Monday, 17 July 2017
The Cthulhu Casebooks: Sherlock Holmes and the Shadwell Shadows by James Lovegrove (Titan Books) | review by Rafe McGregor
His intention is that the three volumes of which this is the first will “effectively rewrite the Holmes canon”, peeling back the illusion of detection to reveal the reality of the Mythos. As such, Sherlock Holmes and the Shadwell Shadows begins in a similar manner to A Study in Scarlet, with Watson returning from Afghanistan with more mental than physical damage and meeting Holmes through Stamford. The location is not the Long Bar of the Criterion, however, but an unnamed public house in Limehouse which is a haven for illegal gambling, bare-knuckle boxing, cock-fighting, and prostitution. Holmes and Watson meet by making independent attempts to assist Stamford when he falls foul of a pimp and his henchman. Stamford flees in the ensuing fracas and it emerges that he is an opium addict and a suspect in a series of murders. The murders have been linked by Holmes but not Scotland Yard in that the victims are all of the unlikely-to-be-missed (in Victorian England) variety and appear to have been starved to death. Stamford quickly removes himself from play – after being found wandering the streets while raving about the Old Ones – committing suicide in a particularly gruesome manner. Lovegrove’s writing is crisp and clean, lacking the laboured quality characteristic of so much pastiche and the narrative is fast-paced, more of a thriller than a mystery, but none the worse for it. Indeed, Lovegrove’s Holmes and Watson are somewhat reminiscent of Ritchie’s and his portrayal of Watson as a physically adept ex-soldier is particularly pleasing. The trail of the case quickly leads to Stamford’s employer, a Chinese immigrant by the name of Gong-Fen who runs an opium empire in Limehouse. At Gong-Fen’s bidding and under the influence of a cocktail of narcotics, Holmes undertakes a dream-quest where the existence of the world of the Elder Gods and Outer Gods is revealed to him. On his return to Baker Street, Watson discloses the truth of his experiences in Afghanistan and the cause of his wound. At the mid-point in the narrative, Gong-Fen, Holmes, and Watson are attacked by what appears to be the shadows of the title. This unequivocal manifestation of the supernatural in the present of the story, which is both gripping and otherworldly, marks the point of no return from crime to horror. The incident takes Holmes and Watson to the second layer of the puzzle, Gong-Fen’s employer, whom they find following researches at the British Library, and thence to the Mythos itself, with a climactic battle underneath St Paul’s Church in Shadwell.
My only real criticism comes compliments of Lovegrove himself. The novel is preceded by both an author’s preface (where he employs a conceit based on the similarity of his own surname to Lovecraft’s) and a fictional foreword by Watson and concludes with a brief epilogue in which Watson, writing in 1928, provides a teaser for the next instalment (due for publication in November this year), Sherlock Holmes and the Miskatonic Monstrosities. The first novel is set in 1880, the second in 1895, and the third (Sherlock Holmes and the Sussex Sea Devils, due for publication in 2018) in 1910. If Lovegrove is indeed reinventing Doyle’s canon – and I think reinvention is the key to successful pastiche – then he needs to do a little more than rewrite the meeting of Holmes and Watson. Given that this volume is supposed to tide us over until 1895, it covers the first two novellas and the first two collections of short stories but alludes to very few of the incidents or characters with which readers are familiar. Lovegrove has Watson explain that he wrote “one sort of story [detection] to deflect attention from another [horror], which strays into realms most ordinary people are incognisant of and are all the better off in their ignorance”. Granted, but if the canon is being rewritten as opposed to Holmes and Watson simply undertaking an alternative set of adventures, then there needs to be a little more explanation or demonstration of the relation between Lovegrove’s reinvention and Doyle’s canon. Why, for example, did Watson write the particular stories that comprise The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes rather than others? What happened in the reality of the Mythos that caused him to draw this particular veil of detection over it? If it weren’t for Lovegrove’s preface, this expectation would not exist, but it does exist and remains unrewarded at this point in the trilogy. Notwithstanding, the novel is an entertaining and accomplished contribution to the occult detective genre and an original and ambitious contribution to the Holmes and Mythos subgenre.
