Ginger Nuts of Horror
By George Ilett Anderson
Seasons in the Abyss
Out of all the different flavours and styles of horror fiction that I read, one that I invariably gravitate back towards is cosmic horror. There’s just something about that style of writing that has this almost primal tug at the subconscious, awakening long dormant thoughts about existence and fear of the unknown. It’s a feeling heightened when you come across those writers who just have this almost supernatural gift for boiling down cosmic horror to the essential salts that give it substance and form; that overwhelming sense of dread and despair at realising the stark and brutal nature of reality and your insignificance within it. On the basis of “Song of the Death God” from Horrific Tales Publishing, I’d say William Holloway is one such writer.
In this, the second book of his Singularity Cycle, Holloway has crafted a wonderfully bleak and nihilistic tale of obsession and forbidden knowledge. I have to admit that initially I was expecting a direct sequel to “The Immortal Body” and the events of that book so was a bit taken aback at first read. Whereas its predecessor was a modern day tale of old gods and dark forces invading the present, this prequel jumps back to the nineteenth century to focus on the instigator of that novel’s carnage, Liche, or as he was previously known, Carsten Ernst.
Carsten, born into a privileged but debauched German family is the archetypal studious son of a patriarchal family. A cold, detached and overtly analytical person, his life is irrevocably altered when he witnesses a séance with inexplicable forces at work. Determined to master powers he cannot rationally explain, Carsten commits himself to searching for the wellspring of the occult powers witnessed. An epic journey ensues that leads him to the edges of humanity and beyond as he discovers the forbidden tomes that hold the keys to life and death, The Immortal Body and Song of the Death God.
After reading this novel, it’s hard not to be reminded of certain elements prevalent in the writing of H.P. Lovecraft: the irrepressible thirst for forbidden knowledge, the hints at a grand mythology and of horrors lurking just out of sight. Yet to compare “Song of the Death God” to Lovecraft would probably be of gross disservice to Holloway’s writing. Unlike Lovecraft’s florid style, Holloway’s writing has a taut sparsity to it that is excellent at creating an overwhelming sense of dread and foreboding throughout the novel.
This is not by any stretch of the imagination a book filled with joie de vivre. There is a strong nihilistic streak that pulses its way throughout the novel, reflected in both the story and the characters. At its core, the novel takes a rather bleak and existential stare at the hollowness of the human spirit. From the characters on display here, Holloway gives the impression that humanity is naught but a species preoccupied with venal and debased desires, scrabbling around for the next drink, fuck or fight with which to sate its thirst.
None of the key characters have much in the way of sympathetic tendencies or characteristics and act almost as real world reflections of the cold and dismissive cosmic forces that lurk in the void. Themes of alienation, manipulation and corruption of the mind and soul feature strongly in “Song of the Death God” as Carsten’s unquenchable thirst for knowledge leads him to abandon any pretext to humanity and fully embrace the occult powers of The Void where death has no dominion and flesh is a malleable tool.
So, should you have a read then? I admit my review of the novel probably isn’t screaming “must read” at you but if you are a connoisseur for bleak and nihilistic doses of epic cosmic horror in the vein of Rich Hawkins “Song of the Death God” is an absolute treat. A lean and mean novel that hints at grand mythology with hearty doses of limb tearing and soul shredding horror, this book bodes extremely well for the rest of William Holloway’s Singularity Cycle.
BY TONY JONES
“Terrifying secrets arise from an abandoned mine shaft
I often pick up free or heavily discounted eBook’s from the BookBub site, it might take me an age, but I get around to trying them all eventually. “Nogglz” by Tom Walsh finally rose to the top of the pile and made such a strong impression on me I wondered why I had never heard of it before? First published in 2015, I don’t recall this book ever being mentioned in the horror world or reviewed anywhere at all. Maybe it was just me who missed it. Either way, this is one exceptionally striking book which is well worth reading on Kindle Unlimited, or at the time of writing taking a £1.99 punt on Kindle.
“What the heck is a ‘Nogglz’?” is probably your first question, and it’s a good one, which I will answer a bit later. The whole novel is set over a bloody 24-hour period in a very remote part of the Colorado mountains in the small town of Canyon Bluff. Less than thirty people live in this isolated place which many years previously was a thriving coal-mining town. These thirty residents are all very elderly and refuse to leave their dying home town which no longer has a shop, school, or even working street lights. Set in the 1990s, Canyon Bluff is a superb setting for a horror novel, with the town dripping in atmosphere, sounds, decay and memories.
Apart from the police officers called to the town after the brutal murder of Sarah almost every character in this quirky novel is well over the age of sixty and that itself gives the novel a deliberately slow pace which worked perfectly. It was also very talky, old people do talk a lot, so that also worked cleverly well. Although the murders begin very quickly in the novel the locals do have some inkling of what is going on and are on some level prepared. Most are far from helpless, and heavily armed, for when things kick off. I really liked a lot of these grannies and grandads, many of whom went down swinging with all guns blazing.
Sarah lives in a house which she inherited from her dead brother and their father before that. In their basement there is a heavily fortified entrance to an old mine tunnel. When Sarah’s mutilated body is discovered the police realise that something has forced the mine barrier open, from the inside, something very strong and unbelievably nasty.
