Monday, 24 November 2014

John Brunner by Jad Smith / review by Stephen Theaker

Sarah Pinborough once said that “anyone who thinks any writer, bestseller or on the breadline, writes for the money, is a fool”, but it would be equally foolish to think money has no effect on what they write – and especially on what we get to see of their work. This book on John Brunner (University of Illinois Press, hb, 196pp), who gave up scholarships and well-paying jobs to concentrate on writing, but frequently focused his efforts on fulfilling the particular needs of the market, illustrates both sides of the coin. Smith draws a picture of him as a writer often stranded in “interzones” (a word used here so frequently that a review in these pages was surely inevitable): too pessimistic and unpredictable for American readers, too market-orientated for the new wave; a devoted fan (after leaving the RAF he hoped to “spend a year at home writing ... and fanning”), but apparently unpopular on the convention scene.

Though coming from a university press – it forms part of the Modern Masters of Science Fiction series from the University of Illinois – this book isn’t steeped in literary criticism or swamped in jargon; general readers interested in the subject will find it perfectly accessible. Where it is polemical, it’s in support of the author’s ideas rather than his politics, in particular his thesis that Brunner’s whole oeuvre is worth studying, not just the books that won awards; he wants to situate “his better-known works within the larger arc of his career”. He shows how Brunner’s writing career did not progress neatly from Ace entertainments to hardback Hugo-winning literature. Rather, the two types of book intertwined throughout his career, as he rushed some books out to fund the concentrated spells of attention that more ambitious works required.

That Stand on Zanzibar was released to a hostile reception, and treated as a commercial, American appropriation of the New Wave, may be a surprise to readers accustomed to regarding it as a well-established part of the science fiction canon. A review of Telepathist in Vector described it as the kind of affected intellectualism “one might expect from an author who sports a goatee and a wine-coloured corduroy jacket”. Although the book is very much on Brunner’s side in such matters – Moorcock, Aldiss and Platt are portrayed as nothing short of schoolyard bullies – it does acknowledge his moodiness and, for example, Zanzibar’s immense debt to Dos Passos. Asides such as that describing “John and Marjorie’s relationship as sexually open and emotionally tumultuous” suggest a biography proper would be worthwhile.

Given that this is a book which, very usefully, draws on several hard-to-find primary sources – fanzines, letters and convention speeches, for example – it’s disappointing that it is so parsimonious with its quotations, rarely providing more than a line or two of Brunner himself. While that contributes to its readability, it does mean the reader is left to accept the author’s paraphrases and interpretations of Brunner’s words, rather than being able to come to their own conclusions. A short interview is included, from 1975, but that gives us only a snapshot of a particular period of his writing, a single mood. An extensive bibliography takes up the book’s last quarter, so at least signposts to the original texts are there for those who want to investigate further.

The book doesn’t provide a radical new way of looking at Brunner’s work – the overall effect is of a well-crafted and lengthy encyclopaedia entry written by someone with a slight bias towards to the subject – but it argues well for the continuing interest and relevance of his work. Hard to argue with that when Smith’s summary of The Sheep Look Up sounds like a week’s worth of headlines from The Independent: “Fish stocks are depleted. Natural bee populations have collapsed ... Human bodies fester with once-controlled but now drug-resistant diseases.” Smith is also right to highlight the strangeness of such a book coming from the same writer as, say, The Super Barbarians and its goofy portrayal of human exceptionalism.

Readers unfamiliar with Brunner’s novels would find this a perfect introduction to them (except in so far as it gives away the plots, but that’s only to be expected in a critical study). Even those who have read the award winners may find their interest piqued by discussion of fringe titles: The Atlantic Abomination sounds much better than the title would suggest. Smith mentions in places that certain works were never reprinted, and it’s a sad fact that Brunner was almost entirely out of print at the time of his death, but one pleasure of reading this book is knowing almost all of it is now available (albeit, in some cases, marred by appalling typos) via the SF Gateway. This book left me keen to read more Brunner, and also to read further titles in the Modern Masters range.

After a bit of editing, this review appeared in Interzone #245, back in 2013.

Friday, 21 November 2014

Adventures with the Wife in Space by Neil Perryman / review by Stephen Theaker

“… imagine if you could convince someone who hasn’t seen the episodes to sit through them all? Someone who wouldn’t know if a story was supposed to be good or bad before they’d even sat down to watch it; a person who didn’t know what was coming next; a person who’d agree to watch the whole thing with an open mind and without prejudice. That’s where you come in, Sue.”

In 2011, Neil Perryman persuaded his wife Sue to watch all of Doctor Who, from start to finish, going so far as to watch fan-made reconstructions where the originals remain lost. While the viewing marathon was underway, one or two stories being watched a night, Sue’s reactions and ratings were being recorded on a blog, Behind the Sofa, quoted here in small chunks. Adventures with the Wife in Space (Faber and Faber, ebook, 3179ll) is the story behind this adventure.

I found that a bit disappointing, in that I was more interested in reading about the adventure itself. But that’s the blog. This is more The Making of Behind the Sofa, a behind-the-scenes book, packaged in a way to make it seem of more general interest. More than the story of watching the series, this is the story of Perryman’s relationship with the series, and although he’s a few years older than me (his first memory – “of anything” – is from the month I was born: the drashig in “Carnival of Monsters”), it’s one very similar to my own. Love for the Tom Baker years, interruption during the Davison years (rugby for him, cubs for me), not watching much of Colin Baker, and then, at university, realising that he had missed the renaissance of Sylvester McCoy’s second and third years and that leading back into enjoying the programme as a whole.

This will be an enjoyable if unsurprising read for fans of Doctor Who, and it may also appeal to fans of Nick Hornby; it reminded me a lot of Fever Pitch. But it’s not essential, and those intrigued by the book’s pitch who haven’t heard of the blog will probably be disappointed by what’s not here. In the early chapters I was thinking, okay, that’s enough build-up, let’s get onto watching the episodes, but it never really happens. Plenty of life, but could have done with more wife.  ***

Monday, 17 November 2014

Jagannath by Karin Tidbeck / review by Stephen Theaker

Karin Tidbeck is a Swedish writer who, frustrated by a lack of local opportunities, began a few years ago [before this review was originally published] to translate her own work into English, leading to appearances in Weird Tales and other US magazines. A previous Swedish collection – Vem är Arvid Pekon? – included all but four of these fourteen stories, but this is her first book in English. There are many points of similarity here with Ekaterina Sedia’s similarly strong collection, Moscow But Dreaming. Both write stories set in parts of the world and featuring legends and character types not yet reduced to cliché by English and American writers, stories that can be rather miserable, about ground-down people and the difficulty of finding love and support in a heartless world; both are part of a tradition of fantasy that takes in Kafka but sidesteps Tolkien.

While Moscow But Dreaming tends to focus on the women being damaged, Tidbeck’s collection is interested in the effects of their absence. Some characters never even met the person they needed. “Arvid Pekon”, for example, who spends his nights alone and works among telephone operators who frustrate the public for unknown purposes, or “Herr Cederberg”, hurt by the casual cruelty of other people – when people spoke of him, “the most common simile was pig, followed by panda, koala, and bumblebee, in no particular order” – and tries to fly away from it all. “I might have gone mad,” Pekon tells his terminal after losing control of his behaviour: that’s a sentiment shared by many of Tidbeck’s characters. The protagonist of “Beatrice” seems equally sympathetic at first, falling in love with an airship. Unfortunately she has been sold, and he settles for Beatrice II. By a landlord’s accident they come to share a warehouse with Anna Goldberg, a printer’s assistant in love with a semi-portable steam engine. This all seems cute and quirky, but an unexpected ending resets the reader’s expectations for the rest of the book.

