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.

              Spellbinding.


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 that.it 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..er, 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.
           


 

Tuesday, 8 June 2021

Damaris Hayman.


 So sorry to hear the lovely Damaris Hayman has passed. I know doctor who fans had a special place in their hearts for her and will never forget her honorary position as a member of the UNIT family when things went bump in the night at Devil's End.

             She off course had a very long and varied career, through stage and screen, small and large. And could count some absolute icons of British cinema as close friends and collaborators. In many ways she embodied a very sweet Englishness which is passing from this world. I can hear Larry Adler's harmonica in the distance or maybe it is just an autumnal breeze stirring the old English oaks.

              In the garden of Damaris the lark will forever be ascending. 




Dune Messiah.


 First published in 1969, Dune Messiah is set a dozen years after the events of the first book in which Paul Atreides ascended to the role of Emperor of the known universe, the seat of his power base being the sand blown world of Arraxis, the Dune of the title. As leader of the Fremen, the holy desert warriors of that world, he oversees a jihad which spreads across the galaxy, a purge of those who came before, the sympathisers of the previous regime, or simply those who do not share their faith. By this reckoning more than six billion people have perished in the resistance to the Fremen's holy war. It is not even the worst possible outcome, given the scale and population of the known universe. Yet, Paul Atreides knows worse will follow as he is gifted with the ability to see, to perceive future events. 

                Paul, "Muad' Dib"  had to overcome many obstacles to get to where he is and yet had no wish to see his new found leadership after so few years, in relative terms, descend into stagnation or the degeneracy that can come under the conquering boot. His enemies and those who set out to wipe his lineage from existence were many and very powerful. The Harkonens, The Bene Gessirrit Sisterhood and the mysterious Guild Navigators were prime movers in the conspiracy to bring down House Atreides. Those that survived his climb to the throne are more determined than ever to bring him down and have woven a complex web of deceit and betrayal to bring this about, to bring their plans to fruition. Once before House Atreides was undo by betrayal from within, only time will truly tell if the lesson has been learnt. 

               Despite his unquestionable status as a visionary an sense of impending tragedy builds and builds throughout this book. The well covered and adapted events of the first book hardly prepare one for this almost overwhelming sense of melancholy which pervades this sequel. The use of power on such a vast scale reduces the personal to the almost microscopic. The bright sharply focused vision that drove the Fremen rebellion becomes fogged, out of focus, obscured by the seismic upheaval of galaxy wide change.

                And to think I thought the first novel was writ large on a vast canvas, this one reveals that canvas to be stretched in every direction. Ambition, politics and religion make for strange bed fellows. Ah, twas ever the way. Mind you, society in general has undergone much change since the book was first published in nineteen sixty nine. The word jihad almost certainly seemed so much more exotic for the western tongue, conjuring vague notions of an honor based war in the stars. Its wider use through the main stream media has diluted that idea somewhat. 

                 Always intriguing, almost messianic It is the stuff of myths and religions.Is there room for anymore in this troubled old world of ours.

                  I would say ; YES. 

Son Of Rosemary.

Talk about your bad pennies. You only just meet the Son of Satan as a baby and then you bump into him once more, only this time he is a fully grown man, and boy has he grown. Once in a lifetime,eh, from the cradle to the grave. A grave as wide as the world. Sounds like hoop-la, off course, but when you are writing about the presence of an Anti-Christ, you can. 
             This sequel to Rosemary's Baby begins in 1999, with poor Rosemary awakening from a decades long coma. A long sleep induced by the witches coven which caused her to get pregnant with the devil's baby. After the death of the final member of the coven the spell is broken , Rosemary is able to sit up and step into a very different world from the one she fell asleep in. While she lay in a long term care facility her child Andy grew to manhood, raised by her neighbors Minnie and Roman, with her son taking their surname; Andy Castavet. he has become the figurehead of a world famous international charitable organisation. Hmmm, the head of a world famous charitable foundation which is suspected of having less honorable intentions for mankind, where on Earth do they get these ideas?
              Anyway, when the identity of the awakened coma patient is made known to the world Rosemary is instantly propelled to international fame and celebrity. Mother and son are reunited and Andy convinces his mother he takes more after her than his pa. He truly believes himself to be a force for good in the world but he is after all the offspring of the prince Of Lies. Rosemary wants to believe. Andy wants to believe. We, the reader, are lust along for the ride. 
               Charismatic and charming, Andy at 33 is a fine young man, all his mother could hope him to be, but at her core lurks the fear and the suspicion that he might well be all his father could wish him to be. Ira Levin has been a highly successful and influential writer, one wonders why the rights to this very engaging sequel were not snapped up for a movie or perhaps a lenghty mini series that will allow the story to breathe. The subject matter would certainly lend itself to many interpretations..
                 Some might say legion...



