As financial uncertainty hobbles the western world and the global environment seems throttled by nefarious human agency in pursuit of profit, it’s fitting that our thinkers and poets increasingly turn to nature for succour. Deakin’s name must be included in the pantheon of great English pastoral voices.


He left us two other books to enjoy, which I’ll get to sooner rather than later. But if I’m granted the time, I’ll return to this one, and hopefully in more pleasant circumstances than those in which I found it. It’ll feel less like a life ring, and more of a jolly paddle by the seaside on a lovely day. 

July 20, 2015

DARK WAVES

by Simon Kearns
123 pages, Bloodbound Books

Review by Pat Black

Aside from a study in the 1980s (Spengler, Stantz, Venkman, Zeddemore et al), ghost stories and science don't tend to get along. 

Usually, one has to destroy the other - with either vengeful spirits pulling the plug on recording equipment, prior to their all-important reveal, or scientists debunking the phantoms as hoaxes, delusions, unlikely coincidences or odd manifestations of natural phenomena.

Dark Waves by Simon Kearns is an attempt to equalise this natural tension between science and fantasy. 

It sees John Stedman, something of a modern-day ghost hunter, travelling to the sites of notorious British hauntings. In his own way he is a debunker, but not in the sense of exposing fraud. He seeks to unravel the true environmental cause of supernatural experiences. 

John is something of a superhero. After he nearly drowns as a child, he gains a strange ability to detect sound waves which exist below the range of human hearing, called infrasonics (anything below 20Hz). This follows a theory that these undetected sounds can influence humans' nervous systems and mood, prompting negative feelings and physical side-effects. In other words, what people go through when they get a "bad feeling" about a place - or if they think they've seen a ghost.

Being unusually sensitive to infrasound, John can "tune in" to its presence. Then, using computer equipment, he can isolate the source before sealing it off. Thus, the physical source of the "haunting" is gone forever. It's something of a secular exorcism.

As you might expect, things get complicated. John heads to a historic pub, The Dawlish Inn, reportedly haunted by several phantoms in the basement. No-one who works there enjoys going down those stairs. With a local newspaper reporter and a technician in tow, John carries out his investigations. It seems that the infrasonic disruption is far worse than usual in the basement - and the sounds don't seem to have any obvious source. 

First things first: Dark Waves is unsettling. It sets the ground well for the type of modern ghost story British TV producers used to do very well - like Nigel Kneale's The Stone Tape, Stephen Volk's Ghostwatch or any number of episodes of anthology series like Out of the Unknown

Things go bump in the dark, as you might expect, but what makes Dark Waves unusual, if not unique, is that it takes spooky experiences as a given. To begin with, the question isn't "is there a ghost there?" but "what's making these sounds?" Of course, as readers we are given to wonder, despite what John repeatedly tells asserts in the story. 

Without showing too much of his hand, Kearns allows plenty of room for us to wonder if there's something truly inexplicable happening in that basement. 

It also eschews a pet hate of mine in ghost stories: "Was there a ghost, or was the person in the story just a bit mad?" But that's not to say the people in the tale aren't worth examination or don't merit suspicion. Just enough is revealed about the principals as well as the bar owners and staff to allow us to wonder if there isn't some more earthly cause of the basement's sinister vibes. 

With Dark Waves, Simon Kearns gives us a neat variation on Charles Dickens' assertion in "The Haunted House" - that the face of the ghost we fear might very well be our own, from the past.  

There's also some very neat sleight-of-hand in the narrative, including one utterly audacious chapter which threw me for a spin. 

So: ghost or not? I can't spoil that for you - it'd be a crime. It's scary, though, and that's all that matters. 

Read the author interview here.

AUTHOR INTERVIEW

Booksquawk interviews DarkWaves author Simon Kearns




Interview by Pat Black

Booksquawk: Infrasound is a fascinating topic. What prompted the idea of linking it to people's experience of supernatural phenomena?

