Sunday, 4 July 2021

Roadside Picnic.

 Like so many, I suspect, I first became aware of this book when I was learning something about the life and career of the Russian film maker Andre Tartovsky, as he based the best part, as in all of it, of his movie Stalker on the later chapters. First published in 1971 the book has been translated into many languages  and seems to have influenced and inspired a couple of generations of writers and thinkers. The Brothers Strugasky came up with this tale of otherworldly tech left behind after a brief unexplained visit by extraterrestrials who changed the locations of their visit, turning them into hazardous "zones ". A stalker is the name given to guides whom it is possible to hire who will take the inquisitive or the scientifically curious around these areas. Risking all manner of known but mostly unknown dangers...

              Oh yes, the aliens came and went, without introducing themselves, leaving behind all manner of inexplicable detritus, most of which proved to be incredibly dangerous. possibly discarded and no longer needed alien junk, possibly a breadcrumb trail of civilization altering technology. the applications for using the alien tech require a degree of reverse engineering absolutely laced with danger. the enviroment itself, the zones the aliens touched down upon, has become altered, the seemingly ordinary locations subtly laced with unnatural otherworldly booby traps. Plant life becomes poisonous, bizarre cobwebs trail killing silently all they brush against, watery glowing pits disolve human bone and terrible plagues lurk in abandoned properties. Its a surreal landscape with quietly lethal pathways and dangerous routes only the lunatic dare explore. It t'was ever so....

              I remember a while back hearing this book referenced in an Adam Curtis documentary. The actual reference escapes me as I type this but it was no doubt labyrinthine. And while reading it I was reminded of the Alex Garland scripted movie Annihilation, which also used the notion of a landscape being altered by the presence of aliens. It is quite possible he used it as a point of reference, a bassline genre jump starting point. There were in that movie some very striking landscapes, their realisation of the shimmer. And there have certainly been similar ideas explored during a number of episodes of Russel T Davis Torchwood, as all manner of dangerous alien tech came tumbling through the rift over Cardiff. Creating horrific scenarios involving the unwary or the just plain greedy. as the very mad and bad and dangerous to know Torchwood operative Suzie Costello put it about all the stuff that came tumbling out of the rift " its all the shit of the universe..."

             When it comes to the notion of first contact we cannot hope but aspire to transcendence. Perhaps we should lower our expectations. When one considers the history of first contact between indigenous races and those of more advanced civilizations, the scorecard remains dangerously and sadly one sided. Imagine a little curious bunny attempting to reverse engineer a myxomatosis dispenser. Even if it manages to work out how not to use it, the margin for error places it in a very dangerous position.

              Talking about some of the more outre aspects of this book should not distract from one of the truly striking elements of its inception. It is quite beautifully written, achingly humane in places, Caught up in the shock of the new. some rise to meet expectations, others fall, as in fall short.


the zones" of Roadside Picnic discover.

The ABC Murders.

A couple of years ago, this being twenty twenty one for all you futurists, in the Year of our Lord Twenty Nineteen (Well, somebodies Lord, I suppose.) the BBC broadcast, over three nights, an adaption of Agatha Christie's ABC Murders. It is one of Agatha Christie's best known tales, certainly one of her cleverest. the wonderful David Suchet series had in fact done a rather smashing adaption of it. Well, that is a given, such was the care devoted to that series version of Hercule Poirot's cases. With the memory of that version still fairly fresh in my mind I could not help but wonder where this version had to go and the answer to that was a very dark place indeed. 

                  If David Suchet's Poirot had a cosy familiarity to it, with its meticulous eye for detail, from it's tea rooms to its art deco factories and almost Germanic expressionist swinging jazz stylee. This version leans more towards the crumbling labyrinthine decay of Delicatessan or Brazil ( The movie by Terry Gilliam not the country.) The back streets of London seem diseased, its inhabitants racked with some degenerative condition, physically and morally. It is a frightening place. And there is one scene in it which 

                It is in this familiar yet strange London that the brilliant Poirot finds himself alone ,seemingly without a friend in this world, no Inspector Japp, no Ms Lemon and no Captain Hastings. A refugee fleeing some terrible past ,he finds the same demons that tore his homeland apart gaining a foothold in this place he ran to. Hercule Poirot walks like his feet hurt, like some fallen angel unused to stepping on an Earthy plain. As he gets drawn into the ABC Murders affair he gets a hostile reception from the formerly grateful regular police, who are openly scornful of his efforts to unravel the mystery of this series of brutal killings. They mock his past murder mystery dinner parties he participated in with the hoi-poloi. Urging him to leave the real policing to them. and it is the present day mortal condition of one of his former clients who provides one of the most genuinely touching moments in the production as she begs Poirot to return them to their youth and former state of grace, "When we were beautiful..." Alas, the years have moved on and the years have not been kind.