 

Thomas Hardy's Tales From Wessex.


 Geography not being one of my strong points (do people actually have strong geographical points?) I found myself looking up Wessex on Wikipedia. The entry ran; Wessex ( Old English West Sussex/ The Kingdom Of The West Saxons.)was an Anglo-saxon kingdom in the south of Great Britain, from 519 until England was unified by Aethelstan in 927.  Hmmmmm...

           Was expecting something a wee bit more than as an introduction to a Parte Of Olde Englande I Am Not So Familiar With. Maybe I should have looked it up in the Hitch-hikers Guide To The Universe rather than Wikipedia. I imagine it would probably have an entry such as ; Mostly Farmland.

             That is certainly what comes across in these six stories by Thomas Hardy. Plain old country folk going about their business in their old country ways. Yet simmering always beneath the surface are raging passions, some of which prove to be heart breakingly frustrated by the social norms of the day. Despite the wildness of the surrounding country side man made repression is everywhere. Emotions stifled and smothered under the weight of religious oppression. 

              Life is hard in the place and times these stories bridge. even the road to the end of life is not an easy pathway. Unrequited love abounds, as do melancholy hussars and frustrated farm workers, all mixed ina heady brew of insane landed gentry. These are sad tales which lean at times to the macabre.tales of foolish but very human hearts who awake to the possibilities of love just in time to be too late. Men and women who expire in despair or who perish of ennui. I found myself smiling grimly at one twist in a tale that would not have been out of place in a Roger Corman Edgar Allen Poe adaption, inspiring a head shaking ghostly reveal and all. 

               At this point I wonder if I am underselling or overselling this collection.

               Thomas Hardy is very hard on the characters he created. Always providing the readers with more insight than he ever gives them. As such, we know the cures, the answers to their predicaments, but they being fictional and we being all too real, cannot share those answers with them. 

                Six tales of the rum and uncanny. Good company during this or any other lockdown. 

                                                    (Thomas Hardy's cottage.Probably.)


1599; a Year In the Life Of William Shakespeare.

"How did William Shakespeare go from being a talented poet and playwright to become one of the greatest writers who ever lived?" In this one exhilerating year we follow what he reads and writes, what he saw and who he worked with asw he invests in the new Globe Theater and creates four of his most enduring pieces of work, the plays; Henry The Fifth, Julius Ceasar, As You Like It and  most remarkably Hamlet. Enough for any one lifetime yet but a rounded 365 days for the man who lived and breathed them. James Shapiro "illuminates" Shakespeare's staggering achievement and also what Elizabethan's experienced in the course of 1599, sending off an army to crush an Irish rebellion (BOOO!), weathering and overcoming an armada threat from Spain, gambling on a fledgling East India Company and waiting to see who would succeed their aging and failing queen. its packed to bursting with what feels like authentic Elizabethan era nitty gritty. Or perhaps it might be more accurately described as the Shakespearean era as he is the best remembered human being of his day.
His life bridging two ruling dynasties, The Tudors and The Stuarts. In some ways completely different, in others a much of a muchness.
            James Shapiro manages to captivate the reader with his encyclopedic  epic of historical forces in collision. This is after all the sediment of ages passed, the foundations of the here and now. He digs down deep into the historical strata of the Elizabethan age, the rich vein that layers the foundation all else rests upon.  1599 is perhaps not perceived as a vintage year in her reign, more of a Buckfast than a Merlot. A tonic for the troops. As Elizabeth and William Shakespeare are so caught up in the daily struggle for survival and the possibility of prospering in one's chosen affairs, they fail to reckon themselves as the fixed spots in the shared cultural history of The British Isles. Too busy creating history to realise they were living through it. 
             A bit of a joy.
             I think I am drawn to books about the daily life of William Shakespeare in the hope I will have a moment; "yes, There You Are! "That I might see the man quite clearly through the fog of history, to see the actual man standing there in his muddy real world shoes rather than an anachronistic casting decision on my part, for the BBC drama department view of history I cannot seem to shake, but the truth is I cannot see that man unless I put him there. It is as though there is a William Shakespeare shaped hole in the historical image of Elizabethan England. There are less well known members of Queen Elizabeth's Court who feel more real to me. Although I have never fully ascribed to The Shakespearian authorship question I fully understand why such doubts persist. 
             I continue to look..
             I reserve the right to be unconvinced.