Beatrice is not the last female lost in these stories: wives, mothers, friends, and in “Reindeer Mountain” a sister: “Cilla was twelve years old the summer Sara put on her great-grandmother’s wedding dress and disappeared up the mountain.” The loss, strangeness and confusion in that sentence give a good sense of the book as a whole. “Some Letters for Ove Lindstrom” are written by a daughter after his drunken, lonely death, his life ruined by his fey wife’s disappearance from the commune in which they lived. “Rebecka” is a friend lost first to pain and then to divine judgment; it begins with her outline scorched against a wall, “arms outstretched as if to embrace someone”. God exists, but let a horrific attack last three days before interceding. The “Aunts” are three immense women fattened by Nieces until their grotesque bodies are ready to produce the next generation. As so often here, an interesting idea is pushed that little bit further, showing how the Nieces try to cope when the Aunts fail to reproduce, reflecting our own efforts to deal with tragedy and bereavement.

Like “Aunts”, many stories have the feel of dark fantasy but can be read as science fiction. One such is “Brita’s Holiday Village”, where the narrator stays in a resort unchanged since the seventies. In May, “white, plum-sized pupas hang clustered under the eaves” of the bungalows, and in June she dreams of distant relatives who stay in the cottages and hold increasingly odd summer parties. “Pyret” takes the form of an academic article, presenting evidence that this mythical mimic is not “a cryptid but a real being”. After examining historical accounts of the creatures, including, most eerily, the Sjungpastorn, who held mass and sang a wordless song to isolated churchgoers, the writer comes to worrying conclusions. Title story “Jagannath” is the last in the book, the second longest (albeit at just eleven pages), and the most straightforwardly science-fictional, in which the much-altered survivors of a great disaster live and work inside Mother – but she can’t survive forever. She’s the last and most important lost woman of the book.

Ann and Jeff VanderMeer are highly respected editors, and their first publication as proprietors of Cheeky Frawg is sure-footed, from the intriguing cover onwards. The print edition is handsome, the ebook perfectly set up (rarer than it should be, even with major publishers), the introduction ideal, the author’s afterword fascinating. The print version is perhaps slim for its price, so the cheaper ebook may prove attractive for UK readers, but the stories are so intensely emotional that you wouldn’t necessarily want it to be any longer. I spent much of my last holiday reading the much shorter books in the Penguin Mini Moderns series: Barthelme, Calvino, Petrushevskaya, Borges, Jackson, and so on. The remarkable stories of Jagannath (Cheeky Frawg Books pb, 160pp) would be perfectly at home in that company.

After a bit of editing, this review appeared in Interzone #244, back in 2013.

Friday, 14 November 2014

Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction #49: now out!

Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction #49 is now out, at last! Sorry to all the contributors for how long it’s taken me to finish this one off. It features novellas by Ross Gresham (“Ut in Fumum!”) and Michael B. Tager (“Nebuchadnezzar”), and an Oulippean story by Antonella Coriander (“Beatrice et Veronique: Tunnel Panic!”), plus cover art by Howard Watts, reviews by Tim Atkinson, Jacob Edwards, Rafe McGregor, Stephen Theaker and Douglas J. Ogurek, and an interview with Kathryn Allan and Djibril al-Ayad.

Reviewed this issue: Adventures with the Wife in Space by Neil Perryman, Buffy the Vampire Slayer Omnibus Vol. 6, City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett, Daredevil by Mark Waid, Deliver Us from Evil, Glorkian Warrior: The Trials of Glork, Guardians of the Galaxy, I Killed Rasputin, I Need a Doctor: the Whosical, Infidel by Kameron Hurley, Lucy, The Making of Star Wars by J.W. Rinzler, Mr Mercedes by Stephen King, Penny Dreadful, Season 1, Return to Armageddon by Malcolm Shaw and Jesus Redondo, The Seventh Miss Hatfield by Anna Caltabiano, The Spectral Link by Thomas Ligotti, Turbulence (the audiobook) by Samit Basu, The Violent Century by Lavie Tidhar, World of Fire by James Lovegrove, and Yesterday’s Kin by Nancy Kress.

Here it is: free epub, free mobi, free pdf, print UK, print USA, Kindle UK store, Kindle US store.



Here are the artisans who wove those wonderful tapestries:

Antonella Coriander has (in this reality, at least) only ever been published in Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction, to her great dismay. Her story in this issue is the third episode of her ongoing Oulippean serial.

Douglas J. Ogurek’s work has appeared in the BFS Journal, The Literary Review, Morpheus Tales, Gone Lawn, and several anthologies. He lives in a Chicago suburb with the woman whose husband he is and their five pets. In this issue he reviews the film Deliver Us from Evil. His website: www.douglasjogurek.weebly.com.

Howard Watts is a writer, artist and composer living in Seaford who provides the cover art for this issue.

Jacob Edwards is a steward on Australia’s speculative fiction flagship Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, but he moonlights with us when in port. This writer, poet and recovering lexiphanicist’s website is at: www.jacobedwards.id.au. He also now has a Facebook page (www.facebook.com/pages/Jacob-Edwards/467957066679321), where he posts poems and the occasional oddity. He can be liked and followed. (More than that, he should be!) In this issue he reviews The Making of Star Wars.

Michael B. Tager’s work has appeared in the Atticus Review, Typehouse Literary Magazine, Schlock! and The Light Ekphrastic. He likes Buffy, the Orioles and theatre. His debut appearance in the magazine is with a forty-page novella, “Nebuchadnezzar”.

Rafe McGregor, absent from these pages for far too long, reviews Mr Mercedes and The Spectral Link in this issue. So good to have him back!

Ross Gresham teaches at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. His stories have previously appeared in #34 (“Name the Planet”), #41 (“Milo Don’t Count Coup”), #44 (“Milo on Fire”), and #46 (“Wild Seed”). “Ut in Fumum!” is I think the longest in the Milo and Marmite series yet. You’re going to enjoy it!

Stephen Theaker is both human and dancer. Someone should tell The Killers that there’s no need to choose. His reviews have also appeared in Black Static, Interzone, Prism and the BFS Journal. His hobbies include watching television and reading books. His ambition is to completely clear his backlog of reviews in TQF50.

Tim Atkinson lives, reads and works in the West Midlands. Sporadically he jots down thoughts about SFF and more at www.magpie-moth.blogspot.co.uk". In this issue he reviews Infidel by Kameron Hurley and The Violent Century by Lavie Tidhar.



Bonus! To celebrate this new issue, all our Amazon exclusive ebooks will be absolutely free this week: Professor Challenger in Space, Quiet, the Tin Can Brains Are Hunting!, The Fear Man, Howard Phillips in His Nerves Extruded, Howard Phillips and the Doom That Came to Sea Base Delta, Howard Phillips and the Day the Moon Wept Blood, The Mercury Annual and Pilgrims at the White Horizon.

As ever, all back issues of Theaker's Quarterly Fiction are available for free download.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Forthcoming Theaker

Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #49 will be with you on Friday. (Sorry for the delay!) While you're waiting, here is information on three other forthcoming publications that feature my work, as well as the contributions of many other people whose names you may recognise:


Interzone #255: includes my review of a fascinating book of essays, Black and Brown Planets, edited by Isiah Lavender III, plus columns by Jonathan McCalmont and Nina Allan, a story by Thana Niveau, and much, much more.


Black Static #43: includes my review of The Unquiet House by Alison Littlewood, as well as many, many more reviews by the peerless Peter Tennant, stories by Ralph Robert Moore, Andrew Hook and Aliya Whiteley, and loads more.


BFS Journal #13: will contain quite a few bits by me, thanks to a bit of a crisis at BFS Towers, including an interview with Lavie Tidhar, a piece going through the results of the BFS president's recent survey, an article about my experiences at FantasyCon 2014, and a round-up of responses from former BFS chairs to my questions about that hot seat. Almost two hundred pages of stories, poetry and articles! The link for this one will take you to the Join the BFS bit of the BFS website, because that's the only way you can get hold of this fine publication. I'll be sending it to press on November 17, more or less, so make sure you've joined by then to get onto the mailing list. The cover (selected by the outgoing editor) is by our own Howard Watts.