This is where things begin to get very interesting… Emily, is an Anthropology grad-student who is travelling to interview Sarah around the time of her death. She is writing a research paper on dying towns and her tutor has told to enquire about the “Nogglz” which is a local folk tale which parents have used to scare their kids for years, “If you don’t watch out the Nogglz will get you.” But as the body count increases we realise the “Nogglz” are very real and are connected to some dodgy business in the mines way back in the 1930s. Which everybody in the town knows about, but rarely talks about, and certainly not to strangers like Sarah.
I liked so many things about this odd book which I read speedily over two very enjoyably days and the sequences seen from the point of the view of the Nogglz were amongst my favourites. On one level they’re vicious, ultra-fast, killing machines but on another you did feel some sympathy for them. Their backstory was cleverly integrated into the plot and they also evolved as the story went on.
“Nogglz” made me think of a few other books, in the vaguest of senses, and this should be a compliment, firstly, Dean Koontz’s “Phantoms” for the location of nothing else, Albert Sanchez Pino’s “Cold Skin” for the creatures and Jeff Long’s “The Descent” for the underground cavernous locations. The Pino and Long novels are amongst my very favourites, so these are very cool comparisons and all three are come highly recommended.
The novel will also get you thinking about localised folklore and ghost stories and how they can be diluted down the generations. The “Nogglz” were originally a group of men locally known as “Naugel’s Boys” but when parents scared their kids with the old stories the youngsters were unsure of the spelling and it eventually morphed into “Nogglz”.
Although I doubt this is a book for everyone I wholeheartedly recommend it. I love books which are hard to categorise and “Nogglz” really fits the bill, part horror, thriller, and loaded with both monsters and grandads with guns. Excellent stuff.
It has been said over the years that mankind has learned more about the farthest reaches of Earth’s solar system than the darkest depths of the planet’s oceans. That’s obviously an exaggeration, but an illustrative one nonetheless. A vast majority of this world, which we think of not just as our home but often as our property, remains alien to us. Deep beneath the waves, far from the light of the sun and protected by the crushing pressure of thousands upon thousands of feet, many mysteries remain despite our best attempts to illuminate them.
Thana Niveau knows better than to try shining a light on the subaquatic shadows of Unquiet Waters. Rather, in this collection (or “microcollection” as publisher Black Shuck Books has dubbed it, owing to its slim page-count and four-story lineup), she provides only fleeting glimpses of wet, shiny, strange things, daring our imaginations to envision more. Like the characters in Niveau’s tales, we are denied convenient explanations.
“To Drown the World,” the story which opens Unquiet Waters, introduces us to Evan and Lea, twins who are more different than they are alike. After growing up on Galveston Island, off the polluted coast of Texas, Lea remained at her childhood home while Evan wasted no time relocating inland. While Lea has become a field ecologist, researching climate change and Cambrian Period fossils, Evan is the type of guy who might assume the Cambrian Period is a type of punctuation. Finally, while Lea has always felt entranced by the ocean and its limitless potential, Evan is instead intimidated by what secrets surely hide in its rippling murk.
When Evan is suddenly summoned home by an erratic Lea, he is appalled to find her living in squalor. As she unveils her latest shocking scientific discovery, he is forced to wrestle with how his own abandonment of her might have led to her current mental state. What’s worse, there’s a storm on the horizon, one to make the waters rise and roil, and which threatens to swallow any who linger too close to land’s edge. Tragic and terrifying, “To Drown the World” dips its toes alternately into the pools of eco-horror, psychological horror, weird fiction, and even classic fairy-tales.
The much shorter “The Reflection,” proves less character-driven but even more surreal. A man named Allan wakes up from a dream of drowning only to find himself being pulled down into another kind of undertow, losing hold of his own life as someone else begins living it for him. Though the premise is straightforward enough that the reader immediately knows more or less how the story will play out, “The Reflection” is ultimately a satisfying exercise in ever-increasing dread.
“Raptures of the Deep,” defies any attempts to predict its narrative, with an effectively hypnotic account of two women lost in a vast blue void. Its horrors both starkly realistic and ambiguously mystical, the story sees diving enthusiast Jo taking her lovelorn friend Natalie far beneath the waves to swim with sharks. When the experienced Jo allows herself to become distracted by beautiful whalesong, though, she becomes separated from the novice Natalie.
The panic that sets in is palpable; it’s not hard to imagine how scary it would be to lose your bearings in a place where it’s so easy to forget which end is up and where breathing itself is a short-lived and perilous luxury. That said, what seems at first like a story of real-world danger soon morphs into something more lyrical, more otherworldly. One is left questioning how much of the tale might be the result of oxygen-deprived hallucination and how much might be the work of forces ancient, primal, and mystic. “Raptures of the Deep” is a definite highlight.
The only entry in this collection that shines brighter is the final one, “Where the Water Comes In,” about Tara, a woman obsessed with water in all its aspects. She takes scalding hot baths while simultaneously drinking fresh-brewed seaweed tea, contemplating that the only separation between the water within and the water without is her flesh. As the story goes on, that separation becomes less and less, and it becomes less a matter of flesh and more one of spirit. Awash with sensory details, “Where the Water Comes In” closes the collection on a transcendent note, immersing the reader within Tara’s twisting form so as to fully soak us in Unquiet Waters’ recurring themes of transformation.
At the end of the book, Niveau offers a too-rare treat in the form of author’s notes explaining the inspirations behind the stories. It’s a minor but enjoyable addition, one that only serves to strengthen the relationship between writer and reader.