Simon Kearns: Years ago, I saw a “Secrets of the Dead” episode wherein they investigated the possibility that megalithic monuments were designed to amplify sound, and perhaps to purposefully create infrasound. It was this programme which introduced me to the work of Vic Tandy – a scientist who discovered the link between subsonic sound waves and the classic symptoms of a haunting.

Booksquawk: I see a lot of parallels between this story and some modern classic ghost stories, such as The Stone Tape. Was it difficult to balance the idea of scientific inquiry with the traditional set-up of a spooky story (the key tension of the narrative)?

Simon: Yes – it was difficult balancing the two. I had initially wanted to write a completely rationalistic narrative, one in which science trumps all other beliefs, but the supernatural aspect of the tale would not allow it. As I progressed I found the disturbances in the cellar infiltrating other areas of the book, and my own thought processes. I think this helped enormously with the arc of the story.

Also, by setting up the protagonist as someone so sure of himself and his scientific method, it was fairly easy to maximise the extent of his “fall”, as it were.

Booksquawk: Like sightings of UFOs, Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster, advancing technology seems to be killing off popular perceptions of what was once seen as the "unexplained" or "world of the unknown". Where do you see the ghost story going in the future as advancing technology makes it easier to debunk phenomena?

Simon: I see the ghost story adapting to the technology we produce. Take, for instance, the example you mention of UFOs. If one looks at representations of UFOs from before the invention of the airplane, they largely resemble dirigibles. The height of the UFO craze coincided with the Cold War, a time when humanity lived with the fear of mass destruction caused by something that comes from the sky.

It is true that as we understand more and more about the world around us, we are losing elements of its mystery. Then again, science has leapt so far ahead of the common person’s comprehension that it is creating new mysteries. Horror usually dwells on archetypal fears, but I find the most engaging scares come from those stories that play with new technologies and the grey areas that surround them. Frankenstein is a classic example of the how to utilise the anxiety caused by scientific advances. More recently, we have had Stephen King’s Cell, and the stunning Korean horror film (and book) Pulse. My favourites of recent years, Primer and Ex-Machina, are a great melding of sci-fi and horror.

Booksquawk: Were you aware of the British tradition regarding ghost stories when you were writing, or was it something you were consciously trying to avoid, or subvert?

Simon: That British tradition is very much ingrained. I was consciously playing with clich├ęs: the old English inn, the cellar, the denouement with the protagonist alone in the dark. At the same time, I wanted the characters to be thoroughly modern — the almost fetishistic reliance on gadgets, the fact that their first reaction when spooked is not to think of ghosts, but psychological explanations. Also, the narrative is often at pains to explain the neurological processes of fear, as if it too needs to lean on something it considers factual.

Booksquawk: Finally, tell us a bit about your next project.

Simon: I have another science-meets-horror book that I am currently submitting to publishers. It is about recording dreams, and, (a new experience for me), it is written in the first person singular, which I found to be surprisingly liberating.

Other than that, I have tentatively started a book about god and death which will very subtly toy with ghostly goings on. When I get the chance, I would like to write a book about quantum computers, entanglement, and AI — plenty of grey areas there to exploit.

Read the review of Dark Waves here.

July 11, 2015

THREE KINDS OF STUPID

Reviews by Hereward L.M. Proops

It’s easy to appreciate a clever writer. One who is capable of using a few choice words to paint the most vivid of pictures. Or someone who is able to capture the subtle nuances that make up real human personalities. Or a writer whose tight plotting and careful pacing holds you spellbound until the very last page. As keen readers, we’re all able to name at least two or three books that blew our minds the first time we read them.

But what about the silly books? Books whose sole purpose is to be frivolous, mindless pieces of entertainment. Books to be read in one sitting on a wet Sunday afternoon after a few too many glasses of cheeky Cabernet Sauvignon at lunchtime and then forgotten as you drift off into a semi-drunken stupor. The sort of book that you find hugely enjoyable but never openly admit to liking in intelligent company. Books with a cover so idiotic and puerile that you try to hide it in your lap when reading it in a public place. I’m talking about cheap, disposable trash… the sort of book that your Kindle was made for.