Monday, 10 November 2014

The Wurms of Blearmouth by Steven Erikson / review by Stephen Theaker

Lord Fangatooth Claw the Render, insane lord sorceror of West Elingarth’s Forgotten Holding, celebrates dominion over Spendrugle village with daily tortures of his brother, his rule upheld by three iron golems with buckets for heads, at least one of whom took him five months to create. By his law, being a stranger is punishable by death, which suits the villagers since it leaves no survivors of the shipwrecks from which they draw their pocket money. But the new folks brought in by the tide are the kind that take a fair bit of killing. Most dangerous are the first to arrive: Bauchelain and Korbal Broach, necromancers, one sharp and expansive, the other taciturn and brutal, both ready to kill at the twitch of an eye.

The Wurms of Blearmouth (PS Publishing, hb, 124pp) is the fifth novella about this pair and their loyal servant, Emancipor Reese. The fourth, Crack’d Pot Trail, was quite brilliant but unusual, Bauchelain and Korbal Broach in the wings till the end as their pursuers preyed upon fellow travellers. Here, the necromancers play a more active role, rather like children poking an anthill. Chronologically, it seems to follow book two, The Lees of Laughter’s End, but knowledge of other books isn’t required for the enjoyment of this one. Characters enter the scene with colourful histories, battle-wounded and vengeful, and whether relevant events happened in previous novellas, Steven Erikson’s eleven colossal Malazan novels or collaborator Ian Cameron Esslemont’s four won’t matter much to anyone except fans trying to piece everything together.

It’s a story of venal grotesques, each uniquely drawn, with whom we’re happy to see dark powers play. Lord Fangatooth, who has Todd Ingram’s way with a quip and a scribe on hand to record them. Whuffine Gaggs, the beachcomber who greets survivors with a smile, but hides a knife behind his back. Felooval, innkeeper, brothel owner, hiding a deadly secret in her bosom. Her daughter, dreaming of big city prostitution while stroking her lizard cat. The broken taxman who wants to take her (but not the cat). Ackle, who, hung by the neck, lives on, and worries about freezing solid in the winter. Hordillo, the sergeant who will never admit to an exceedingly unfortunate marriage. Tiny Chanter, Wormlick, Sordid: all distinctly – often uncomfortably – memorable.

Though its length would make this ideal for those unready to embark upon the ten thousand pages of Erikson’s Malazan novels, only fans and collectors are likely to find twenty pounds an attractive price for such a short book; those unsure should try the novellas collected cheaply as The First Collected Tales of Bauchelain & Korbal Broach. Those three are terrific, but this is even better, an entertainment for brain and gut; clever, vivid, funny and surprising, with a delicious tone, mining a rich, dark seam – “the delightful pleasure of evil”, Erikson calls it – producing murderously good dialogue. “What? What have you done to me?” asks one villain, to receive Bauchelain’s reply: “Why, I have killed you.” And like Erikson, he does it with style.

After a bit of editing, this review appeared in Interzone #243, back in 2012.

Monday, 3 November 2014

Seven Wonders by Adam Christopher / review by Stephen Theaker

The supervillains of the world are gone – defeated, retired, arrested – leaving two to fight the bad fight: The Cowl, billionaire industrialist by day, conscience-free killer by night (and sometimes by day too), and Blackbird, his untrustworthy sidekick with a heart of ice. Gangs throughout San Ventura, California wear his omega tag with pride. The city cowers. With no other supervillains to battle, the world’s superheroes have retired too, leaving just the Seven Wonders – Aurora’s Light, Bluebell, Sand Cat, Linear, Hephaestus, SMART and The Dragon Star – to deal with The Cowl, a job they handle with staggering and apparently wilful ineptitude.

Into this comes Tony, who wakes in the night with energy powers, then gains strength, bulletproof skin and flight, that last while interfering with The Cowl’s bank robbery. New friend Jeannie trains him and creates a costume with her atomic sewing machine, but the question for Tony is: what to do with these powers? Take out The Cowl? But if that’s obvious to him after just a few days of having powers, why haven’t the Seven Wonders done it? That question also troubles Sam Millar, detective on the SVPD SuperCrime unit, her husband one of thousands killed by The Cowl.

From that point on, Seven Wonders (Angry Robot, pb, 480pp) by Adam Christopher could be admired for not going where expected – this isn’t The Boys – but where it goes instead could have been more interesting. Though the novel has a detective at its heart, it gives her very little to detect; she doesn’t get to unmask anyone, for example. Bluebell’s ability to manipulate minds casts doubt over much of the novel’s action, but if we take events as read this is a simple story of power that corrupts. The incorruptible heroes are those without character flaws. Those corrupted can be set straight by siphoning off their powers.

Recent comics dealing with similar themes have given us the superbly evil Batman of Nemesis, the genocidal Superman of Irredeemable, and Invincible battling his own father to defend the human race from enslavement. In Seven Wonders there are no grand revelations, no ethical conflicts, no great insights into the way power corrupts over time or the immense pressure that would come with such immense responsibility. Everyone is pretty much what they appear to be, and that’s generally either bland or angry. Had the novel’s finale revealed the Seven Wonders as Billy Batsons pretending to be grown-ups it wouldn’t have surprised.

Happily, an alien invasion ends the book on a high, its cosmic fire and fury playing to the strengths of the novel and its heroes better than earthbound plots. The heroes and villains that assemble in space are entertaining and imaginative (Lucifer Now! Lady Liberty and her team of android Presidents! Connectormatic! A Terrible Aspect!), as is, earlier, the explanation for Aurora’s Light’s awkward name: supervillain Red Tape’s “final act of bureaucratic terror”, a contract so binding it would wrench the West Coast apart if broken! It’s a shame such fun ideas don’t play a bigger role in the novel.

After a bit of editing, this review appeared in Interzone #242, back in 2012.

Friday, 31 October 2014

Shutting down for November

If you're a long-time reader of our magazine, I'm sure you can guess what I'll be starting tomorrow. Yes, a new novel. And this is going to be my first good one. I'm so confident this time. There are going to be themes, and characters, and descriptions, and all the sorts of things that you might expect to see in a novel by a proper novelist.

So things may be quieter than usual on the blog for the next month, but never fear, there will still be something to read on here: a selection of my Interzone reviews from 2012 and 2013 will appear on Mondays, with reviews from recent issues of Theaker's Quarterly Fiction probably appearing on Fridays. And we'll have a blog post within the next week or so announcing TQF49.

Have a good month in my absence, and wish me luck!

If you are taking part in the event, here are links to some of the fascinating things I've written about it in the past:

Fifteen tips for completing NaNoWriMo

Thirteen things I learned (or was reminded of) during Nanowrimo 2013

Twelve things I didn’t like about doing Nanowrimo in 2013

Twelve things I liked about doing Nanowrimo in 2013

Back when John and I were the Birmingham MLs, long, long ago, we created a handout for our local writers, with achievements, graphs to fill in, bits of advice, useful websites, etc. We haven’t updated it for a while, but it’s still available to download and print out on our old website.

Someone new seems to be in charge of the Nanowrimo website this year, and the FAQs have been changed to say it's okay for participants to carry on with works-in-progress and co-write their novels. Madness! I think we can safely ignore such nonsense!

The challenge, as it still (at least for now) says on the front page of the website, is to "Write a novel in a month!" Not half a novel, or the beginning of a novel, or the middle of a novel, or the end of a novel, but a novel. A 50,000-word novel in a month, start to finish. Writing any old 50,000 words isn't the same thing.

Writing a novel in a month is a goal with cachet, something non-participants understand clearly as a worthwhile thing to do. Being challenged to do it licenses us to be selfish for a month. To stop doing the dishes, or overtime, or being an good friend, or an attentive spouse, or a top-notch parent. Being challenged to write any old 50,000 words doesn't give people the same licence.