Saturday, 15 July 2017
Sadly, though, fate did not hear our call, and we did not receive any nominations, although I do contribute on average a page per issue to one of the best magazine nominees, Interzone, edited by the apparently tireless Andy Cox, so I'll be celebrating that while the rest of the TQF team weep into their teacups. Andy's equally fine Black Static, to which I occasionally contribute a review (albeit not last year), also received a nomination.
The other magazine nominated was Uncanny Magazine, a first-time nominee which I haven't read, but which looks very interesting. There are also first-time nominations in this category for Tor.com and Ginger Nuts of Horror, both websites which don't style themselves as magazines or periodicals – they don't publish in issues, for example – so it's a bit of a surprise to see them on the list. But the BFAs often follow the voters' heads in this kind of thing: see for example how the best small press award morphed over the years from being an award for small press publications to being an award for the small presses themselves.
The full list of nominees is here. Congratulations to all of them!
Scroll down to the bottom and you'll see that I'm a juror on the best comic/graphic novel category, and the work for that kicked off when we were appointed on June 24. I was glad to find I'd already read 29 graphic novels and comics collections from the relevant year, and I read another dozen or so highly-recommended books in the course of us deciding whether to add egregious omissions to the list. In the end, we added two to the four put forward by the voters of the British Fantasy Society and FantasyCon. Now I'm reading and re-reading all the nominees, but I know already that it's going to be a very tough decision.
Not going to say much about the other categories, since there's a lot of overlap between juries, so I might be seen as having inside information about the juries I'm not on. (I don't – I didn't even know my fellow comics jurors were on a couple of other juries, or that my all-male jury wasn't the only one, until yesterday's announcement.) It does seem a bit of a shame that the best horror novel, best fantasy novel and best artist juries decided not to add any items to their shortlists, given all the work out there deserving of awards recognition, but maybe the jurors were deadlocked on what to add.
A Wizard's Henchman was my favourite book of last year, so I'd hoped it might get a nomination in best fantasy novel. I'd also had hopes for Glen Weldon's The Caped Crusade in best non-fiction and A Taste of Honey by Kai Ashante Wilson in best novella, and it was a big surprise to see that Central Station by Lavie Tidhar didn't make the best collection list – perhaps its votes were split between people voting for it as a novel, and people voting for it as a collection?
If I'm not picking out my favourite works from female writers there, that's because they made the shortlists: overall nine of the thirty-nine items I voted for made it on, a pretty good batting average! It's definitely worth using all of your votes. The plan is for winners to be announced at FantasyCon 2017, in Peterborough. Memberships of the convention and tickets for the awards banquet are available here. Good luck to everyone!
Friday, 14 July 2017
Monday, 10 July 2017
In my review of Sherlock: The Abominable Bride (the 2016 Special, which bridged the gap between seasons 3 and 4) in TQF55, I was clear that the conclusion of Holmes’ drug-fuelled investigation is that, whatever appearances to the contrary, Moriarty is dead. I’m pleased to say I was right. Moriarty is dead and he did commit suicide in the finale of season 2, “The Reichenbach Fall”. Season 3 was Moriarty-free and the overarching plot across the three episodes was the discovery of the real identity of Mary Morstan (Amanda Abbington), whom Watson married in “The Sign of Three”, interwoven with Holmes’ struggle against Charles Augustus Magnussen (Lars Mikkelsen), a very nasty blackmailer of people in high and low places. The third season ended with “His Last Vow” (based on the Conan Doyle story “Charles Augustus Milverton” rather than “His Last Bow” as the title suggests), where Holmes was sent on a suicide mission to Eastern Europe in lieu of standing trial for the murder of Magnussen. The episode finished with Moriarty (Andrew Scott) apparently returning from the dead, being broadcast on every television screen in the UK and asking “Did you miss me?” The Special began with Holmes being recalled only a few minutes after his exile and its purpose was to confirm Moriarty’s death and establish his revenge as posthumous. Most of the Special takes place inside Holmes’ Mind Palace (AKA his drug-addled brain for this case) so the time elapsed between the end of season 3 and the start of season 4 is a matter of days rather than the three years the tormented audience has had to wait. Once Holmes reassures the authorities that Moriarty is dead, his murder of Magnussen is covered up, and he is reinstalled in Baker Street to await the unfolding of Moriarty’s retribution.