The first of the three dumb little books I’m looking at today is Anne Billson’s witty tribute to Ridley Scott’s classic sci-fi horror, “Alien”. Regular visitors to the site will be well aware of my undying love for the movie and won’t be surprised to learn that I sought out this little gem as soon as I learned about its existence. Available for 99p on Kindle, this short story retells the story of the final voyage of the Nostromo from the perspective of Jones, the ship’s cat.

Being a cat, Jones is totally egocentric and has little affection for the humans on board the ship (or “tinopeners” as he calls them). As the hideous xenomorph is brought onboard and begins picking off the humans one by one, Jones sits back and watches the proceedings with utter detachment. It is this total lack of empathy for the victims of the alien that makes this book so amusing. There are moments when it seems that the cat holds the humans in such low regard that he actually appears to be rooting for the alien. However, his hunch that the xenomorph is some kind of giant ugly hairless kitten leads him to side with the humans, but only because he worries that there is only enough cat-food onboard the Nostromo for him. His irritation with Ripley when she forces him into the cat-box as she evacuates the doomed ship is marvelous and Jones’ description of the final confrontation between Ripley and the alien is delightfully cynical.

It is clear that Billson took great pleasure in taking the high-tension plot of the movie and turning it into something laugh-out-loud funny. Obviously, those who haven’t seen the original film won’t really understand or appreciate this retelling of the story. At about 12 pages long, it won’t take long to read “My Day by Jones” and some might question whether a single short story is worth 99p. To make up for the short length, Billson bundles the first four chapters of her 1993 vampire novel “Suckers” with the short story. Despite not lasting as long as I would have liked, I found “My Day by Jones” to be a witty, affectionate tribute to one of my all-time favourite films.

How I Created Katie Hopkins by Adolf Hitler translated by Barry Sausages

Now this is one that I can only recommend on two conditions a) you can download it for free and b) you have a strong stomach. Those of you reading this outside of the United Kingdom might wonder who Katie Hopkins is. Think yourself lucky. Don’t bother googling her name or trying to find out more about her. Remain ignorant of her existence, you’ll be happier that way. In fact, if you haven’t heard of Katie Hopkins, just take my word for it that she is a deeply unpleasant person who appears to relish notoriety. Leave it at that and move on to the next section of this review.

Those of us who live in dear old Blighty can’t help but to have heard of Hopkins and have witnessed her somewhat desperate attempts to remain in the public eye. It’s like she decided that if she couldn’t be universally popular, she would rather be universally despised because at least that way she’s been noticed. She’s like an emotionally neglected child who would rather have negative attention from her parents than no attention at all. The flurry of outrage that surrounds this loathsome individual whenever she opens her mouth is, unfortunately, exactly what she wants. Every celebrity condemnation of her ridiculous opinions; every tweet about her, both good and bad - it all boosts her public profile and gives her a wider audience.

Barry Sausages (I’m fairly certain that’s not his real name), seems to have hit on the best way of dealing with Hopkins… if you can’t ignore her, write a short story about her where she engages in a sex-act with the twentieth century’s most loathed figure. Yes, you read that correctly. The book is about twelve pages long, roughly eight of which are devoted to describing Hopkins and Hitler’s frenzied intercourse in eye-watering detail. The remaining four pages involve time-travelling assassins, Eva Braun and Russell Brand.

At £1.99, it is incredibly hard to recommend purchasing this very short ebook. I’d feel cheated had I paid half that price for something that could be read beginning to end in a couple of minutes. I was able to get hold of a free copy and it made me laugh louder and harder than I have for quite some time. It’s filthy, puerile and in the worst possible taste. If you aren’t offended by it, then there is probably something wrong with you. Of course, just like Hopkins herself, that is precisely the author’s intention. I’ve read some pretty dumb things in the five years I’ve reviewed for Booksquawk but this one takes the cake. Approach with extreme caution.