Although this “microcollection” is short in terms of length, it’s very big in terms of imaginative, emotionally resonant storytelling. Niveau’s writing style manages an ethereal quality without sacrificing simplicity on the altar of purple prose. And while the stories themselves often set sail from familiar shores, the places they ultimately take readers end up being far beyond any map, places where, as the old sailors will tell you, “here there be monsters.”
Monsters, yes, and wonders, too.
Fiction Review: Deadknobs And Doomsticks: Comedian Joe Pasquale's collection of bizarre and surreal horror stories
Stewart Lee once famously performed a routine that poked fun at Joe Pasquale's ability to somehow come up with jokes on his accord ( in reality by his team of "writers" and I use that term in its most loose and free definition) that somehow had been performed by lesser know indie comedians. It is, unlike Joe Pasquale, a hilarious routine that culminates in a Lee creating a Pasquale theft proof joke.
Thankfully this is something that the horror world will not have to attempt to do, judging by this collection of so-called horror stories, as it is clear from reading, what is probably the worst collection of short stories I have ever had the misfortune of reading, that Pasquale has never actually read a horror story In fact I would go as far to say that he has never read a book in his, such is is totally inability to put pen to paper in any form that closely resembles a coherent, well thought out, well researched or satisfying story.
Whoever signed off on this project, must have been off their medication. To say that Pasquale has the writing ability of a five-year-old would be a disservice to any five years old who has written a story about what they did in their summer holidays for their school homework. There is zero narrative flow in any of these stories, in fact, Pasquale's narrative voice is even more annoying than his actual voice. The majority of these stories read as a series of bullet points and random plot twists linked together by the weakest and most incompetent prose I have ever had the misfortune of reading this past 12 months.
And it is not just the writing that is subpar, the ideas for the stories are so underdeveloped, and in some cases, such as the story "The Sea Monkey" are an idea without a story or point. There is no resolution, no narrative journey and no end. A boy is born with a tail, becomes slightly famous gets kidnapped, bundled into a boat, boat runs adrift and he gets picked up on a beach by a friendly Lighthouse keeper, who I hope has an excellent legal team as I fear Portland Bill will sue his arse off.
It's not that I have a problem with ambiguous, or vague endings to stories, hell there are a lot of great short stories that have left me scratching my head, unsure of what I have just read. However those stories had one thing, among so much more, that is lacking in Pasquale's work, a properly executed drive and direction. It's as though Pasquale's thinks ambiguous is another word for just stop writing. So many of these stories will have you checking the page numbers to see if you are missing a final page for each story. Much like his stand up Pasquale's short story career will have you sitting there long after everyone has left the building waiting for a punchline that will never come.
And therein lies another problem with this collection, so many of these stories contain flashes, or maybe smears of Pasquale's attempt at humour. Now you may be a fan of his stand up routine, and that is no reflection on you, we all find different things funny, but his attempt at injecting these lines are so cack-handed that they through you out of the already flimsy story. Creating something that is funny in the written word is a lot harder than making something funny in the stand-up world, so many subtilties, such as timing, are placed in the hands of the reader, and Pasquale's sense of timing is so off, that even if he were a broken clock he would be capable of telling the time correctly twice a day.
For a collection that proclaims to tackle themes of bullying, it may well have not been a good idea for him to compare immigrants trying to get into the country to flies getting into his car, this is level of total lack of self-awareness that Pasquale has throughout this collection. There are numerous occasions where his use of phrases and words borders on the tactless and tasteless. In the hands of a more accomplished writer, this could be seen as a satirical stab at modern life, but feel that Pasquale thinks satire is an upmarket brand of suits. Why he chose to make the villain of one of the stories a Jehovah's Witness escapes me completely, as it has no real baring on the story, and his use of it shows his total lack and ignorance of the religious beliefs. It is almost as though he was too scared to make them one of the more politically volatile religions, so he went for a quick and safe option. Or maybe he had just finished watching Monty Pythons Life of Brian, and the name stuck with him. Either way, you are left wondering at his total lack of understanding on this and nearly everything else in the collection.
Christ, there is even a story about a dentist who gets robbed and gets revenge of the addled drug thief, by kidnapping them, strapping them to their dentist's chair, which conveniently is situated in the dentist surgery in the extension they had just built on their home, and then injecting cocaine, yes you read that right cocaine into parts of their body to numb the pain that will come from the dentists cats eating the thief.
Now let's break that down. One how would a dentist have cocaine? There is no mention of the dentist being a coke addict, so that avenue is closed, and unless this is a time travelling dentist from the turn of the century, then I'm pretty sure she wouldn't have a stash of it for medical purposes. I'm pretty sure that he meant Novocaine, which would be acceptable, despite the fact that Novocaine has been replaced by lidocaine, and the term Novocaine has become much like the name Hoover when we mean vacuum cleaner.
Now let's move onto the use of cats as a method of disposing of the body. I really don't think Pasquale has owned a cat let alone tried to feed a cat. The dentist is clearly very close to her cats, so why the hell would she feed a drug-riddled junkie corpse to her beloved pets is beyond me, I don't know about you, but I am pretty careful about what I feed my pets and drug basted, diseased ridden flesh would never appear on my shopping list.