(Midsummer Nights Dream was not one of the plays Shakespeare wrote in this remarkable year but I cannot resist this beautiful painting based on that very play.)


 

Alan Cumming; Not My Father's Son.


 Just this Wednesday I found myself up all night with Alan Cumming, not in the Biblical sense but certainly in the autobiographical sense. I had just been gifted a copy of this book by a friend and started to read it just before bedtime. Found myself in Alan Time shortly thereafter.And what a place to be. Was not quite sure what was going to happen next and I found myself boggling at the notion this was not fiction...

             These were the details of a life well lived. Not always in the way you would wish anyone to have to endure but by God it was a life lived in the moment, poignantly humane. People throw around the description "beautiful and brave" with no regard for diminishing its accuracy but this story warrants it. It is pointed out in some of the cover blurbs, from Stephen Fry to Scotland On Sunday, and these are not just luvey chummy compliments, barely strong enough to defend themselves, they are right on the money.

             Alan Cumming's memoir is a fantastic read. Well written, page turningly engaging and a celebration of humanity with all its flaws. This old world of ours is so full of tears at times I believe its a wonder we do not all drown. Instead somehow we learn to swim in theses salty seas of our own making, all waving, not drowning. Alan Cumming's fearlessly recounts the details of a fearful childhood, from the perspective of the older child speaking for the one he was. It is a spirited account of a traumatic time, shot through with a cheeky humour that just refuses to give into shame, while preserving the innocent expectations of any human child. You will read this and you will want to reach into the pages and shield the child he was from the cruel blows inflicted by the one who surely should have been willing to take those blows on his account, not bloody dish them out.What that poor wee boy had to endure, him and his brother Tom, its heartbreaking. Even to recall it, to rewrite those events must have been so painful and yet here they are; Sharing.Not in the grotesque current world use of the word, so undermined by endless wiffle waffle of reality television but one that will encourage and in the very best sense of the word; illuminate. 



Wednesday, 26 May 2021

Arrowood

The year is 1895 and down the mean, and quite filthy, streets of London walks a mercurial private detective, maverick investigator and self educated psychologist: William Arrowood. If you could not afford to pay Sherlock Holmes to help you, then there was one other possible resource for detection you could turn to. Sherlock Holmes may have patented a seven per cent solution in order to stoke the fires of his imagination but a drop of Mother's Ruin, Gin, was more than enough for Mick Finlay's more earth bound creation. Brilliant in his own way, William Arrowood roamed the densely packed labyrinth of the then greatest city in the world in order to pursue the wicked in ways and means the ordinary forces of the law could not. 

              Deeply flawed but enjoyably curmudgeonally William Arrowood feels all too plausible in a way that Sherlock Holmes did not. That is not to detract from the enduring magic of Conan Doyle's seemingly immortal creation. It is perhaps that Mick Finlay's creation is such an unexpectedly enjoyable diversion as he plods, at times recklessly, down some very dark alleyways and along some truly grimy pathways to a terrifying underbelly of a city that feels alive with all manner of corruptions and infections.

               At times Mick Finlay's London seems similar to Conan Doyle's London in name only. Holmes strode along the Victorian highways and byways without encountering the myriad depravities which fed the belly of the beast. William Arrowood may well step over them at times but he acknowledged they were there.

              Mick Finlay assembles an impressive group of supporting characters as well as two very engaging main leads. There are no loveable street urchins, the children that prevail in these seedy merciless streets are hardy survivors almost as intimidating as the adults who make their lives such a daily grind and a misery. There is no Jack Wilde artful Dodger ready to charm more than alarm. The poor people in this book lead very tough lives and it is not to much of a stretch therefore for them to be toughened by their experiences. Yet Mick Finlay does not overlay them with obvious character traits and ticks as they struggle to be better human beings than circumstances allow, brave and decent if constantly hungry. In this situation Sherlock Holmes would feel a fiction while William Arrowood would not, though off course he is. Holmes accepts cases which intrigue him and because he wants to, Arrowood accepts them in order to survive. 