Anyway, that's what I reckon. Bye!

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Ask Theaker's!

Is there anything you've ever wanted to ask the TQF staff? Why are we so mean to Howard Phillips? Is John Greenwood really a pseudonym? How ashamed are we of the cover art of issue 21? Now's your chance! In issue 50 we'd like to answer all your questions, about anything you like! And our answers will be honest. Or funny. To us, anyway.

Click here to submit your questions.

Monday, 27 October 2014

Theaker’s Fab Five: October 2014

My Panasonic five-CD changer stereo is still going strong, though I don’t use it as much as I used to since getting an iPod. Some of my recent purchases are still in their shrinkwrap, thanks to Amazon auto-rip. I still love my stereo, though – there are times when the iPod is out of power, and I just want to set a few albums going with a single button press, and not have iTunes grinding away at my PC’s innards. Last week my iPod got into a muddle after I duplicated a playlist and it made all the music on the thing invisible. Needs a reset but I can’t be bothered. So back to the stereo, and that means a new blog post. Here’s what’s in those five slots right now.


1. Syro by Aphex Twin

If you were to put an individual track on from this and ask me which Aphex Twin album it was from, I’d have no idea. But I’ve never listened to his music as albums, and I couldn’t tell you the names of more than half a dozen tracks. I just treat it all like one big album. Listening to this as a CD for the first time, it’s very similar to the Analord EPs I love so much: they’re pretty much my idea of perfect music. It’s what I imagined acid house would be like before I actually heard it. This won’t stay in my CD changer long, though, because of a bit of swearing. Tut, tut!

2. Ultraviolence by Lana Del Rey

The same thing applies to this one: quite a few naughty words, so I can’t have it popping up in the rotation when the children are doing homework in my study! I only got interested in Lana Del Rey recently, I think because of all the chat about the possible return of Twin Peaks, and David Lynch seems to be a big influence on her music – it just clicked. The Lana Del Rey persona feels like she stepped out of a movie, or a novel, perhaps by Philip K. Dick. Maybe this will become a favourite album, even if it’s a bit too creepy for everyday listening, or maybe it’ll end up filed with the fads. (I can’t even imagine the thinking process that once led me to buy albums by Dido or Blink 182!) But right now I’m really into it. I love the wooziness, the character, the melancholy, the odd tempos and structures. Feels drunk and high, like an album made after most people are in bed. (That weird pattern on the CD in the photo seems to be the reflection of a bookcase.)

3. Lost Sirens by New Order

My first reaction to this – eight songs that were originally planned to form part of their next album proper – was that it’s woeful. The lyrics aren’t great (“You’re one of a kind, high on my agenda”). The music is a bit MOR. And I still think that, but it’s growing on me. I’ve caught myself singing bits of it while doing the dishes. And at eight songs it has as many tracks as some of their proper albums. I’m not one of those people who ever wishes their favourite artists would just stop releasing records. Even a sub-par album can produce a great track – I doubt I’ve listened to Get Ready more than a dozen times, but “Crystal” is one of my favourite songs ever. Tentatively looking forward to their next record – Hooky’s left, but Gillian will be back, and they said in Mojo a while back that they had been looking again at Power, Corruption and Lies, which is my favourite studio album of theirs. I liked them best when they were being weird and cool, the tracks that were about noises and moods rather than verses and choruses.

4. The Virgin Years: 1974–1978, Disc 1, by Tangerine Dream

It was late at night, I had internet access because I had been doing an online thing for work, and I’d been listening to Phaedra by Tangerine Dream and been surprised by how good it was. I noticed two Tangerine Dream compilations on Amazon, The Virgin Years: 1974-1978 and The Virgin Years: 1977–1983, compressing all their albums from that time onto eight CDs, for about twenty quid in total. I’m a sucker for omnibus editions, so now I own far more Tangerine Dream albums than I really need to. Some of the later stuff sounds (at first listen, at least) to be abysmal, but this first CD is Phaedra plus side one of Rubycon, and it’s very good. I like space music. (And I reserve the right to change my mind about the later stuff once I’ve given it a better listen.)

5. Indie Cindy by Pixies

One of only a handful of albums I’ve reviewed for our magazine, I like it no less now than when I wrote the review. Super stuff. Black Francis never stopped writing great songs, and I never stopped buying his records (Teenager of the Year, Fast Man Raider Man and The Golem are all excellent), but songs on albums like Bluefinger and Petit Fours felt like they had been written for the Pixies, and I’m so glad they finally got it together. Just wish it had come in a proper jewel case. And it feels odd that “What Goes Boom” is first on the album when it was last on the EP. How can it be both a final track and a first track? It boggles me.

What next?

I’m looking forward to the new album from Public Sector Broadcasting. The War Room EP was great, their album too, and I hoped they might one day apply their dialogue-sampling techniques to old science fiction films. They haven’t quite, but it’s close enough: their new album is about the real-life space race. I think that’s going to be a real treat. But will I be writing about it in the next Theaker’s Fab Five, whenever that may be? Will the five-CD stereo survive another year? Will I ever find anywhere to keep all these bloody CDs? There’s only one way to find out: keep reading our magnificent blog.

Friday, 24 October 2014

The Tripods / review by Jacob Edwards

Challenging the rule of three.