The three episodes in the season all take their titles from original stories – “The Six Thatchers” (“The Six Napoleons”), “The Lying Detective” (“The Dying Detective”) and “The Final Problem” – and succeed in both paying homage to them and creatively reinventing them for viewers who have and have not read them. Following the segue from the Special to season 4, “The Six Thatchers” sees Moriarty’s machinations fade into the background as a link emerges between two of Holmes’ new cases. The focus of the episode is actually Mary’s past catching up with her (she was a freelance military contractor who worked for the CIA and the British government amongst others). Mary decides to leave John and their child for safety’s sake and is persuaded to return by Holmes. The episode ends with Watson blaming Holmes for the consequences and demanding that he never darken his door again. Watson’s reaction is completely unfair, but provides the writers with an opportunity to deprive audiences of the beloved partnership without the threat of death to one or both of them (par for the course by now).
The series as a whole has been a mix of crime, fantasy, horror, and humour, but took a sinister turn after the confrontation with a really unsettling villain in Magnussen. The events of the first episode and the Holmes-Watson rift that results set an even grimmer tone for “The Lying Detective”. The villain of the piece, millionaire entrepreneur and philanthropist Culverton Smith (Toby Jones, whose performance inspires a perfectly-pitched combination of fear and disgust) makes Magnussen pale in comparison. In fact, after Magnussen and Smith one begins to wonder what all the fuss about Moriarty was. The case becomes a descent into hell for Holmes and his return to excessive drug use following Watson’s departure is employed as a device to blur the line between reality and hallucination, giving the story a surreal edge that marks the change from fantasy to horror for the last two episodes of the season. I was completely gripped and saw the episode as the highlight of season 4, although I wasn’t surprised to see it was the least popular – it is very dark in tone and Toby Jones’ Smith may be too much for many viewers. I do wonder, however, if Holmes’ drug addiction hasn’t become definitive of the character in a way that marks a complete departure from the original. Holmes’ occasional use of cocaine and morphine were only mentioned a handful of times by Doyle and were indicative of his desire for mental stimulation rather than addiction. They were also introduced at a time when both drugs could be bought over the counter in department stores. In contrast, Miller’s Holmes is a recovering heroin addict and Cumberbatch’s Holmes an addict in denial. I also wonder if Cumberbatch’s Holmes doesn’t glamorise drug abuse. Unlike Miller, whose day-to-day battle with heroin makes his life more-than-miserable, Cumberbatch emerges from his binges with barely a hair out of place.
“The Lying Detective” ends with the revelation that the third Holmes child, to which there has been previous allusion, is a sister rather than a brother and that she – Eurus (Sian Brooke) – is the instrument of Moriarty’s revenge. “The Final Problem” sees Holmes and Watson not only reunited, but joined by Mycroft (writer Mark Gatiss) in a Freudian excavation of the shared childhood traumas of the Holmeses. Eurus is a psychopath who shares the superhuman skills of her brothers and has spent most of her adult life in a maximum security prison on an island off the English coast. Mycroft allowed Moriarty to meet Eurus and when Holmes and Watson arrive on the island they find the tables turned and the inmate running the asylum. Eurus sets the brothers, Watson, and the prison governor a series of tasks to achieve in order to survive and the narrative is nothing short of harrowing, maintaining the grim atmosphere of the previous episode. The plot is quite similar to the final episode of season 1, “The Great Game”, but this is to be expected given that both involve Moriarty’s prolonged torture of Holmes. As there is currently much speculation about a fifth season it is no spoiler to say that the episode (and season and probably series as well) ends with Holmes and Watson back in practice in Baker Street.