Wolfcop: Fleshmob by Brad Munson

One of last year’s most fun films was the Canadian horror-comedy “Wolfcop”. A B-movie tribute to those dreadful straight-to-video gems that were inexplicably popular in the 1980s, “Wolfcop” told the story of Lou Garou, an alcoholic cop in a small town who transforms into a werewolf after being cursed. Garou’s new lupine powers enable him to become a better cop and uncover a conspiracy instigated by a group of reptilian shape-shifters. The daft storyline was made more palatable by some goofy practical effects and a generous serving of over-the-top gore. “Wolfcop” was never going to win any Oscars, but I found it entertaining enough to purchase a copy of this spin-off ebook as soon as it was released.

“Wolfcop: Fleshmob” is a sequel-of-sorts to the movie and sees Lou Garou investigating an outbreak of strange and incredibly violent flashmob-style dancing in his local mall. Before long, the lycanthropic policeman is caught up in a wild adventure revolving around musical mind-control, sinister corporations and a sexy goth extreme-wiccan who is adept at both hacking computers and tossing magical hexes around. Like the original movie, “Wolfcop: Fleshmob” is not meant to be taken too seriously. At 153 pages, this novella is the longest of the three ebooks reviewed here by quite a long way, but at £4 it is also the most expensive, perhaps even a little over-priced. Just like the film, the story manages to cram in a decent amount of action and gore whilst squeezing in a few knob-gags for good measure. It’s never hilariously funny, nor is it gripping enough to keep you awake all night reading but Munson’s prose is snappy enough and, at a few choice moments, the dialogue is reminiscent of the firecracker exchanges of a Joe R. Lansdale novel. However, this ebook is let down by more than its fair share of clumsy spelling mistakes and one gets the impression that it could have benefitted from a more thorough edit before being unleashed on the world. I’ve seen sloppier ebooks, but not at such a high price.

Despite these minor grumbles, I found it easy to get swept along with the pure unbridled silliness of it all and I will probably read Lou Garou’s next adventure, should it ever happen. The film didn’t get the publicity it deserved and so it remains relatively obscure, not even popular enough to deserve the sobriquet of “cult film”. This novella is even less likely to gain popular acclaim but I have no doubt that fans of “Wolfcop” will find plenty to entertain them here.


Hereward L.M. Proops

July 1, 2015

BENCHLEY BITES:

Non-Shark Thrillers From The Creator of Jaws

Review by Pat Black

It’s the 40th anniversary of the original Jaws movie, but I cannot write anything about either the book or the film which hasn’t been covered here already.

I can, however, write about Peter Benchley’s other watery thrillers. So let’s hold our noses, and jump in.

The Deep (1976)

Following Jaws was a tall order. How do you move on from a book that sold millions of copies and spawned a cultural juggernaut?

The author was wise to focus on underwater menace, though I can imagine he may well have been nudged into more oceanic adventures through the entreaties of his agent and publishers. Although Benchley loved the sea and the creatures that live there, as a writer he might not have liked being lowered into the “sharks guy” or the “ocean thrillers guy” cage.

Commercial logic dictated that he should stick to a winning formula, and so we got The Deep, hitting bookstores a year after Jaws became a monster at the box office. The iron was hot, and Benchley had another hit.

If you say the word “Jaws” to people, you’d assume most people would think of a shark. But you’ll most likely hear any number of associations, from John Williams’ score to the Orca to Robert Shaw’s Indianapolis speech, to needing a bigger boat, to some bad hat Harry, to the mayor’s extraordinary anchor-pattern sports jacket, to (enough. Enough!!!)…

However, if you mention “The Deep” to people, then you will most likely be given two points of reference, both of which reside underneath Jacqueline Bissett’s wet t-shirt. Thanks to Peter Yates’ movie version which appeared a year later, the English rose provided a cinematic vision of sweaty-palmed male lust arguably on a par with Anita Ekberg frolicking in the Trevi Fountain, or Raquel Welch in a furry bikini. It’s a painfully sexist concept, but it did its job, which was to publicise the movie. When asked about this aspect of The Deep years later, Benchley diplomatically and even gallantly described Bisset as “a very brave and game lady” - who was well aware of the attention that her famous wet t-shirt shots would bring her.