When setting out to make The Tripods for BBC TV, producer Richard Bates faced the daunting prospect of having his work judged against two veritable institutions. Firstly, there was the source material: the critically and popularly acclaimed trilogy of books by John Christopher (the SF pen name of prolific author Sam Youd). Secondly, there was Doctor Who, in whose traditional Saturday evening timeslot The Tripods was to be broadcast, and against whose ailing ratings it would be measured as a successful (or otherwise) purveyor of children’s SF drama. Working in Bates’s favour was, of course, the strength of Youd’s post-apocalyptic, historically regressed invasion-cum-resistance adventure narrative, but also a budget of unprecedented splendour and the opportunity to shoot on location across England, Wales and Switzerland. Composer Ken Freeman – who’d previously played keyboards on Jeff Wayne’s musical interpretation of The War of the Worlds – synthesised a classic score full of portent and menace. Veteran Doctor Who director Christopher Barry was brought in to direct. The battle lines were set.
“This was when Richard Bates was making The Tripods. He scrupulously sent advance scripts and asked for comments and thanked me for them, but took no notice.” – Sam Youd, interviewed by Colin Brockhurst in 2009.
Series 1 of The Tripods comprises 13 half-hour episodes (although these appear to have been edited down to 25 minutes for commercial broadcast and, frustratingly, at least some editions of the DVD), and follows The White Mountains, which is the first book of Youd’s trilogy. Screenwriter Alick Rowe clearly set out to closely capture the spirit and much of the detail of the original book, and at first any deviations reflect merely the disparity that necessarily must exist between a written first-person narrative and a more visual depiction of context and conflict. That the adaptation becomes looser as the series progresses can largely be explained (and was, by Bates to Youd) as a different sort of necessity: that of having used up the allotted portion of location work and thus having to extemporise new material for a studio setting. Despite any affront this might have caused to those who read first and watched second, the narrative and its realisation remain compelling. The eponymous tripods are used sparingly, but to good purpose, and where The Tripods overtly broke from Doctor Who’s mould in allocating more of its budget towards realistic settings and effects than towards a high-profile principal and guest cast, nevertheless the acting stands up. The three main characters (Will, Henry and Beanpole) are adolescents, and the actors (John Shackley, Jim Baker and Ceri Seel), though largely inexperienced, were rigorously auditioned – there were 400 applicants for the role of Will – and play well off each other in carrying the story forward. (Many viewers today would be genuinely surprised to learn that none of the three went on to establish an acting career subsequent to The Tripods.) The cliff-hangers are less forced and certainly no less effective than the pantomimic “end of episode” howlers that seemed de rigueur of John Nathan-Turner’s Doctor Who at the time, and perhaps the worst criticism that can be made of the first series of The Tripods is that some of its more extreme moments of character imperilment are, upon resumption, glossed over with little or even no explanation proffered. Notwithstanding such liberties, the production as a whole succeeds admirably in portraying both the subjugation of mankind and the three boys’ at times harrowing quest to find the free men living in the white mountains. The Tripods averaged somewhere in the vicinity of 6.3 million viewers across the 13 episodes of its lustrous debut. A month later Doctor Who returned to Saturday evenings after its dalliance with midweek broadcasts, and in comparison averaged 7.1 million for the season.
“After the reasonably faithful book-replication at the beginning, I was probably bound to find the increasingly wide divergences irritating. My guess was that someone thought he could improve things by following a more orthodox science-fiction path. … I just thought it silly. The second series got so far off my path that I just couldn’t recognise it.” – Sam Youd, ibid.
Series 2 of The Tripods comprises 12 half-hour (or 25-minute) episodes, and ostensibly is based on The City of Gold and Lead – the second book of Youd’s trilogy, in which Will and newcomer Fritz (Robin Hayter) infiltrate one of the tripods’ cities and encounter the beings who have enslaved mankind. The acting remains very good, as do the special effects in fashioning an alien environment that successfully walks a tightrope between the bedazzlingly futuristic and the fuzzy electrobuzz of Plastic Bertrand’s music video for Ça Plane Pour Moi. The story adaptation, however, in the second series comes not from Alick Rowe but rather courtesy of Christopher Penfold, who had made numerous contributions to Space: 1999 and seems to have taken this as some sort of creative licence to senselessly pervert Youd’s original work. With no obvious impetus for doing so, Penfold cuts the casual brutality of the alien masters and pastes it (along with a recurring, fetishist riff) onto privileged macho men guards whose function is inexplicable within the world setting and who present more as a sadistic clique of collaborationists than the docile, mind-controlled slaves of the book. By spurning not just the physical but also the textual gravity of Youd’s scenario, Penfold strips the series of much of its narrative weight, thereby rendering The Tripods in much the same faux dark, yet garish and rather discordant shades that ran through mid-eighties Who. Considered as an unfolding adventure, series two of The Tripods still holds the viewer’s attention, but there are jarring ups and downs, and by the point where Penfold has invested his version of the city of gold and lead with a kitsch synth-sleaze nightclub and a wholly manufactured, manifestly unnecessary second race of alien beings, audience figures were starting to drop, averaging out at 5.1 million across the twelve episodes. This, as it turned out, was more than the next season of Doctor Who would manage (4.8 million), but it was at best a Pyrrhic victory. Michael Grade (then controller of BBC1) had little time for SF that didn’t pull its weight, and so Doctor Who was sent into hiatus, Colin Baker uttering the bitter parting words “Carrot juice, carrot juice, carrot juice”. The Tripods was axed altogether, and what had been intended as an Empire Strikes Back-style purgatorial ending that would leave people pining for the third series (“Has it all been for nothing?” Will laments), turned out to be the proverbial it: a most sombre and unsatisfying conclusion indeed.

Never repeated by the BBC, yet fondly remembered and in sufficient demand as to be released 25 years later on DVD, The Tripods remains an engrossing SF adventure drama that will appeal to today’s young adult audience every bit as much as it did to that of the mid-1980s. Though relatively sedate in terms of plot, none of the episodes feel slow-moving. In fact, viewers may well find themselves swept along, watching several instalments at a time and caught up in events until the bad penny drops and suddenly, confoundingly, the adventure is cut short. It is impossible now to say whether the unmade third series would have done justice to The Pool of Fire – the concluding book, in which Will, Henry, Beanpole and Fritz head a last-ditch attack to overthrow the masters and save the Earth from the deadly terraforming that has been planned. It could perhaps have been as rousing and poignant as Youd’s own dénouement. In the wrong hands it could have been a fiasco. Without the act of observation, we’ll never know; but if the series’ cancellation hangs dourly over television history, clouding our appreciation of the BBC, at least in this instance there is a silver lining: very few people who watch The Tripods will be content to finish off where Michael Grade drew his bottom line; many will turn to the novels, and in doing so will come to know Sam Youd’s enthralling trilogy (plus prequel) in its written form, and also, hopefully, the wider canon of his John Christopher output and thence the enduring lure of imaginative and well-crafted science fiction.

DVD release: 23/9/2009 (2|entertain / BBC Worldwide). Original broadcast: 15/9/1984 – 8/12/1984 (Series 1); 7/9/1985 – 23/11/1985 (Series 2).

Friday, 17 October 2014

Star Wars: Maul – Lockdown by Joe Schreiber / review by Jacob Edwards

Blowing the horns of dilemma.

When the first Star Wars prequel, A Phantom Menace, was unveiled with grandiose, heraldic fanfare across cinema screens in 1999, the lightsaber thrum of expectation was always likely to sputter and fizzle. Disappointed, we were, and not just with Jar Jar Binks. There was also Darth Maul: the red-skinned, horned and tattooed, mad-eyed, devil-modelled Sith Lord, whose agility and snarling savagery promised a danger no less than that of the dark, prowling power of Vader, but whose ultimate delivery – standing non compos mentis while an erstwhile-dangling Obi-Wan springs up and out of the reactor shaft, force-grabs Qui-Gon Jinn’s lightsaber, somersaults over Maul’s head and cuts him in half – proved utterly, almost insultingly flaccid. This was someone with the Force aptitude to wield a double-bladed lightsaber and take on two Jedi simultaneously. To die with such ineptness… It was a dramatic let-down, the emotionally hollow like of which could only be achieved by such clumsy scripting as having Obi-Wan Kenobi, rather than allowing Darth Vader to strike him down in A New Hope, instead merely tripping on his own robes and accidentally impaling himself on Vader’s lightsaber. To have Maul dispatched in so undignified a manner was to reduce a martial virtuoso to the level of an extra from Japanese fight-fantasy Monkey, and pratfalling along with him went any aspirations the prequelogy might have harboured to match strokes with the original Star Wars saga.

Vale, Darth Maul: the true phantom menace of the film.

Carrying this perspective fifteen years into the future, the more casual Star Wars fan could be excused for greeting Joe Schreiber’s latest book with a Binksian droop of scepticism and ambivalence. Maul: Lockdown (Century) is set pre-prequelogy and in the main features no familiar characters other than Maul himself, with only fleeting appearances by Jabba the Hutt and a nascent Darth Sidious. The story takes place in a diabolical prison, to which Maul has been sent to track down a spectral arms dealer, and begins with a six-page fight to the death that blends horror motifs with comic book sensibility. These two elements interplay throughout the novel, and as each short chapter unfolds and Schreiber demonstrates himself to be neither squeamish nor overly concerned to remove action scenes from their still-frames (indeed, one particularly casual sequence jump on page 128 sees Maul, who is under a moratorium on Force use, physically grab hold of a Chandra-Fan who just previously had scuttled up a ladder and thus was nowhere near him), those of us whose readership is grounded in the big-screen revelations of 1977 will quickly realise that Schreiber’s manifestation of Star Wars is not the rousing space opera that we signed up for. Sweeping, swashbuckling and fanciful are set aside in favour of confined, gruesome and humourless. In fact, with an amoral protagonist pitted against foes who remain almost entirely unmitigated in their respective evils, Maul: Lockdown could well be repudiated as holding no substantial connection to the Star Wars canon. As the publishing industry continues to spawn its offshoots, George Lucas’s vision seems to be receding into the long time ago and the achingly far away. This is not Star Wars at all. It’s the garbage compactor of A New Hope magnified beyond all proportions and left to its own dark devices.

Divorced from its origins, it’s also rather good.