              It all goes a bit Peaky Blinders  with some pretty nasty gang action going on. But these street gangs do not get together through a shared appreciation for Gilbert And Sullivan, they are violent ruthless gangsters in pursuit of money and power. In that sense perhaps they do not differ that much from the Victorian elite and perhaps have more in common with Opera lovers than one would first assume. Quite a bit of their power came from violent shows of strength, a strategy many modern drug lords still capitalise on. It is their form of Instagram I suppose, not as horrific as TikTok  or as passe as facebook, platforms which also rely on the energies generated by shame, fear and horror. 

               Arrowood is a great introduction to an interesting group of characters in an equally interesting situation. Iremember reading Anthony Horowitz's Sherlock tales (Nee; Moriarity) and felt they strayed a little outside the continuity set up by Conan Doyle, to very entertaining effect. Credulity creaks a bit but that is no bad thing. Arrowood carries no such baggage, there is no urge to subvert expectations, it all feels disturbingly flawed and fresh. 

             Thegame is not afoot. The game is a bourgoise indulgence.



               
 

The Bride That Time Forgot.

The Further adventures of The Bride of Frankenstein.The poignant ongoing trials and tribulations of a hand made woman who is now a landlady running a Bed n' Breakfast in Whitby Harbour. The town where Dracula first leapt to shore from the doomed Demeter. It is a stunning location to act as a base from which to springboard a series of bizarre adventures. a haunting, and haunted, location which serves as a perfect set upon which to spin the outrageous yarns of the outrageous Paul Magrs.
              I have long been a fan of his work, his contributions to the world of Doctor Who, the creation of Iris Wildthyme (played by the force of nature that is katy Manning.in a series of stories from Big Finish.). His work, while always remaining thoroughly modern, always comes cloaked in an eccentric Englishness that is part poignancy part whimsy, and always charming. Feeling at times as though the mercurial compere of the BBC show The Good Old Days had turned his hand to writing. A colourful figure standing at the end of the pier always waving, never drowning. 
              Brenda, the Bride, is an intriguing and very sympathetic character surrounded by a pretend family of almost equally odd characters. Good friends and enemies who cluster in this harbour town, staring out at the hostile enviroment of The North Sea. A harsh enviroment to be sure but by turns beautiful if unpredicatable and dangerous. Whitby is such a perfect location for the stories Paul Magrs seems to relish sharing. In my minds eye I see the location for the BBC's lavish 1977 adaption of Dracula. The one with Louis Jordan as The Count. Which included my favourite on screen potrayal of Abraham Van Helsing with Frank Finlay in the lead role. Yes, even topping the almost perfect Peter Cushing and his Hammer interpretation of "professor Helsing"
                Almost a century has passed in Whitby since the original publication of Dracula when the BBC cameras started rolling on their production of Bram Stoker's novel. Yet it looks relatively unchanged. In fact more change have probably occurred in that town since the broadcast of the Beebs version of Dracula than had changed in the decades since the book first saw print.
                Paul Magrs has assembled a very entertaining witches brew of characters, almost on a par with the bonkers assemblage of characters he surrounds Tom baker with in his very entertaining Bakers end productions. Brenda and her chums are very engaging group whose experiences as perrenial outsiders enrich and entertain.
                 Always the Bride, as he previously said.
    



 

Rosemary's Baby.

Ira Leven's literary output might only extend to just over half a dozen titles but his cultural, as well as literary influence remains vast. His titles alone have become bywords for jarring cultural memes; Dead Eyed Concubines Born To Cook and Clean; Stepford Wives. Horribly Behaved Children Who make Their Parents Blush In Shame For Having Conceived them; Rosemary's Baby. Its dark humour, to be sure, done as whispered asides, yet their origins remain as potent as ever.

               As does the contents of this classic slice of American Gothic. Set among the sprawling brownstones of New York it has over the period of time since it first caused a sensation when published taken on a even more unsettling resonance. If a child of the Devil were to emerge from anywhere why not the luxuriant cloistered community of out of touch with reality socialites. in Christian faith the Son of god had the humblest of origins, always a consideration when faith is tested against mortal standards. 