Secondly, I do not think that disposal by feline munching is an efficient way of corpse disposal as he makes out in this story. Every cat I have owned has got bored halfway through their meal and walked away from the food bowl. I find it very hard to believe that her cats would have eaten the whole corpse, especially when she keeps on putting Whiskers cat food on it to entice their "feeding frenzy."
Now I can hear some of you right now, "why are you making such a big thing about these points?", Well, the reason for this is this story is a perfect example of the total lack of care, understanding and essential ability to do some research, so your story doesn't come across as a total mess. Every one of the entries in this collection is riddled with a complete absence of pride in doing something correctly; it reeks of a total disregard for the reader and their intelligence. Hell, I won't even begin to talk about his story about an armed response police officer and his drug addiction that makes Tony Montana look like an altar boy. Someone really needs to tell Pasquale that Uk police officers and especially armed UK police officers are regularly drug tested.
I'll be honest here I find Joe Pasquale's humour to be about as funny as a kick in the balls, but I did have high hopes for this book. The horror genre has always been the most challenging genre to sell to publishers and readers. There is a huge stigma attached to it, by those of the general public who have never read it. Despite the fact that anyone of us horror fans could rattle off a dozen authors who could break this stigma if only more people read them, without breaking a sweat. This potentially could be a book that is read by thousands of people who have never read a horror a story before, and thanks to Pasquale's embarrassing collection of short stories this book could do so much damage to our already look down upon genre.
Pasquale may well have been crowned king of the jungle, maybe he should have done us all a favour and been eaten by a tiger.
CASEFILE: ARKHAM: HER BLOOD RUNS COLD. A ‘HANK FLYNN P.I.’ GRAPHIC NOVEL.BY JOSH FINNEY AND PATRICK MCEVOY.
I come to Casefile: Arkham as a total noob where Lovecraftian works are concerned. I actually own the complete collected works of H.P. Lovecraft, and have done for quite some time, but to me it’s something akin to the Holy Bible in that it’s an enormous book full of archaic stories. I read the Bible when I was a kid, it took a long time and was tedious to say the least. I’m assuming that Lovecraft’s works will be somewhat similar as there’s a plethora of ridiculous names and dull text to wade through. It’s something I intend to wade through at some point, but I’m a busy guy so I need my input to be more ‘bite sized’. Comic books and graphic novels serve that purpose beautifully. When I got my paws on Casefile: Arkham I didn’t know it was anything to do with Lovecraft, so after a few pages I was a little disappointed as it will obviously make less sense to me than it would to a fan of the referential source material.
Hank Flynn P.I. is a standard cliché Irish ex-military hard-drinking hard-boiled gumshoe with more than a passing resemblance to Robert Mitchum and the story is crafted in a similar style to the old fashioned detective movies Mitchum starred in but with a supernatural storyline. On the subject of resemblance I found that although for the most part this graphic novel is expertly presented and the draughtsmanship is fine, there’s a jarring inconsistency with the characters in that what I read and what I see don’t always tally. Flynn does look very Robert Mitchum, but sometimes more like Sean Penn or other random faces. It’s not just Flynn either, the character Derby had subtle changes where in one frame he resembles Kirk Douglas but in another Harrison Ford, which to me was a little confusing. I’m not saying it’s a big deal or that it ruins the graphic novel but it was just something I think could have done with a tad more attention as in general the artwork and layout is fine, we’re not talking Frank Miller kind of fine, but certainly good enough and the general overall feel reminded me of many a comic I’d read in the 70s.
Edward Derby is a socially elite but likeable character who gets way out of his depth when he approaches Flynn for help, largely incoherent, brandishing a gun and obviously not in control of his faculties. This is the beginning of a complex and intriguing storyline involving the Derby family and a cult worshipping a Sumerian God’s spawn with which they have interbred.
I have to admit that if I had read a plot synopsis on this I wouldn’t have read the novel, mostly because of the Lovecraft connection, but if I had done so I would have missed out as I found this to be bordering on excellent. My previous comments about the minor inconsistencies in the characters’ looks are certainly not enough to overshadow my enjoyment of such a powerfully realised work of detective fiction. Especially as creating a comic is difficult enough, a graphic novel a much harder task but one with such strictures of the genre elements to begin with would for me at least be a project I couldn’t perceive tackling. With many graphic novels I found that some may have superior artwork and no story, whilst others have a fantastic storyline but are let down by artwork, this graphic novel has no deficit, very much reminding me of John Wagner, Alan Grant and Robin Smith’s 1989 four part black-and-white comic book ‘The Bogie Man’ . Given the contribution the aforementioned gentlemen have made to the comic book world it is safe to say that Josh Finney and Patrick McEvoy are in excellent company.
If you are a fan of Lovecraft I can assume you’ll enjoy this, doubly so if you are a fan of detective fiction in the style of Raymond Chandler. I am not much of a fan of either, yet there was still so much quality storytelling here that I’m not disappointed and can thoroughly recommend Casefile: Arkham: Her Blood Runs Cold.
Make a date in your diary for this one as it is released from:
March 5th 2018.
Jimbo Yojimbo starts off with a pulse pounding prison break as our hero risks it all in a desperate gambit for freedom from the giant mega corporation, Bhudda Gump Shrimp, and it only gets weirder from there.
Genetically engineered giant shrimp, mutant frogs, the ghost of his father, and a host of characters that are a delightful fusion of every Samurai epic ever and the perfect deep fried, countrified tale comprise Jimbo’s world. The story telling is rich, beautiful, cinematic, and skillful. Author David W. Barbee’s talent shines through like a bright tadpole in this thrilling mashup.