Maul: Lockdown is built around a seemingly unpromising premise, and is made by both cover and blurb to seem literature-poor and pulpy. Schreiber, however, though unashamedly engaging the comic book action/horror hyperdrive, transcends this red-blurred veneer and delivers a surprisingly substantial payload. His prison setting is far from typical – a Rubik’s penitentiary in space, its design constantly subject to reconfiguration – and the inmates are free to wander the complex, limited only by failsafes implanted in their hearts and an obligation (thus warranted) to return to their cells for televised death matches: grist to the mill for the prison warden and the gambling underworld. This floating pocket of the Star Wars universe is depraved and grotesque yet suitably fleshed out, the dramatis personae falling within a broadly malevolent swathe but given sufficient individuality both to defy stereotype and to foster genuine intrigue. Schreiber writes in a series of vignettes – 76 chapters squeezed into 330 pages; caged restlessness giving way to pent-up release – yet the story builds across three broad acts and the overall pacing conveys something not unlike that hallmark epic quality, manifest throughout A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, that might well be thought lacking in many of the freestanding Star Wars novels, and indeed in the prequelogy arc spanning The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. Schreiber also deserves credit for successfully presenting an antihero, allowing the reader to engage with Maul’s ignoble mission while remaining unsympathetic to him within a broader Star Wars context. Maul is relentless, and though his deadly prowess – which is to the fore, even sans any recourse to the Force – does give rise to the unfortunate side-effect of accentuating the limpness of his demise in The Phantom Menace, his developing backstory in Lockdown is at least representative of the formidable figure we see up to that point. The character lacks depth and is inherently odious, but the same could be said of Anakin Skywalker as he goes through his contrived metamorphosis to become Darth Vader. Schreiber’s portrayal of Maul was the more difficult task, and though the reading is not always pleasant, we should take some grim satisfaction that as warden of the dark side he has kept his charge believable and consistent.

Second time around the trilogy bush, that’s more than George Lucas managed.

Friday, 10 October 2014

Sabrina the Teenage Witch: 50 Magical Stories / review by Stephen Theaker

Sabrina the Teenage Witch: 50 Magical Stories (Archie, ebook, 349pp) provides a cheap, comprehensive introduction to one of Archie’s most famous characters, a peppy teenage witch who, much as she did in the successful television series, usually lives with her aunts, Hilda and Zelda, and their talking cat Salem. Salem is an uncle who tried to conquer the world (or, in other stories, broke off his engagement with the head witch) and felinisation was his punishment. Sabrina is a good-hearted girl, but isn’t above using her powers selfishly. She’s usually an agent of karma (turning chauvinists into pigs, for example), at other times its victim.

One problem with the book is that it zags around from one period to another of the comic without a nod to continuity, which will presumably baffle readers who haven’t had the benefit of reading an overview of the series (like the one in Slings and Arrows). In one strip Sabrina’s aunts are green-skinned hags, in another human-looking and pretty, so dateable they end up double-booked. In one strip Sabrina’s dating Harvey and going to school in Riverdale with Archie, Betty and Veronica, in the next she’s at a monster school, her boyfriend is a vampire, and her best friends are an invisible girl (Cleara!) and a genuinely disconcertingly eyeball-headed girl (Eyeda!). The very first story says Sabrina mustn’t fall in love or she’ll lose all her powers and become human, and in the second she’s smooching Harvey on the sofa.

I’ve read a lot of Archie comics on Comixology over the last couple of years. A lot. For one thing they’re cheap and plentiful, which is how I like my comics. (Compare with DC, who not so long ago had only single issues on Comixology, and Marvel whose Comixology collections are often extremely expensive.) And they are ideally suited to digital reading. The lovely bright colours look wonderful on digital displays, and the simple layouts and square panels work perfectly in Guided View on any device. Almost any given panel of an Archie book looks like a pop art masterpiece when zoomed to fit an iPad screen.

But this Sabrina collection was not my favourite of them, and my daughters didn’t find it as appealing as I expected either (they adored other digital collections such as Betty’s Story Time and The Archie Wedding, and have become much bigger fans of the Josie and the Pussycats movie since realising that it’s part of this comics world). The stories here are readable enough, and there are a lot of them, but Sabrina in these comics just doesn’t have the zip that Melissa Joan Hart gave her on television. She lacks any strong personality traits – unless being able to cast spells counts as one – and she doesn’t face any real challenges in the stories.

If you’re looking for an Archie comic to hook children into reading, go for Betty, Veronica or Jughead instead.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Penny Dreadful, Season 1 / review by Stephen Theaker

Penny Dreadful is a new television take on an old idea: the out-of-copyright crossover. Here we have young Doctor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) and his monster (a marvellously melodramatic Rory Kinnear); Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton), father of Mina; and Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney); plus four apparently unfamiliar characters: Josh Hartnett as gunslinger Ethan Chandler; Billie Piper as Brona Croft, the dying prostitute he falls for; Danny Sapani as Murray’s fighting manservant, Sembene; and Eva Green as Vanessa Ives, whose prim comportment conceals an ongoing inner battle with the forces of darkness.

The plot of this first series is driven by Murray’s attempts to rescue his daughter Mina from Dracula. The cowboy’s pistols come in handy as they root out vampire nests, and when the fighting is done Doctor Frankenstein performs autopsies on the monster’s bodies. As the series proceeds, there are complications. Dorian Gray works his seductive way through the cast. Frankenstein’s creation demands a bride. Vanessa Ives begins to lose control of her dark passenger, but without its gifts Murray would never find his daughter.

This is a well-made series that I probably wouldn’t have watched to the end were it not for Eva Green’s gob-smacking performance; in control she’s riveting, out of control terrifying. The production values are exceptional, and the special effects terrific, but there is little pay-off on the storylines, too much being held back for a second series that might never have come (though we know now that it will). The vampires are a bit too easy to kill, and seem disinclined to bite; their grand plan is a bit hopeless. Season two will need more compelling antagonists.
Brilliant moments, but not yet a brilliant programme.  ***

Friday, 3 October 2014

Indie Cindy / review by Stephen Theaker

The return of the Pixies with Indie Cindy (PIAS, CD) has not been universally welcomed, coming in for particular scorn from those unhappy that Kim Deal is no longer involved. Her absence is certainly a shame, and there is a space on the album where her backing vocals should be (as there was on Trompe Le Monde), but it’s a bit hard on the remaining members to hit them with that stick. They did wait a decade for her to agree to recording new material, and she only pulled out after the studio was booked and the gear transported to Wales. You can’t blame them for pressing on in those circumstances – and I’m glad they did, because we now have a new Pixies album.

A good test of a new album by a long-established band is whether any of the songs would make it onto a Best Of. Indie Cindy passes that test standing on its head: it’s impossible to imagine a Best of the Pixies without “Greens and Blues”, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see “Snakes” and “What Goes Boom” on there either. (The latter is surely destined for a long life of soundtracking sporting montages and movie trailers.) An aspect of the band’s success not often mentioned is here in spades: these songs are immense fun to sing along with! Impossible to sing “I’m the burgermeister of purgatory!” (“Indie Cindy”) or “felt a burning in my solar plexus” (“Blue Eyed Hexe”) or “I’m the one with all the trotters” (“Bagboy”) without enjoying yourself.

My biggest grumble about the album is that it is really just a compilation of the previous EPs, or to put it another way, it’s now clear the EPs were just the album doled out a bit at a time. Every song from the EPs is on here, so buying this meant buying most of the tracks a second time over (and the other three appeared on EP3, not available at first in MP3 format) – though that does make it feel like a greatest hits in itself. I hoped, and I wonder if the band hoped, that Deal might return by the album’s release to add her vocals to the previously released tracks. That didn’t happen, but “Bagboy” at least is a slightly different version to the original MP3 release, with the “Cover your teeth” chant coming in much later. It makes the song somewhat sleeker and meaner.