There is no little irony here. Holmes is now free of the three supervillains that have dominated each season and he and Watson can, well, just get on with solving crimes and stuff (plus a bit of child-rearing, let’s not forget baby-Watson). Indeed, the ending is reminiscent of the first story in The Return of Sherlock Holmes, “The Empty House”, which sees a miraculously resurrected Holmes and conveniently widowed Watson set up shop once again, ready to resume business for another 33 episodes over the next 24 years. In a strange way, then, Sherlock ends where Elementary begins. The American series has been far less concerned with overarching plots and links between episodes than the British one and this, combined with the American focus on crime rather than fantasy or horror, has made it more rather than less faithful to the original stories, despite appearances to the contrary. Given the predilection of Gatiss and Moffat for frustrating the desires they have stimulated, I feel I can almost guarantee that the only season that does not end with the Cumberbatch-Freeman partnership teetering on the brink will be the last. At least there are 25 episodes of season 5 of Elementary to ease my withdrawal…
Thursday, 6 July 2017
Monday, 3 July 2017
When Tom Cruise takes on a role, no matter what it is, he’s going to put his all into it—his characters are believable. In less capable hands, The Mummy, directed by Alex Kurtzman, could have been lifeless. Instead, we get a likable protagonist who smiles and sprints his way through (as Cruise so often does) a solid action film wrapped in all the creepy-crawlies, monsters, grand displays of destruction, and narrow escapes for which the most entertaining entries in the Mummy canon are known.
Adventure-seeking American soldier Nick Morton (Cruise) has a weakness for treasure hunting. He has zero interest in the cultural/historical value of the “antiquities” he seeks. So when he and fellow soldier Chris Vail (Jake Johnson) unwittingly discover the crypt of mummified Egyptian princess/murderess Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella) in northern Iraq, they’re only interested in the valuables that surround it. But bossy archeologist Dr Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis), a sexual conquest of Morton’s, understands the momentousness of the find. Alas, the crypt isn’t so much a burial site as it is a prison for Ahmanet, who made a pact with Egyptian god of disorder and violence Set, then killed her entire family so that she would gain power. Nice lady. The trio sets out to move the mummy to London. Mistake. Ahmanet chooses Morton to be the vessel for the return of Set, with whom she will take over the world.
Morton and Halsey, in their quest to stop Ahmanet—Morton refers to her as “the chick in the box”—confront a series of challenges ranging from an underwater chase featuring the reanimated corpses of Crusaders to a massive sandstorm in the middle of modern-day London. Morton also deals with an internal struggle—is he a completely self-absorbed a-hole or is he willing to make sacrifices for Halsey and others?
Russell Crowe’s professorial Dr Jekyll brings an amusingly unnecessary element to the film. Not only does Jekyll inject himself with a giant hypodermic to keep his monster at bay, but he also makes certain to show everyone in the room. The critics scoff, but the aficionados of grandiosity rejoice. And though this Jekyll has vowed to protect the world by eliminating evil, we all know he has a dark side. This is the type of film that demands it comes out.