This is a shame, because The Deep is a taut thriller, perfect holiday reading. It follows David and Gail Sanders, a young couple on a Scuba diving honeymoon in Bermuda. They discover a wartime wreck, and inside they find an “ampoule” filled with liquid, which turns out to be weapon-grade morphine. The wreck is filled with these.

Word gets around back on the island, and the couple are menaced by a local gangster, Cloche, who wants to know the location of this underwater drugs gold-mine. Luckily, the couple are helped by local character and wreck salvage expert Romer Treece to vacuum up the ampoules strewn around the wreck. It turns out that there’s something else down there, beneath the 1940s wreck; a sunken galleon, loaded with treasure.

There’s plenty of underwater thrills, including a few shark moments. Benchley had to include a monster, though, and in this story it’s a giant Moray eel which darts out of a hidey-hole in the wreck to snack on unwary divers. The Deep is an enjoyable, fast-paced adventure story and a fine follow-up to Jaws (or at least, as good as Benchley could have hoped).

We have to talk about sex, though.

In Jaws, Hooper and Ellen Brody’s affair is a jarring moment, a curious emasculation of the novel’s hero, Chief Brody. The pair’s bar-room chat in the lead-up to doing the naughty is cringe-worthy stuff, featuring rape fantasies which seem to spool off into the actual sex itself, going by Ellen’s recollection of it. The Deep features a similar sense of the book’s hero being symbolically cuckolded. Two scenes are noteworthy in this regard, both of which made it into the movie. In one part, David and Gail are captured by Cloche’s henchmen and made to strip, ostensibly to make sure they aren’t hiding any magic ampoules in their shorts and sandals. Benchley describes the palpable lust of the men as Gail takes her clothes off, even going so far as to show David becoming involuntarily excited by this scenario, and implanting the phrase “absurd tumescence” into my psyche forevermore.

The pair are subsequently let go, but there’s another scene in which the hero’s wife is stripped and assaulted as part of a weird voodoo ritual. “They didn’t rape me,” is the first thing Gail says when David and Treece find out she’s been attacked, after having been diving at the wreck site.

It’s a bit odd. And rapey.

The Deep is long out of print, but is worth seeking out second-hand. As we saw in Jaws, and as we shall see elsewhere here, Benchley had a talent for the big finish. Although the shark’s death in his novel wasn’t as eye-catching as it was in Steven Spielberg’s film, Jaws had a thrilling finale and a narrow escape for the hero. The same is true in The Deep, which finishes on an exclamation mark.

The Island (1979)

“Okay, we’ve done sharks, we’ve done treasure hunting… What’s next, Peter? Pirates? Guffaw!”

Indeed, pirates.

Finishing the 1970s on the crest of a wave, Benchley’s next book looked to adventure above the surface. The Island’s main character, Blair Maynard, is a journalist on the hunt for his next haaat scooooop. He gets wind of several strange shipping disappearances in the Bermuda Triangle. So, of course, he goes on an assignment to see if modern day pirates are behind the mystery which plagues this tropical paradise.

That distant crackling sound you just heard was the derisory laughter of thousands of journalists, for whom the idea of such an “assignment” on their day job really is the stuff of fiction.

Ironically, this may not quite have been the case in the late 1970s, a period which old-timers in journalism refer to as the “golden age”. There was lots of money to be earned, being drunk at work was positively encouraged, you could actually make a living from freelancing and, yes, some people did get sent to strange and exotic places for the sake of a miserable two-page spread on pages 10 and 11. The words “paid sabbatical” were also uttered with the utmost seriousness by some staffers in those days, whereas today they are mentioned in the same context as “Bigfoot”, “Loch Ness Monster” and “trickle-down economics”.