The most exciting thing about a new Pixies album having been released – apart from the existence of the album itself – is knowing that Black Francis never stops writing and recording, so there will probably be another one pretty soon. If it’s as good as Indie Cindy, let alone better, expect lots of articles and reviews applauding their return to form, because everyone loves to tell that story. By then Indie Cindy will be part of the landscape, another part of the back catalogue, maybe not a Doolittle (how many albums are?), but certainly the peer of Bossanova and Trompe Le Monde, and maybe their better. And if the Pixies don’t make another new album, at least they’ve said a proper goodbye: the album’s last song, the jolly “Jaime Bravo”, ends “Goodbye and goodnight / Goodbye”.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Tusk / review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Juvenile premise spurs tour de force of eccentricity, turns contemporary horror film formula on its head
 
As I walk out of a horror film, I’m typically thinking one of three things: great, so-so, or crap. However, every once in a while, there is another thought: did I like this film? Such was my initial reaction to director Kevin Smith’s Tusk (2014), a film whose premise involves a madman who wants to physically and psychologically transform another man into a walrus. Yes. You read that correctly.

Obnoxious LA-based shock jock Wallace Bryton (Justin Long), stuck in the “frozen shithole” of Canada, wants to find a “weirdo” interviewee to ultimately make fun of in his popular Not-See Party podcast.

Wallace ends up on the doorstep of Howard Howe, a reclusive ex-seafarer who has a boatload of adventure tales, and a few skeletons (human and otherwise) in the closet. Howe seeks to rekindle the bond he once developed with a walrus he named Mr. Tusk while stranded after a shipwreck. His strategy: make Wallace a walrus.

Directors of recent horror movies tend to manipulate their predominantly unmemorable characters through frightful settings (e.g., catacombs, haunted houses, etc). There’s nothing wrong with that. However, Kevin Smith, the brains behind Mallrats (1995), Dogma (1999), and Clerks (1994), tends to create talk-heavy films with quirkier characters. Tusk follows this strategy and in so doing, departs from—or maybe I should say, in tusk lingo, protrudes discernibly from—the current body of horror films.

One is often hard-pressed to identify something original that characters say in horror movies. Tusk, with its extended scenes of two or three characters talking, offers a smorgasbord of quotable gems. “You want characters?” Smith seems to ask those who consistently blast horror film casts. “You got them!” In Tusk, there are three such characters: the self-involved victim, the astute madman, and the comically eccentric detective.

The Self-involved Victim
Wallace Bryton, with his walrus-like name and moustache, is the type of guy who snaps at convenience store clerks and uses strangers’ backs as desks. He looks down on Canadians (“I don’t want to die in Canada”) and cheats on his girlfriend. His growing fame has gone to his head. This is most apparent when he interviews Howe. Wallace, “not-seeing” the threat inherent in Howe’s anti-human sentiments, examines the odd specimens Howe has accumulated and expresses (loudly and tactlessly) his observations. “Who are you? Rudyard fucking Kipling?”

Typically, films are wise to shy away from obnoxious protagonists, but Wallace, with his crude comments and gestures, contrasted with the literary allusions and deviant philosophies of Howe, captivates the viewer.

Justin Long’s performance as Darry in the film Jeepers Creepers (2001) revealed his strong talent for expressing shock and fear. It’s a talent that he fully exploits in Tusk, whether he’s in a drug-induced stupour and coming to terms with what’s happening to him, making a hushed emergency phone call, or screaming as Howe taunts him.

The Astute Madman

It’s difficult to portray a villain who’s both off his rocker and intelligent. Michael Parks pulls it off admirably with Howard Howe. “I don’t understand,” he says. “Who in the hell would want to be human?”

One never knows what is coming from the misanthropic Howe. He might quote Tennyson or Hemingway, tell an adventure story, or mimic his victim’s screams. He might laughingly sing a nursery rhyme, or he might growl. Howe, the sufferer of egregious childhood abuse, stifles laughter when a horrified Wallace discovers he’s been severely mutilated.

In one of the film’s most off-the-wall scenes (a flashback), Howe stands on a porch with detective Guy Lapointe (more on him later). Howe, pretending to be a dim-witted assistant children’s hockey coach, tries to coax Lapointe inside ostensibly to shoot a brown recluse (spider), but more likely to try to turn Lapointe into a walrus.

Though it probably won’t get credit due to the film’s outlandishness, Parks’s performance puts him in the company of Anthony Hopkins’s Hannibal Lecter and Heath Ledger’s Joker. Howe. What a perfect name for a film like this. How will this turn out? How could a man do something like this? “The walrus,” he says, “is far more evolved than any man I’ve ever known.” Howe indeed!

The Comically Eccentric Detective

The credits reveal that an unknown actor named Guy Lapointe plays himself, a French-Canadian alcoholic investigator on the trail of Howe. Though Lapointe’s time in the film is limited, his crooked eye, stilted delivery, and odd mannerisms make a huge impression. Lapointe is ridiculous, but we can’t look away.

Lapointe’s main scene takes place in a restaurant in which he dominates a conversation with Wallace’s girlfriend Ally and fellow podcaster Teddy. It may be a fast food place, but Lapointe’s audience sits dumbfounded as he treats them to an idiosyncratic feast that’s less about what he’s saying, and more about what he’s doing. He stands up and smashes down his burger, pours hard liquor into his milkshake, and engages in a slew of other fascinating behaviors all while describing his history with Howe. 

People often comment on how many of today’s films (and society in general) never slow down. Guy Lapointe does slow down. At one point, he actually breaks from his twisted monologue to suck from his spiked milkshake while his audience waits—he even comments on his shake’s thickness—for him to continue. And the porch scene with Howe is legendary. Never has so much been communicated with so many words and so little actually said.

Lapointe even offers a bit of intrigue to the film. When the viewer looks closely, he or she might notice familiarity in the eyes, and the voice. That’s because Guy Lapointe is none other than Johnny Depp. It’s as if Smith has transformed one of the most well-known actors into a sideshow act to reinforce what’s happening in the film. Brilliant.

An Opinion Transformed
With Tusk, we get humor, we get gore, we get surprises, we get scares, and we get sadness. Kevin Smith stitches the surgical splatterpunk film like The Human Centipede (2009), the “find the bad guy before he kills his captive” film (think The Silence of the Lambs (1991)), and the dialogue of, well, a Kevin Smith film. Tusk both entertains and gives one an appreciation for the finer things in life, like his or her legs.

During your life, you might encounter a handful of people who are true characters. Some of these people are profound A-holes, some offer a twisted view of the world, and others are so quirky that they are worthy of a movie. Tusk treats us to all three in just over an hour-and-a-half.

Back to my initial question: did I like this film? My opinion on it has metamorphosed, slowly, from one of uncertainty to a walrus-sized yes. – Douglas J. Ogurek

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Theakerly thoughts: what's making me happy?

This time I’m going to concentrate on what’s been making me happy this week, in honour of the segment at the end of Pop Culture Happy Hour, one of my favourite podcasts. Please just take it as read that my adorable little family is, as ever, making me happy, and that I am thoroughly enjoying my day-to-day work. I just don’t tend to talk about that kind of stuff in detail on here. Because you’re all vultures who would steal my life if I let you.

So, what’s been making me happy?

Expanding my daily to-do lists from ten to twenty items. At the core of it is still the ten big things I need to get done each day, but the other ten give me credit for all the daily stuff that needs doing – dealing with email, my morning pomodoro of writing, taking the kids to school, collecting the kids, and, erm, weighing myself. It’s good. Instead of the morning run being a frustrating obstacle to my tasklist, it’s now a nice simple job to tick off. Best of all, my weekday scores now produce a percentage. (91% last week!)

The Logitech k480 keyboard. Admittedly it’s a bit plasticky, and the T and Y keys on mine don’t work very well (a replacement is on its way), but this is going to be my best friend during November. A groove along the top lets it hold a tablet, and a dial lets you pick between three Bluetooth devices – which might not sound that amazing till you realise that to achieve the same thing with the Apple keyboard you have to power off all the other devices with which it has previously been paired. Really looking forward to taking this out and about for my November novelling sessions, and writing away on my iPod.