The pacing is excellent, though a bit fast. It suits the story perfectly, but it can be a bit jarring at times. The characters are nuanced, well developed, and relatable. The story is engrossing and the conclusion is… satisfying. Let’s just say that.
The world in which we find ourselves, and our hero, is a dystopian future, an uber foodcourt filled with delectable deep fried delicacies that come with a hefty price, and it’ll cost more than what’s in your wallet.
The Jimbo Yojimbos are a proud line of sellswords reaching back through hundreds of generations. They have a reputation for being the best of the best, willing to stop at nothing to complete their tasks… but when a company venture turns deadly, killing someone close to his heart, one of the Jimbos decides to strike back. Revenge against Bhudda Gump takes his life (don’t worry, this isn’t actually much of a spoiler) and leaves his son, *our* Jimbo, with a legacy of torture, mutilation, and pain at the company’s hands.
There isn’t much more I feel like I can say about this book without spoiling the surprises that await you like tender, deep fried morsels just begging to be consumed. Suffice it to say if you have enjoyed any of Barbee’s other works, you’re in for a real treat in the pages of Jimbo Yojimbo. And if you haven’t yet had the pleasure, this would be a great book to start with. David W. Barbee is at the top of his game in this glorious, shrimp slashing, revenge-fueled romp.
“Superb depression era set supernatural thriller
The enigmatic Robert McCammon continues a literary path which remains almost impossible to categorise or pigeonhole with his latest novel “The Listener”, a truly superb supernatural thriller set in the Great Depression of 1930s America. This author really is a one-off, since 2014 he has written novels set in periods as differing as the Second World War, America in the 1700s, America in the 1860s and a version of today in which Earth is destroyed by two warring alien races. Across these time zones his novels feature werewolves, vampires, witches and a unique blend of historical thriller. Many genre publishers are currently avoiding vampires and werewolves like the plague, but when McCammon approaches well-worn subjects you just know the product will be something fresh and unique. For many years he has ranked amongst the finest writers of dark fiction in the world and “The Listener” sits comfortably with his unmatchable body of work. As this is a stand-alone novel, if you’ve never read McCammon before, this is as good a place to start as any.
John Partlow is a con-man, (a ‘grifter’) who weasels cash from poor unfortunates by scanning the obituaries in local newspapers and then turning up at the door of the deceased trying to sell 25c Bibles to the family for 5USD by pretending the dead family member had pre-ordered the book and has already paid a 1USD deposit. If he is successful, he is 4USD richer and there are a lot of suckers out there. Partlow may be silver-tongued, but he also has a very nasty mean streak and is a terrific character to drive major sections of this novel. Whilst stuck in a dead-end town waiting for his car to be repaired John chances upon an evening show in a local hotel and realises two other grifters are at work. Intrigued at their scam, soon he is entwined with the sultry Ginger LaFrance who makes him an offer he just cannot refuse. The chance to earn 50% of 250,000USD in the mother of all cons, but it’s not going to be easy. And in the end of the day who is conning who is one of the questions this terrific novel keeps finally balanced?
Elsewhere Curtis Mayhew is a young black man who works as a luggage carrier (a redcap) for the Union Railroad Station. Bearing in mind this in the mid-1930s race plays a prominent, convincing, and powerful part of the story. Blacks don’t mix with whites and although they are no longer slaves they are still treated like dirt and Curtis deals with this on a daily in his job, but with good grace and dignity. By McCammon’s standards this is not a long novel, but is very cleverly paced and highly entertaining in discovering how the two sets of characters converge.
Curtis has some strange ‘talents’, firstly, he has a reputation for the ability to mend quarrels, fights and misunderstandings. For example, when a friend has been playing around behind the back of his girlfriend, Curtis has the weird ability of helping her forgive him. Oddly, the novel does not explore this ‘talent’ or really explain it, and I wondered what was the point of him having it at all? However, his second ‘talent’ is crucial to the story, his ability to hear the voices of others who have the same gift as himself. As he comes from a Christian family his talent is seen as a curse and he if left to deal with it on his own.
As with all McCammon novels “The Listener” has a terrific sense of time and place, particularly the plight of Curtis as he tries to do the right thing in a world that only sees his colour. It was littered with so many well drawn characters, both major and minor, some who lived and others who died. Once the spunky little children are introduced it just gets better and better as they put up a terrific fight for survival. Curtis was the real star of the novel though, eclipsing even Paltrow, and features in many memorable scenes. A favourite was him excited to be attending the birthday party of a girl he likes, but realising she is way out of his league and is merely exploited for his ‘talent’ at the party. The stories of grifting which lead into the main plotline are also very clever and you’ll have a chuckle at the scam which leads to Ginger selling fake Spanish Fly to unsuspecting country hicks.
“The Listener” was a powerful character driven novel, backed up with a very tight plot which made it very easy to read in a couple of days. You’ll devour every exquisitely crafted sentence. The balance of Curtis trying to do the right thing against several downright nasty characters was perfectly pitched and you may even have a tear in your eye by the end. Although McCammon downplays the supernatural elements of this novel, the ability of Curtis to ‘listen’ develops with the story, but ultimately the heady mix of race, class and family drive the plot to a very poignant ending. Highly recommended as Robert McCammon always is.