               The ABC Murders suggests an origin story for Hercule Poirot that Agatha Christie did not create. Not a flash back to the night he was conceived by his parents, rather the starting point for the evolution for the character as we believe we know him. It is daring in that regard and all the more beautiful for taking this courageous step. i imagine it did not sit well with many of Agatha Christie devotees but the iconic figure that is Poirot is big and strong enough to take the strain of a little re-imagining (Ugh, sorry about that...hideous word.)

              A superb production.

United States Of Captain America.

 Captain America is about to begin a cross country journey across a fractured united states, as in United States of America. Along the way meeting incarnations of his star spangled self including one Aaron Fisher, who also happens to be gay. A nice and timely bit of representation during Pride and one that also looks like a good bit of thought and talent has been put into. Check out this amazing wraparound cover he makes his debut in. Just stunning.

             And this is Aaron Fisher. Leaping to the fore in a suitably heroic pose. I have not read this yet and I am so hoping the execution of the story lives up to the anticipation. The world needs its comic book heroes now more than ever. I had tried so many years ago to have some fun with a beautifully beefcake iteration of a similar character, with the alarmingly talented Sean Doran. A really Super Duper Soldier with buns of steel and a cheeky side-kick. And boy did we put a lot of smiles on peoples faces, (And a few frowns. Northern Ireland was a different place back then. The notion of celebrating Pride would have seemed as outlandish as renting caravans on the planet Venus, the bright side! What a long way we have come. Oh-Er,Madam!)) Aaah,I have nothing but fond memories. Dirty ones too...

             Hope Marvel knock the ball out of the park with this one.


The Thing About Thugs.

"What we are, what we appear to be, what we pretend to be and what we are said to be are four very different things.", hmmm, talk about your unreliable narration. But then that is one of "the Things" referred to in the title of this slyly subversive take on the notion of the Victorian Penny Dreadful. Tabish Khair comes up with a very compelling read, one that hints at the power of fiction, suggesting how a fictional version of ones past can become very real, not only to those exposed to it, but to the teller also. After all, is a personality is constructed on the foundations of past experiences, how are we to calculate the power of fictional experiences.  When a person is robbed at gunpoint, by a person using a pretend weapon, is the effect of that experience any less painful and distressing because the victim is unaware that the weapon threatening them is not real...(I was once held up by two masked men using a pistol and a sledge hammer. It never occurred to me for a moment that it might be a water pistol and a rubber hammer.)

                In order to engage and exploit the interest of a rich englishman, a penniless resident of a remote Indian village, invents a past as a member of a murderous Indian Death Cult; The Thugee. He relocates with his gullible patron the the streets of London, exchanging one life of poverty for another. An emigrant in a land where such people are treated with suspicion and derision from a huge segment of the resident population. things worsen when a series of brutal beheadings take place in London and his invented past practically screams "Its me! I am the one you are looking for!" Not that it would have taken much for the authorities to try scapegoating some one of his ethic background as in Victorian England such behaviour was deemed beyond the reasoning capabilities of any red blooded English individual. 

                If I had to sound bite this enthralling novel I would probably suggest it reads like an episode of Penny Dreadful as written by Wilkie Collins. It is rife with what would in a lesser writer's hands feel like Victorianna tropes, a tale told over brandies in the gas lit study of a Sax Rohmer. It is so much more than would sit quite comfortably on anyone's bookshop, in between an Iain Sinclair and a Peter Ackroyd. It would certainly not be out of place.

                 I was also reminded of a Torchwood story I heard a year or two ago, a big Finish story called Fortitude. One that dealt with similar themes, showing how the weight of Empire just crushes the indigenous populations it supposedly throws its "protective" arms about. Well worth a listen.  Actually, all the Torchwood stories are worth listening to. A jewel in Big Finish's Crown.

                The Thing About Thugs is a book that would make a fantastic addition to the collection of someone trying to unravel the mysteries at the heart of any great life story of a major city. If you ever wonder how a city truly remains standing you should examine very closely the foundations upon which it is built. 

                You may not like what you see but it is best appreciated when you know the glue that binds it together is mostly made of blood,sweat and tears. 


The Mandala Of Sherlock Holmes.