So, Maynard takes his young son on this assignment, only to discover – shiver me timbers! –there are indeed pirates patrolling these waters. They duly get captured by… Well… Now, hold on a minute.

Fantasies of front-line journalism aside, The Island was doing okay up until this point. Benchley was getting away with it. Even in these days of GPS tracking, sophisticated homing devices and improved search and rescue systems, ships can still go missing in remote places, and we all know about the reality of modern-day piracy. So, up until this point, Benchley had a potentially exciting novel on his hands. Editors would have sat up and taken notice; perhaps they’d even have scribbled some notes. Imagine a tense pursuit at sea, with fearsome gun-toting brigands, involving drugs, people-trafficking and simple bloody-mindedness on the high seas, as the goodies have to fight to survive. Not a bad premise at all.

Unfortunately, Benchley takes a wrong turn, at a basic conceptual level. His pirate novel is peopled by… actual pirates.

Not tense, stringy modern-day menaces with Uzis and machetes, but actual, “Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum, ahaaaaarggggh me beauties”, eyepatches, peg legs, parrots and cutlasses pirates.

The gang is a bizarre sect living under the guiding hand of the fearsome Captain Nau, descended from an original 17th century pirate, living by the same customs and rules. As a result they are unwashed, genetically compromised and sexually bizarre, and make Tom Baker’s old sea dog in Blackadder seem like your favourite uncle.

Plus… if The Deep had a little trickle of rape about some of its scenes, then The Island is drenched in it. Women and children? Raped. Blokes? Raped. Animals? Inanimate objects? Fresh air? Probably raped.

Possibly Benchley was aiming to portray the type of rape n’ pillage activities that were all the rage among most seafaring rogues from the Vikings onwards, but this all seems dreadfully unnecessary.

Bizarre scene follows bizarre scene, ranging from a strange albino pilot who accompanies Maynard on the early part of his journey who gets pissed at the helm and crashes his plane, to that crucial “fish oil enema” passage where the whole of Pirate Island defecates for an entire chapter.

You read that right. Fish oil enemas. Freestyle sh*tting. Don’t all rush to eBay at once.

The novel hinges on a strange tug of love between Mayard, his son Justin and Captain Nau, the big baddie. Justin is recruited into the ranks of Nau’s community for the sake of new blood. Rather than being slaughtered like everyone else, Maynard is allowed to live because, for all-too-convenient reasons, Nau discovers he has pirate blood in him, and to kill him would be against the pirate code of conduct, or something.

Maynard consoles himself with a native girl while Justin has a Lord of the Flies style experience with his new pirate buddies, changing his loyalties while Maynard looks on, aggrieved and yet sexually fulfilled with his concubine.

I don’t often say this on Booksquawk, and I’m also saying it about a man whose work has had a big effect on my life: The Island is a dreadful novel.

I first read it when I was 16 after having picked it out from a second-hand bookshop in Partick, and even at that less-than-sensitive age I was scratching my head at its perverse absurdity. Benchley, who comes from American literary aristocracy, including his grandfather, the humourist Robert Benchley, and his father, Nathaniel, and was himself more than capable of turning out a fine sentence, must have known he had written an absolute gobbler.

Maybe it was a lazy hack job written out of contractual obligation; the same scenario as when bands go through the motions to fulfil a restrictive record contract, with a view to getting a better one later on, or splitting up for more lucrative solo careers.

Whatever the reasons for its existence, this book is silly and outright bizarre, with some worrying preoccupations. If it was written as a joke, then it falls flat on its face. The kind of quip you’d make after a few drinks at a party, drawing flat silences and tense faces, following which you simply have to leave.

What strikes me as particularly astonishing about The Island is that, in spite of its patent absurdity, it was quickly optioned for film rights, and was actually made as a movie in 1980, starring Michael Caine.

Caine has had an amazing career, but it was never more interesting than in the 1980s. Although this decade saw him win his first Oscar for Hannah and Her Sisters and also appear in great films like Mona Lisa, Educating Rita and even Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, he didn’t half make some dreadful shite to pay the bills. The Island, which bellyflopped at the box office, qualifies on this front.