BY AMBER FALLON
Review: UNDER: SCOURGE OF THE SEWERS #1
On the surface, Under: Scourge of the Sewers is just another pulp comic. What you see on the cover is definitely what you get inside: giant sewer monsters, gooey cadavers, a pretty female scientist, and lots of blood and guts.
As a big fan of the pulp genre myself, I was not disappointed. Many of the classic pulp tropes are here. We have the troubled cop, fallen from grace and seeking redemption. We have the beautiful, naïve woman in over her head and in need of protection. We have the giant monsters, hungry for flesh and lurking just beneath the city. We have the dirty politician with his grubby mits deep in underhanded dealings. We have the token victims: criminals and vagrants hiding out in the sewers. We’ve also got military involvement, cannon fodder (red shirts), flame throwers, sarcasm, one liners, autopsies, and sex. If you’re a fan of the genre, Under breaks no real new ground here. While it’s not boring, per se, it’s also not unique or surprising at all.
One criticism I have is that the pacing is very disjointed. The story jumps back and forth a lot, from scene to scene you’re looking at different characters in different settings. I understand the need to keep things fresh and to show multiple things going on at the same time, but it’s both jarring and sometimes confusing. More than once I found myself rereading the same page trying to make sense of what was going on… there are a few similar looking characters (understandable) doing completely different things one page to the next. I think keeping the scenes consistent for a few pages each time would definitely have added to the readability (and enjoyability) of the story as a whole.
In conclusion, I enjoyed Under: Scourge of the Sewers. It’s fun, cheesy pulp told in an entertaining way, with decent art and writing. If you’re looking for literary brilliance or high art, this is probably not your cup of tea, but if you want a pulpy monster story that doesn’t skimp on the gore, this is a sure bet! I give it 3.5 stars out of 5 and I will definitely be picking up the next issue!
by George Illet Anderson
Shout at the Devil
Devil Kickers by Daniel Marc Chant and Vincent Hunt is a riotously good slice of pulp horror fiction that comes across like the demented word offspring of Father Ted doing The Exorcist meets Peter Jackson and The Evil Dead thrown in for good measure. It’s one of those books that you’ll devour in one sitting and end up with a big grin plastered across your chops.
Within the space of a few chapters I was reminded of that scene in “Brain Dead” where this priest cries “I kick arse for the Lord!” before unleashing his wrath on various reanimated ghouls. Devil Kickers has that same gleeful sense of slapstick intermingled with body splattering bursts of apocalyptic horror as Chant and Hunt introduce you to the very unorthodox Idol Brothers and their unique exorcism service.
Orphaned at an early age, Chris and Pete are adopted by Father Montague Rhodes with whom they form a holy trinity of baseball bats and bibles to rid the mortal world of demons. After a particularly testing confrontation, the brothers are despatched to the quiet village of Hallenbach with the substitute Sister Sarah in tow. There the trio will find out that if you mess with the Devil it can get very personal indeed.
Devil Kickers is a joyously demented blast of devilishly good fun that whips along at fair rate of knots. It’s the kind of book that instantly hooked up a projector in my brain and proceeded to spool this crazy film across my eyeballs as I read. What’s not to like about a story that serves up demonic ducks, possessed doom metallers and sprinting nuns alongside a legion of fallen souls thirsting for revenge? Dispensing their own brand of holy justice, I do hope that the Idol Brothers return as I found Devil Kickers to be a welcome dose of unabashed fun.
For a certain generation of British men, 2000AD has a similar resonance as the likes of Spider Man or X-Men for our US counterparts:
For those of us who were children of the 1970s and 80s, 2000AD was a cultural monolith: copies to be found on every news agent and corner shop shelf, hardback annuals of the comic regular stocking fillers come Christmas time.
But, unlike its Marvel and DC contemporaries, 2000AD has always been a horse of a different (radioactive, post-apocalyptic) colour.
Whereas those franchises (which were also readily available here during the era) tend to occupy themselves with moral absolutisms and cultural reinforcement, 2000AD has always been a far more deviant beast: in terms of its subject matter, more graphically violent and overt; willing to show the consequences of violence in a way that super hero comics rarely have (anyone who has read the likes of Judge Dredd, Slaine, ABC Warriors or Rogue Trooper can testify), in terms of its stories, tone and ideas, more counter culture; lampooning and parodying science fiction and fantasy tropes and cliches, as well as “real world” politics and social concerns.
As a kid, the gallows sense of humour that pervades almost every tale in the comic's history didn't consciously register; I was more intrigued by the imagery, the violence, the horror; the gore and monstrosity on display, as well as the truly incredible artwork, which varied from story to story, but tended to have a more detailed, painterly quality to those churned out primarily for US markets.
I recall lingering over certain images: that of Slaine physically warping and mutating, swelling and transforming as he was overcome by his battle rage and bloodlust, of Rogue Trooper encountering a notably Lovecraftian, occult entity that wove makeshift and truly bizarre bodies for itself from the flesh and corpses of its worshipers.
Most lingering of all: The Dark Judges, the undead superfiends that fast became favourite antagonists of the comic's headline Judge Dredd strip.
My first encounter with the undead entities came, as with so much that snared my attention back then, from a single image in one of the 2000AD annuals that a friend had for Christmas: a small image of Judges Fear, Fire and Mortis, their rictus-grinning master, Judge Death, looming at their backs.