               I found Rosemary's neighbors, the nosey , inteferring and quite bat shit crazy neightbours Minnie and Roman Castavet to be utterly terrifying. Filled to the brim with queasy old world charm they came across as komodo dragons draped in gingham, sans flickering tongues, nothing so obvious with this demonic pair. They are the head of the witches coven, completely ruthless in their pursuit of a Satanic birth. Always under the radar they also emit dangerous signals more modern readers will pick up on. In a more generous age they could easily pass for what they pretend to be. There are subtle warnings in the text, not easily missed in a post OMEN age but it was a book born and gestated in another era.

              What a shocker it must have been for anyone coming to the book but how even more disturbing must people have found the Roman Polanski directed movie adaption. The career best of a cinema autuer, it grips from the opening panning shot and never really lets go. All excell in their roles with Mia Farrow delivering a luminous portrait of innocence defiled and John Cassavetes delivering a blistering turn as an ambitious young man corrupted by a desire for success.He slyly betrays the trusting and vunerable Rosemary, his soul bought and paid for. Devilishly handsome and unfogiveably vain, he aids in setting in motion what could turn out to be an apocalyptic chain of events. 

               The setting is amazing. That Brownstone building feels like another world. Its inhabitants lost souls. Roman Polanski really delivers a film which has aged well. Its bouquet may now suit the subtlest of paletes, with an almost pleasingly decadent aroma.

               Haunting and surprisingly moving. 



 

A Biography Of Dracula; The Life Story Of Bram stoker.


" You will find Count Dracula listed in reference books the world over. You will not find any mention of his creator. Bram Stoker recoiled from personal publicity as his vampire shrunk from the sun. " so began the inner jacket description of its contents, the dust cover of this biography of Dracula. the same introduction lends the book an almost timeless quality, considering it begins with an interview with a once hugely famous actor and performer; Hamilton Deane. Who wrote the first stage adaption of the novel and who travelled the globe with it to huge and unflagging success. At the height of his powers Hamilton Deane felt the world could not get enough of the bloody count. The Transylvanian aristocrat who drank his way into the heart of London society., with an appetite for the blood of the English upper class.Hamilton Deane's own relationship with Bram stoker's creation was in itself a remarkable tale and reflects something of the wider world's fascination with the vampire king. the book, in whatever format it was adapted intowould go on to become absorbed into the shared cultural zeitgeist of the twentieth century.
                 But it is Bram, always Bram Stoker that we must return to when we think of this fantastical icon and its widespread impact on all things folklorically vampiric. He understood the nature of theater too well to think that he could totally avoid the limelight but he was at some pains throughout his life to become a man better suited to shaping things in a back ground capacity. A man who knew how to put on a show but who preferred to remain behind the curtain himself..The man who held up a distorting mirror before a repressed Victorian era while acting as a literary midwife to the rebirth of a golden age of Gothic literature. imagine a generation experiencing Dracula by candle light or the flickering imperfect light of a gas jet.
                This lovely book by Harry Ludlam takes the time, near the end of the book, to present for the reader an enlightening history of Gothic literature, from its gruesome inception through its meandering permutations. Dracula was a single blossom in a winter wreath, rather it was a scarlet bloom throwing seeds into the fertile ground of the imagination of generations.  It was a heady concotion for its time, one that bordered on the fringes of what passed for acceptable discourse. Written by a big, bearded Irish man who by all accounts was full to the brim with a passion for life and in particular an enthusiasm for theater life. Yet this burly giant of a man was born a sickly child, not expected to live. Emerging as a healthy child from about eight on he spent a lot of his formative years isolated in a sickbed. Protected through those years by affectionate parents, in what were pretty tough times the young Bram had a lot to overcome. With the memory of those sickly formative years it is small wonder his imagination leaned more towards the macabre and the outre. as an adult he first became a civil servant, then a writer and agent to actors. His most famous client being the legendary stage actor Henry Irving. it was perhaps this relationship which most strongly came to identify him in the public's eyes, even more than that of his life with his wife and children. The nature of celebrity and the publics intrest in it has changed little in the many years since. .His great success in theatrical terms was his time in charge of The Lyceum theater as he took it from a genteel moribund venue to it becoming a genuine world famous theatrical phenomenon. With some of its touring productions dominating the stages of the world. 
                In this book we are not only treated to a biography of Bram Stoker and Henry Irving ( a nd off course The Count himself) we are also afforded the very compelling insight into the life and career of Hamilton Deane, Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee. As well as a very helpful spotters guide to Gothic Literature. This reader came away from this book with a few truly outre additions to a future reading list. 
                What a treat this book turned out to be, gifted by my old pal Scratch. Harry Ludlam writes in an easy conversational tone that meanders at times but always in the most charming ways. One could almost feel the chilly midnight wind of Whitby stir the hairs on the back of ones neck and it seemed to whisper; "Just one word of warning, Ladies and Gentlemen, there are such things...."