Of course, there’s another Benchley link to consider, as Jaws: The Revenge lurks on Caine’s CV. Indeed, he famously couldn’t turn up to receive his Academy Award in 1987 because he was shooting that great white turkey in the Bahamas at the time. There’s an oft-repeated quote attached to Caine, in which the actor reportedly said that he had never seen Jaws: The Revenge, but he had seen the house he built thanks to his salary.

It’s alright for some, me old china.

One thing I will say in its favour: like Jaws and The Deep, The Island has an abrupt, thrilling and unexpected climax as Maynard goes toe-to-stump with Captain Nau. It’s not worth the journey, though, unless you’re the kind of person who enjoys looking at photos of crime scenes.

Beast (1991)

Maybe as a result of the brain-quaking stupidity of The Island, Peter Benchley didn’t return to oceanic thrillers for another 12 years. He put out The Girl of the Sea of Cortez (more on that later), a watery modern-day fable, and then went on dry land for Rummies, aka Lush (although there’s a lot of wet stuff in that book), as well as the political novel Q Clearance. Although it appears that these books get closer to the heart of Peter Benchley as the writer he wanted to be, they didn’t sell very well.

I guess he’d been badgered… wrong animal; let’s say piranhaed… for years to write “something like Jaws”. He duly delivered in 1991 with the story of another sea monster, the giant squid, in Beast.

Beast (later renamed The Beast, for whatever reason), takes place in Bermuda, and sees a monster filling its suckers with hapless Scuba divers and pleasure boaters. Benchley, who often seemed afflicted by guilt or regret over the effect Jaws supposedly had on demonising sharks, was careful to lay the blame for his latest monster mash on environmental concerns. The harmony of the sea has been unbalanced by over-fishing, which leads creatures like Architeuthis Dux - usually found loitering in the deep sea to give sperm whales nookie badges - into changing its habits. The monster creeps ever closer to the surface, and finally butts mantles with humanity.

There’s even a little meta-commentary, as the characters discuss Jaws as the fiction it is, and debate its effect on how sharks are viewed. If Benchley was trying to distance himself from Jaws – in a book about a man-eating sea beast, no less - then he might at least have tried to do the same with his plot, which is in some cases near-identical to its piscine predecessor.

The marauding cephalopod won’t go away, and thusly needs to be hunted and killed. Whip Darling (Benchley had a way with names) is our hero, a grizzled fishing boat captain with money worries who is paid, and then blackmailed, to take part in the search for the monster after it eats a millionaire’s children. Darling is grumpy like Quint, but less psychotic. Also on hand is a shifty marine biologist who sees a chance to make a name for himself in the scientific journals, as well as Darling’s military mate, and the Ahab-esque millionaire, hell-bent on killing the monster. Wonder how that’s going to pan out?

Things lead, rather predictably, to a hunter-becomes-the-hunted scenario at sea, with yet another unexpected, sudden, memorable climax.

It isn’t Jaws, but it’s very like Jaws, with easily recognisable beats and well-written scenes of seagoing peril. Also, Benchley had finally learned his lesson, and there’s no bad sex waiting to pounce on unwary doggie-paddlers. You know exactly what to expect with Beast, but I liked it for that, and fans of Jaws should check it out.

White Shark/Creature (1994)

Benchley had the very devil of a time with titles. Rummies, a strange blend of alcoholism memoir and murder mystery, is also known as Lush; even Beast got a “The” added to it in later editions.

Famously, Jaws was almost never Jaws at all - Benchley came up with a load of titles which didn't quite cut it, such as Leviathan Rising, The Stillness In The Water, and Aaargh Big Fishie Stop Biting Me! One of these may be a lie.

Creature, as I know it, was originally entitled White Shark. This book does not primarily concern a white shark (although one appears, called, er, Jaws). The title was changed to tie in with the TV movie adaptation of 1997, but it also helped gentle down some people who may have bought the book when it came out and complained, expecting it to be about, you know, the thing in the title.