 In the year 1891 the world reeled from the news that Sherlock Holmes had fallen to his death in a struggle with arch nemesis Professor Moriarity, at the Richenbach Falls. for two years, measured in Holmseian terms, the world continued to believe it had seen the last of the famous, and much loved and respected, consulting detective. that is, until he unexpectedly returned and revealed himself to his, Watson. It was the greatest comeback in the history of literature. Until the slightly less credible return of Jean Louise Finch in Harper Lee's Go Set A Watchman. 

             But where had he been during that time and just what did he get up to? Well, here is Jamyang Norbu having a go at answering those questions and his answers make for a very entertaining yarn. It is a bit of a mashup, part faux-Doyle part cod-Kipling, a joyfully well written pastiche(Which also manages to get across a heart breaking serious message about China's invasion and subsequent hard line on Tibet, its people and their faith. )Holmes traveled to Tibet, even reaching Lhasa, no mean feat for a decadent westerner in that time.he then has a series of adventures which would have pushed Indianna Jones to his limit (Indianna Holmes, anyone?) "I traveled for two years in Tibet, and amused myself visiting Lhasa" was how Holmes put it but thankfully Jamyang Norbu does go in with some what more detail.quite a bit of detail actually, all off which felt very authentic to me. But then, almost anything I find written with enthusiasm feels that way to me. And the writer of this particular book oozes enthusiasm for the characters and the subject matter.

             It all begins in a fairly grounded fashion, given that it soon scales the very heights of the Himalayas. The writing does indeed feel very Conan Doyle although before too long it does begin to stray into fantastical Sax Rohmer-esque ( Which is fine and very welcome to me.) The authentic feel I mention extends to his dryly amusing characterization of Holmes. I like the Holmes in this book, very much. By the end though it feels more like Doctor Strange territory than Sherlock Holmes (Again, I have no problem with this as I loved Stan Lee and Steve Ditko's take on Tibetan spiritualism, the Ancient One and the various mystical meditations. ) Some Holmes purests might drop out following a rather arch revelation, but they really should keep going. The author, at best, takes them on a adventurous journey with some very entertaining twists along the way. ..

             And it does go quite....a way...

             At the end of the book we learn what eventually happens to Tibet. The consequences of China's invasion. Jamyang Norbu shares those events and the ongoing repercussions. Not so much within the narrative as he allows the reader a really enjoyable feast of pulp escapism. He does weave some subtle political threads into the book but it never feels preachy or condescending. He never attempts to "edutain." but he does have things to say and share.

             There is no yeti wrestling in it, in fact the fabled beast does not get a mention but The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes is an entertaining addition to the outre Holmesian canon. It could sit quite comfortably next to Ten Years beyond Baker Street in which he meets the Si Fan and the equally fabled Fu Manchu....

1975 All over again.

 Simply the very best Doctor Who related publication I have read this year. An embarrassment of riches, as someone much more mercurial than I put it. I felt a little emotional buckle when I flicked it open to find a lovely photograph of a young Elizabeth, Ian and Tom (you know who I mean.) Such lovely characters, such lovely people, such truly great storytelling, a long time ago now to be sure.

                   I was an eleven year old curly haired school boy living in the roof space of my parents house in Etna Drive, Ardoyne. It was a rough time to be growing up in Belfast with the ever present threat of violence always on the cusp of manifesting. My poor old family barely had a pot to piss in but by god I never felt so safe and loved. 

                  1975. An extraordinary year. 

Little Shoppe Of Horrors.

There are a number of publications I pick up as and when they come out, loads of comics of course, but also a number of magazines which because of the pandemic, and the temporary closure of almost every venue it was possible to sell material from, many titles slipped dicks between the cracks, unseen. One of my favourites is the consistently great Little Shoppe Of Horrors, the most recent of which is the truly excellent issue #46.Just take a look at that Christopher Lee/Dracula cover art. A tribute to Horror Of Dracula by Mark Maddox. And let me tell you, the high standard continues within. each issue gives a specific film a forensic review but also has some wonderful reader contributions and some photographs you would not otherwise have any chance to see. And the peek behind the curtain is always welcome.
              The internet seriously impacted on the shelf life of magazines and the majority of them struggled to make ends meet. Yet lately I have noticed a quiet and confident re-emergence of magazines, small print run quality publications. Dick Side magazine seems to be going from strength to strength and its sister publication Infinity is a joy to read.
               Theses specialist publications may not always be as cheap, cover price-wise, as you might like but their presence in our lives is a really good one. If you find you can support one, please do, a few extra-boob can make all the difference and help keep magazines like this on the shop shelves, in our private collections and enriching that part of our lives which can be written off as disposable or frivolous. Which off course you can say about art in general.