 

The White Road.

I do believe I have walked this road before but recently I was tidying (Ha,Ha,Ha,Ha,Ha....) through some piles of books when I found myself once more drawn to it. The story of The White Road begins in the dark bowels of the Earth. Specifically the winding and dangerous pot hole of Cwm Pot, the final resting place of three young pot holers who got caught in a flash flood and drowned. There they fell and there they lay in the cold unconsecrated ground. A young website creator descends in to the dark, accompanied by a guide, to photograph the bodies of the dead. Two men go down into the dark and only one of them is sane. 

               What follows is a nightmare scenario from which emerges an internet sensation as the pictures are posted on the web site; journey To The Dark Side. Which would not have been a bad name for the book given what follows. Simon Newman, the person who journeyed into the dark to get the pictures then looks to higher climes for more subject matter. Viral success proves to be something of a first world problem as he has to top the sensation that drew in the hits. He decides to follow his pot holing disaster pictures with some Himalayan disaster pictures. He decides to scale Everest and photograph the many fallen on the mountain paths. For the bodies of those who died trying to scale the heights of Everest are still there

              He poses as an adrenalin junkie, hiding his true purpose for being on the mountain from the other climbers. Who despite their many personal faults or personality short comings at least aspire to a purity of intent when it comes to climbing. Simon Newman is not a very nice person and we know this as Sarah Lotz provides us with a window to his personal intent. He cloaks his shallow and selfish agenda in a polyester jacket of casual goodness, almost at every turn his agenda being something other than the one he projects. This is a child of Facebook and instagram, where "seeming" is everything.as he aspires to the split second lie of being that is a selfie. This is a man willing to climb over the bodies of the dead in order to enhance his social media profile. as long as he can photograph them. I suppose in that respect he shares much in common with many modern day celebrities or those who see themselves as social media influencers...ugh..the levels of delusion..... 

              In a sense Sarah Lotz peoples the mountain with those who embody some of the worst aspects of modernity, at least the ones still up on their feet.The depths social media figures will descend to would swallow a Himalayan mountain range. 

               I find myself drawn to stories set in remote locations but I much prefer those stories to be filled with the kind of empathic misanthropes a writer like Algernon Blackwood would create. Bookish loners who stray into the dark corners of the world.in many respects simon newman has it coming to him. The baggage he carries, the unforgiving ghosts of bad decisions.

               We probably all have it coming.

               The White road is a fast, entertaining read. Like the mountain range at the heart of the tale it has a tough surface. Take from that what you will.

                Everest endures.

                A good piece of prep before attempting a read would be to consider this excert from TS Elliot's The Waste Land and Other Poems;

                "Who is the third who walks always beside you?

                 When I Count, there are only you and i together.

                 But when i look ahead up the White Road

                 There is always another one walking beside you

                 gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded

                 - But who is that on the other side of you?
 

I am The Master.


 Six tales in the lives of The Doctor's oldest and most dangerous friend; The Master. Six very different tales ranging in tone from the absurdist Douglas Adams science frippery to the Stokeresque Gothic (Actually featuring Bram Stoker as the central not-quite main character.This story having a peculiar frission of familiarity for me having just finished the prequal to the Dracula; Dracul by Dacre Stoker as well as Powers Of Darkness, the Icelandic translation of the original Dracula text.) Thats a whole lot of Stoker.