To those who were disappointed in the film, one must ask—what did you expect? An Oscar-worthy drama? A groundbreaking fantasy film? What I expected was action, silliness, and the Cruise charisma. And that’s what I got. – Douglas J. Ogurek ****
The Man in the High Castle, Season 2, by Frank Spotnitz and friends (Amazon Video) | review by Rafe McGregor
Season 1 managed to capture many of the finer points of the novel and Dick’s writing more generally, including his use of multiple and often apparently unrelated subplots. Viewers were introduced to a host of characters without knowing which of them the overarching plot would coalesce around or who would live or die, all of which added to the suspense. The narrative appeared to focus on the two characters used to advertise the series, Obergruppenführer (SS-General) John Smith (Rufus Sewell), based in New York in the Greater German Reich, and Juliana Crane (Alexa Davalos), a young woman who has remained remarkably free from prejudice in the San Francisco of the Japanese Pacific States. The two are linked by a third, Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank), a young American who is employed as an SS agent by Smith and meets Juliana on a mission in the Neutral Zone between the two empires. The main problem with season 1 was that Sewell stole the show. (I must interject here to berate the BBC for cancelling Zen, which featured Sewell in the title role, in 2011 and reducing the best British crime series to date to a meagre three episodes.) Granted, Smith is head of SS-US, has previously participated in genocide, and keeps his fellow citizens under the jackboot, but he is also fiercely loyal (to his family and the Führer), very shrewd (in outwitting the various Nazis jockeying for power as Hitler’s health declines), and pretty much un-killable (whether the assassins be fellow-Nazis or enemies of the Reich). In contrast, the heroes, including Juliana, are continually wavering between joining the Resistance and accepting their status as a colonised people and when the Resistance in either the (Japanese) West or (German) East does take action it is either pointless, useless, or both. What is perhaps most disappointing is the heroes’ general selfishness and lack of interest in sacrificing their personal safety for a greater cause – unlike Smith, who has devoted his life to service, albeit it to a completely reprehensible cause.
Producer and writer Frank Spotnitz wisely decided to change the book that was written by Hawthorne Abendsen (the man in the high castle), The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, in Dick’s novel to a series of film reels. This adaptation both enhances the film and reveals a further weakness in Dick’s story. The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, the book within the novel, is a representation of a world where the Allies won the Second World War (i.e. the real world) and naturally banned by the authorities. But the fascination with the novel is never quite explained nor is there any need to explain how the author came up with the ideas – that is, after all, exactly what authors do, make things up. In contrast, the existence of documentary film reels seems to show an actual alternative reality, particularly in an era where special effects were extremely limited in scope. The films immediately suggest a science fiction element in addition to the alternative history and the presence of Blake and others therein at the end of season 1 creates a compelling mystery that is largely absent in the novel. At the beginning of season 2 it is revealed that these films do not depict what has happened, but possible futures – events that have not happened yet, but might, and Abendsen is cataloguing them year by year in order to attempt to change the future of the story world.
The main plot of season 2 revolves around geo-political events, specifically the escalation of the jockeying for power within the Greater German Reich as Hitler’s health takes its final turn for the worse and the rush for the Greater Japanese Empire to build a nuclear bomb in order to maintain the Cold War peace. The events in the two empires are exacerbated by the presence of jingoistic elements on both sides: Germans who are attempting to pre-empt a war with Japan before she is capable of nuclear retaliation and Japanese who want to build a bomb as a precursor to declaring war on Germany. In the midst of these momentous world events, the various subplots in season 2 focus on five main characters, the three from season 1 and: Frank Frink (Luke Evans), Juliana’s boyfriend and newcomer to the Resistance, and Nobusuke Tagomi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), the Trade Minister of the Pacific States. This narrower focus sees all five characters, including the heroes, pursuing clear goals as Juliana and Frink commit fully to the Resistance, Joe commits to the Nazis, and Tagomi finds himself capable of moving between the story world and the real world. The tension and action are heightened for all five and the revelation of the relevance of their own stories to the apparently inevitable Third World War makes for exciting viewing. In a reversal of the way in which I was amazed at Dick’s novel winning a prize, I am amazed to see negative reviews of this series, which – if watched as intended, as the sequel to season 1 – is really outstanding in terms of plot, acting, cinematic production… it really is difficult to find a flaw. Perhaps the most satisfying aspect of the series is the way that season 2 ends. The films and, more importantly, the two realities between which Tagomi can move, are explained in full. There is a resolution with respect to both Smith and Juliana’s plots and the geo-political situation reaches a milestone rather than a climax. The contrast with Dick’s original is stark: where the novel terminated without concluding, season 2 has been perfectly-judged, such that the narrative concludes in a satisfying manner as-is, but could continue in future seasons. Where Dick’s novel failed to provide any closure, Spotnitz’s closure is unusual – if not unique – in working equally well as both an interim and final conclusion.