Already being immersed and in love with horror, I couldn't fail to be immediately entranced by these creatures; the manner in which their rotted, tattered uniforms and armour resembled those of the “Judges” from Judge Dredd's own setting of Mega City 1, but twisted and perverted: badges of office replaced with skulls and demonic visages, armoured plates with rib cages and chunks of bone...even the iconic Judge's helmet parodied with Death's own portcullis visor.
As a child, I didn't comprehend the irony; that Judge Dredd's own peculiar brand of moral extremism can only be contrasted by another SO extreme that it results in mass genocide: all I saw was a fantastically cool, zombie-judge nemesis and his unliving cohorts, who exhibited some familiar but enticing imagery and provided an immediate “hook” for me to draw me deeper and deeper into the comic itself.
Most aesthetically engaging of all was and remains the skeletal Judge Mortis, a withered, humanoid figure that boasts a skinless yew's skull for a head, whose touch brings rot and decay. As a child, I found the imagery he incorporated distressing and disturbing, which in turn made me want to know all about him and see more of him.
Sadly, it wasn't until much, much later that he and his fellows were properly “fleshed out,” so to speak, when the sheer, macabre adoration fans exhibited for the Dark Judges made an origin story inevitable:
Young Death, following on from the zeitgeist shifting Necropolis story arc, in which the Dark Judges and their allies, The Sisters of Death, take over Mega City 1 and turn it into the eponymous city of the dead (the scenes of mass slaughter and bizarre, occult horror still notable in scope and invention, even to this day), provides an autobiography for the undead super-fiend, provided from his own receding lips:
As in all things, 2000AD does not opt for the easy or expected; it would have been so easy to make Judge Death far too morbid and morose; to lend him a tragic or abusive back story, that explains how he came to be as he is.
Instead, Young Death paints the story of a psychopath born and bred; a resident of another dimension, not massively removed from the one in which Judge Dredd operates, in which the Judges are the ultimate authorities, where life is no sacred artefact; death and suffering merely facts of life.
Into this world is born one Sidney De'Ath (or “Ssssssidneeeey,” as Judge Death himself reluctantly confesses); not some warlord or prince or occult practitioner, but an oddly pudgey, swollen-headed little boy who starts to exhibit classic tendencies of psychopathy from a young age. The story charts his early life; his mutilation and murder of animals, his attempts to harm and mutilate his sister and other members of the family, until his eventual ascension to the ranks of that dimension's Judiciary, where he excels with his non-compromising approach, and quickly earns himself the epithet that will become the one we know and love him for: Judge Death.
The story is a wry and bleakly humorous look at how the most unassuming, fairly pathetic individual rises to become the bane of an entire world: it isn't long before “Sssssssidneey” encounters the Sisters of Death; Phobia and Nausea, occultists and necromancers, who are themselves well on their way to becoming the spectral monstrosities encountered in Necropolis, who allow him to realise his expanding philosophy of life itself being a crime by transforming him into the undead entity familiar to the comic strips.
Perhaps more engaging and intriguing than the personal life of Death himself is the politics of the world in which he operates; even more totalitarian and extreme than Judge Dredd's post-apocalyptic reality, murder and violence are treated with degrees of casuistry that allow Death, even in his undead state, to rise through the ranks of the Judges, slowly escalating their efforts into mass progroms, until he and his followers become the ultimate authorities in the land, spreading their taint across the face of the planet and slowly murdering or tainting everything living, which they deem corrupt.
Whilst Young Death focuses on Death himself as a character, and therefore somewhat glosses over the details of how he and his cohorts manage to infest the cultures and political systems of his world and thereby destroy it, a recently published series delves far more intimately into those concepts, providing a close focus on the world and human culture as it slowly rots from within, as Death and his “Dark Judges” spread not only their metaphysical corruption, but their philosophy, one of the underlying and most subtle ironies of the entire story that masses of the living adopt his philosophy of life itself being a crime, even though they know that it will result in their own deaths. In this, The Fall of Dead World, a story that fans of 2000AD have been hankering after ever since Young Death was published way back in the early 1990s, cleverly parodies certain present day movements and phenomena (Brexit, Donald Trump et al) without being too overt or on the nose; a fairly misanthropic examination of how human beings will happily and readily act against their own long term interests out of tribal affiliation and identity, for a moment of ephemeral power and authority.
In this, the story exemplifies everything that is best about 2000AD, and demonstrates how, whereas other franchises have degenerated or lost their identities over time, the title still exhibits the same deviance and cultural awareness as it did back in the 1980s and 1990s.
The only obvious and overt difference here is budget; the art in Fall of Dead World has to be seen to be believed; every frame hand-painted with care and detail that other comics would only reserve for their cover art. This is a genuine labour of love, enormous amounts of work gone into the designs of characters, settings, machinery and architecture, so as to render what will become Dead World distinct from Judge Dredd's reality, yet eerily reminiscent of it; enough so that it isn't too far beyond the realms of possibility for it to suffer the same fate, by and by.
Whereas previous titles have tended to focus on Death himself (or his previous incarnation as “Ssssssidney”), here, Death hardly appears at all, and even then, only tangentially: this story focuses more on the world around him as it slowly, irrevocably decays: as the rot spreads out from the Judiciary to wider culture, not only ideologically (many adopting Death's bizarre, antithetical philosophy or degenerating into total lawlessness) but also physically, in the form of the “Dead Fluids.”