              The stories lean towards the darkly comedic which works for some of The Master's incarnations better than others. Levity acting as a literary safety net for a very wicked character who cannot be seen to win the day as this would inevitably involve the "good guys" losing. A notion which hobbles the stories before they get the chance to take off. However one of the stories absolutely strikes the perfect balance  between the macabre, the malign and the mischief and that is ; The Master and Margareta by Matthew Sweet.  The story proves to be the most wonderful gift to The Master fanbase, assuming he has one, and the overall sprawling Doctor Who Universe.It really is that good and stands among one of the best Doctor Who related spin off stories this fan has read in some time. Darkly amusing, wittily paced and lovingly laced with some acidic continuity references that never felt forced or exploitative. 

               Oh Matthew Sweet, with this savoury and swarthy concoction you are spoiling us. I will not say too much more and allow the reader to discover for themselves what a Doctorless treat this particular story is.  Or perhaps I am just teasing, disguising the presence of The Master's oldest and most dangerous friend. If you ever wondered what an Alan Bleasdale script for Doctor Who would have read like then this should prove to be a taste of honey for you. 

                In total there are half a dozen good reasons for picking up this anthology, that is half a dozen possible winners for you, the reader. given the characters history of failure when standing against The Doctor that is much better odds than he normally enjoys.



Saturday, 15 May 2021

Tom Tom Club


                                                      The Doctor (From my sketch book.)

The Condition Of Muzak.


 "Muzak is a trade name for piped music used in resturaunts, super markets, bars and other public places", michael Moorcock helpfully explains in the appendix at the rear of The condition Of Muzak paperback. perhaps envisioning an age when the book would still be in print in an era where the hollow reed melodies would no longer happen, an age when people did not gather in public places. Hmmmmm...

             Muzak in many way was just a series of noises that approximate the sound of actual music, unasked for but cordially piped into public areas as they did in golden days of yore, when we thought such things would last forever. "When we were beautiful, mister Poirot." you remember those days? When people could congregate together, breathing and rebreathing the same air. While also listening to, if barely registering, the piped in sounds of muzak. 

              Nothing to be heard here. Nothing to aspire to. Oh, our arrogance, my dears.

              there is an unspoken artificiality to what was going on but nothing appeals to the very soul of modernity like artificiality. Like so much in the life and lives of jerry Cornelius and friends, at once frivolous and deadly. it is strange to think of this novel as a period piece but in truth that former world has passed away, every iteration of it. The kalidoscope of the multi verse whirling away right before our eyes. we squint, attempting to find resolution and it just looks more confused and bloody glorious. It is something of a jolly romance, with some beautifully realised  and crafted vigennettes which frustratingly slip away just as we grasp them, when they are at their most sweet and compelling. just go for it, give nether a fig nor a penny farthing for nailing it down. go back to the start, hold on tight, take a ride on the wild side. 

              Things End, Things Begin, Things Aint Af Orrible, then they get better, sort of, before they fall apart again. Well, you get the picture. I think it would be a terribly dangerous thing to know someone like Jerry Cornelius, for a multiplicity of reasons. Mad, bad and dangerous to know, as they say. Fortunately he is just fictional enough to put on a bookshelf for safe keeping. a hero for the Neververse. Just dont introduce him to your sister. Or your brother. Or your ma for that matter.

               Journeys end in lovers meeting, after all.



Missy.


 Comics of the week for me was Missy #1 and #2. Not only for the fantastic covers but for the cracking script. Jodie Houser is such a good writer on this and the 13th Doctor title. She has such a grasp on the characters and a great ear for dialogue that reflects the ambiguity of the characters. Bad people doing bad things, bad people doing even worse things and then, surprisingly, bad people doing the occasional good thing. The last two series may have felt a bit all over the place but this lady's writing grounds it in a way its inspiration has not, as yet, achieved. 

            Perhaps She could be lured to script for the mother show.

            I would welcome that with all heart.

            However many that is.


I mean, just look at this beautiful portrait of Roger Delgado as The Master. Evil never looked as beguiling.  I believe the artist responsible is Claudia Caranfa. Just dazzling. Never felt the Masters following Roger Delgado ever struck the balance between likeability and malevolence as he did.Well, until Michelle Gomez ,that is, came along and lit up the screen.

  

The Moving Toyshop.