The backlog of reviews is finally starting to melt away. Well, it’s down to twenty. Twelve if you only count things I was given for review, and not things I read and began to write about. My goal for issue 50 is to completely clear the backlog, even if it means re-reading some of the books. A pomodoro (25 minutes) of writing each morning isn’t a lot, but it’s a lot more than nothing, and applied to short stuff like reviews it moves things along quite nicely, without getting in the way of anything else.

The new Aphex Twin album, Syro. It’s a lot like the Analord records, and those come very close to my idea of ideal music, so I’m very happy with it.

The youngest of our family gave me some sparkly dinosaur stickers to stick on the side of my PC.

Using my old Kindle again. Reading about the Kindle Voyage make me realise I’m kind of sick of the Kindle Paperwhite, and its damnable lack of buttons. I’m leaning towards the view that touchscreen ereaders are an abomination. The Paperwhite works better than any other I’ve tried (a Sony and a Kobo), but still, it’s a relief to get back to reading on a device that switches pages with a button press.

Nanowrimo is coming and I have an idea! This usually doesn’t happen until October 30. And I learnt a lot from taking part last year, which is going to help a lot in shaping my plans. Even though it was my umpteenth time taking part, it was my first serious attempt in a while, and my first finished novel in a good few years. I wrote a bunch of blog posts about my experiences last year (here, here and here), so I’ll be studying those carefully in the next few weeks. One thing I remember very clearly: don’t start a novel with someone flying through the air over the ocean alone with no way to talk to anyone, because what the heck are you going to write about? This year’s Nanowrimo starts on a Saturday, which is pretty much ideal for getting off to a good start.

If something’s been making you happy, let us know in the comments!

Friday, 26 September 2014

Game of Thrones, Season 4 / review by Stephen Theaker

Game of Thrones, Season 4 (Sky Atlantic/HBO) feels for a while as if it has hardly moved on from the beginning of the previous season. Jon Snow is still bumbling around beyond the wall, Sansa still wandering with the Hound, Daenarys is marching around Slavers’ Bay with her army, and Joffrey is still doing bad things like the bad little king he is. The weird army we saw marching at the end of season two has yet to arrive anywhere. In television we’re used to things moving rather more quickly, arcs concluding at the end of a season and new arcs beginning the season after. That doesn’t really happen with Game of Thrones, but season three came to a famously cataclysmic conclusion, and the ripples of that final episode become tidal waves in season four. It’s the aftermath of some things, the beginning of others, and there’s a great big battle by the end featuring the programme’s best special effects yet.

As ever with HBO, the gratuitous female nudity plays havoc with the tone, but I’m still enjoying Game of Thrones very much. If there’s a new episode to watch, that’s what we’re watching. The production quality is stupendous, costumes and set design as good as any film I can think of in this genre. The cast is incredible, and always getting better. Indira Varma is a welcome addition this season, not least because this is one programme where her violent death (I assume it’s coming eventually!) won’t come as such a dreadful shock. Her Torchwood colleague Burn Gorman is almost unwatchably horrid as the leader of a gang of depraved deserters from the Black Watch. Diana Rigg joins as a schemer with a grandmotherly air, but the standout new character of the season is the Spanish-ish Viper, a dashing hedonist with a thirst for vengeance.

Westeros and the surrounding lands are a horrible place to live, even for the richest and most powerful. That absence of security, and our knowledge from previous years that any character could die at any time, makes every battle scene, every trial, every flight from danger – even every harsh glance or raised eyebrow! – a source of intense drama and excitement. It all has weight. This season lacks a bit of mystery: Bran’s mystic quest for a three-eyed raven is less than intriguing, and most events and motivations are presented clearly to the viewer. But perhaps other programmes focus on secrets of the past so much because their futures are so limited, except when contracted cast members decide to leave. It’s thrilling to have one programme where (unless you’ve read the books, and I won’t until this show has finished) you really don’t know what’s going to happen.

Monday, 22 September 2014

Return to Armageddon / review by Stephen Theaker

In Return to Armageddon (2000 AD, pb, 148pp) spacers find the frozen corpse of the devil on the other side of a deep space anomaly. As you’d expect of any mad scientist worth his salt, the on-board doctor extracts cells to create a clone. Or was it two clones? Two babies are found with his dead body, one cute as a button, the other with black wings and cloven hooves – the Destroyer! The dead are soon walking the spaceship’s corridors, and that’s just the beginning of a story that ends up with Earth under the devil’s rule, humanity nothing but the squealing meat of Satan’s servants.

This strip by writer Malcolm Shaw and artist Jesus Redondo (with two episodes by Johnny Johnson) began in 2000 AD’s third year of publication, and ran continuously from issue 185 to 218. It’s the kind of thing that made 2000 AD Extreme Edition one of my favourite comics: a self-contained adventure story I’d never read before. It is a serial through and through, its only concern to make every episode the most gobsmacking yet, unceremoniously discarding characters and plotlines the second they’ve outlived their usefulness.

And like so many other stories from 2000 AD’s early days, reading it left me gutted that I wasn’t reading this stuff when it came out (though the Eagle and Doctor Who Weekly were good too). I would have loved its gleeful goriness and boyish malice towards its own characters. This is a comic for kids in which the hero – who spends much of the story as a miserable unkillable monster – returns to Earth after a thirty-year absence to find the oceans are now “vast cauldrons of boiling oil” full of people, and both sides of the planet are in perpetual darkness, the only light “coming from burning corpses”. Kids love that stuff. Me too.  ***

Friday, 19 September 2014

From Dusk Till Dawn, Season 1 / review by Stephen Theaker

From Dusk Till Dawn is a television series produced and developed by Robert Rodriguez for his own El Rey network, and shown on Netflix in the UK. Unlike Blade: The Series, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles or Stargate SG-1, this isn’t a sequel, it’s a remake and an expansion. The outline of the plot is mostly unchanged. The Gecko brothers (nephews of Nice Guy Eddie from Reservoir Dogs) are bank robbers on the run, trying to cross the border into Mexico. They take hostages, a widowed clergyman and his two unhappy children. They end up at a biker bar, a strip club where the star performer is several hundred years older than she looks. The one big difference is that supernatural elements kick in sooner, as Richie’s visions of a mysterious woman inspire him to kill.

The cast is generally very good. D.J. Cotrona and Zane Holtz as Seth and Richie Gecko have more time to explore their characters and relationship than was available to George Clooney and Quentin Tarantino, and they use it well. Eiza Gonzalez looks the part, but doesn’t live up to Salma Hayek’s star-making performance as Santantico Pandemonium. Her manipulations never quite ring true, though it’s hard to be menacing when you’re half-undressed, as she is in so many scenes. Wilmer Valderrama is wonderfully serpentine as the shapeshifting vampire who commissioned the Geckos to do the job – and unrecognisable as adorable Fez from That ’70s Show. Robert Patrick (who was in the second film as a different character) takes Harvey Keitel’s role as the grief-haunted father from the first film, and if anything his committed performance is a step up.

Robert Rodriguez is a good fit for television. He’s made a career out of making cheap films look expensive, and here he’s making television that looks better than most cheap films. For most of the season this is a very good, well-made programme. It only goes awry in the last few episodes, after everyone reaches the vampire strip club and heads into a subterranean magical labyrinth for a interminable wander around. The tension disappears, characters lose their drive, and the show falls apart, becoming very nearly unwatchable – it’s the steepest mid-season decline since The Twin Dilemma followed The Caves of Androzani. After the first few episodes I had liked this so much that I thought in all seriousness a Reservoir Dogs television series might be a good idea. By the end, I was hoping they would stay away from Sharkboy and Lavagirl.

I’ll certainly give season two a look – the cast are reportedly enthused about heading into uncharted territory – but it’ll need to get back on track quickly or I’ll be the one heading for the border.