This is an element of the Dark Judge's back mythology that has been around since they first featured way back when: an alchemical matter that they use to “ripen” the dead bodies they inhabit, but which has always been a somewhat undereveloped and tangential concept, until now.
Here, the “Dead Fluids” are the means by which they introduce worthy initiates into their unliving flock, those touched or tainted by the matter slowly dying, but also transforming in the same manner as Death and his first lieutenants (Fear, Fire and Mortis); becoming abstractions and morbid exaggerations of themselves. As such, the Judiciary is soon populated by undead, semi-demonic entities that murder without restriction or compunction, that themselves spread the Dead Fluids to their victims, making them an army of undeath that slowly chokes all life from the planet.
More, the story introduces the concept of the Dead Fluids polluting into the environments and eco-systems of the world, resulting in great swamps, deserts and wastelands of rot and decay; of twisted, animal un-life, of tainted rivers and food supplies, meaning that the remaining living of the planet are met with the choice of dying of thirst or starvation or allowing themselves to become tainted.
The reader is introduced into this escalating state of decay via Judge Fairfax; one of the few still living Judges who opposes “Ssssidneeey's” regime, who remembers the man from when he was just a cadet, and the then aspiring Judge took him under his bony wing. The two have a connection that is not fully explained or explored in this volume, but which results in Death's agents pursuing Fairfax across the face of what is fast becoming Dead World, encountering small pockets of resistance, anarchist movements and others along the way, most of whom end up either tainted by the Dead Fluids or graphically and hideous dispatched, along with a young girl whose family are slowly either tainted or killed as the rot spreads even to their small, rural corner of society.
Apart from being aesthetically beautiful and inventively distressing, this first half of the tale is also brilliantly written, elegant and engaging: not wasting time on exposition or introducing characters, it has the quality of a well written film script; hurling the reader into situations and the company of characters that have little in the way of explanation, assuming that they are imaginative and intuitive enough to pick up what's happening from ambient details. Nor are aspects of the world and its culture particularly harped or commented on; much of its depth and resonance occurs off page as a result of some well-placed and subtle suggestion, both in terms of the script and the artwork.
As wryly humorous as it can be, the comedy here is pitch black, married to imagery that would be better suited to a work of all out, dystopian and metaphysical horror; the various forms of mutation and mutilation on display are truly spectacular, from eyeless, precognitive preacher-children (their capacities exacerbated by the Dead Fluids) to rotting skulls sprouting spider legs and given their own hideous animus by the same vile matter, there is more than enough grue, gore, monstrosity and disturbia here to sate the most hardened and hungry horror fan, but with it layers and gradations of complement and contrast; the kind of depth one would expect from an independent project or far more “artistic” piece, rather than a mass produced trade hardback.
Following the first half of Fall of Dead World (which ends on a cliff hanger whose resolution is going to be...interesting, to say the least, given that we already know the ultimate and horrific end of the tale) is a series of four short stories collectively titled Dreams of Deadworld, which follows each of the four classic Dark Judges after their victory; how beings that are truly immortal occupy themselves, now that their crusade is ostensibly over.
This is the true marrow of the collection; apart from the action and atrocity that defines The Fall of Dead World, these tales are short, intimate and quiescent, developing the classic Dark Judges in ways that the fan base have been clamouring for since their introduction, but that has rarely been explored, outside of the likes of Young Death.
This is where the writers and artists let their imaginations fly; exploring not only the Dark Judges, but Dead World itself; its plains and wastelands and cityscapes all boasting a macabre and twisted beauty; streets not only choked with corpses but constructed from them, great structures and temples and citadels risen from bone and rotten flesh, dead seas filled with the corpses of great leviathans and krakens...here, Dead World is rendered with as much style and detail as its four remaining denizens, lending it a character all of its own.
As for the Dark Judges themselves, in the absence of a crusade to follow, a cause to fight (and slaughter) for, they have each begun to devour themselves in their isolation; Fire consumed by old passions and vendettas that he vehemently denies to himself, Fear by paranoias and conspiracies in the shadows...the only one who demonstrates any contentment in his situation is Judge Mortis who, in a peculiarly bovine form here, occupies himself with small and petty distractions, all of which have a delightfully morbid flourish: tending to a garden of corpses, brewing a vile wine from compressed and fomented corpses...Judge Death, on the other hand, bears his isolation with a degree of grace; artfully dispatching those other Dark Judges (excluding, of course, his three original lieutenants) that don't quite fulfil his ideal then simply waiting in patience for what he know will come: extra-dimensional travellers, who will lend him the means of purging other dimensions, of spreading his gift and grace to other realities.
These stories are perhaps the highlight of the entire collection; foregoing science fiction and horror action for something far more intimate and intense, the story of Judge Mortis in particular evoking a twisted domesticity that is extremely fitting for the character, but also profoundly disturbing.
It has been a long wait for fans of the Dark Judges to experience this tale, but it has been worth every moment: the trade hardback of Fall of Dead World is glorious; a stunning product with some of the most morbidly beautifuly, deleriously grotesque artwork and design imaginable, a fantastic script, captivating and enduring imagery...
My sincere hope is that this book is found by others; children and adolescents who were the same age I was when I first came across 2000AD, and that it obsesses and inspires them as it did my younger self.
A more unambiguous recommendation I cannot give.