I was remembering a conversation I had with someone a few years back, regarding a particular season of The Avengers, which was then being repeated on Channel 4. about how exciting and dynamic  and yet undeniably otherworldly  every episode. The arch tone , the clever characterization of all the regulars and how visiting guest actors brought the same level of archness to their performances. Right from the first episode of that particular season Steed and Ms Peel were visiting a remote English village that had a load of nazis living within and underneath it, scheming a return to power. The setting was the quirky remote village, where everyone from the pub regulars to the village blacksmith was eccentric in some way.There was a heightened sense of reality, which was completely necessary in order to make it work. The visual suggestion that you were unlikely to bump into Steed or Ms Peel in your local Tescos. You had to build an almost surreal world in order to allow your hyper real characters do their thing. 

                 That is what I felt like reading this very eccentric crime drama by Edmund Crispin. Containing an archly constructed version of Oxford in order to allow events to flow. I presume, never having visited it I cannot be sure, it felt that way though.it felt that way. as though reality had been tweaked slightly. That said, I could be wrong. It could be an accurate depiction of life beneath its gleaming spires. Edmund Crispin could in fact have been describing an Oxford he walked through every day. A version only he saw. 

                 Anyway, the story begins with wandering, and wondering, poet Richard Cadogan traveling into late night Oxford who comes across the body of a strangled woman on a toy shop. It even sounds like an episode of the Avengers. Yet when he returns with the police not only is there no body, there is no toy shop. thus begins a baffling escapade involving Gervasse Fen, a mercurial professor also drawn to the eccentric and odd murders of his hometown. And so the two men team up to solve the mystery of the disapearing toy shop and the vanished victim. 

                 Its all hugely enjoyable. Part PJ Woodhouse, part Avengers with a dollop of Agatha Christie. It is rife with the most enjoyable literary asides with a pleasing smattering of Gilbert and Sullivan tropes, all seamlessly weaved into the dialogue as Richard Cadogan finds himself sheperded by the slightly barmy but equally charming Gervasse Fen, a professor who takes scant interest in his actual profession.  

                 The Moving Toy Shop is something of a moveable feast.



 

High On A Hill.

The first book I ever owned. high on a hill, gifted by Ms Caugher in Holy Cross Boys School. the start of something....





 
 

The English Assassin; A Romance Of Entropy.


 'Stuth, its a third collection of Jerry Cornelius related/ interconnected viginettes, just over half a dozen bewildering glimpses of catastrophy., with multiverses boiling away. People with familiar faces we can only witness the good, the bad and the sexy do good and bad things through a pinball machine of diminishing returns.the sands are running out for everyone involved but the time piece keeps being flipped. It is as close we get to a happy ending, or at least a series of less horrible ones. It seems the only thoroughly modern response to the apocalypse with do what thou wilt being the only universal law.

             There are other universal laws at play here beyond the unfolding entropy of the title. One best viewed through the lense of a Logopilitan observer, in the end entropy always wins, the "always" being our only bolt hole. the various story lines at play go some way to re-inforcing this notion. It only pays lip service to the laws of thermo dynamics as only the vey well dressed may do so. mind you, everything I think I know about entropy I learned in a 1981 episode of Doctor Who; Logopolis. A dazzling and melancholy tale of a race of mathematicians who try to hold the entropy and decay of the aging universe at bay using block transfer computations, the language of the universe (with a featured performance by the much missed and lovely John Frazer as the doomed Monitor as well as the even sadder last appearence of Tom Baker as the Doctor. I cannot look at a radar dish without thinking of my heroes demise.That alone should illustrate what a huge notion entropy as a threat is!)

              I can toss around Logopolitan memes like a ripe old mathmatician and convince a casual listener that I know what I am talking about. it is boobie-babble off course. Alas, I am not sure I could describe the life of Jerry Cornelius with the same degree of casuality. There are however some beautifully constructed vigenettes in this book which might go some way to almost doing that. My heart ached for the worlds that unfolded and then collapsed within the book, with touchingly familiar worlds crumbling to memory. with societies we thought would last forever just coming apart, just so much debris in the wake of catastrophy, the truth of history. A bullet from a gun that loves its victim.

              If only we could sing them back into being.



Sea Monkeys?

Growing up when I did, one could not help but absorb the advertisements in American comic books. They seemed to be a staple pet for those infected by the four colour fever of comic collecting. I doubt these ads could be run now. If only because the notion of sending living things through the post seems so cruel and otherworldly.

                   Not to mention a probable bio-hazard