It's a B-movie homage, featuring a genetically-spliced human/shark hybrid monster, created by those pesky Nazis. The Third Reich is a good stand-by if you need a villain everyone can get their teeth into without any political awkwardness. Hell, we were even friends with the Russians in 1994, so they were out - though around about this time Michael Crichton decided to take a pop at the Japanese for their business practises (?!!?).

The creature is a secret underwater weapon put together during some Josef Mengele-style experiments, with steel claws for hands and the jaws of a great white shark. This Nazi science uber-carnage programme was called “Der Weisse Hai”, which is why Benchley, or more likely his publishers, went for the original title. Obviously. 

How about The Bullshi*t In The Water, or Jobbies Rising

It's a fun beach read. Research scientists; Long Island setting; bit of ecology focusing on cute seals, a pregnant shark, a bit of romance... Curiously, the father-son bonding dynamic of The Island is explored again, though thankfully we dispense with pirate craziness and rape this time out. People do die but it's a decent family drama, with added monster - a nice sea change from Benchley's earlier dark, adult storylines. 

The book keeps its monster well hidden, with the author perhaps taking his cue from Spielberg, only revealing it to us at the end. I must confess I had to be reminded of how the story concludes. It’s confectionery, but I recall it was a serviceable enough thriller that merrily swims in the same pool as its better-known peers. 

This was Benchley's last piece of fiction. He spent the rest of his life pursuing his conservation interests, and although he did turn out a few more books on sharks, they're true-life pieces, mostly focusing on how to keep the critters alive in a world which seems intent on finning the lot of them. He died in 2006, aged 65.

Just the other day I read a piece on how Benchley supposedly helped make the world unnecessarily frightened of sharks. That article got on my wick, and prompted this one.

This isn't said enough about Peter Benchley: he was neither responsible for the demonisation of sharks, nor is he the reason why many species are endangered. We've been frightened of sharks forever, so it's disingenuous to suggest this was something that began in 1975. They were not regarded as cute and cuddly prior to Jaws. They were also well-known symbols of menace and fear throughout mainstream fictions, long before Our Bruce ever thrashed popular culture into bloody foam. Just read Jules Verne, or Herman Melville, if you don’t believe me.

The reason is simple: sharks are dangerous animals. We know that attacks are very rare and that they don't really want to eat humans - but sometimes, they do. That’s the juice.

We are fascinated by our great predators. Like the eagle or the tiger, a shark is an instantly recognisable creature, a thing of fearful symmetry. We love it for that. Jaws has a very rare, inter-generational cultural cache, tapping into our very psyche. The idea of being eaten alive by a fish is something out of our nightmares. But I'd argue the story’s influence on sharks has been, ultimately, positive.

The environmental obscenity of finning and over-fishing has nothing to do with Jaws. The white shark may well have been more prized by sports anglers in the immediate aftermath of Jaws, and certainly its gnashers would have been seen by some dullards as a trophy worth putting on the mantelpiece. But these folk are in a small minority compared to people like me, who grew up in the teeth of Jaws, and were awestruck by the creature portrayed.

I became more interested in sharks not as dumb brutes to be slaughtered, but as things worthy of respect, even affection. I grew up obsessed by sharks, and I’ll still clear my schedule for a spot of shark porn any time nature documentaries are screened. Jaws is the reason for this.

As Jaws continues to enjoy what Benchley described as “a strange cultural resonance”, so its positive influence grows. People young and old love sharks, and we don't want to see them wiped out. After fascination, came education; we know so much more about these creatures now than we did in 1975.

Benchley's big fish story should start to take some credit for all of this. Certainly he was a tireless advocate of marine conservation for much of his life, and he deserves recognition for that, too.

There’s one more sea-themed book which Benchley released, but it was a bit of a departure: The Girl Of The Sea of Cortez. It’s a gentle love letter to the ocean, and many people have told me it’s his best book. I’ll have to investigate.